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Elisa Villanueva Beard Headshot

Only the Best for Our Family

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Coming off the heels of Hispanic Heritage Month, I'm thinking about the particular call to action I face as a Mexican-American woman in this role.

There is a place for everyone in our efforts -- I am pleased that 39 percent of our incoming Teach For America corps identify as people of color, but ethnicity neither limits nor defines our work to ensure every child has access to an excellent education. It does, however, inform my perspective. I enter this fight thinking about childhood friends who didn't graduate. I enter this fight knowing my sons will face prejudice I can't protect them from. I enter this fight thinking about my mother, the smartest woman I've ever known, who prioritized education for my siblings and me despite having just an eighth grade formal education herself. Concepts of educational inequity are not statistics and data-sheets to me. I know the research and I know the numbers, but this work is about real people. It's about real life, real faces and real losses I've felt and seen.

It's also about real triumphs. Real victories and strengths. It's about people who defied every last stereotype the world threw at them, who got an education in spite of low expectations they faced. And in spite of the real challenges they faced growing up in economically disadvantaged conditions. This work is about people who rallied the richness of their culture and values to their advantage.

There is no single face of the Hispanic community. Quite literally, the label means "Spanish-speaking," encompassing a full 13 percent of our national population -- 17 percent if we expand the definition to those who come from Spanish-speaking countries, and projected at 31 percent by 2060. My family emigrated from Mexico, but I join those who hail from El Salvador and Uruguay this month. I join those who just moved to the States from Argentina, Spain or Belize. I join those whose roots reach back to the indigenous people of my home state of Texas. We are diverse and we are many -- with ancestry in countless communities worldwide.

Within this diversity, though, many Spanish-speakers share a variation of the phrase "my little son" or "my little daughter" -- mijito and mijita, respectively. My mentor teacher, Ms. Figueroa, called every last one of her students by these names -- they weren't related to her by blood, but they were her family nevertheless. I taught my first-graders by her example. Ms. Figueroa's class was excellent for her children -- she had to be. I did my best to follow her lead.

Now that I'm a mother, I think back to the way Ms. Figueroa referred to her class. She held her students to such high standards because they were her own, and they deserved nothing less. The measure of whether or not a school is good enough, perhaps, is whether or not it's good enough for our very own children. When I see a school, I wonder about my three boys -- would Malcolm be loved here? Would Marshall's race and ethnicity be celebrated here? Would Langston be held to the highest of expectations every day? I wonder if it's a place where each of my sons can thrive and meet their full potential.

What parent doesn't have these questions? What grandparent doesn't want their mijito or mijita at a school that's safe, and challenging, and kind?

Every child deserves access to an education that will lead to empowerment, access and true freedom in our nation. This is the reality we must work for -- because today, too many Latino children walk through metal detectors at the door and face fights in the hallway. Too many Hispanic high school students drop out because their classwork doesn't meet their needs. Too few make it to college because they didn't have the guidance they needed to apply, or the skills, mentorship and supports to graduate if they do indeed arrive. That's unjust for a country that strives to be a land of opportunity for all.

So today, that's my call to action. That's what drives me. We must see our national family like Ms. Figueroa saw her class -- every child deserves what we'd want for our very own.