Editor’s Note: This article is published specifically today in honor of National Women’s Equality Day.
Seven-year old Irene Bustamante-Adams arose and dressed at 3:00 a.m. It wouldn’t do to be late for work and the shift started at 4:00 a.m. “The goal was always to get as much done as you could before the sun rose because the heat slowed you down,” she says, recalling the days she spent working the agricultural fields of California. “All of us worked the fields – my parents, my brothers and my sisters. We worked tomatoes, oranges, grapes; whatever the crop was. This was survival and we all had to help.”
Born in the small farming community of Hanford, California, Assemblywoman Irene Bustamante-Adams (AD 42) is the second of five children born to poor, migrant farm working parents. She and her siblings began working with their parents at about the age of six and continued doing so all the way through high school. “We worked every day during the summer and on the weekends when school was in session,” she says. “It was hard work but it wasn’t burdensome. It’s just the life we knew.”
Sixteen years later at the age of 23 she arrived in Las Vegas, never dreaming it would be a permanent move nor having aspirations of political life. How then, did this woman go from working the farm fields in California to becoming one of Nevada’s most respected freshmen legislators?
Her father emigrated from Mexico to the United States in the early ‘60s. Work took him to New Mexico where he met the woman who would become his wife. He was 32, she was 17. Together they worked their way across the agricultural communities of the southwest, toiling under the hot sun or in frosty fields before the break of day, in New Mexico and Arizona, finally settling in California. There they had their children, three daughters and two sons.
In the fields her father was the foreman. Although in charge of the entire crew, his children were not treated any differently than the other workers. If anything, they had to set the standard for everyone else.
She was physically strong, able to do more and work longer before getting tired. Recalling a large grape field the family was working one summer, the rows seemed to stretch forever. Determined to complete an entire row by herself and do it well, she succeeded and was resting when her father asked her why she was sitting. Rather than being finished as she presumed she was, he told her that she had been given the gift of physical strength and it was her responsibility to help those who did not have such gifts.
She went back and helped the others finish their work. It was a lesson in responsibility and leadership that she has carried with her ever since.
Bustamante-Adams’ siblings also appreciated their sister’s ability to state a position and make a case for something she wanted. “If we wanted something, my brothers and sisters sent me in to ask our parents because I was usually able to persuade them,” Bustamante-Adams says with a laugh.
The family moved to Kerman California where Bustamante-Adams went to high school. At the age of 15, she put her negotiating skills to work and applied for the Summer Youth Employment Program. She was accepted and began working in an air conditioned environment for the first time in her life. Her job was scraping gum off the bottom of desks in the classrooms.
It is an understatement to say that Bustamante-Adams knows what hard labor is like. Yet for a child who didn’t spend her summers sleeping until noon or going to the movies/ shopping mall with her friends, she sounds remarkably appreciative of those years.
“My parents instilled in me a strong work ethic that became the guiding principle of every professional and personal decision I’ve ever made. They were excellent role models who taught me the importance of always doing my best and using my gifts to serve others.” ~ Irene Bustamante-Adams
It was in the fields that Bustamante-Adams learned about her own skills, the value of a hard day’s work and loyalty to family, faith, and community. It was in the family that Bustamante-Adams learned about the importance of listening and negotiating in order to effectively solve problems. And it was in the classroom that she learned she wanted to put all those skills to work in helping others.
COLLEGE AND CAREER
After high school she attended California State University at Fresno on scholarship where she obtained her Bachelor of Science in business administration. College gave her both an education and her first experiences with racism and discrimination. Growing up in an agricultural community where everyone was “just like me,” she was shocked by the discrimination she encountered. Fortunately, she had good support from university staff and they mentored her on how to make her college career successful.
After the scholarship money ran out, Bustamante-Adams went to work as a student assistant for the university’s head football coach. She compiled statistics on all the plays that were run, performed general administrative tasks and helped recruit players. “I learned a LOT about football there,” she laughs “and I also learned that I loved it.” She remains a loyal football fan and proud Fresno State Bulldog to this day. When she graduated, the team coaches gave her enough money to live on for a few months while she looked for work and settled in Las Vegas for graduate school.
But after arriving in Las Vegas in 1991, life took a turn Bustamante-Adams did not foresee. She was recruited by MGM Resorts International and ended up working there in various executive capacities for eighteen years. School would wait.
During her tenure she served as Director of Construction Diversity for CityCenter, where she ensured that a diverse labor force was utilized on the project. In order to accomplish this, she went into the communities, talked with women, minorities and the disabled, all traditionally underserved workers, and recruited them to compete for the jobs. She also played an instrumental role in launching the company’s corporate diversity program, which made MGM Resorts International a leader among other Fortune 500 companies committed to diversity. That program recruited 14,000 workers from culturally diverse populations.
She finally got her Executive Master of Business Administration degree in 2007. Not only did she achieve what she originally set out to do, but she was the first Latina ever to graduate from UNLV’s EMBA program. She then left the MGM and opened her own small business consulting firm.
Tragedy struck in 2009 when her younger brother was killed in an accident. As the loss of a loved one will do, his death reminded Bustamante-Adams of the fragility of life and gave her cause to reflect on her own life. Although she was happy doing what she was doing, her brother’s death made her question whether there was anything she hadn’t done yet that she wanted to. Remembering her brother for his adventurous spirit and willingness to try new things, she says his death inspired her to leave corporate life for public service. Her desire had always been to help people. She decided to re-channel that effort into becoming an elected representative for the people.
Her timing was perfect. The state was facing some severe problems and many of Nevada’s senior legislators were facing term limits. After receiving the endorsement of the Assembly Caucus she officially declared her candidacy for Nevada Assembly.
Midway through her campaign, a friend suggested she enroll in the Emerge Nevada training program for Democratic women interested in running for public office. Concerned about being stretched too thin (not only was her campaign already underway but she was caring for her two daughters by herself while her husband was serving in Afghanistan) she went ahead and interviewed for the training. She says it was the right decision.
Emerge wanted me to succeed and helped me segue into public life. In corporate America you learn to put on your corporate face. Emerge taught me how to be comfortable with myself and show my real face to the public and community at large. ~ Irene Bustamante-Adams
Once again, family and friends pulled together for a common goal. Her husband returned home after sustaining injuries in combat yet still helped with her campaign. He couldn’t walk, so he drove instead. Her daughters helped. Her friends helped. Her Emerge mentors helped. Her constituents rallied around her. And she won.
Mrs. Bustamante-Adams just completed her first legislative session where she served as the vice chair of the Assembly Government Affairs Committee. She says she is most proud of sponsoring legislation that provides certain protections for children and parents of divorcing or divorced military families when one or more member is deployed. In those cases, AB 313 provides exemptions and protections from customary decisions around custody issues, visitation rights, child support, etc. The bill passed and the law becomes effective October 1st.
Back from session she continues to be active in the community at both local and national levels, serving on the boards and councils of several organizations including the Latin Chamber of Commerce, Spring Mountain Conservancy and Organizations of Chinese Americans.
She is the recipient of many prestigious awards, including the “Señoras of Excellence“ Community Service Award by the Latin Chamber of Commerce; “Community Relations Specialist of the Year” by the Nevada Minority Business Council; and the “Rising Star Award” by the National Association of Women Business Owners – Southern Nevada Chapter. She also remains active with the Emerge Nevada organization and recommends other women apply for the program. A quick check shows that the organization is currently recruiting for its class of 2012.
Earlier this month, Bustamante-Adams was named a “Trailblazer” by the national Emerge America organization. She travels to San Francisco in October to receive the award at a fete honoring her and others. When asked about the honor she said, “Never did I imagine that one day I would be elected to public office. And yet, in hindsight, being a part of public policy making is just an extension of what I’ve been striving for my entire life.”
Her parents still live in Kerman California to this day. All five of the Bustamante children went to college and three achieved master degrees, quite an accomplishment for a “poor, working migrant family.” More than thirty years after his daughter was born, her father became a U.S. citizen – after his own children were grown and educated.
Asked if she will run for re-election, she says, “Absolutely!” Her passion is still in business development and she wants to use her skills to help the state recover economically and grow jobs. She has already turned down offers to return to the corporate environment because she still has much to give to the public sector.
One of the things I admire most about our state is the beauty of creating something from nothing. We started out in the middle of the desert. It’s that kind of innovation that makes us unique. It’s also that kind of strength that makes us indestructible, no matter what we have to go through. ~ Irene Bustamante-Adams
She credits her faith and her family for getting through some tough times. Mrs. Bustamante-Adams is married to Army Specialist Brad Adams who is now home after completing three tours of duty in Afghanistan. They are raising two daughters, neither of whom have any political aspirations.
But then, neither did their mother when she was their age.