Education All-Stars: Tamara Mena lives the American dream

VOXXI is dedicated to recognizing those working in the field of education for making a difference and those students setting the example for our future…
Education All-Stars: Tamara Mena lives the American dream

Tamara Mena is a motivational speaker, survivor and eternal optimist despite an accident that left her paralyzed. (Credit: Tamara Mena)

VOXXI is dedicated to recognizing those working in the field of education for making a difference and those students setting the example for our future generation.

So often in life it’s not the achievements but challenges that define one’s character. That’s what comes to mind when hearing the story of Mexican immigrant Tamara Mena, who at age 19 was in a horrific car accident that killed her boyfriend and left her paralyzed.

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Today, Mena has many titles associated with her name – motivational speaker, host, spokesperson, ambassador, model, survivor and eternal optimist. Perhaps it’s the latter two – intrinsically tied together – that truly epitomize who Mena really is: a role model we can all look up to.

“Being a role model is a responsibility but it’s also an honor,” Mena told VOXXI. “After my accident, I really believe you decide what to make of your life, you decide what you’re going to do with it regardless of the circumstances. I knew once I survived the accident that I was going to make something of myself, whatever opportunity that was.”

Mena stresses that opportunity includes plenty of closed doors, which require persistence. She said basically you keep knocking until just one door opens. From there, you knock even harder and see what happens.

Going to school in the US, a new challenge 

At 13 years old, Mena’s family immigrated from Mexico to Modesto, Calif. to be closer to her ailing grandfather. While others in her situation might feel daunted about not only changing schools, but countries, Mena approached her studies with “gusto”

tamara mena story

Tamara Mena is the biggest example of survival. (Facebook tamara Mena/Verschelden Photography)

Her experience with attending school in America is actually a comment on how immigrants are collectively treated when they arrive here. Initially, Mena was put into ESL classes.

“It’s funny, I spoke pretty perfect English because I went to a bilingual school in Mexico,” Mena said. “Right away my teachers advocated for me. They said, ‘This kid is translating for everyone and she should be in college prep.’ In biology, because I took science in a bilingual school, I knew the scientific terms better than the translators.”

After graduating from high school, Mena moved to San Diego, working at a hotel while studying hotel management at San Diego State University. Not only was she on her own, but she was modeling too. In a sense, Mena was living the American dream.

“I still was a long way from feeling like I had it, but I think I was starting to experience part of it,” Mena said. “It was hard – I only had one day off a week between school and work – but I felt so proud coming into my apartment.

“Being born and raised in Mexico, I was not just the youngest, but one of the few at that point to actually become independent. That made me feel like a superwoman, unstoppable.”

The accident

Mena’s accident took place just three months after moving to San Diego. In fact, she said the saddest day of her tragedy was when she flew home to Santa Clara for rehab and to be closer to family.

“I felt like they were robbing me of my dreams,” said Mena, who suffered a broken spinal cord.

Invariably, such life-changing tragedies often find the victim wallowing in their pain until one day they realize they need to live. For a go-getter like Mena, she said it took roughly a month of mourning the death of her boyfriend and coming to terms with her situation before she found her inner strength and drive.

“My aunt said to me, ‘Just remember, you’re not a victim. You’re a survivor,’” Mena said. “I remember at that moment, in my mind, I committed myself to living my life that way. I’ll never forget that moment.”

From there, Mena put her focus on college. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in communications and public relations from California State University Stanislaus. Not only was she the first graduate in a wheelchair to give a commencement speech but since then she has been invited as a keynote speaker to many schools, events and highly prestigious conferences such as the G-20 Summit and Ciudad de las Ideas.

Living her dream

Today, she represents Red Bull’s Wings for Life Foundation and is an Ekso Bionics Ambassador The latter involves her proudly walking using an innovative exoskeleton suit.

Not only does she still model, but last year she broke barriers competing in the popular beauty pageant “Nuestra Belleza Latina.” When asked what people can take away from her story, Mena said overcoming adversities is just one of the inspirations.

“Hopefully with my story, the bigger picture will always be if she can go through something like that, so can I,” Mena said. “But just in general, just try to take opportunities and decide to live the life you want to live.”

SEE ALSO:5 inspirational Latinas in community service in the U.S.