When I got the chance to speak with Latina supermodel Patricia Velasquez, I didn't know how much the interview would affect me. I'm not lying when I say her story, and her words of encouragement, had me close to tears.
Velasquez overcame adversity in her life to become a runway model for the likes of Chanel and Gucci. Some have called her the world's first Latina supermodel, and she also gained fame as an actress with credits such as The Mummy and Ugly Betty. While her career is impressive, her outlook on life and adversity is what's really most powerful.
When she was a little girl, Velasquez watched the struggle that her mother had raising six children in an underprivileged country. During that time, there were moments that made her realize she wanted to help her family. One such time occurred when Velasquez saw her mother changing clothes and realized that her mother's panties and pantyhose were riddled with holes.
Velasquez knew it had nothing to do with her mother being neglectful. "She always kept everything beautifully, even though we didn't have any water, the elevators didn't work and we had to carry the buckets of water upstairs. I knew it was because there was no money for her to buy herself panties," she said.
Another moment involved a rare treat in the simple household. "When we got to eat steak it was a big thing. I remember one time my mom got seven steaks because there were seven of us. It was a big treat."
But before her mother could make the special meal, one of the steaks was mistakenly cooked and eaten by Velasquez's sister, who had a habit of getting up in the middle of the night and cooking. "I remember the six of us eating steak the next day and my mom didn't have steak. So that was another instance where I thought, 'I just have to help.' Because this was every single day."
Running water was something else that was hard to come by in Velasquez's home. On those rare times when the water would be turned on in her building, the whole family had to work together to make the most of it. "We lived on the 15th floor, so we would be the last people to get the water and the first ones to stop having water. Because by the time it got up to us, it was almost gone. So in 10 minutes we would have to organize ourselves and clean the house."
Velasquez credits watching her mother's ordeal as part of her success today. "I think if I hadn't seen my mom struggle, it probably wouldn't have been such a big deal. But because I saw her struggle, I made the decision that I had to do something. Because there had to be something more."
Velasquez has other memories of those days that still haunt her. "I remember very vividly also going at night to the bathroom and there were lots of cockroaches. Because it was very humid and it didn't matter how clean my mom kept that place, there were cockroaches. Sometimes at night I still think of it when I go to the bathroom in the middle of the night."
It was a desire to help that drove Velasquez to try things she otherwise wouldn't have, such as striking out in a career that didn't have a lot of Latinas at the time.
"For me, in doing this whole process of living in other countries, [being] very young, not having money — [the] reason why I was able to do it is because at the seat of it I wanted to help," she said.
"We have a really hard time asking for things for ourselves," Velasquez added. "When you have to ask for something for yourself, it's really hard to do that. But if you know that by you asking, you're going to help somebody else, then you feel like you deserve it or like you're entitled to it."
After all of her hard work, Velasquez is now enjoying the fruits of her success. She doesn't measure success by fame or money, but by one very special incident that happened early on in her modeling career.
"One time I was walking on the street in New York and out of the blue this Latin woman ran over to me and hugged me. Then she started crying and she said, 'Patricia, you changed my life because I've never seen people that look like me on the cover of a magazine until you came along. You've taught me that I can be proud of who I am.'"
The moment was a revelation to Velasquez. "I never thought that I would be affecting people in such a way," she said. "When I walked away, it was in that moment that I thought, 'Wait a minute, this is a whole different thing. This is not just about helping my family and being successful, it's about how I am [helping] women be proud of who they are and like who they are.'"
When asked what she would say to young people about how to overcome adversity, Velasquez was thoughtful. "The most important thing for me is to never lose hope," she said. "All it takes in life for one person to have success is for one person to believe in them, that's all."
She also had another vital message for young people. "Do not hide who you are. Don't hide who you are because sometimes we hide our secrets or we hide things thinking that we're going to [protect] other people, and that is damaging to yourself and damaging to other people."
"One thing that I would like people to walk [away] with is that everybody deserves a chance — everybody," Velasquez added. "If you work hard, if you are honest, if you're truthful to yourself and you fight in the name of others, there's no reason for you to not have an opportunity, therefore not to have success."
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