Just about two years ago, a sixth grade teacher at a local middle school asked me to come speak to 9 of her Latina students. She had a special interest in Latino students, knew Spanish, and had convinced her principal to give her all the Latino students so that they might have a smoother transition to middle school. Hijas Americanas had been out for about five or six months, and she was hopeful that it would be a positive experience for the girls to meet an older Latina. I gladly accepted the invitation.
That first meeting, I took cupcakes and pizza and asked the girls about their dreams. All of them planned on graduating from high school and going on for more education. One wanted to be a doctor. Two wanted to be veterinarians. The others wanted to be teachers. They were sweet and earnest, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with them. When I climbed back in the car after our hour together, I was both energized and worried. They all wanted to graduate from high school and, yet, I had all these statistics in my head from writing Hijas Americanas. 41% of Latina girls don’t graduate. 53% of Latinas get pregnant before 20 years old. I was overwhelmed.
I kept going back. And these girls were the girls who inspired Circle de Luz. Their school wasn’t a natural fit for the program, but I contiue to see these girls as much as I can because I believe in and want the best for them. And I want them to know how precious they are.
On Saturday, their 6th grade teacher and I picked up five of the girls (2 have moved back to Mexico and 2 could not make it on Saturday) and took them to a local Central American restaurant for lunch. It was the first time we had ever gotten together outside of school. The girls are in 8th grade now and continue to be just lovely and spunky.
When we sat down at the table, we all started pouring over the menu, figuring out what we would have. And then one of these lovely, lovely girls, who I will call Mia, said something that stole my breath.
“I’m on a diet.”
Her sixth grade teacher and I both pounced, telling her empathetically that she was perfect the way she was, that she didn’t need to be on a diet, etc. And my heart just hurt over it until I saw her order a perfectly normal meal and exhibit a perfectly normal appetite. Then it hurt just a smidge less, but I still worried over what we had heard her express.
Meanwhile, we started talking to the girls about school, about how eighth grade was. And Mia, who had been a bit of an underachiever in 6th and 7th grade and was sometimes in trouble, said,
“I think I am smarter than I used to be. Before I never thought I could do the homework so I would just copy someone else’s. Now, I know I can do the homework and so I just do it all myself.”
We talked some about growing older and more confident, about doubting yourself when you shouldn’t, about the joy of trusting your own ability. Around the table, they championed each other, cheered each other on, laughed together. It was, really, just the perfect way to end the meal and to toast our two years together so far.
Later, we planned a picnic with baby in tow, took pictures together, exchanged email addresses. And I just basked in how well these girls are growing up despite the odds against them, despite the odds they sometimes create for themselves. I want so much for them to be safe, to be happy, to be confident, to be focused. I want so much for them to love themselves, to be fully possessed of themselves. I want so much for the steps that go backwards to stop, for the steps moving forward to quicken the pace. I want so much for them to have just one moment to see themselves through my eyes. I can’t guarantee that any of that will happen, but I can guarantee that I will always show up for them, that I will challenge them when they say they are on a diet, that I will toast them when they recognize their own intelligence, that I will journey with them anywhere. Sometimes, a girl just needs someone outside of her own immediate family who thinks she is fabulous (remember when you were young and you would think, “my mom is just telling me that because she has to…”). Let’s all be that someone.