On the good days — the good days — ketchup sandwiches helped sustain Mercedes Soler between meager breakfasts and beans-and-rice dinners.
As a sixth-grader in a tough Chicago neighborhood, the Cuban-born Soler found herself living in poverty with two loving immigrant parents who did all they could to make sure she and her twin sister enjoyed at least one good meal every day.
Soler, now the Emmy-award winning co-anchor of the CNN en Español magazine show NotiMujer, said what her parents didn't deliver in nourishment, they made up for with love.
"I know the love a child receives at home is so important," Soler told the audience at Tuesday's Latinos Unidos event, the annual scholarship luncheon held by the city of Tampa Mayor's Hispanic Advisory Council. "The support, the care, the positive reinforcement goes a long way in building self-esteem."
How long? Soler credits that love for helping her avoid becoming pregnant, like one of her sixth-grade classmates. She credited that love for steering her away from Chicago street gangs where the initiation for "Latin Queens" was gang rape.
Volunteer work at a Spanish-language radio station and a degree from Loyola University Chicago eventually proved to be the springboard Soler needed for a successful career that has led to interviews with dozens of Latin American leaders and kudos for her coverage of such events as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
She stressed the importance of that parental support and education for not only boosting her career, but for leading to generational success in her family. In fact, Soler shared a YouTube presentation created by her teenage nephew, Andres Flores, called Project Initiative that's squarely aimed at inspiring today's high school students to grow more serious about a post-secondary education.
Soler's message proved powerful, but it's not uncommon for Latinos Unidos. Year after year, speakers salute the advisory committee for funding scholarships for young Hispanics — it has raised close to $1 million in the 15-year history of the luncheon — while telling their own versions of unyielding perseverance and family bonds.
The stories never get old.
Uplifting reminders of how immigrants have fostered success despite the barriers of language and poverty always inspire. These are tales that are surely embraced by second- and third-generation Hispanics. It was heartwarming to see scholarship recipients greet attendees during the luncheon.
The luncheon also often highlights the economic success the Hispanic community brings to our area and how that impact will only grow more significant.
And by name alone, the event sends a message that Latinos must strive to find common ground in their adopted nation even though they come from a variety of countries.
But make no mistake: These themes need to permeate our entire community. Latinos Unidos typically draws a diverse audience, but nothing would please me more if it grew more diverse in the years to come.
Every resident needs to develop a broader appreciation for the past many in the Hispanic community have overcome and the promise they bring to our future. Perhaps each Hispanic who attends next year's luncheon could pledge to bring along a non-Hispanic.
That's all I'm saying.