Profile: Hector Manuel Ortiz – From Immigrant to Mayor
How this Toastmaster reached for the moon and made it.
By Julie Bawden Davis
Caption: Hector Manuel Ortiz, Mayor of Irwindale, California
Looking into the mirror one morning, Hector Manuel Ortiz saw how much Toastmasters had helped him. The once hesitant, self-conscious Mexican immigrant hardly recognized the man gazing back at him.
“The shy, timid person I once saw had left,” says Ortiz, who just finished a term as mayor in the city of Irwindale, California. “I always knew that I had leadership potential, and it was finally coming through. I saw a whole new me.”
Born into poverty in a small town outside Guadalajara, Mexico, Ortiz sought a better life and an education when he came to the United States in 1970. He was 17.
“It was a scary decision to leave my home for a land where the main language was English,” says Ortiz, who remembers being in awe his first few days in California. “My older brother, Henry, already lived here with my aunt and uncle, so he took me out to dinner in a very nice restaurant when I arrived. The experience felt like a dream,” he says. “I didn’t know that such places existed.”
Unable to speak any English, Ortiz immediately signed up for classes. Determined to learn the language quickly, he attended school regularly, listened to English on the radio, watched television and read books.
Over the years, Ortiz worked in construction and then became a certified electrician. He thought he had mastered the English language, but then one day his superiors asked him to speak during a meeting at the gas company where he worked.
“I joined the safety committee and they wanted me to give a presentation,” says Ortiz. “I stood in front of a room full of people and froze, unable to say one word. Someone took over for me, and I went to the back of the room, very embarrassed.”
After that experience Ortiz tried to speak at a city council meeting and found himself tongue-tied once again. “That time was even more embarrassing,” he recalls. “Someone in the audience offered to translate because they thought I would do better speaking in Spanish,” he says. Following the second humiliating incident, his brother suggested he attend a Toastmasters meeting, which he promptly did.
At his first meeting, Ortiz found out how badly he needed Toastmasters. “When they asked me where I heard about the organization, my reply made no sense at all, and it became very apparent that my heavy accent was also hindering me,” he says. “During the meeting, they asked if I was interested in becoming a member, and I told them to sign me up immediately.”
Ortiz joined the West Winds club in 1995 but has since moved to the Speak-E-Z club in West Covina, California. He was president of the former club and has participated in various speech contests, placing second at the district level. Now with 12 years of Toastmasters experience, Ortiz has seen remarkable changes in his speaking skills, leadership ability and overall self-confidence.
“I never imagined how far Toastmasters would take me,” he says. “Joining gave me the courage to participate in other organizations, such as my church, where I became president of my parish council. When I first joined and began speaking to groups of 20 people, I was really pleased. Now I feel the same confidence standing in front of an audience of 3,000.”
Even at a young age, Ortiz felt he had dormant leadership skills trying to emerge, and he credits Toastmasters with awakening this desire to become a leader. During his tenure as a Toastmaster, he became a planning commissioner for the city of Irwindale in 1997 and a youth group director in his church. By 2003 he stepped it up a notch and ran for a seat on the city council. Though he lost that election by just one vote, he tried again in 2005 and won.
When he became a city council member, Ortiz thought he had made it. But he hit a new high on December 6, 2006, when the council unanimously appointed him mayor of Irwindale. “That night was a memorable experience,” says Ortiz. “My wife, Sheryl, and my five children were there for the ceremony.”
Former Irwindale council member Julian Miranda remembers being very impressed with Ortiz’s leadership ability during his time in office. “Hector received a lot of positive comments while he was mayor, and for good reason,” says Miranda. “He is really good at uniting people and leading them, and he is accessible and easy to talk to. His ability to speak with confidence and his desire to help the community make people admire and trust him.”
Fellow Toastmaster Joseph Tweini, a member of the West Winds club, agrees. “Hector is an example of a great leader,” he says. “Watching him, I became inspired to become president of the club and to accomplish much more than I ever thought possible.”
Considering his humble start, Ortiz is especially proud that his leadership position has made him a good role model for other Latinos.
“Since I started my career in politics, many Latinos congratulate me and say how proud they are to see that someone with my roots has attained such a position,” says Ortiz. “As Latinos, we carry a lot on our backs in terms of negative images. This stems from the language barrier and inability to communicate effectively and express ourselves. If other Latinos can do as I have and learn to speak well, they will become more confident. The more fluent one is, the more doors open.”
Ortiz is especially interested in reaching young people. He regularly speaks at high schools and youth organizations, encouraging students to pursue their dreams.
“It’s important that young Latinos know that leadership opportunities are within us,” he says. “Sometimes we just need someone to tell us how far we can get and the direction we should take. It’s all a matter of pulling out our potential, and Toastmasters does a great job with that.”
Ortiz’s brother, Henry Ortiz, is a former Toastmaster and motivational speaker based in Whittier, California. He agrees that reaching young Latinos with a positive message is important.
“Because of lack of education that spans many generations and limited financial resources, many Latinos don’t see a very bright future,” says Henry Otriz. If you educate people at a young age, however, using examples of Latinos in leadership like Hector, they will have a chance at success in life.”
“Since joining Toastmasters, I’ve seen Hector make dramatic improvements in his life, especially in terms of leadership skills. And I think this is just the beginning for him. If he keeps up the momentum, he is on the road to even higher political offices.”
Leadership positions with more authority are definitely in Ortiz’s plans. After he finishes his four-year term with the Irwindale City Council in November 2009, he plans to run for re-election. He has also set his sites on the race for the California Assembly in 2010.
“Some time ago I heard a phrase that I really like and always focus on,” says Ortiz. “Always shoot for the moon; even if you miss you will land among the stars.”
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer and longtime contributor to this magazine. She lives in Southern California. Reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com.
Editor’s Note: Do you have an inspiring story of how the Toastmasters program has helped you? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org.