Social exclusion and lack of inspiration can affect our future. In a world full of opportunities, sometimes what’s next for us is beyond what our imagination can conceive, especially when we don’t see ourselves represented in every aspect of life. Growing up, Claudia Zapata-Cardone, a Colombian-American pilot from United Airlines — who was upgraded to captain in September 2019 — never thought she would one day achieve what she once thought was impossible. “As a little girl, I didn’t think that being a pilot was an option because I had never seen a Latina pilot. In fact, I had never seen just a woman pilot at that point,” she said.
Despite the insufficiency of representation, through hard work and perseverance today, Zapata-Cardone is one of United Airlines’ DCA (Reagan Washington National) based pilots, and five years after joining the company, she has continued breaking barriers to celebrate what she considers one of her biggest professional accomplishments. “Becoming a captain is the realization of the hours of hard work, the determination that I had to have, the perseverance to continue pursuing all of my certificates and writings, and knowing that I was able to do it with the love and support of my family,” she added.
Like the majority of Latinos and Latinas prospering in the United States, Claudia Zapata-Cardone credits most of her success to her parents’ hard work. “My parents were immigrants. They faced a lot of hardships. When I was younger, growing up, my father, at one point had two jobs to support the family,” she recalled.
Mr. and Mrs. Zapata-Cardone met in Queens, New York, after migrating to the United States from Colombia in the 1970s. They planted their roots in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where Claudia was born and grew up with two other siblings. “My parents were very passionate about having a good education and that you couldn’t get ahead in life without one. So, they made sure that the three of us had a very good education,” she revealed.
For the pilot, her beloved parents were also a major source of inspiration; in fact, Mr. Zapata-Cardone unknowingly instilled in his daughter the love for airplanes at a very young age. “Growing up my father worked at the airport, Newark Airport. So, I grew up around airplanes, going to the airport, seeing the airplanes taking off on the runway. I just remember thinking, ‘What a magical thing to be able to fly,’” said the Captain, whose father always dreamt that his little girl would one day also find a career in the industry that he loved so much. “My father worked for Continental Airlines. He wanted me to become a gate agent or work at the counter with him. He was not thinking of a pilot at all,” recalled Claudia. “In fact, [being a] pilot didn’t enter the realm of possibilities for me until a couple of pilots took me up on an intro flight. Then, becoming a pilot became a realistic option for me when I became a flight attendant for another airline. I started seeing more women pilots.”
Claudia Zapata-Cardone is proud to know that what once seemed like an impossible dream is now her beautiful reality. She also recalls how emotional she was telling her father about her new position. “When I told my father that I got the captain upgrade, he started crying,” added Claudia. “I think my parents seeing me get those wings are going to be the culmination of their dreams for their children coming true.”
Definitely, our pilot is honored to have become one of United’s Latina female captains, an accomplishment that has surpassed her parents’ dreams and that makes us consider her as an orgullo Latinx. Congratulations Claudia Zapata-Cardone!