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Celia Torres, 68; Co-Founder of Group for Latina Professionals

August 26, 2004|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Celia Gonzales Torres, the daughter of Los Angeles garment industry workers who helped found the National Network of Hispanic Women to mentor professional women in leadership roles, as well as aspiring young professionals, died of lung cancer Aug. 19 at her home in Solvang, Calif. She was 68.

Also a well-known philanthropist, Torres helped launch and support scholarship programs at her alma mater, Mount St. Mary's College in Brentwood and at Loyola Marymount University, where she co-founded the Mexican American Alumni Assn. scholarship program in 1981.

"Celia was ferocious about opening doors for Hispanics, particularly women," Cecilia Sandoval, a longtime friend, said Wednesday. "That was her role at Mount St. Mary, at Loyola and with the National Network of Hispanic Women."

At its height, the network, founded in the early 1980s, had chapters in five cities. Members included executive women from large corporations, as well as entrepreneurs.

"There was no national group dedicated to breaking through the 'glass ceiling' for professional women in those years," said Mary Salinas Duron, a senior vice president at Countrywide Home Loans, who was in her 20s when she met Torres. "Through her connections, Celia linked women in leadership positions in business, education and the corporate world."

Torres also funded the salary for the network's first executive director and supplied office space.

"We called on influential Latinas who could help others along," said Nancy Gutierrez, a founding member of the group and a retired director of human resources at Pacific Bell. "Celia was the silent hero. She always asked what she could do for others. She never promoted herself."

Born Celia Gonzales, she was raised by her grandmother and an aunt from the time she was 8, when her mother became ill with tuberculosis. She attended St. Mary's Academy grammar school in Los Angeles and later graduated from Mount St. Mary's College -- one of only three Latinas in her class. By then, she was determined that she would help young Latinas get ahead.

"Her commitment to social causes was part of a tradition of service tied to her religious faith," Cynthia Telles, a longtime friend, said Wednesday.

After graduation, Torres worked in public welfare until she married Julio Torres. When the first of their five children entered college, she began work on a master's degree in sociology at USC, which she completed in 1980.

She was also the executive vice president of Torres Enterprises, an investment and management firm that her husband founded while he continued his medical practice. She began to mentor younger Latinas after her children became older.

"Celia was altruistic and service-oriented. It burned within her. She was committed to the empowerment of [Latinas] who wanted to go into the business world and succeed," said Sister Louise Bernstein, Torres' seventh-grade basketball coach. (Torres and Bernstein later were founders of a scholarship program at Mount St. Mary's.)

Torres also was a board member of the Los Angeles YWCA and of the American Red Cross, Santa Barbara Chapter.

She is survived by her husband, five children and nine grandchildren.

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