As an immigrant in this country whose first language is certainly not English, I’m not always as eloquent as I would be in my first language, Spanish. Still, when I think back to thirteen years ago and I recall landing in a different world, I can only feel proud of everything that I have learned and of how much I’ve grown in the US, including my fluency in English.
I became a US citizen about 4 years ago, and let me tell you it was one of the most beautiful days of my life. I rolled down the windows to feel the breeze on my face as I drove, to embrace that sense of freedom and to celebrate the promise of the American dream for which we all immigrated to the US at different points of our story generation through generation.
Everything looks and feels amazing at this point of my life; however, it has not been easy and still, for that, I’m very grateful. When I made the choice to come to the US, I literally had to give up on everything I had in my previous life and start all over. I sold my house, my car and was prepared to settle, starting a new life from the very bottom.
I was used to being “Eliana Tardio” in my country, celebrated for my ability to communicate and lead as a single and powerful young woman. I was confronted by the reality of lacking the proper skills to communicate effectively anymore. I had to become a stay-home mom and, by pushing a baby stroller for long ways day after day, I became nothing else but another Latina immigrant trying to survive in a foreign world.
But before then, there was an important and powerful reason behind every small and big decision, every sacrifice and tough transition. My son was diagnosed with Down syndrome when I was five months pregnant and that diagnosis completely changed my life and my definition of success.
I myself was born again in the Naples Birthplace when the nurse put him in my arms. Down syndrome became completely irrelevant because I promised him to change the world for him. I swore to overcome my own prejudices and to fight hard against the ego and the ambition that had driven me years before he was born.
Love humbles in so many different ways and his love humbled and transformed me to be able to find my true passion in life. Then I knew part of my mission would be to empower others to believe in themselves and to start over again as many times as needed.
I was still finding my calling when my second child was born. This time a beautiful daughter who happened to be born with the same diagnosis. For many this is just bad luck or even irresponsibility. For me this is the reaffirmation of a life with purpose, and for that, there is no single day in which I don’t feel blessed and grateful to be their mother. From my perspective as their parent, they didn’t come to this life just to shine, but to illuminate.
Back to my story, I had to overcome big challenges. Along the way, I learned to cook, I learned to clean, I learned to advocate, but most importantly, I learned to believe in myself. I was a maid for many years before I felt strong and capable enough to reclaim my career path as a professional in my second language. In 2007, I used to clean the Hodges Naples Campus every night and every night I would dream of being there during the day to discuss ideas and to continue my education.
This year, I’m graduating from Hodges with a second degree in Communication, this time in English, and I’m going straight down a path to my Master’s degree in Legal Studies. I’m honored to say that I’ve been on the Dean’s List every semester since I started. In 2013, I had the honor to walk into the Hodges University Campus, this time using the big front door to meet for the first time with Gail Williams, the Diversity Chief Officer, and to discuss several initiatives in which I’ve been honored to work along with her.
In 2012, I had the honor to speak on behalf of the Latino Parents of Children with Special Needs at the White House, and in 2015, I had an even bigger honor as I accompanied my son to the White House to be recognized as one of the 10 Top Latino Geniuses in the US, as the first person with disabilities to be included in a team of typical students.
And here I am today to tell you that dreams may come true. Sometimes, dreams start as a nightmare, and it is only through determination, faith and devotion that you find the light at the end of the tunnel, not only to get through but to ensure that the light stays on for those who might find themselves in the darkness and isolation that ignorance can bring when you try to understand with logic, things that can be only understood with the heart.
I have learned that at the end, the enemy is not the circumstance but our inability to step up to the challenge. That’s why I want to say thank you to my two children who everyday with no exception, love me unconditionally and inspire me to do my best, to laugh deeply, to get back up again and again no matter how big the fall may have been. Every time I look at them fighting like champions, fully included in regular classrooms in our neighborhood public school, I can’t help myself but think: If they can do it, so can I and so can you.
Thank you to Hodges University for honoring me with the “Women of Character, Courage, Clarity and Commitment 2017 Award” celebrating women in Southwest Florida.