How Marie Quintana's unexpected flight from Cuba to Luisiana began rise to the top in one of America’s most successful companies and brands – Pepsico.
Across the United States, in all fields of endeavor, Latinos are working to uphold their place in American society. Fox News Latino is proud to present "Our American Dream" – a series of snapshots and profiles of Latino success stories.
Marie Quintana was only 5-years-old when she was forced to board a Delta airlines flight from La Habana, Cuba to New Orleans, Louisiana on November 23, 1961.
Quintana remembers every detail from that day. Just a few months removed from the Invasion of the Bay of Pigs, she recalls the panic, grief, and uncertainty that flooded the airline terminals.
People scrambled to board the last commercial flights heading for the U.S.
“We were told we could only bring one 45-pound bag for the entire family,” Quintana recalls clenching on to her doll throughout the chaos. "My mother had a green necklace and a green bracelet and was forced to leave it at the airport. It was a wedding gift from her mother.”
What Quintana didn’t know was that her family’s unexpected flight to a new world would be the first step of a life journey that has seen her rise up the corporate ladder at one of America’s most successful companies and brands – Pepsico.
My parents listened to the news everyday with their bags packed for 15 years. My mom thought we’d be back in Cuba in a months time.
- Marie Quiniata
Quintana’s chance at the American Dream began unexpectedly when she landed on Thanksgiving morning in Louisiana. She had no idea what Thanksgiving was.
Invigorated by her “immigrant upbringing,” Quintana is now Senior Vice President of PepsiCo Multicultural Sales and Marketing, and just as she helped guide her own family through the challenges of a cultural transition, Quintana, has dedicated her life to mentoring Latinos and empowering Latinas in the corporate world.
The self-nicknamed ‘Cajun Cuban’ remembers growing up as one of two Latino families in her town. While thousands fled to South Florida and settled in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, her family chose Reserve, Louisiana – a decision that made assimilation that much more difficult.
From the age of five on, Quintana knew she had to help her mother and father navigate through the transition from the the life they forever left in Cuba.
“My parents listened to the news everyday with their bags packed for 15 years,” she explained her parents mindset. “My mom thought we’d be back in Cuba in a months time.”
Quintana and her family lived in a housing project in New Orleans for a time where they relied on Catholic charities to donate pots, pans, and clothes for survival. Her father and mother found work cleaning offices and delivering pizzas until he found a career as a sugar chemist – working until he was 77.
“I feel like my parents gave up so much,” she said.
Yet this pales with the lives of relatives that stayed behind in Cuba, she points out: “I have cousins and family that are still in Cuba that can’t read magazines because they don’t have access to books.”
She says her family was fueled by the “hope of possibilities” – the idea that no matter what, anything is possible and that every job is always an opening for another.
Quintana developed into a leader out of necessity for her family, as the eldest, she guided them throughout a difficult cultural transition without the help of family and friends, that till this day, remain on the island. For her none of it would have been possible without mentors along the way.
“Sometimes people are afraid to ask,” she said. “Mentoring is very important because you need to have someone in the company and outside the company that will give you real feedback – I’m not saying feedback that makes you feel good. Real feedback that can help you look at your blindspots.”
The fear of asking for mentorship is one of the hurdles Quintana, who mentors 12 people, said is particularly prevalent among Latinas in the corporate world. She encourages people to look around the company, find leaders, and have the courage to ask them for guidance and sponsorship.
She also believes Latinas in particular do not voice their accomplishments as much as they should.
“Don’t feel bad about your accomplishments,” Quintana implored. “It’s almost like it goes against our culture because we are so humble and because we know we aren’t suppose to be tooting our horns. It’s ok to. It empowers you to have a voice at the table."
She encourages people to write down their successes as they happen.
Quintana admits there is no easy and clear path towards success in the corporate world, but she did reference an X factor in the Latino community – “the immigrant experience.”
“My immigrant background has helped me to function in very ambiguious setting and I think we don’t take that seriously,” she said.
She found that Latinos and Latinas like her mentees in Pepsico, in below management and lower level management positions, are able to better adapt to change – a vital skill for any executive today.
Ultimately, though she is grounded by her love of family and culture.
Today her mother is 83, and her father is 90. They are at the center of her inspiration, her purpose. Since the day she held her brother’s hand in the back of the car on the way to La Habana airport – she’s known that to be true.
50 years since her family fled Cuba there are still reminders of where Quintana came from. Her father, who is suffering from Alzeimers, ‘forgets everything’ but a few times a year they gather around a table for a game of Dominos.
“That’s our connection with him,” she said. “He beats everyone.”
But in an unexpected "blessing," a few weeks ago, Quintana brought her 83-year-old mother to Cuba through a spiritual pilgrimage with Pope Benedict XVI organized by the U.S. Catholic Diocese. Finally, her mother was reunited with family after 50 years.
Her mother visited her high school in La Habana, traveled to the town she was born in, Jovialness, where both daughter and mother walked into the home they had lived in 50 years ago where 160 family members awaited them. The furniture was still intact, her mother sat in the chair at the dining table where her father use to sit in.
A house full to the brim with family and memories.
"We hugged hello as though we never want to be separated and we hugged goodbye to many painful tears," Quintana said. "I now truly know the price my parents paid for freedom and there is no doubt that I know my roots - proud to be a Cuban American"
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Among her many affiliations, Marie serves on the board of the Network of Executive Women for Consumer Products and Retail, she Chairs the Corporate Advisory Board for Latina Style and is on the board of PLAN of North Texas. She has been named one of the Top Women in Grocery by Progressive Grocer. Marie helps lead La Promesa de Pepsico initiative which focuses on helping Latinos and their families achieve the American Dream by supporting education, developing healthier products, and promoting active lifestyles and caring for the environment. She was pivotal in Pepsico’s recent 1 million dollar commitment to La Plaza de Cultura and Artes for Edible Teaching Garden and Culinary Arts Program.
For more information on Pepsico go to pepsico.com and on Twitter @pepsico.