Maria Contreras-Sweet steps deftly across wet green metal grids at 7-Up/RC Bottling Co. of Southern California. Wearing 2 1/2-inch heels, a white hair net and safety goggles, she helps conduct a tour through the boom-box-loud plant where soda bottles and cans whiz by like toy trains.
Amazingly, Contreras-Sweet does not once lose her footing and sink through the grid.
But then sidestepping obstacles is her particular talent. She came here at age 5 from Guadalajara with her mother and five siblings and today, at 39, is 7-Up's vice president for public affairs and an emerging force on the political scene, particularly among sister Latinas.
She has garnered seats on the boards of RLA (formerly known as Rebuild L.A.) and Loyola Marymount University, among other institutions, and in 1991 became a member of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, a bipartisan task force charged with studying and making recommendations on the advancement of women and minorities in American business. She officially cracked the ceiling at 30 by landing her current position at 7-Up. Yet Contreras-Sweet dates her real breakthrough to four years later, when she joined the board of the multibillion-dollar Blue Cross of California.
She is also the founding president of HOPE--Hispanas Organized for Political Equality--which promotes Latina issues through nonprofit, advocacy and educational wings, and with HOPE PAC, a political action committee.
"I'm a woman of different moods, just like many of us are," Contreras-Sweet says, explaining the birth of HOPE six years ago. "One day I could be angry about something that's in my grocery store and I want to do something about it; another day, the environment. But I just felt that the common denominator is political involvement.
"So I'm sitting here," she recalls from her 7-Up office in Vernon, "saying, 'I'm a Latina. I've been blessed in my life. I'm happily married. I have great kids. I have a company that really supports my work, and I work well. What can I do to put it all together? I wanted to see a Latina organization thrive because Latinas are really low in terms of income, attainment of education, glass ceiling. . . ."
In May, HOPE sponsored Latina Action Day, which brought 260 women to Sacramento to meet legislative leaders. And the group has so far given to city schools 200 copies of its self-published bilingual book for upper grade-schoolers, "Women of Hope" (1994), which depicts five influential women--from Queen Isabella of Spain to Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral.
"Maria has a lot of strength because she works in corporate America," says Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), who in 1994 was the first Latina elected to the state Senate. "This is the new Latina leadership."
A Democrat, Contreras-Sweet has support in both parties. "People \o7 like \f7 Maria," notes Jeff Brown, her public-affairs counterpart at Pepsi. "They want to do her favors. . . . Three years ago, the soft drink people were in a battle. . . . Pepsi, Coke and Shasta were all represented by men, sitting in a room talking about how we were going to have to generate a grass-roots campaign to blitzkrieg [Gov. Pete Wilson's] office. Maria Contreras-Sweet came back and said, 'Oh, I just had tea with the governor's staff, and they said there'd be no problem.' "
Ana Barbosa, former president of the Latin Business Assn., a Los Angeles human relations commissioner and head of her own marketing firm, says that when she has problems with work or one of her four daughters, she goes to her sister Maria. "Many a time, although I'm the oldest [sister], she plays the big sister role."
Contreras-Sweet has come to the Los Angeles Summit on Diversity to present the Glass Ceiling Commission's first report, completed in March. Her backdrop at the county Museum of Natural History is a huge glassed exhibit of stuffed bison. Women and/or minorities in top corporate positions, it turns out, are as rare as the endangered species.
"The punch line is: 'Things are bad, but we didn't realize \o7 how \f7 bad they were,' " she says. "We learned that 97% of senior managers of Fortune 1,000 industrial and Fortune 500 companies are white; 95% to 97% are male. It's such a devastating number. In Fortune 2,000 industrial and service companies, 5% of senior managers are women. And of that 5%, virtually all are white. . . .
"If you're going to be competitive in this marketplace, you can't ignore two-thirds of the population. That's reason enough to be involved in breaking the glass ceiling."
Yet never does Contreras-Sweet utter those two heat-seeking words: \o7 affirmative action.\f7 She has already explained privately that she considers affirmative action "a tool, a good tool" in an overall strategy to achieve diversity. But she doesn't want to see the issue linked to the glass ceiling report.