Jen Leon Palacio, 23, Colombia

Jen Leon

What is your story of strength?

I would say definitely beginning with both my grandmother and my mother. They are iconic feminists without identifying as such. I grew up in Columbia and we moved here when I was eight years old. My mom and my grandmother taught me a lot about service to others and a lot of what they did was to help others. Through my growing up that really inspired me to do what I did from City Year to Jump Start – every volunteer opportunity I did was because of these two women. They let me know I could get strength from myself rather than relying on a man, which is what is means to be quintessentially Latino growing up in Columbia.

They were the two women to really inspire me to find my self-esteem in things other than beauty. They would always tell me, “Hey, you are very kind, you are so sweet, you are so caring.” They really helped me build myself and my resiliency. My grandmother and my mom are my strength.

Can you tell me about a woman in your life that embodies strength?

My grandmother passed ten years ago. My mom and I moved here [East Boston]. She was a CPA in Columbia, but she started cleaning. She wasn’t happy with that and she started taking taxes class. From there, she had two full time jobs. Full time at night cleaning office buildings and during the day doing taxes…and sleeping for four hours a day. She would wake up, make us food – I would see her one hour a day. At night she would still take time to be a mom to me. We would take an hour where we would say over the phone prayers before bedtime.

She did that for a few years before she had the opportunity to start her own business. In 2007, she started in her business in East Boston. Ten years later, she has 3000 tax clients and over 80 accounting companies she manages. It’s just so incredible to be able to see her come from cleaning toilets and seeing her do that and put in so much work to be a better person. She, to me, is the epitome of the “American Dream.” That also inspires me and helps me realize the amount of privileges I have because of her and do things that are in service of others because of all those privileges.

She is the goal of how I want to be as a woman. It’s funny – in Columbia, they ask me when I have kids are you going to stay at home and I say, “I’m absolutely not I’m not going to stay at home.” And they say, “I guess your mom didn’t.” I want to be that mom to whatever kid I have. I want to be around for homework time, but my mom just really inspires me everyday to work for things that I want.

Can you tell me about a time you failed or disappointed yourself?

I think the period of time between me finishing City Year and coming here [Panorama Education] was a pretty big struggle to figure what out what I want to do with my, how do I want to be, what do I want to be doing. A big piece of the internal struggle I was having was do I want to work at a non-profit or do I want to “sell myself out” and make money? Do I struggle with my own personal sanity and well-being or do what I want to do? I was doing something in accounting but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing and I felt like a failure. I thought, “I’m not doing what I should be doing, I’m not doing much in regards to helping other people.” I didn’t feel like I was making a measurable impact in life – I had self-esteem struggles during that six-months.

When I finally figured out what I wanted to do, it was because of a lot of support and strength from my friends and family. They were encouraging me and pushing me on. It was definitely a hard time – understanding who I am, struggling internally, thinking what do I want to do with the rest of my life? Did I major in the right thing? Am I going down the right path? I think I succeeded in not feeling as much of a failure [chuckles].

How can women better support each other?

I really tried to encourage at City Year with middle schoolers your allies are your girlfriends. It starts very young where we think the girl is the enemy. This is where you are going to find the most bountiful resources of support and love. Just embracing your girl friendships and empowering women – support your local girl squad. 

So many times we can see each other as the enemy or the competitor. There is so much power in being there and bringing each up rather than seeing someone as in their way. It starts so young, from raising your daughters and children. What I want to do for women is be a resource for women and Latino kids growing up and understanding their strengths. As Latino women, we have a lot more disadvantages. I wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for so many women, my mentors, my mom, my grandmother and everyone that grave me strengths. Be vulnerable and be open. Reach out for support when you need it. It can be so powerful. And be there for people when they need you.

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