As Told To Zach Baliva
I remember sitting in the classroom daydreaming because I felt like I didn’t belong. I’m Cuban American, but I grew up in a small farm community in west central Illinois that was home to a university but very few Latino families. I eventually graduated from that university, but my overall educational experience was lukewarm and challenging. I was overlooked because I was Latino, and although my parents worked hard, they didn’t know how to navigate the system and advocate to get the help and support that I truly needed.
Many years later, I would cofound Latinos for Education to develop, place, and connect essential Latino leaders in education. But to understand our mission, you have to understand my story. I knew that my experience was common for Latinos and other minorities everywhere, and that knowledge stayed with me as I stepped out into the world to chart my path forward. Although I had been a mediocre student, I had big ideas about what was possible and I wanted to get beyond the boundaries of my small town.
That ambition took me to the corporate world, where I spent ten years working in places like Deloitte and Hudson. As I gained more professional skills and experience, I started to learn more about workplace equity. Immigrant families like mine believe that if you work hard enough, you can succeed—but in reality, that success often depends on your skin color, the college you went to, and who you can network with.
I was living in New York City and wrestling with these issues when 9/11 hit. That was the turning point, and I left the corporate world to help nonprofit clients at the Bridgespan Group. That’s where I learned even more about how educational inequality impacts the Latino community. I was shocked about the big gaps that exist and how limited the opportunities are for Latino kids, even as the Latino population continues to surge in our country.
I decided to make a move and joined Teach For America. This transition gave me the chance to work directly with the Latino community and see the powerful thing that happens when you put amazing Latino educators in front of Latino children. It made me think of my parents: my mom didn’t finish her education when she came to the US, but my dad did, and I saw very different outcomes for them. Ironically, my mom worked in the basement of the university—she was in food prep and spent thirty years cutting lettuce while my dad was a university professor on the same campus. One of them had English language proficiency and access to education; the other one did not.
I’m doing what I’m doing today because I know our families care a lot about their children. Immigrants come here for opportunity, especially educational opportunity, and that only fails when they don’t have representation, access, or assistance.
These issues are important, and I am so proud to have been appointed to the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, where I can use my Latina voice to contribute to how we make decisions about how and what our kids are taught. I can bring what I know about minority kids and the needs of their families into the room as we talk about these topics, and I look to advance a mindset of equity across our board so we are always making decisions with our most vulnerable children in mind.
Getting more involved in these issues eventually pushed me to cofound Latinos for Education: I couldn’t ignore the reality that we’ve seen too little progress when it comes to Latinos teaching in our classrooms and leading our schools. In just a few years, more than 30 percent of our students will be Latino, but only 9 percent of America’s public school teachers are Latino.
This has various impacts, and recent research is showing something I’ve always seen. When a student—any student—has a teacher of color, positive outcomes increase. This representation also benefits the surrounding community because when you have leaders from the communities that are being educated, they understand the context and how to communicate with families. Engagement goes way up, and you create better outcomes for everyone involved.
My family came here for education, and what we found is what many Latinos find today. Our kids deserve better, and the only way to make change is to get Latinos on school boards, in our classrooms, and in school offices.
At Latinos for Education, we focus on programs and fellowships that will advance the leadership of Latinos already working in the sector while also helping to attract and retain new educators. Additionally, we’ve launched a Spanish language program to prepare families to be leaders in their communities and advocates for their children. We’ve grown to a staff of twenty people with an operating budget of $4 million in just four years, but we want to keep growing so we can impact a million kids as we expand into new geographies and transform education.
We need new partners to help us reach these goals, and there is room for everyone to get involved. Whenever I speak to Latinos who want to improve the situation, I tell them that we all have to believe in ourselves. Latino adults were once Latino kids who were probably told they didn’t have what it takes to go to college—or lead a team, or start a business, or succeed in the marketplace. If you’ve been told that lie, you’re not alone. Start believing in yourself, find community, get the support you deserve, and know that you are capable. We need people like you, and together, we can change the world.