Tessa recently began taking ballet Folkorico and Flameno classes at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, discovering a passion for dance that brings her great joy and fulfillment. Imagery courtesy of Tessa Benavides.
Follow your heart, but use your head.
To answer this question, I first have to describe my grandma Minnie (my maternal grandmother). She and my grandfather divorced the same year I was born so I never knew her as a married woman, but instead I knew her as an independent force to be reckoned with who took so much pride in never having to depend on anyone but herself. She made her own living selling Avon products and then later working for a telemarketing company; most importantly, she was the first woman I saw wear a pant suit and pumps.
When I landed my first internship, it was Grandma Minnie who took me shopping for my very first pant suit. She sat in the store with me imparting knowledge that would stay with me forever: you need at least one pair of black and one pair of navy pants; get a black jacket and then a grey one; once you have these essentials, all you need is a set of shirts and then you just mix and match. My mom, who wore the uniform of a U.S. postal employee for 33 years, sat with us and stared at me with pride in her eyes saying, “I punch a clock at a job that works me to the bone so that my girls could wear clothes like this and carve spaces for themselves as career women.”
That shopping trip changed my life, and to this day I strive to make both of these women proud of me. I saw myself not only in those clothes, but through the eyes of my mom and my grandma. When I feel unsure of myself as I navigate my professional career, I just remember what I saw that day when I looked in the mirror: a reflection of confidence built on the strength and sacrifice of the strong women who have come before me.
Tessa (middle) with her mother Laura (left), and sister Lauren (right), on the day she graduated with her Master’s degree. After the loss of her father in 2009, Tessa, her mother and her sister have become an inseparable trio.
What makes you unique in your industry?
I always strive to be a proud testament of where I was born and raised. I am a proud Tejana who was raised on San Antonio’s southwest side. When I was in high school and Toyota announced the building of their production plant in San Antonio, a newspaper reporter wrote an article about the area of town that would be impacted by Toyota’s investment, the southwest area of the city. The reporter chose to start the article by describing a small convenience store located near Southwest High School that had a petting zoo attached to it where visitors could see a real, live buffalo and pet “The Zeedonk” (a hybrid of a donkey and zebra).
I was proud to call my neighborhood, “my side of town,” home. When I read this article, I was offended. The reporter had failed to talk about all of the positive, wonderful, beautiful, unique qualities of our community. I picked up a pen and wrote a passionate letter to the editor describing my community from my eyes, the eyes of a young woman growing up in an area that offered more than some strange animals at a petting zoo.
After the article published, I felt like I had become a “mini celebrity.” Teachers posted the article in classrooms and my peers wanted me to autograph their copies. My parents, always there to ensure I was hyper-aware of my own ego, reminded me that all of the fanfare was not about me. It was about our community, because I had chosen to speak up and use my voice to amplify the voices around me. My parents pointed out that I was privileged to have made a connection at the local newspaper and taught me that whenever I had such privileges to be sure I was not seeking a spotlight for myself, but rather to see such opportunities as an obligation to speak up for causes bigger than myself.
To this day, I feel this same obligation. My work and my place in my industry are spaces where I am privileged to have a voice, and the avenues to make an impact in San Antonio. I strive to be a positive reflection of my community and use any platform available to speak up as an advocate for our community.
Tessa’s nuclear family is almost all women including (left to right) her sister’s partner Catie, her sister, her mother, and her husband, Gary.
What is one way you hope to impact your community in the future, either personally or professionally?
I hope to impact my community in a way that pays homage to my paternal uncle, Father Albert Benavides. There is a small park on the west side of San Antonio named Benavides Park in his honor. He was an integral leader in that community and led everyday citizens through initiatives like COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service) to empower them to speak up and advocate for themselves.
As a Catholic priest he was able to leverage his position of power to be a source of direct empowerment for his parishioners. Rather than always lending his own voice to speak up for community issues to members of City Council or even the Mayor, he brought resources to his parishioners to empower them to have the confidence and skills to advocate for themselves.
I try to emulate my late uncle’s values such as community empowerment, giving voices to the voiceless and servant leadership. I want to impact my community in a way that is not just for a single moment but rather in a way that the impact continues to be felt for generations. If I could one day say that I too impacted my community by empowering those who feel they lack the ability to find a stage to raise their voices, I would feel that I was able to carry on my uncle’s legacy.
I believe that education is our society’s great equalizer…except right now, because it is one of the most inequitable spaces in San Antonio. I hope to one day be a part of making an impact working toward creating equity within San Antonio’s education systems.
Tessa (baby) with her maternal grandmother Herminia (left), and great-grandmother Rafaela (right)
If you could sit down with any woman in the world–either from history or who is currently living–who would that be and what would you discuss with her?
My maternal great–grandmother, Rafaela Sanchez, passed away before I was able to hold coherent conversations with her, but her legacy is a part of the work ethic I carry with me daily. She worked for Finck Cigars for 75 years, and there is even a newspaper article to prove it. During a time when women were told by society that their only place was in the home, my great–grandmother supported her family as the head of her household, both as a homemaker and as a wage earner.
I would be fascinated to have a conversation with her about the times she lived through and the major societal shifts she was able to witness. I would take the opportunity to discuss what her experiences were as a wife with an unconventional husband who was not always a reliable source of support for her. I would also love to know how she sees the women in her family that have learned from her example—women who are fiercely independent—and I would be intrigued to ask my great-grandmother how she feels about our family becoming quite matriarchal.
I look at the generations of women in my family who have carried this torch set forth by Rafaela (and maybe even by her mother—yet another question I would love to ask her) as examples of how women are just pillars of strength, of how motherhood takes courage, grit and resilience and how there is nothing that a woman cannot accomplish on her own, for herself and for the betterment of her family and her community.