Jennifer Whelihan can't forget the first time she met Matilda Garcia.
She walked into a Hispanic Professional Women's Association luncheon and just the sight of Garcia, decked out in a purple head-to-toe outfit and sipping a martini, left an indelible impression.
"I thought, 'Wow, that lady is impressive,' " Whelihan said of Garcia, who turned 94 on Thursday. "She has something about her that you want to know, an aura. You want to be around her. She's what we're all trying to become.
"When she shows up, everybody's excited. They say, 'Matilda!' "
Garcia will show up when the Hispanic Professional Women's Association holds its annual scholarship banquet tonight at the DoubleTree Westshore. Organizers have themed the event "The Golden Latina Awards," and more than 15 leaders will be feted with red carpet treatment. Visit hpwatampa.org for information.
Of the leaders, perhaps none has been more influential than Garcia. A Hispanic representative with the Social Security Administration for more than 40 years, Garcia became an activist in her personal life by advocating for the underprivileged, especially immigrants.
The FBI honored her with its Director's Community Leadership award in 2009, noting that she has been recognized for her efforts involving human rights, housing, schools, civic groups, government and the elderly.
"It makes me feel good to help people," Garcia said. "I belong to about 20 associations, and they all have 'Hispanic' in the name except for the United Way and the Salvation Army. Of all of them, HPWA is one of my favorites."
Whelihan, the association president, describes Garcia as a mentor and an icon. She will receive the association's Lifetime Achievement Award and the event also will feature the Matilda Martini, a mix of raspberry vodka (or gin), triple sec and a splash of cranberry.
The association also will sell special martini glasses as a fundraiser for its scholarship program.
"I'm known for my love of martinis," Garcia explained Tuesday. "I even have shoes and pocketbooks with martinis on them. After World War II, we were celebrating the troops coming home and I didn't know what to drink to salute them. I chose a martini because my maiden name is Martini. Since then I've been leaning toward martinis."
Shortly after that, this community started leaning on Garcia. It's great to see her honored and it's also great to see this association striving to nurture the next generation.
Whelihan, owner of J.Whela Productions, a marketing and business communications firm, and an adjunct professor at the University of Tampa, said her association focuses on professional development and giving its members the tools they need to not only succeed in the workplace but to become leaders.
"We see more and more women attaining higher education degrees," Whelihan said. "But when it comes to seeing more women in leadership roles, it's a work in progress — especially when it comes to minority women. We know what we have to offer, but we have to communicate that, stand up and be recognized."
The association also wants to keep its Hispanic culture intact — members like to say they do business with a hug — but Whelihan promises a diverse audience at its gala tonight.
"To build the community, you need people from different backgrounds to help you."
That's a sentiment everyone should salute. And in this case, with a martini.
That's all I'm saying.