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Interview: ‘Hermanas’ Authors Talk Embracing Their Identities as Latinas and Leaders

The day after their book, Hermanas: Deepening Our Identity and Growing Our Influence launched, Faithfully Magazine spoke with authors Natalia Kohn Rivera, Noemi Vega Quiñones, and Kristy Garza Robinson about their journeys as Latinas and leaders and why Hermanas (“sisters” in Spanish) is the leadership book they all wanted but never had.

Publisher IVP Books writes that the authors “find mentorship in twelve inspirational women of the Bible including Esther, Rahab, Mary, and Lydia, who navigated challenges of brokenness and suffering, being bicultural, and crossing borders. The insights here will help any who seek to empower Latinas in leadership.”

In the following interview, the trio discusses when they discovered they were leaders, bridge-building between cultures, Latina leadership styles, and dancing salsa with Jesus. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your racial and cultural background?

Noemi Vega Quiñones: My cultural background is Mexican. I grew up in Mexico for five years. I am Mexican-U.S. American. Racially I am Hispanic.

Hermanas: Deepening Our Identity and Growing Our Influence by by Natalia Kohn Rivera, Noemi Vega Quiñones, and Kristy Garza Robinson

Kristy Garza Robinson: I’m from Texas, where I grew up. South Texas, right on the border of Mexico and Edinburg, Texas. I currently live in Austin, Texas. I’m Mexican-American and grew up straddling the Mexican-American border my whole life.

Natalia Kohn Rivera: I am Armenian and Argentinian. I was born in Argentina and came over here when I was quite young. My father is an Argentine immigrant and my mother is Armenian-American. I will say I’m Triple A: Argentine-Armenian-American.

Why this book, Hermanas, and why now?

Noemi Vega Quiñones: I think Hermanas is a long time coming. I wish I had had this book when I was coming up, so now is the time, thank you Jesus!

It’s a discipleship book and leadership development book for women. It’s championing women’s voices that are already in The Bible, that many of us have already known about. We just have the gift and opportunity to share it with others through some of our Latina experiences.

Kristy Garza Robinson: I’d echo that. When I was writing my chapters, I was thinking of my daughters who are White and Latina. I want them to have a resource that reflects stories from their community and our background, that they would have that lens. And I imagine myself, my 20-year-old self, remembering how significant Being Latino in Christ: Finding Wholeness in Your Ethnic Identity—Orlando Crespo’s bookwas for me in my ethnic identity formation, and how meaningful it would have been to have this book, which would have invited me into these stories of these women seen through a Latina woman.

Natalia Kohn Rivera: I wish, like Noemi, that it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago—that there was a Latina resource.

There’s something about it being taken seriously when it’s in a book. Realizing that there aren’t many resources for Latina women. Inter Varsity Press said to us: “Multiply your mentorship. Help other women get mentored.”[emaillocker id=60875]

Noemi, I love that you named the bleeding woman (Matthew 9:20–22; Mark 5:25–34; Luke 8:43–48) in chapter three of the book. You gave her the name that shows how God sees her: “Mija” (Daughter). Could each of you share a story where you felt as if you were God’s mija?

Noemi Vega Quiñones: First of all, I want to credit Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil because years ago I read her book, A Credible Witness: Reflections on Power, Evangelism and Race. She named the Samaritan woman Samanatha, Sam. I thought: If she can do that with Sam, maybe I can do that with Mija.

One time, I was feeling very insecure in my leadership. I was trying really hard—and this was about a year and a half ago. I was receiving coaching from an older woman: I was telling her that I felt that in order to get credibility in this new role, I have to act and teach and preach like a White man. As I was crying, I was processing some of the experiences that I had had recently, especially with White male pastors. There was a meeting cut short by 30 minutes because this male pastor felt so uncomfortable about meeting with me. He was fidgeting the whole time and he was expecting a male director, and he got me. That was a painful experience.

Another painful experience is that I was interviewing another potential volunteer for ministry. We were at a public coffee shop and towards the end of the meeting, he put his hand on my leg. Just feeling so attacked in that way and so objectified. These are the experiences that happen to women in leadership. I was just weeping.

Hermanas book authors on Latina leadership Kristy Garza Robinson, Noemi Vega Quiñones, and Natalia Kohn Rivera
(L-R) Kristy Garza Robinson, Noemi Vega Quiñones, and Natalia Kohn Rivera.

Being with this older woman who had gone before me, I asked, “Why do people not take me seriously? Is it because I’m a short Latina?” She said, “Noemi, what if God your heavenly Father and Creator created you to be a short Latina that is leading in this season?” She encouraged me, in my next preaching opportunity, to be my full Latina self. “What would it look like?” she asked.

I was like, “I would use my voice fully. Maybe I would do a little dance, ‘cause I like to dance, and I don’t know if that’s because I’m a Latina; maybe it’s just because of how quirky I am.” So she said, “What if you do that? Who would you bless? And would it be more than those whom you would offend?”

I felt so seen by this mentor and after praying about it, I just felt that the Lord was releasing in me this new part of who I am. He cares for me as His daughter, because I have the DNA of our Creator, God. That means that all of who I am—submitted under Him—is fully good and beautiful and can be used to worship Him. Even some of my insecurities…God can use those to bring healing to the nations.

That preaching moment was one of my favorite preaching moments.

Did you dance?

Noemi Vega Quiñones: I did!

Who else would like to share a Mija story?

Kristy Garza Robinson: Going back to the identity piece… When you’re weaving together that braid or even just trying to understand it: ethnic identity development and faith, that’s a big part of me—understanding my identity as Daughter. Especially growing up on the border and coming to faith in a predominately-White evangelical space, I struggled a lot with that sense of belonging: What does belonging look like when you don’t feel like you fit anywhere?

So when I would visit family in Mexico, I’d think I don’t belong here, even as it felt very familiar. The language that I would use often is, “I feel an attachment to Mexico that Mexico doesn’t feel towards me.” And then when I was in community in this White evangelical space, I didn’t fit in the way others did. We didn’t share the same stories and we didn’t have the same experiences or holidays or rituals. I had a quinceañera; no one else I knew did. Leaning into this identity of Daughter gave me a place to belong even if I fell in liminal spaces all around me. Leaning into this identity as daughter is grounding and centering.

Natalia Kohn Rivera: I agree with Kristy about the belonging piece. This woman [the bleeding woman] didn’t really belong for the 12 years. The only people she belonged to were other people who were sick. So just the way the Lord reaches and does [so] much to make sure that she belongs…. Just being bi-racial—you don’t fully belong anywhere—but those moments where the Lord takes you in and you’re like, “I don’t need to prove myself! He makes me who I am.” Kind of like Noemi, when this woman told her, “Preach like you! What if God make you a short Latina for a reason?”

At the Urbana 2000 Student Missions Conference, the worship leader, Sundee Frazier, kept saying, as a bi-racial woman, “God does not make mistakes. He made you you!” When I finally actually understood that as an adult, I felt like I could finally breathe! I felt that this constant striving was slowing down and it wasn’t driving me so much. Those two were my Mija moments, when God was like: “Daughter, you are enough.”

Thank you for sharing your stories. Next, I want to talk leadership. When did you first realize that you are a leader and how did that impact you?

Noemi Vega Quiñones: I’ve had to have people tell me I’m a leader in order to embrace that title. In my Mexican culture, I was raised to be very humble. My dad is a community leader; my mom is a community leader, but they don’t have titles. They aren’t city managers; they aren’t on the council, but they go to the grocery store and people know them. They are connected to people in the city, not just in California where they live, but also in Mexico.

It wasn’t until freshman year in college, that I fell so in love with Jesus reading the book of Luke, that I started inviting friends to the Bible study. Then an InterVarsity staff leader said, “Come, be a table leader at this conference.” I said, “I can’t do that. A leader is not what I am.” He said, “All you have to do is ask these questions of the group,” and I was like “Oh yeah, I can do that!”

Embracing the title of leader has taken a long time. It has helped me to see who my parents are; it has helped me to embrace the title of indigenous leader. I like that. Even if I don’t have a title, I influence in other ways.

Kristy Garza Robinson: I resonate with that, too—the invitation to leadership. I think that’s cultural; we want to be invited in. Even when someone challenges me into leadership, I’m like “Well then, no, no thank you.” But if I’m invited, the word feels more hospitable.

When I was in college, one of my staff leaders at Campus Crusade said, “Kristy, I think you’re a quiet leader.” That was the first time I had ever heard those two words put together and so it was my first time to broaden my definition of what leadership is. I had one picture and one gender in my mind, and I didn’t realize how me as Kristy could be a leader. Embracing the title—well, I will embrace it, but learning to live that in the fullness of who I am…well, that’s a lifetime journey.

Natalia Kohn Rivera: I think of a moment when I was in fifth grade. I was at a Christian school. And the teacher took my best friend and I aside and said, “You two are very influential with your classmates and you need to wield that power well.” We were just being us. That has stuck in my head: using your influence well and wielding your power, your influence, your leadership in ways that honor God.

Like Noemi, I have to be invited in. I don’t know if that’s because I’m Latina or Armenian. But once I’m invited in, I will bring it.

I do have another question about leadership. Hermanas describes the many types of leadership outside of traditional, up-front speaking. As Latina leaders, how do you “balance” the need for all types of leaders, without limiting Latinas to less official forms of leadership?

Natalia Kohn Rivera: For me, I keep realizing that I have an audience of one, and that’s Jesus. And he’ll put me in whatever positions he wants me in. I think that some Latina women feel that they have to fight for it, and if God puts the fight in you for it, then go for it.

There’s a time for owning what God has given you, but try not to barge in and take, take, take because we’ve been underserved. That feels just like revenge leadership. People don’t receive it well, whoever you’re ministering to.

Amen. Anybody want to add to that?

Kristy Garza Robinson: Yeah, it’s a part of our discipleship with the leaders we’re raising up; that’s why [we’ve written] a book like this. We’re drawing out leadership that looks different in different spaces. Whenever you are in positional leadership, when the Lord opens up doors—what does it mean to steward that and bring our gifts to the table, such as hospitality, such as extending the table, such as being welcoming and teaching about power?

I remember a woman who mentored me saying something like:

You’re in a room and someone needs to take notes. You can be the Latina that’s being the servant and take the marker and start writing… And who gets to frame what everybody says and write it in their own words? Who gets to define it? You kind of have a lot of power in that role as a servant, getting to shape the narrative and shape how people are going to remember this meeting.

There are opportunities everywhere.

Noemi Vega Quiñones: I would like to add a little bit more to the conversation. I think the Lord does give each of us dreams and visions and ambition, even. Paul had a lot of ambition, and submitted under Christ’s lordship, it can actually be a really beautiful thing. So my hope for this book is that women will read that their dreams, their vision, they can even call it their ambition, in Christ, is a really good and beautiful thing.

We have to be in the reality that there is a Kingdom of God and a kingdom of the world. Positional authority does give you a lot of access and a lot of ability to change systems and structures that will be more equitable and just for our communities.

So Rahab did not have positional authority; she was the lowest of the low, but she used her theological acuity and her insight about who God is to change her system and her family’s system.

The fact that we live in the kingdom of the world means that we […] need to think shrewdly, but under the submission of Christ. “Be wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.” When we say yes to positional leadership, people may look at that and be like, “Oh gosh, she just wants to raise up in power.” But I want to change the narrative and say, “No, she wants to use the leadership that God has opened up to her, always knowing that what qualifies us is the calling of the Holy Spirit on our lives.” I just want to encourage Latinas and other women of color: Don’t be afraid of the title. But what will you do to share that power once you get it?

As you reflect on Latinas in leadership, what’s one characteristic that your sisters bring to the Kingdom?

Noemi Vega Quiñones: One thing we bring is creative resourcing and networking. When we’re trying to move things forward and advocate for our communities or through our communities, as a Latina leader, I try really hard to think not of the limitations but to think about the possibilities.

So when we try to get our students funded for a global project, what we’ve learned is that Latinos are so well networked that when we partner with churches there are so many resources that come, whether that’s mentorship, or providing meeting spaces or abuelitas in the church that want to make tamales.

Natalia Kohn Rivera: Another big thing I’ve noticed is that we have this ability to bridge-build maybe because we do it with our families. I’ve had to do it a lot with my father, who doesn’t speak much English.

I remember reading a really amazing article about people who lived in Tijuana, on the border; they were border kids. They would go back and forth: literally go to school in the U.S. and go home in Mexico. I feel like Latinos really know how to bridge-build and that’s an amazing leadership trait in the kingdom of God.

Kristy Garza Robinson: I think that bridge-building and living in two cultural spaces, especially for U.S. Latinas, makes us good bridge-builders. Also a part of that is the prophetic piece: we have eyes to see because we have our feet in two different cultural worlds.

And then what I shared earlier about hospitality: you don’t do this alone. Leadership isn’t a a zero-sum game; do not close the door behind you. That’s extremely rude. You are opening it up and inviting others in. So I talk about that a little bit in the chapter on Deborah.

To wrap up, I’d like to go back to the image of dancing. Imagine you’re at a party. You are dancing with the Father; you are his Mija. Two questions: Which dance are you doing? Which song are you dancing to?

Natalia Kohn Rivera: What comes to mind is “Besame Mucho” (Kiss Me a Lot) I just think of a phrase that I’ve been learning to pray with Jesus: “Let him kiss me.” I want to see him kissing me throughout the day, and not in this weird way, but in this “Wow, that was the Lord kissing me today. I needed that and didn’t even know it. He went ahead of me.”

Kristy Garza Robinson: If I’m dancing with Jesus, I’m imagining some fun, upbeat song. It might be Selena ‘cause I’m a Texan and it’s at like, every party. Or maybe a cumbia because I’m being invited to have fun in this dance.

Noemi Vega Quiñones: There are two songs that come to mind. On [book] launch day, this song kept coming to mind. It’s “Dance With Me” by Jesus Culture. It’s a very beautiful kind of waltz. The lyrics are taken from the Song of Solomon lyrics. I love this part:

With you I will go, 
You are my love, You are my fair one, 
The winter has passed, The springtime has come

I have the image of me standing on Jesus’ feet and he’s with me, swaying back and forth. The other song is Marc Anthony’s “Vivir Mi Vida” (Living My Life) and I picture going from that slow dance into that funky fast dance. Jesus and I are just salsa dancing together, which I like to do with him in the kitchen, often.

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Chante Griffin
Chante Griffin
Chanté Griffin is a Los Angeles-based writer and entertainer. She blogs at Beneath the Surface: Race, Culture, Christ and is the creator of YouTube’s When Black History Firsts Go Wrong series. In her free time, she enjoys living her best black life.