“To be representing Latinas gives me great satisfaction”

I discovered a passion for fitness, which set my life in a whole different course. I drove relentless into my career and fitness while at the same time raising a family.

At 56, not surprisingly, I faced yet another challenge. I lost my career in sales through the pandemic, which exhausted my resources and I almost my hope. Thanks to my son who believed and encouraged me, I started a new career in real estate.

Ask Helen Ortiz what about the secret to a healthy life, and her answer is simple: little changes, which can make a big difference.

The 57-year-old Ortiz should know – having just returned from a bodybuilding competition in Miami, where she won a first-place medal in her category. Ortiz was acknowledged at the recent Westside neighborhood concert for her victory. Ortiz, who began embracing a life of eating better and regularly exercising at the gym in her mid-30s, now represents both the United States and her native Guatemala at international bodybuilding competitions, where she regularly outperforms women 20 years her junior.

Ortiz says she began hitting the gym when she felt she began to feel the stress of being a mother and working at the same time. The gym, she says, was an escape from everyday life, a place where she could improve both her physical and her mental health.

According to Ortiz it didn’t come easy, “When I was a young teen, I became pregnant with my first son. It was then when I realized I could not stay in my native land of Guatemala. There simply weren’t any opportunities or a future for either of us there. My baby was the motivating factor and the driving force to take a big leap of faith, and that was to migrate to America in search of a better life us. With a heavy heart and $80 to my name I headed to Quintana Ro Mexico and jumped on the beast the train that brings all immigrants from Central America to the Mexico/US border. Against the odds and the dangers along the way, I set course and two months later I stepped foot in Los Angeles, California in March of 1986 with a bag full of dreams.

Initially I worked multiple labor jobs to make ends meet. Like many immigrants at that time, I worked long shifts in the strawberry fields. Thanks to an amnesty issued to migrant agricultural workers, I received a work permit, eventually allowing me to become a resident and later in my years a citizen. Becoming legalized opened a world of opportunities for me. Fully determined, I learned the language and went in pursuit of sales type of roles. I always aspired for more and I wasn’t going to rest until I achieved success. My desire for a better life was bigger than my fears or embarrassments. I had no idea what I was doing but I made my way until I learned the trade and eventually perfected my craft. “I never set foot in a gym until I was 35. I was trying to find an outlet, some kind of relief,” explains Ortiz, a mother of two who also is a realtor and a cancer survivor. “In a gym, I found the feeling I was looking for, mentally and spiritually, and it was great. I just held onto it.”

Ortiz, who came to the U.S. at age 17, says she is proud to represent both countries in the women’s physique category in bodybuilding competitions around the globe – and to show others that they, too, can change their body and their mind with some hard work and dedication.

“To be representing Latinas gives me great satisfaction,” she says. “No matter how old you are or how many kids you have, you can do it.”

As an example, Ortiz says she was once in a grocery store, walking down an aisle, when she caught the gaze of a Latina mother and her 16-year-old daughter, their shopping cart filled with junk food.

“I looked at them and smiled. They looked at me and said, ‘Sorry we’re looking at you, we’re just so impressed with how you look. You have a great body and still look feminine.’ I said, ‘Thank you so much.’ They put back all the bad food they had in their basket and replaced it with food that was better for them,” Ortiz recalls. “I stayed in touch with them and they invited me to their church to give tips to the women about getting healthy, and these were older women. Up until this day, the woman moved to Florida, and she’s lost so much weight, and she continues to lose weight and eat healthy. That’s why I do what I do. If I can help one person, that’s my purpose in life. That’s the gift that God gave me, and I use that gift to help others.”

She says she is fully aware that the Latino culture is centered around food, and that eating habits can be generational.

“We grew up with (lots of food), and we don’t know anything else. We grew up with tortillas, beans, rice, and everything was fried,” Ortiz explains. “But it’s a choice. You have to think of the point of view of being healthy, avoiding high blood pressure and diabetes. (Eating better) is a choice you have to make, but you don’t have to walk away from it completely. With little changes, you’ll see the difference.”

She says that for those who are not accustomed to working out, there are exercises they can do at home if they cannot afford to visit a gym, or if going to the gym is too intimidating. Just be sure to make exercise part of your daily routine, and don’t treat those changes as temporary.

“I was skinny as a rail. It was hard for me to put on muscle,” Ortiz says. “But you can do it you just can’t treat it like a diet. You have to take it as a lifestyle. It works, and that’s why I stay involved and I push myself. … This won’t be overnight or easy, but you can change completely. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of people I know.”

Ortiz says she is unsure how much longer she plans to compete in bodybuilding events, but that she would like to become a judge for such competitions after she retires. In the meantime, she continues to improve both her body and mind, making inspirational videos to post on social media, and she even plans to write a book about her experiences.

“I put mind over matter and purpose over problem. You have to be fit on the outside to reflect your inside,” Ortiz says. “I just want to encourage everybody out there and tell them that this works. Don’t let anything hold you back in life. You have to work with what you have, work with what God gave you.”