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‘Your Culture Should Be a Source of Inspiration’

Hispanic Heritage Foundation President Shares Unlikely Journey, Urges Students to Speak Up

By Karen Shih ’09

Jose Antonio Tijerino at podium

As president and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, Jose Antonio Tijerino '88 has spearheaded partnerships with organizations as varied as the NFL and Nordstrom, increasing opportunities and visibility for Latinos across the country.

Photo courtesy of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation

To earn his degree from the University of Maryland, Jose Antonio Tijerino ’88 rolled up his sleeve at a blood center multiple times a week to get cash, pizza and juice; called up strangers as a telemarketer; and often wore a unique scent—fried shrimp—from waiting tables.

As an undocumented student, he was unable to access the same financial resources as most of his peers, but says the years-long struggle to finally graduate at 27 was worth it. The journalism school taught him the writing skills that launched him into a successful public relations career and his longtime role as president and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, and he made lifelong friends who have supported him every step of the way.

“I talked to one of them this morning—he used to sleep on my couch sometimes—and now we’re going to be at the Kennedy Center together for an event,” Tijerino said.

That event was Friday’s Hispanic Heritage Awards, which each year honors people as varied as Daddy Yankee and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. He serves as executive producer of the event for the foundation.

Minecraftt Latin Explorers

The nonprofit focuses on Latino leadership in the “classroom, community and workforce” and offers grants and programming. Its partners are as varied as Nordstrom and the NFL, but Tijerino’s favorite part of the job is working with youths. This month, the foundation helped launch the first Latino-themed Minecraft, a video game that is projected to expose 30 million children to social justice and environmental issues. He’s also proud of a partnership with Google that aims to teach 100,000 Latino youth how to code.

“He has a vision that’s typically bigger than a lot of people around him,” said longtime friend Michael Echols ’90, a foundation board member. “He has always had that intensity and passion, and he’s consistently trying to build bridges. … That’s a recipe for growth and success.”

But that success took time. Tijerino remembers battling stereotypes and low expectations—often in meetings dominated by older white men—as he worked his way up at PR firms and major corporations like Nike. But he gained respect by pitching ideas and pitching in on projects, and was eventually approached for his dream job with the foundation, where he’s now been president for two decades.

protestor with sign that reads, "I'm-migrant"
Tijerino, an immigrant from Nicaragua, is proud of the work the foundation does to support migrants. Photo courtesy of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation.

“I got a job where I’m in community service all day long, and I get to do whatever the community needs or wants,” he said. “I cannot be more fulfilled in any way in my life: friends, family and work.”

That’s why he’s eager to share his unlikely journey, as a Nicaraguan immigrant who went from sleeping in his car to leading a White House-founded national nonprofit, with fellow Terps. He’s stayed connected by serving on the Robert H. Smith School of Business Advisory Board and the University System of Maryland Board of Directors, and he’s spoken at UMD’s Latinx Graduation Celebration, where he was amazed by the size of the crowd.

“When I was in the Latino Student Union, there were just five of us gathered at a booth at Roy Rogers!” he said.

He urges students be proud of their identities and to make their voices heard.

“You’re being educated at a very high level. That comes with the responsibility of representing those who aren’t in the classroom or internship or job,” Tijerino said. “Remember what you inherited from your parents and ancestors. Your culture should be a source of inspiration, not something you’re hiding.”

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