Celebrating National Asian American and South Pacific Islander Heritage Month at TECO

As we celebrate National Asian American and South Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, we sat down with Lalita Llerena, Tampa Electric's Manager of Internal Communications, to learn about her heritage. In this engaging Q&A, Lalita reflects on her Thai roots and explores how her cultural background has influenced both her personal and professional life.

National Asian American and South Pacific Islander Heritage MonthTop left: Lalita with her kids and her parents at a Thai restaurant. Top right: Lalita at the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This is considered the cultural, historical and religious heart of Bangkok.

Bottom left: Lalita and her sister in front of Thailand’s version of the White House. Bottom right: Back row: Lalita’s dad, Lalita, late grandmother and sister. Front row: Lalita’s mom and two aunties (a term of endearment in Thailand).

Can you share a bit about your heritage and background?

I am Asian American and identify with both my Thai and Caucasian roots. My father was born in Thailand and came to the U.S. for college. That’s where he met my mother, who was born on a farm in Indiana and later moved to Plant City. So, growing up, I was just as comfortable eating at a noodle shop in Bangkok as I was sucking down a strawberry milkshake at Parkesdale’s in Plant City.

How has your cultural background influenced your personal and professional life?

I have always been extremely proud of my cultural background throughout my educational and professional journey. I was honored to serve as president for the Asian American Communicators at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications and as a member of the Asian American Journalists Association well into my TV news career. 

Having faced my own share of bias as a biracial student, it was important for me to demonstrate that you can look different and have a unique name and still serve as a trusted source of news for the community. I remember a long time ago when I was first getting started as a TV reporter in a very small town, a news director told me to shorten my maiden last name and cut my hair because no one would trust someone as “exotic looking” as me. It stung, but back then it was true. Fortunately, we have progressed as a society since then, and you see on-air talent representing various cultural backgrounds. 

I learned early in my communications career that I prefer being behind the scenes anyway, but to this day I love seeing journalists embracing their real names, hair and ethnicities. Although we still have a long way to go, it makes my heart happy to see more people, especially the younger generations, embracing all backgrounds and perspectives on all media platforms. 

Personally, I had the opportunity to visit Thailand too many times to count. We'd go every summer as kids. The pictures you see on this page are from my last trip 15 years ago. My paternal grandparents had 11 kids, so each trip was full of family gatherings and plenty of cheap, delicious Thai food. In fact, you can say I am quite the Thai food snob but only because I've had the best of the best. Still, the Si-am Thaimerican Restaurant across from TECO Plaza can conveniently fulfill a craving.

Are there any traditions or customs from your culture that you hold dear or practice regularly?

In Thailand, the elephant is considered a sacred animal and a symbol of power, wisdom and good luck. The direction in which an elephant faces is believed to have a powerful impact on the energy of a space. It is believed that an elephant facing the entrance of a home or business can attract positive energy and good luck. If you ever visit my office at TECO Plaza, you’ll see an elephant-shaped business card holder facing the door. And, the next time you're in a Thai person’s home, look for an elephant...and make sure it's pointed toward the front door!

Like in many other cultures, it’s customary in Thailand to remove shoes before entering a home. It’s how I was raised and how I’m raising my kids. That’s a custom I cannot break so if you ever come to visit, be ready to take off your shoes and relax! 

I am sure if I were born and raised in Thailand, I may have a few more Thai traditions but being born in New York and raised in Tampa, many of my traditions and customs are American.

What are some achievements or contributions from Asian American and South Pacific Islander communities that you feel are important to highlight during this month?

It was pretty darn cool to see Netflix’s “Beef” winning all the top awards in its Emmy categories and both Ali Wong and Steven Yeun making Golden Globes history this year. In general, seeing successful shows and movies where all the main stars are of Asian descent is remarkable. Even witnessing my teen daughter (who is Cuban, Thai and Caucasian) identify with the half-Asian star on the hit show “The Summer I Turned Pretty” is something I never thought I’d see. 

In closing, how do you think acknowledging and celebrating the diversity within Asian cultures at TECO enhances our workplace environment and team dynamics?

As we celebrate National Asian American and South Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I want to express not all Asian cultures are alike. The Thai heritage is just one among the many rich and varied Asian traditions. Each culture within Asia boasts its own unique customs, traditions, culinary delights, languages and dialects. Even beyond Asia, each of us here at TECO contributes to the rich mosaic of traditions, languages and social practices that define who we are. I believe recognizing and appreciating this diversity is crucial in understanding and respecting each other, so thanks for the opportunity!