Comedian, former NASA worker speaks about diversity, Latino culture

The Latino Issues Conference on Wednesday helped raise awareness about Latino issues in society by hosting speakers such as filmmakers and comedians.

Ray Plaza, associate director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, coordinated the annual event for the first time. This year marks the 19th anniversary of the Latino Issues Conference.

As Plaza looked through historical archives, he understood where the idea for the Latino Issues Conference came from.

“It basically came from a desire to bring the Latino and Latina community together to talk about a discourse for the future,” Plaza said.

The conference ran from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in room 206 of the Union with a luncheon in the Union Ballroom. One of the four plenary speakers, David Martinez, produced the documentary “Fuerza” his senior year at Goshen College in 2006. The documentary shows the struggle between two communities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border with different views on immigration.

Tara Tantari, a junior, said she came to the event as a way to get extra credit in one of her classes and enjoyed the various perspectives of the documentary.

“I liked when he said that communities of different cultures migrate toward different areas,” Tantari said. “We learned that in class.”

As far as picking speakers to come to the conference, Plaza said in the last 19 years the topics of discussion have varied. The Ambassador of Mexico and the Council General of Detroit are among some of the representatives of the Latino Issues Conference.

“The conference provides an opportunity to have the community come together to look at some different issues,” Plaza said. “This year, with our focus on refining the Latino and Latina image, we’ve tried to be very intentional in building a conference program that gets to these different themes and issues.”

This year’s keynote speaker, Shayla Rivera, is a former aerospace engineer who worked for NASA’s Shuttle and Space Station for eight years. After leaving NASA, she worked as a technical salesperson of environmental systems, a seminar speaker on stress management for executives and her current career as a comedian.

After members of the University’s Latino Student Union heard Rivera speak at a conference, the students told Plaza she had to speak at the Latino Issues Conference.

“Not only is she a comedian but she’s very motivational because of her background,” Plaza said.

During the luncheon, University President Mary Ellen Mazey greeted the audience before Plaza presented Latino Issues Conference awards to students and community members.

LSU President Adriana Darris was one of the recipients of the LIC awards and also introduced Rivera.

“She’s truly amazing and someone I look up to,” Darris said. “It’s so awesome to see you can really do it all.”

When Rivera took the podium, she spoke about her life as a Puerto Rican teenager moving from her home to the United States. She lightheartedly told jokes during her speech about the journey of achieving goals in life as well as the importance of diversity and the awareness of Latinos in society.

“Awareness begins change,” Rivera said. “If you are open to saying okay, you might discover something amazing.”

After the presentation, Rivera spoke exclusively with high school students about their plans for the future. She also visited local public high schools Wednesday to speak with parents in the Latino community.

“The questions afterwards let me know that people were listening,” Rivera said. “If I can leave with just one person with something to take home, that’s all I want because that’s how you change. I think it went very well.”

Jay Torres, a sophomore and member of LSU, worked the greeting table for the conference. Students in LSU held a panel discussion and presentation before the closing of the conference. LSU is also one of the biggest sponsors of the Latino Issues Conference, Plaza said.

“I think it’s important for people to come to the event because it creates awareness of the people in our community and educates people,” Torres said. “It shows who we are and what we do as Latinos, we’re a big community.”