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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Yo puedo'-The Spanish Phrase Is Part Of Puerto Rico Native Sandra Sanchez-Perez's Daily Motivation

By Sandra Sanchez-Perez

October 6, 2002
Copyright © 2002 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved. 


She can.

(Sun-Sentinel/Robert Mayer)


"I like to be in America" is the line every Puerto Rican remembers from the musical West Side Story. My father, Jose E. Sanchez, was no exception.

As a former bodyguard for Luis A. Ferrer, then-governor of Puerto Rico, and a lieutenant colonel in charge of the Puerto Rican SWAT team, my father knew the importance and advantages of being bilingual and bicultural.

He traveled the world. And he wanted his two children to be exposed to other cultures.

I was born and raised in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, surrounded by nature's best: the beaches and the mountains. Extended family everywhere. We visited both my grandmothers every Sunday, and it was "backyard home cooking" all the way. Chicken, pigs, fruits and vegetables were readily accessible and shared not only with our family but our neighbors.

Then it happened: My big transition to the United States. Unlike other Puerto Ricans, we did not move to New York. We moved to Florida. We were the only members in our extended family to move from the island. The first thing that caught my attention was no safety bars in the homes. That was different. As was central air conditioning in most homes and buildings, not fresh air or fans.

Where are the mountains and the rivers? Are the canals their rivers? The neighbors lived their private lives with very little interaction.

Schools, tall buildings; anxiety levels high. I was fortunate to have been placed in a bilingual high school program in Fort Lauderdale. It could have been worse; I could have been set one grade behind. I was very excited, so far so good.

I realized for the first time what segregation looks like and feels like. Everywhere you looked, you saw pockets of ethnic groups. Talk about fitting in! Not a chance.

I stayed with my Latino group; we only spoke Spanish. With this group, I learned the different dialects and the richness of our Hispanic culture.

I was confused about the term "integration," about the idea of fitting in and the sense of becoming a true American. What did it really mean? Would I have to give up my beliefs, my culture, my traditions and my homeland? We traveled back to Puerto Rico every year, and that provided me with a sense of belonging.

I went to college where there were no bilingual programs. English became my second language. Did I consider myself completely integrated? No. Grateful? Absolutely.

This country provided me with a broad understanding of what freedom really stands for. In what other country do you find so many opportunities? We are all in search of the "American dream," to get a college degree, find a successful job with a sufficient income to live comfortably here and still have money left to help relatives back on the island.

While working toward a bachelor's degree, I found a job as a medical receptionist/assistant. I learned various skills and found myself working for health organizations. Once I earned my psychology degree from Florida International University, I started working for the Dade County Health Department's refugee program, a clinic that served the newly arrived refugee population.

It was a true life-learning experience. I learned the harsh reality of what the Cuban and Haitian immigrants face. Their reasons for migrating to this country were basically the same as mine, but the circumstances that brought them here were so different.

In 1997, I went to work for Hispanic Unity of Florida, a nonprofit community service agency dedicated to helping the Hispanic community and other minorities. As the health and senior services manager, I was responsible for planning and supervising all health programs. Many programs were built from the ground up. We pursued funds for HIV/AIDS programs to serve the Hispanic population. At one point, I supervised an HIV/AIDS support group, Hispanos En Accion.

During my years at Hispanic Unity, I continued to further my education and received two certificates for counseling for addictions and HIV/AIDS from the University of Miami. The same year, I received the Unsung Hero Award for Social Service Professional of the Year from the Broward County HIV Coalition. In 2000, I was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to serve in the statewide HIV/AIDS Minority Task Force representing Broward County.

Today, I proudly hold the position of director of Hispanic services and customer relations for Memorial Hospital Pembroke in Pembroke Pines. I am responsible for maintaining a positive multicultural environment; enhancing the quality of the overall hospital services provided to Hispanics and other minorities; handling customer service initiatives; and representing the hospital in various community organizations, chambers and events.

I am pursuing a master's degree in health services administration from FIU. Also, I am a member of the board of directors for the Southwest Broward Regional Chamber of Commerce.

On a personal level, I live in Plantation and share my life with a wonderful man, Lefty Perez, who also pursued his dream in America. He is now an international salsa singer, and I'm a proud mother of a 7-year-old boy, Louzandro, who was born in Plantation.

In all my years in the United States, I have learned many lessons, experienced many challenges and have grown into a much stronger individual. The words "yo puedo," I can, are part of my daily motivation. I learned that persistence drives success.

Culturally, I learned about the differences in expression. The Hispanic culture, for example, tends to be very detail-oriented and to provide as much information as possible -- the "juice" that lies within the details. On the other hand, in the American culture, the bottom line or getting to the point is a high priority.

I can now say I have learned to balance these differences without giving up the Latin flavor. At the same time, I believe that one should be measured by the way we make others feel.

To anyone coming to this country, I'd like to stress that it is important to get to know your community leaders and resources. Empowerment starts with knowledge; knowledge comes from education.

I realized that my father's dream opened up the doors to a life full of personal rewards. It's a privilege and an honor to be a part of two cultures. It's having the precious gift of speaking two languages. It's having the best of two worlds.


Sandra Sanchez-Perez is director of Hispanic services and customer relations for Memorial Hospital Pembroke in Pembroke Pines.

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