Nadia Cates: The Power of Remembering Who We Are
Nadia Cates is on a mission. Literally. She and her husband are mission leaders of the Costa Rica San José West Mission. But long before putting on the black name tag she now wears, she felt a desire to create something that would preserve the Hispanic heritage she has grown to love and cherish—a heritage that has given her power and confidence. But on this week’s episode of “All In,” she explains why that was not always the case.
I've felt my ancestors call me. I've felt ideas pour to my mind of ways that I could connect and lift those in our community who are like me.
Nadia’s organization: ellarises.org
Church News article about Nadia: “How one Latter-day Saint woman is seeking to empower Latina youth in her community”
The House that Lars Built feature on Nadia: “Becoming: Nadia Cates”
Sister Elaine S. Dalton’s talk: “Now Is the Time to Arise and Shine!”
1:45- Hiding Heritage
5:12- Recognizing Disconnect in Reconnecting
7:36- Finding the Gospel
9:25- Mexico MTC
14:32- Food Is Everything
19:09- Coming Home Changed
24:06- Arise and Shine
36:00- Turning Hearts to Fathers
39:07- What Does It Mean To Be All In the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Morgan Jones 0:00
Dominican-born fashion designer Oscar de la Renta has been quoted as saying, "My great strength is knowing who I am and where I come from." Nadia Cates hasn't always felt that strength. In fact, there have been portions of her life where she's felt ashamed of her Hispanic heritage.
But when her husband got a job working for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico City, she found herself tapping into her identity in a way she hadn't previously. She discovered the ability our roots have to empower us and motivate us, and she wanted other women to have that same experience. This prompted her to start an organization called Ella Rises, which seeks to inspire Latina youth with hope, confidence and purpose. Nadia believes that understanding our identity creates unity, bridges, cultural differences and fosters an empowering cycle of progress.
Cates and her husband, Shawn, are currently serving as mission leaders in the Costa Rica San Jose West Mission.
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, what does it really mean to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I'm Morgan Jones, and I am so thrilled to have Nadia Cates on the line with me today, Nadia, welcome.
Nadia Cates 1:22
Thank you, Morgan, for having me. It's a pleasure to be here with you.
Morgan Jones 1:26
Well, it's such a pleasure to talk with you. I think back to meeting you once before, and you just have such a light about you. And so I'm excited for other people to be able to have a little taste of that light today.
Nadia, I want to start our conversation by kind of going back to when you were a little girl. You talked about how when you were a young girl, you had an experience that caused you to feel embarrassed by your culture and your heritage. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Nadia Cates 2:06
Yeah, so Morgan, it's only been recent that I began opening up about this experience. And it may seem insignificant to share. But as I've taken time to peel back the layers of that incident, I realized that it has left a lasting impression in my life. And I'm grateful that I've had the chance to share it. Because I know that I'm not the only one in my community, in the Latino community, who's probably experienced moments of feeling marginalized or made fun of like I had when I was younger.
So when I was in elementary school, I was probably in third or fourth grade, my parents, my entire family, and I went to our citizenship ceremony. And my mom and I became US citizens the same day. And it was a celebratory day for our family. And we we went, we participated in the ceremony, and I came back to school a little bit late. And when I walked into the classroom, and the classmates started asking about where I'd been and what I'd done. I excitedly shared with them where I had just participated in and how I was so happy. And I was so excited to share with them what I'd experienced. But I didn't realize that I was soon going to be made fun of like, it didn't take long, a few seconds before someone started making derogatory comments about where I was from about being Mexican.
And like I said, this celebratory moment, I quickly began hiding it. I quickly didn't want to share about it. And it's been recent that I've looked back and tried to find like pivotal moments in my youth where my heritage was something that I was, you know, as I've peeled back, what it is that makes me who I am. This is one of the stories and moments that popped up. And so I realized it was a significant moment in my youth.
And, anyway, I'm grateful to share it even though it is easier now, but it was harder before.
Morgan Jones 4:38
Yeah, well, and I think that's something you know, regardless of where you come from, I think there can be things that we are embarrassed of, or things that are like little insecurities that that stem from where we come from, and I think there's great power in owning that. And also coming to appreciate where we come from and taking pride in that. And we're going to talk a lot about that today.
So after that experience, do you feel like you felt pretty disconnected from your heritage and your culture? Or what was that like from then on? Because you were really young at that time, right?
Nadia Cates 5:25
So I wouldn't say that I've felt disconnected. In fact, I'd say that the area that I grew up in—I grew up in San Diego, California—was very close to the border. And I grew up with a large family. We had close ties to our family and our heritage and culture was part of our gatherings. And so I didn't realize that I had been disconnected until I reconnected.
When I graduated from high school, I moved to Utah. And that was around 2003. And during that time, there was a lot of violence at the border. There was a lot of violence related to the drug cartels and just a lot of commotion.
And most of the news that I would receive about my, you know, homeland was negative news. And it started to spark this fear inside of me. And it was, now that I look back, I realized that I was trying to distance myself from that. I didn't know how to navigate the conversations that sparked with relation to my my country of origin. And it was just an interesting dynamic for me.
And, you know, the reality is that border town that kept popping up in the news stations, that was my border. I am Nadia Cates, Nadia Aguilar Cates, de la Frontera, des de juan San Diego. I am from the border. And that negative news was causing me to distance myself, and I was avoiding it altogether.
Morgan Jones 7:35
Your family, what is the history of your family as it relates to the Church? How did your family come into the gospel? I'd love to know that.
Nadia Cates 7:48
Yeah, that's a valid question. And I'm grateful that you think about asking this, because I think we can come back to it a little bit later too when I mention, I want to mention, as we talk about, you know, families migrating to the United States, our family was one of those.
My parents immigrated to the United States when I was 3 years old. So I was born in Mexico, but my sisters were born in the US. And I grew up, you know, crossing the border on the weekends because we'd go visit family, and then in Mexico, and then come back to the States. It was just part of our routine.
And we weren't members of the Church when I was young. But when, when I was about 9 years old, my father saw an advertisement on the television about a video about families. And he requested a copy of that video, and the missionaries tagged along with that video. They joined the party. And it was shortly after that, that our family joined the Church. So I was about 9 years old when that happened.
And the Church has been, the gospel of Jesus Christ has been a part of our family since then.
Morgan Jones 9:16
That's so cool. And it's so cool that now you have the chance to work with missionaries that then will do the same thing for other families.
Okay, so then, you know, we talked about those things where maybe it was causing you to feel like you didn't know how to navigate those things that were happening at the border and your homeland, and also be in the present. And I think that that's, again, I think it's interesting because we're talking about these things, and we're talking about obviously very Hispanic culture things, but I think all of these things can apply to various situations.
So then fast forward and your husband got a job as director of the Mexico MTC and you two were so young, I feel like when this happened. And the Mexico MTC was just opening, what was your reaction to his getting that job? And how was that experience for you?
Nadia Cates 10:21
Shawn and I, we were so excited. I remember he came home and he just wanted to know like, "What do you think about this? This is an opportunity that might be presented to us. And we can apply to it and try to see if I'll be selected as a person who would go to Mexico."
And I had no like reservations. We had always dreamt of the possibility of living in a Spanish-speaking country. But for different circumstances, it just didn't seem like it would ever come true. And this opportunity was just too good to be true. It was amazing. And we hopped on, we dove in and did not look back.
Now, to be honest, though, there was a lot of premeditating that went into it. It aligned with our goals. And so it was easy to say yes to the opportunity. But clearly there were factors to consider.
For example, at the time I was, when we would arrive to Mexico, I would be eight months pregnant. So we flew into Mexico, and I was eight months pregnant with my third son. And we just trusted that the Lord would take care of us and our needs and our baby. And He did he really did. And it just all worked out.
Morgan Jones 11:58
Well, I have to ask you, so I had mission companions that were part of the first group that was there at the Mexico MTC. And they their experience sounded a lot different than my experience in the Provo MTC. And so I'm sure when you're starting the very beginning of a new MTC, that has to be a challenging experience.
Nadia Cates 12:25
It was. We arrived, the Benemérito, that was the boarding school that the Church, was running in Mexico City. And we got there the final week of school. And I mean, the school had been around for decades and many great leaders came from the Benemérito de las Americas, many great leaders in the Church. And it was just a really sad time to be arriving. But I'm grateful for that because it helped me see how important Benemérito was to to our people.
And, of course, literally overnight, my husband and his team, we came in with teachers from the Provo MTC with a few key team members to be on Shawn's team to help with that transition because it literally meant turning facility from one use to a completely new purpose. And it took a long time for us to work out the kinks. I fortunately got to just enjoy it from a completely different angle because I was I'm a stay-at-home mom and but we got to live on campus. My children chased the sisters (missionaries) with their Nerf guns and water guns. It was a delight. It will always be one of those highlights of our life.
In fact, when prior to us arriving, and prior to us knowing we would be there, Shawn went down to tour the space and he said he stood there in one of the halls and in that moment knew that the Benemérito would be would play a huge role in our lives. We just didn't know what and sure enough it did.
Morgan Jones 14:30
That's so cool. That's awesome. So while you were there, and I'm very jealous of this. You went to a Mexican culinary school. And you said it was there that you started to kind of feel this stronger connection to your heritage. How did you begin to recognize that in yourself, that reconnecting, and what was it about the Mexican cooking that sparked that for you?
Nadia Cates 15:00
Well, why don't we start with the last part of your question.
Food is everything, right? I love food, not for everyone, but I love food. So I did study in a Mexican culinary and history institute in Mexico City. And one of my maestros, he used to say that an immigrant can forget or modify his social customs, learn a new language, even change religion, but she or he will never forget the flavors of the food that they grew up with.
Each dish that I made in that school was connecting me to my ancestors and to my family. I grew up making tamales with my with my mom and my sisters. It was a family ritual and tradition. And I'm sure we added more work to my mom's load when we'd make the tamales, but it was a beautiful memory.
And during culinary school, I got to learn how to make these recipes that I had grown up eating, and that I grew up watching my grandmother prepare. But I was too young to learn myself at that time. Fast forward to that period. My grandmother has passed away since then, there's no way for me to ask her, "How do I make the sope?" Or, "How do I make pozole?" It's gone. And so when I saw the opportunity to study at this school, I dove right in.
It'll be a theme, a recurring theme here, Morgan, I dove right in. And every Saturday, I would hop on a taxi and go to downtown, like the historic center of Mexico City, and the school was in an old historic home. But it was magical. And if I could add one more thing, I remember being there and distinctly feeling the change happening within me. And the more I experienced Mexico, not only in the classroom but outside when we would visit families, when we would connect with the people, and just visit. Be in the land and visit the historic sites. I noticed a change taking place in my heart. And it reminds me of Malachi's words of the heart of the children turning to their fathers, and I saw that happen. I think I'm seeing it more so now that I reflect on it. But it's clear to me that it did take place.
Morgan Jones 17:57
Right. Well and I I have to tell you, sopes were my favorite food on my mission and you can't get them anywhere. People don't sell sopes and I'm like, "What the heck? Give me more sopes."
Nadia Cates 18:13
Where did you serve?
Morgan Jones 18:15
I served in Kennewick, Washington, Spanish speaking.
Nadia Cates 18:18
Morgan Jones 18:20
It was it was so fun. And there's so much good food.
Nadia Cates 18:25
Morgan Jones 18:26
I'm always like, going on my mission—this is gonna sound dumb, probably. But I thought like, "Everyone at dinner would feed us tacos or enchiladas or something." But they are so many different kinds of Hispanic food. And there was this lady that I that we taught that would make this mushroom chicken. And oh my goodness, it was so, so good. And I still craved that sometimes and you cannot get that at a Mexican restaurant.
Nadia Cates 18:57
I know. You just need to go back. I'd go back, Morgan.
Morgan Jones 19:01
I do. I do. I need to like show up on on her doorstep, Natalia's doorstep and ask her for that.
So as you start to like feel this reconnection, how did you start to see that making a change in you as a person, Nadia?
Nadia Cates 19:23
If you were to ask the people closest to me, they would tell you that the Nadia that left to Mexico was a different Nadia than the one who came back.
I know that my identity changed. Not changed, because I've always been, you know, the same person. I think I've seen that my identity was strengthened. My identity and who I am, not just spiritually but also culturally.
And there's a quote by an author. Her name is Gloria Anzaldúa. And when I read it for the first time, I was like, "This is me. This is exactly what I'm experiencing." She says, "Indigenous blood runs through my veins." And I, I was recognizing that like, as I was connecting—through food and through story to my culture in Mexico—I was recognizing that I was a part of this story of the entire Mexican history that's taken place for centuries. So, "Indigenous blood runs through my veins. It calls me, and I honor it." What I once saw as disadvantages, clearly defines me, strengthens and empowers me.
I've felt my ancestors call me. I've felt ideas pour to my mind of ways that I could connect and lift those in our community who are like me, or who have a similar story like mine. And so that connection has been so sacred to me, and I think it will be an ongoing journey during my life.
Morgan Jones 21:29
I think that I think that's a powerful thought. And so significant, you know, I think, especially as members of the Church, we understand that we are connected to the people that came before us, and that there's a relationship there that can bless our lives and tapping into that I think is crucial.
Nadia, what would you say are your favorite things about Hispanic culture, especially as it relates to your experience within the Church?
Nadia Cates 22:04
Okay, so I have a couple things. First, I would start with la familia. La familia is central to God's plan, and it is central to Hispanic culture. Like I mentioned earlier, I grew up with a large family. I grew up in a large family, lots of cousins, lots of tias (aunts) and tios (uncles). And it's always a feast when we gather, and it's still a feast.
And going along with that I, you know, I know that we are descendants of great prophets from the Book of Mormon. And I think that is one of the pieces that has resonated with me and a way that I see my heritage colliding and linking with my cultural heritage, linking with my divine heritage. I know that we are descendants of Lehi, Nephi, and other great prophets and families of the Book of Mormon. And that is powerful.
Morgan Jones 23:20
Absolutely, so powerful. I kind of get chills when you say that. And I love the idea of seeing looking for the ways that cultural heritage blends together with divine heritage.
And you mentioned earlier, you know, that you always had a sense of your identity, but that sense of identity became so much stronger. And I think that that's something that we underestimate is the power of having a strong sense of our divine identity and how much that can change our world and our lives when we when we understand that.
Nadia Cates 23:59
I so totally agree. I completely agree.
Morgan Jones 24:03
Well, I want to talk about now kind of shifting to how you have tried to help other people have the same experience that you've had. And so you started something called Ella Rises, and you've talked about how this idea you feel like was inspired of the Lord. Can you tell me a little bit about the experience that sparked Ella Rises?
Nadia Cates 24:33
Yes, I'd love to. I have a couple thoughts come to my mind and one is that I created a folder in my notes tab in about 2017 called Ella Rises. And it was first inspired by the concept of lift. I loved learning about flight, learning about lifting and being elevated. And, in fact, there's this quote by Wilbur Wright. And he says, "No bird soars in a calm."
And I would say that Ella Rises stemmed during a difficult time in my life when I was dealing with anxiety. And it was severely affecting me in my parenting and in my role as a mother. And the challenges I was facing, they often felt like more than I could bear. And this concept of rising above them fascinated me. I knew that I could, but I knew that it wouldn't happen. Or I knew that I could with the Lord's help. I think that for those who are not members of our Church, of course they can rise too, you know, but we have the gospel in our lives, and we can do it with God.
In 2018, I recorded some thoughts in that same folder inspired by Sister Elaine S. Dalton's talk titled, "Now Is the Time to Arise and Shine." She used the word, "arise" numerous times in that talk. And it really struck me. I remember while I recorded that, it was so closely tied to Ella Rises. And I did not know then whether Ella Rises was for me or for someone else, but I knew that rising, letting go of the chains that hold us back and turning to the Lord for guidance and for strength, belonged here in Ella Rises.
Fast forward to most recently, I was sitting in a meeting and a setting with a lot of women. And we got to hear from Sister Eubank. During that moment, she had a time where she was answering some questions. And one of the questions that popped up was with regards to serving people and serving women in Relief Societies across the globe. And she replied with a different set of questions. She said, "What are you doing in your communities? How are you serving the women in your neighborhood? And in your ward? How are you doing with your ministering?" And that really struck me.
For some time I had been trying to stay connected to my heritage, and to serve women in Mexico. And though that will continue to be a mission of mine, I realized in that moment, in that meeting, that I needed to turn my energy in a different direction.
And Ella Rises—the purpose of focusing this energy to lift the Latino young women in my community—was born.
Morgan Jones 28:27
And I love this idea so much. I love that, and I love that you did it in Utah. I love that you started it right in your own community. And the idea that, you know, I think we sometimes feel like we have to go on some kind of humanitarian trip to make a difference and to connect to, you know, the places, especially in your case, that you would have to like go back to Mexico and make that connection. But that instead you focused on the helping people do it right where they are. And I think that there's power in that.
One of your goals of Ella Rises is to help participants reconnect with their cultural and divine heritage. We've talked a little bit about what that means to you, but in the context of Ella Rises, what does that mean to you? And also, what does it look like in practice?
Nadia Cates 29:28
In love that. Well, one of the one of the aspects and initiatives that we are offering our participants is the opportunity to create, to make art, and to take art classes from Latinas in the community, or Latina artists that we can connect them with.
And creating, it goes hand in hand with the Lord's plan. We are co-creators with Him. I've seen how, as we take the time to create—whether it's by writing, whether it's by playing an instrument, or, you know, literally, like by painting—the Lord connects with us. We are co-creating with Him.
Our program is not a religious program. So we are navigating this line of trying to be open to invite girls from all backgrounds to participate. And so one of the ways that we share about our divine heritage and lineages is just by sharing with them that they are light. That they there is a light within them. And they have everything within their power to own it, and to beam it.
Morgan Jones 31:16
So I want to hear a little bit about, you know, when we talk about choosing to start it in Utah, I'd love to know what the response has been like and how you have seen this blessing girls lives?
Nadia Cates 31:34
Thank you for asking that. Well, to start off, I was working on setting things up for Ella Rises beginning in 2020. And, you know, moving into 2021, I knew I needed support and it's been amazing to see how the hand of the Lord continues to be involved. He's been helping me. Connecting me with the right people, the right organizations, to help Ella Rises forward. Everytime we open registration for Ella R
ises, we have a flood of 200-plus girls register. And we usually have about a 50% attendance rate, but one of the great things about our organization is we offer virtual and in-person gatherings. So during the pandemic, this really has welcomed everyone, everywhere and the girls really love it.
And you know, round one in 2020, there were definitely things that I wanted to improve. And we heard from the girls, took their feedback, and revised some things. And 2021 was created with more activities, more consistency. And it's just an ongoing program for the whole year. Something that they can rely on to be there in their lives. They can rely on us to be there in their lives.
Our team consists of Latina women who are also immigrants, or who are who are connected to, you know, to the same heritage as these girls. And it lends itself to be a safer space for them to join where they could open up about things and experiences that they deal with that we can relate to.
So I'm just super grateful that I can be here with you today. I'm far away from Provo right now and it breaks my heart to not be with my team and the girls in Provo.
And particularly this week kicks off Hispanic Heritage Month and our girls are were selected to paint a mural at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. And they're there right now. They're there today and tomorrow and possibly next week. painting this mural inspired by by Ella Rises.
And I'm trusting our Heavenly Father with the program and He's put the right people in our path to help move it forward. And one of those I would just say, United Way stepped in to help cover operation costs. And with that alone, we have the ability to continue focusing on the girls while I'm away.
We are a young organization, but the girls have responded and they want to be a part of this and it's worth it to us to keep it moving forward without me. Because at the end of the day, this isn't about me, this isn't about my team. This isn't about United Way. This is about the Latino young women in our community, who clearly are seeking support, guidance, whose parents are clearly seeking that too. And sometimes they there is no clear path for them to follow. And we are helping provide that for them.
Morgan Jones 35:58
Nadia, let me ask you this, what would you say changes in a young woman when they start to experience that turning of their hearts to their fathers?
Nadia Cates 36:15
Well, I would hope that there is a deeper love and appreciation for their ancestors. I'm going to be honest, like some of the youth that are participating in our program, they may not come from stable homes, or from supportive households. So what would that look like for a child you know, who's reconnecting with their heritage, but is conflicted with embracing certain parts of what make them who they are?
I think it would be a, I think it is a challenging journey to embrace your heritage for some people. I think it's challenging for some, and I think it could be a challenge for some of our youth. But at the same time, we've we learned that we don't just come from that one apple, we come from that whole tree. And that's something that is powerful.
The girls, for example, like our participants, may come from one family, but they also are connected to all of the Ella Rises participants. So if, for example, one of our girls is struggling is dealing with hardships that none of us can come in and relieve her from, then at least we are there to provide a community to support her in that journey, in her journey of transitioning from a child to an adolescent to an adult.
Morgan Jones 38:15
Nadia, first, I just want to say thank you so much. I think that you are such a great example of taking the initiative of following promptings and of trying to make a difference. And I think that for all of those listening, regardless of where you come from and what your background is and what's your skill set, is there something that we can all do to pitch in? And it may not be starting an organization, it may be just contributing to some kind of organization, but I think that there is so much good to be done. And that as we seek the Lord's guidance in where we could best be used or how he could best use us that He will, He'll guide and direct our path.
My last question for you Nadia is what does it mean to you to be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Nadia Cates 39:14To be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ, for me, means to anchor my life, my will to Jesus Christ. And I love navigating this life with Him by my side.
I love the words in one of Nathan Pacheco's song where he says, "I am his, and he is mine." And I would add, "And I am His, and He is mine, and we arise together."
Morgan Jones 39:47
It's beautiful. Nadia, thank you so much, again, for just sharing your goodness and light with us and good luck in Costa Rica.
Nadia Cates 39:56
Thank you, Morgan. Have a wonderful day and good luck with all the interviews you have coming.
Morgan Jones 40:01
We are so grateful to Nadia Cates for joining us on today's episode. You can learn more about Ella Rises by visiting ellarises.org. We have some exciting news and another great episode coming at you next week so join us then. And in the meantime, I hope you have a wonderful week. Thanks so much for listening.