Chinese Flagship Center director shares her unique journey to BYU

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A field of crops can have different meanings to different people.

For some, it’s simply a place where food is grown. For others, it is an example of the beauty of God’s creations. For Rita Cortez, a field of crops is a sign of hope, hard work and future freedom.

Fields of crops allowed Cortez, now the managing director of the Chinese Flagship Center at BYU, to have hope and an education. Through these experiences, she said she was able to become the person she is today.

Rita as a young child. She was able to help her family at a young age due to the migrant work seasons. (Photo courtesy of Rita Cortez)

Cortez was born and raised in Eagle Pass, Texas to a family of migrant workers and was introduced to the migrant working fields at a very young age.  

“My earliest memories were working out in the fields … I grew up in and out of the fields, working together with my family,” Cortez said. 

Migrant workers are in constant motion because of the various locations of crops that are prepared and picked during specific times of the year. Many travel in families and large groups.

“We didn’t stay in one area for long. But one significant thing is that my father, who had only gotten a third-grade education, was very adamant and passionate about us getting an education,” Cortez said. 

Cortez moved often in her youth. She and her family lived in Minnesota for about seven years when she was young, where her father was able to get a job as a janitor at the local high school. It was in Minnesota that her father’s desire to further his education was sparked, she said.

After her time in Minnesota, Cortez’s family returned to Eagle Pass, Texas where she was able to complete and graduate high school.

During this time, Cortez applied to BYU and was accepted. Because she was a first-generation college student, she was unaware of how she could receive financial aid to attend a university and chose to attend a more affordable college than BYU, she said.

Cortez attended St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas with one of her close friends, Maya Ramirez.

“I was able to receive a scholarship from a College Assistance Migrant Program to attend St. Edward’s University,”  Cortez said. 

This time at St. Edward’s was a learning experience for Cortez. College was a new and foreign place to her, she said. She eventually graduated from St. Edward’s and continued her education at the University of Texas in San Antonio, where she received her Master’s of Public Administration degree in 2000.

Cortez has shared her unique life experiences with her family and established the importance of education in the lives of her children. 

“My mom instilled a strong value of education in me and my siblings because she understood the power it had in her life. She also modeled inclusivity and deep respect for others no matter their background. Her example is always present in my life, now more than ever, as I teach my own son the lessons that she taught me,” Claryssa Esquivel, Cortez’s daughter, said.

Rita with her family. This is around the time Rita shared the importance of having an education with her family. (Photo courtesy of Rita Cortez)

According to Cortez’s daughter Celina Trevino, her mother’s upbringing came with its fair share of trials and tribulations.

“What has she not endured? Poverty, emotional and physical abuse, generational trauma, racism, cancer,” Trevino said.

Roman Cortez, Cortez’s son, said his mom is one of the hardest workers he knows and is someone who will do anything for her family.

“She’s overcome hardships as a minority and proudly represented her Mexican culture … this past year she was diagnosed with breast cancer and has shown a tremendous amount of courage and grit while continuing her work and family life,” Roman Cortez said. 

Although she admitted her life has been difficult, Cortez said she believes the circumstances she faced as a child have allowed her to see the greater good in everything she does.

“Everything that you experience as a child growing up, all of your background, any adversity that you might have faced back then, all of that is useful, and it’s for our benefit and growth and development and our strength,” Cortez said. “I’m not unique in these things, many are facing similar situations, and we can all do hard things.” 

Rita Cortez in her office. She currently serves as the managing director of the Chinese Flagship Program. (Angela Hernandez)

While serving as Chinese Flagship Program director in 2009, Dana Bougerie hired Cortez as managing director following a nationwide search. Since then, Bougerie said Cortez has not only become a trusted colleague but a great friend.

Cortez said she has endured racism, tackled cultural barriers and faced stereotypes, but she has worked to break those stigmas and become who she is today.

“She is an amazing leader and example of strength to those around her,” Roman Cortez said.

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