“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”- Helen Keller
Catarina Rivera is a leader, public speaker, and entrepreneur with 13 years of experience in the public sector, both in nonprofits and education. She was born in Maryland to a Cuban mother and a Puerto Rican father from the South Bronx. She currently works as a manager at a large non-profit organization in New York City and is the founder of Blindish Latina, a platform increasing awareness about accessibility and sharing her experience as a disabled Latina professional. Blindish Latina has partnered with Project Hearing for a bi-weekly discussion series called Chicas Talk Disability which has covered a wide range of topics. Catarina is also the Co-Founder of ExplorEquity, a sustainable travel company. She holds a BA from Duke University, a MSEd from Bank Street College of Education, and an MPH from the CUNY School of Public Health-Hunter College.
Tell us about your motivation for launching Blindish Latina?
When I was 17, I was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome. Usher Syndrome is a condition that affects both vision and hearing. I wear hearing aids and my hearing is mostly stable, while my vision loss is progressive and will worsen over time.
I launched Blindish Latina because I had reached a point in my disability journey where I was advocating for myself often and had adapted well to my disability. I realized how far I had come since I was first diagnosed, when having Usher Syndrome felt like a tragedy. I felt called to speak up, take up space, and start the conversations I wanted to see.
Through Blindish Latina, I raise awareness about disability and share my story. My goal is to provide representation, especially for other Latinx people with disabilities to see someone like them who is a professional, multi-faceted person. I also want to activate allies, for them to see me and understand that their assumptions about a person with a disability might be wrong. I hope that Blindish Latina will lead to greater accessibility and inclusion. In many professional settings, we unfortunately still see prevalent discrimination, inaccessibility, and a lack of inclusion.
What is Blindish Latina and how can people participate?
Blindish Latina is a platform on Instagram and Facebook where I share my story, host events, and provide resources. I use Instagram as my primary platform. In collaboration with another creator called Project Hearing, we co-host a biweekly conversation series called Chicas Talk Disability and cover a wide variety of topics. Some of our events are workshops, and most are free. People can participate by following me on Instagram and Facebook, and signing up for the Chicas Talk Disability newsletter here. We also accept donations for our work at bit.ly/ctddonation
When you started your career, did you find it hard to find mentors?
I’ve always found it difficult to find mentors in the workplace, especially those in higher management positions. In academic settings, I have been able to find wonderful mentors but the workplace has been more difficult. I have consistently been able to build relationships with colleagues but it has proven harder to relate to those in executive leadership roles. I think not having many other Latinx people in leadership roles could be one of those reasons. I also think that I have felt uncertain about asking people for their time and have not wanted to bother them, whereas others may have been taught differently and may feel comfortable doing so.
Do you see yourself as an advocate for the Latinx community, especially Latinos with disabilities?
Yes, 1000%! I have consistently been involved in working with the Latinx community throughout my life, from serving as a bilingual educator in the Bronx at the beginning of my career to engaging in bilingual community organizing around food justice in my community of Washington Heights. Since I started Blindish Latina earlier this year, my advocacy for Latinos with disabilities has only recently begun.
Do you find it hard to find brands/companies that want to partner with your organization?
I have not spent enough time yet working on brand partnerships to know, but I think overall I do see issues with companies and brands not designing their products with accessibility in mind from the outset.
Tell us about your career journey—how did you enter the public sector/non profit world?
I started my career journey as a Teach for America educator in the Bronx, teaching bilingual education. After observing the food my students were eating, I became passionate about health and nutrition. I became a holistic health coach and left the education profession to start a community health program in Washington Heights. This was a grassroots, non-profit effort that ultimately was a great learning experience and led me to seek more experience in the non-profit sector. I ended up going back to full-time work at a large non-profit in Harlem and became a health coordinator there. At the same time, I pursued my masters degree in public health. When I earned my MPH, I found a new job at a non-profit organization dedicated to ending hunger and I continue working for the same organization today.
Do you see yourself as an influencer, and if so, what does that mean to you?
I see myself as an influencer but not in the typical Instagram influencer way. I see myself as someone who has influence and a powerful voice, and intends to use it to uplift others and make a difference in our society.
How has the pandemic affected how you interact with your colleagues and clients now that you’re working remotely?
Now that I’ve been working remotely, automatic closed captioning in meetings has become mandatory for my inclusion and ability to perform at my best. Having virtual meetings all day, every day is new for all of us. I have learned a great deal about the various meeting platforms and how to ensure accessibility. One of the best things that happened recently was that Google Meet became the standard meeting platform for all google accounts and it has free AI closed captioning integrated into the platform. A true gamechanger! Microsoft Teams is another platform that has AI closed captioning built in for everyone.
Not being able to connect in person presents some challenges to relationship building. Usually, there is some down time to connect with others at the beginning and end of in-person meetings and you find informal moments for conversations and connections. With virtual meetings, I see improved efficiency and productivity during the actual meeting time, but we have to be more intentional about connecting socially and building relationships. It’s also difficult for people to be on video all day and when we only see someone’s head, we miss opportunities to read body language and mirror. Overall, I have adapted very well to working 100% remotely, but these are challenges to be aware of and address.
In what way has being multicultural, Latinx, affected your career path?
I have felt the weight of my privilege as a Latinx person who had well-educated parents and a great education myself. I have been very aware of my privilege from a socioeconomic standpoint compared to others in my community. I also am very aware of my privilege as someone who has an invisible disability and is perceived as white. I can announce my Latinidad and I can announce my disability. My identities are not immediately apparent, which has shielded me from discrimination. Knowing the privilege I have, I have always felt called to do something positive with it and try to make a difference for others. In my career path, I have sought meaningful work and to have a social impact. Thus I have not been driven by money or prestige in my career- I define success differently. I care about work/life balance, a job’s alignment to my values, and feeling passionate about what I do each day.
What have been your keys to success?
Hard work, persistence, passion, listening to my gut, developing self-awareness, and an extreme dedication to follow-up.
If you could retire today. What would you be doing?
I love traveling so if I could retire today, I would spend time traveling the world and engaging in sustainable travel that benefits local communities and the environment. I would also practice slow travel, spending a longer time in each place.
What is the biggest challenge you face a person with a disability that is unseen? How has this affected your career?
The biggest challenge I face is having to both deal with my disability on a daily basis while also advocating for myself and educating others. Many times, I feel the burden is on me to speak up and to educate others. Sometimes it’s scary to speak up. Sometimes, I think others could do a better job of educating themselves. In my career, I have encountered misunderstandings where people make negative assumptions about me when they don’t know I have a disability or don’t understand my disability. For example, someone could think I’m ignoring them when I actually don’t hear them or I don’t see them. I have a very narrow visual field so someone could be right next to me and I wouldn’t see them at all. It is an almost impossible challenge to manage other people’s perceptions of me, so I just do my best to be open about my disability and what I need. We need more allies to step up, because the burden of creating a more accessible world shouldn’t just be on those with disabilities.