Who is Ernesto Nieto?

A 1964 Southwestern alum who has inspired generations of young Latina/o/x leaders.

Ernesto Nieto was born October 6, 1940 in Houston, Texas. He attended Jefferson Davis High School in Houston, where racial discrimination was not uncommon. He experienced it from his peers and classmates firsthand. Nieto was a good athlete, which helped him in the social climate, but he saw how Hispanic peers were treated, and grew to resent this unfair treatment. It sparked his desire for change.

When Nieto graduated high school, he initially attended University of Houston, until he transferred to Southwestern his sophomore year on a full ride scholarship for basketball. He was one of only a handful of Hispanics at the time and was exposed to a completely different new climate in comparison to what he was used to. He mainly focused on his academics and athletics, but it did not take long for him to realize that the realities he had faced in his life were completely foreign and unknown to his White classmates. Despite growing up in America, he learned that his peers in fact grew up in very different versions of it.

Overall, though, Nieto enjoyed his time at Southwestern, prevailing in his studies and academics, making meaningful connections with friends, professors, coaches, etc. He says he enjoyed his time at Southwestern and appreciated the liberal arts education because his studies were more than memorizing facts; he was developing critical thinking skills and engaging with content.

Nonetheless, Ernesto Nieto did not get through his entire time at university without any altercations. He was quoted in an article on SU’s website saying “I was exposed to so many things and met wonderful people that had a long-lasting impact on my life, but I did experience racial discrimination” at Southwestern. When he recounts his experiences, he says there were jokes, name-calling, even physical attacks. A fight broke out at one of his basketball games when the opponents were hollering racial slurs at him. Nieto’s brother, who was in the stands, ended up in the hospital for defending his brother.

Nieto’s experiences helped guide him into the person he became: someone with a strong passion for social justice. It also encouraged him to join the civil rights movement. He learned that people were leading completely different lives in different parts of the country, and he vowed to fight for and contribute to positive change.

Ernesto Nieto received his Bachelors of Science in Education from Southwestern University in 1964. He then continued his education at the University of Houston receiving his Masters in Education. After finishing up his education, Nieto worked in several state and federal government management positions. His work came with travels, which shed more light on the hardships that many Americans living in poverty face. He saw how poverty affects people physically and emotionally, and when coupled with race, typically leads to low self esteem, and affects who the person is as a whole.

Nieto valiantly fought for what he believed in, but he confesses that such work is hard and draining. So many Latinos have been fighting to live the same American dream as their White counterparts, especially since the 1960s. There will always be people who are willing to fight for these changes so long as conditions remain the same. As Nieto understands all too well, the problem is that the people fighting the fight get tired and discouraged in the long term. It is understandable to work for such change, but it was not sustainable for them to continue taking on this burden for so long with little sign of change.

Eventually, Nieto recognized where he himself could help. He saw an absence of Latino leaders and role models for younger Latinos and Latinas, and wanted to make a change. He felt that finding and mentoring future leaders would provide a more sustainable way to support and continue striving for change.

With that in mind he founded the National Hispanic Institute (NHI) in 1979. He went into this mission with the intent to recruit bright young Latino leaders, and help them find their voices in society, and to encourage them to be courageous enough to go out of their way to be a part of the broader American experience. To this day, the NHI provides opportunities for bright young students to develop and enhance their leadership skills, advancing the lives of thousands of children and their families, so that they can flourish in society.

Nieto says he does not want the NHI to focus on anger or resentment, but rather, an opportunity to create lasting change and to reshape how our communities function. It has taken years to establish, especially since Nieto makes it an important point for the institution to not run on government funding, so the infrastructure is investor driven.

Early on, Ernesto Nieto married Gloria de Leon, and together they both are still running the NHI. Along the way, the couple had 4 children, 3 of whom attended Southwestern: Christopher Nieto (class of ‘97), Roy Nieto (class of ‘97), and Marc Nieto (class of ‘96). Their daughter, Nicole Nieto, obtained her Bachelors from Vassar University, and her dual masters from U.T. and El Tech in Monterey, Mexico. After graduating, she soon became the Executive Vice President of the NHI. Ernesto and Gloria have 9 grandchildren, and continue to encourage them to be inspired, and to create lasting change in both their communities, and the Hispanic community as a whole.

The National Hispanic Institute now is hosted at Trinity University, but for many years it was hosted here on Southwestern’s campus. In those years, every summer the campus was alive with the energy of young Latina/o/x students making the campus their own. The pin for this entry is placed in the center of campus for that reason.


Ernesto Nieto Source: Southwestern Website Creator: Southwestern MarComm Date: 2018



Adrianna Flores-Vivas '24, “Who is Ernesto Nieto?,” Placing Memory, accessed July 25, 2024, https://placingmemory.southwestern.edu/items/show/78.