It was 2007. Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina had just come out. I was traveling around the country talking about the stories of amazing Latina women from all over the country whose story I had the honor of telling in the book, and, whenever I had the opportunity, I would offer to visit a local school. While some schools occasionally had me talk in general assemblies or English classes, the great majority asked if they could pull together a small group of Latina students for me to visit. Because I had so rarely seen an adult Latina (other than my mom and her best friend) when I was a girl, I understood what they were thinking. Absolutely, I told them.
And as we had deep, thoughtful conversations, I would learn so much about these young women.
I want to be a veterinarian, math teacher, dancer, doctor, they would tell me. And while I believed all of them- believed in all of them- I was haunted by the research. The numbers said that, at the time, 53% of Latina girls got pregnant before the age of 20. They said that 44% of Latinas didn’t graduate from high school. Only 10% had college degrees.
You cannot be a veterinarian, math teacher, or doctor without graduating from high school. Getting pregnant can derail your journey to a career in dance.
And even if you are as focused as possible, there are things that you cannot control that could derail you. That I knew for certain.
In ninth grade, my guidance counselor, who I met for the first time at the end of that school year, peered over my transcript, the one with my perfect grades in honors classes and the one that clearly read that I was Puerto Rican, and suggested I might be better suited for and better served by vocational classes. There is nothing wrong with vocational classes- in fact, one of the most important classes I ever took was typing at the vocational program’s night school while my mom took sewing classes- but I knew in ninth grade that a transcript full of vocational classes wouldn’t get me into the school I was most interested in then- the University of Virginia.
Maybe I should be a little bit more practical, my counselor told me. He was an adult and I was taught to respect adults. I had no words to fight for myself as this man altered my list of preferred classes in front of me.
Defeated, I left his office, red face relaying my shock. Another counselor saw me, had known my older brother and sister years before, and called me into his office.
“What’s wrong?” He asked. I was a good girl, inclined to think adults were always right. I only told him a little bit of what had just been said, but it was enough to probably change the course of my life. He added me to his caseload for the rest of my high school career. That restored some of my faith in adults, in myself, but not all of it. I never applied to UVA, and I know that my definition of what was possible for myself changed some that day.
As I considered the young women that I was meeting in middle and high school classrooms around the country, I couldn’t help thinking, “What do we do?”
I told friends and acquaintances of these tensions and concrete answers began to come together. Soon, Circle de Luz was born. Circle de Luz radically empowers young Latinas by supporting their transformation through extensive mentoring, holistic programming and scholarship funds for further education. We start working with our hijas when they are in seventh grade and we offer them holistic programming and extensive mentoring through high school graduation. When they enroll in an opportunity for further education after high school, they receive a minimum of a $5000 scholarship.
Our oldest hijas are now high school juniors. They started as shy seventh graders who were afraid to take up space in the world. They are now thoughtful, compassionate, funny, vibrant, imaginative young women who see infinite possibilities. Five years ago, we didn’t know if some of our girls would pass eighth grade. Now, it seems, nothing can stop them. They know what is possible for them and they know what they are capable of accomplishing and they are striving towards becoming their best selves. It is an honor to witness.
But to do this work well, we need funds to create the possibilities we offer our girls. From SAT prep books to summer reading books, from college tours to taking a financial literacy workshop so that they better understanding personal banking and even what college loans, putting together meaningful experiences for our hijas is a labor of love for us. We carefully raise every penny we need to support all of our Circle de Luz classes and then even more carefully spend those pennies.
At the end of this month, many of us who believe in Circle de Luz- as well as our hijas and some of their family members- will be hitting the streets to provide our girls with another opportunity- to run a 5k race- and to garner greater support for Circle de Luz by raising funds with every mile we cover.
Today, I am asking for your support of my Run Big Dream Big IV fundraising efforts. Will you joining me in challenging the challenges that young Latinas face? While I know that I cannot control whether or not one someone in our hijas’ worlds assumes they cannot do something because of their ethnicity- like my guidance counselor did years ago- I do know that together, you and I, can be a louder chorus in their ear, pushing them forward to everything that is possible for them. Let’s do it.