LATINA HERSTORY: THE UNTOLD STORIES OF LATINAS IN EDUCATION
Talia Rodriguez is a bi-racial, bi-cultural, and bi-lingual Latina from Buffalo. Ms. Rodriguez’s mission is to write about Latina’s, who have shaped the face of our city and our region. It is Ms. Rodriguez’s believes that our own people should inspire us and in telling our collective stories, we push our community forward. Ms. Rodriguez is a community advocate and the facilitator of a hyper-local consortium. She is a 5th generation West Sider, a graduate of SUNY Buffalo Law School, and an avid baseball fan. She lives on the West Side with her young son A.J.. Ms. Rodriguez sits on the board of several organizations including the Belle Center, where she attended daycare. Ms. Rodriguez loves art, music, food, and her neighbors. Writing for the Buffalo Latino Village is another extension of her professional journey.
Interview #13: Featuring JESENAIDA COLLAZO
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.“
There is a stillness about winter. The same stillness is inside of a church when you enter the sanctuary, alone. To me, it feels the same. Some of my most prized moments inside my church have been alone in the sanctuary – in the stillness, just praying.
I was taught how to pray. It’s a weird thing to think about, that someone teaches you how to talk to God, but they do. I was taught to pray by my grandmother whose Spanish prayers and coco candy made her feel to me (as a child) as if she was from a different time; as an adult, I learned she was. It’s been a year since I started writing in her honor, time marches on and I miss her more every day.
Though times change, the look of the church, the denominations, but through 1,000s of years – one common activity has NOT changed- praying. The basic idea that a human, in stillness, and deep mediation can extend their voice to the ears of the universe’s creator, has persisted, across languages and continents for all time.
Churches, a pinnacle of Christendom, came to Puerto Rico in 1532. The San José Church, the first Spanish church was built in Old San Juan and would hold the remains of Ponce De Leon, the town’s governor. Churches now cover Puerto Rico, of all sizes and denominations. Following Christ does not just stop at the church door; your obedience must extend past that, into the worldly world. As a young person today, that call for obedience requires more sacrifice and abstention than in past times.
Enter Jesenaida Collazo, the type of woman that Christ depends on. She has his joy in her eyes. The joy of being accepted and knowing that you are loved by your creator. Just looking in her eyes – yes just her eyes alone – say all that and more. Her spirit is strong like the binding of the oldest bible. A warm person, the type of Christian that is brave enough to be vulnerable in the eyes of others, a remarkable leader, a servant leader, they call them. A woman who is gifted to bring people together around their love for Christ, the leader of a Christian youth group, and more than a volunteer project, her vision led her to create her own organization.
The Founder of Prisoners of Hope, Jesenaida “Jessy”, is a youth pastor. So young, yet she herself leads her peers closer to Christ in practice. Her bravery to step into a leadership role in Christ reflects her confidence in him when the whole world seems unsure – Jessy isn’t.
Her quote: Hebrews 11:1 — “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Read my interview with Jesenaida Collado, and learn more about her, her faith, and her future.
1: Where were you born and what values were taught in your home? I was born and raised here in Buffalo NY. I was always taught to cherish family, to always help someone, and to be grateful always for what I have. God has always been impactful in my life as my family, and I are Christians.
2: What was your experience as a student like? My experience as a student was an interesting one. Hitting puberty at an early age, having acne, being overweight, and not being able to afford what was “in” at the time were always difficult as those were things I was bullied for. Despite all of that there were teachers who truly cared and made going to school more enjoyable. Those teachers are the ones who really pushed me to become more!
3: What was your first job? I started working when I was 15 years old through the Summer Youth Program, which helped me work my first and favorite all-year-round job at Little Caesars!
4: What was the moment you decided to take control of your future? The moment I was inspired to take control of my future was the moment I gave my life to Christ. Accepting Christ gave my life true meaning and purpose and made everything I did, and do, intentional.
5: What advice do you have for people who want to be heard in the community? The advice I have for people who want to be heard in their community is to first be involved! Get active! Volunteer, attend meetings and seminars- make an impact. Make your voice heard. If you go to the gym once you won’t see any results, but if you go to the gym consistently, you will see results. My pastor used this example and it’s so true!; the same thing goes for making a difference. Don’t do something once, continue doing it and you will see the fruits of your labor.
6: What is your theory on human potential? First, I believe everyone has potential. Everyone’s potential is different – A person may be able to draw and impact people through their art, but may not be a good speaker, whereas the other person may impact people with their voice and not their art. Everyone has something valuable and useful in them; it’s up to them to tap into it and cultivate it!
7: What is a quote that is important to you? Hebrews 11:1.“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
8: What was the first time you realized you were a faith leader and What is the biggest shift you have been in your ministry? I don’t remember the exact age, but I remember in high school speaking to my close friends about Jesus and how wonderful it was to have him in my life The biggest shift I’ve seen in my ministry is how much I’ve grown with God. While trying to guide and teach others, God has been teaching me. It’s good to have a goal, but the journey to reach it is where we learn the most. Learning from others around, us, absorbing different opinions, and allowing God to keep that fire — that passion burning is something truly amazing.
9: What inspires you? The world and everyone in it inspire me. To see people from different paths of life, different ages trusting and giving a testimony about how God made a way when there was no way, is so inspiring. The couple who thought their marriage was over, and are now in love and flourishing, the children who are sick but find comfort in their parents like we find comfort in God, the birds, and animals who fly and live trusting that God will take care of them, the very fact that during all these difficult times, children of God have risen up to help others and pray for the world. All these things ARE INSPIRING!
Interview #12: Featuring LIZBETH HENRIQUEZ
El nombre de una mujer; she inspired me to learn that less is more, and more is less, and no one cares about your excuses. She lives simply, streamlined, efficient, yet feminine, drenched in muted colors and too chic for your fashion-forward lens. Very euro- the very Bronx like a chameleon with the heart of a lion.
I met her in the West Side of Course, on grant Street (where real gangsters have been meeting real gangsters) since my grandfather’s butcher store was open. She was teaching English to refugees and new Americans, fitting for someone- who I would learn taught herself English at age 7. She told me she was a political science major and that did it. I knew we were going to become instant friends. She reminded me of myself frankly.
Why? Because political science is defined as the branch of knowledge that deals with systems of government, the analysis of political activity and behavior. And any Latina who consciously chooses to study political science in my mind is a genius.
Liz and I both were done an injustice in our studies though, not taught about the history of women and or common folk. I always say I was taught the victors curriculum- the one where -it was told to us; all our Taino ancestors were killed, and that colonization brought “progress” to our islands.
That’s not the true history. Liz being Dominican and me Puerto Rican – taught through the lens of separation, of our islands and our peoples. We weren’t told the Taino lived in both lands and creation stories said we emerged from caves in a sacred mountain on Hispaniola. Or that genetic studies show in Puerto Rico, that a high proportion of people have “Amerindian mtDNA.” Thus, the Taino survived. And their ideas and lives were expressed in art- left out of our textbook.
History teaches us to separate ourselves, but unity is our strength as evidenced by the labor and women’s rights movements and activists like Luisa Capetillo. Who changed the course of politics across the Caribbean just by wearing pants in public! She went on to publish one of the first feminist thesis in Puerto Rico. Liz and I are political scientists who have a serious responsibility to learn and re-write our own histories of power. The new curriculum is based on the revolutionary idea: we survived thus we are the victors.
And what do they say- “To the Victor Go the Spoils”.
I’m just glad I don’t have to go at this alone. Lucky Liz matches her glamor with her grit. Her quote “Be fearless about it.” Read her interview and you’ll see why she is.
Where were you raised, and what were the values taught in your home? I was born in the Dominican Republic and raised there for the first 7 years of my life. Then came Washington Heights. Those are my child(hoods) but the Bronx and Buffalo also raised me! My parents did not play about me and my sisters, we were to be respectful first and foremost; Bendiciones (blessing) every time we said hi to our elders, and Con permiso (permission) if we needed to speak, were expected. We were also taught that family was love. My family means the world to us and growing up we always made sure to keep that present. I am very close with both my father and mother sides. Lastly, hard work. Growing up low income in DR. I understood at a very young age that nothing came easy and hard work was the only way I was going to get what I wanted in life. Since I can remember my father has been waking up at 3AM to head to work. He continues to inspire my dedication and ambition.
What was your experience as a student? I love being a student. I loved going to school and learning. Growing up in the New York public schools was an experience of its own. My teachers cared for me and my learning. In primary school, especially, as a multi-language learner, I learned very fast and excelled tremendously. High school and college saw a different student in me. I started to notice all the holes in my education and that impacted my performance. I shifted from focusing on my academics and more on the social and extracurricular activities that supported the learning I was doing in classes. This meant joining clubs, becoming a leader in my spaces, and applying my knowledge to my every day.
When did you start working and what was your first or favorite job? I started working at like 9 babysitting my family’s kids. My first real job was at American Eagle when I was 18. My favorite job was working with Buffalo String Works. It was my first time stepping into the “real world” after graduating college. I was working with youth, community, and development in education; amidst covid-19. The most challenging and awarding experience I’ve ever had.
What was the moment that you were inspired to take control of your future? At the age of 7, it was my third or fourth day in my new school in New York. I didn’t know a speaker of English. I came to school late and missed morning pick-up, so my grandfather dropped me off in the main office. They gave me a pass and told me to go to my classroom. I didn’t remember where it was and got lost. A teacher saw me wandering around and asked me something in English, I truly cannot remember. I said to her “No entiendo” and she replied “Como que tu no me entiendes? Tu tienes que saber Ingles.” she took me to the main office and then to my class. I went home that day and cried my eyes out. I knew right then and there that I had to learn English if I wanted to make it. I had to do this on my own and fast. And I did.
What advice do you have for other Latinx people who want their voices to be heard in their community?
Be fearless about it. Get to know your community and seek the people, platforms, and resources that will support you. There are more people that want to listen than those who don’t.
is your theory on human potential? It takes a village. If we’re able to come together humanly our potential as individuals have no limits.
What is your opinion on the fact that Latinx women are the most underpaid? As an underpaid Latina, I think is bullshit. Lol, don’t include this. I truly believe that there’s a need to be more conversation and more allies. The system is built to keep us suppressed; we shouldn’t be fighting this alone. As women are it important for us to understand that there is power in our strength. Our knowledge and impact are important.
INTERVIEW # 11: Featuring LIZZY RIVERA
I don’t like the world of disability. No one asked but still. I am a person with different abilities and as a child they were undiagnosed. That fact affected my learning journey immensely. Some of my siblings have different abilities (the term I prefer) and face varying health challenges, mine being the absolute least. My family is a family of overcomers, but my learning journey was not an easy one.
As a child I struggled to learn on paper, I could hear anything you said, but if you gave it to me on paper, you lost me. I remember feeling bright, but not being able to transfer that intelligence to paper. I will never forget what it feels like to sit in a class of your peers and be nervous to be called on. It’s terrifying, and I lived that terror every day in elementary school. It gives you shivers all the way to your boots. And lately being a kid is hard enough.
Some Adults like Lizzy Rivera get it. Lizzy is an advocate for families whose members have different abilities, the human embodiment of compassion. She is existing in a state of empathy and her journey and path reflect an infinite determination to succeed. When I met her, I felt so relieved, so grateful that she had chosen to fight for children in our community. She leads a path she walked, being a mother, whose children were educated in public schools.
Born in Puerto Rico and educated across oceans, her sense of feminism is rooted in her mother’s lessons. She committed to helping improve systems and lifelong learning (always a sign of intelligence in my opinion). She’s currently enrolled in a School Psychology program to obtain initial certification, after graduating Summa Cum Laude from SUNY Empire State College with a B.A. in Psychology – as a full-time mom.
As a people, Latinos are resilient and self-reliant. Sometimes those resiliencies lead us to overlook the times we need help or be hesitant to ask for it. Lizzy’s quote:
“A person also needs intrinsic or extrinsic motivation to work towards those goals. This is where the community comes into play to remove systematic barriers of ableism, sexism, colorism, and xenophobia that discourage individuals from creating goals and prevents them from seeing themselves in positions that they can achieve to reach their full potential.”
Lizzy Rivera is an advocate fighting ableism and if you read her interview, you will learn how and why. Ableism is defined as discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. According to the Dept of Education In 2018, 32% of the children diagnosed with a disability in New York State identified as Hispanic and or Latino.
Where were you raised, and what were the values taught in your home? My story started in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, with family roots from Barranquitas, PR.
Where were you raised, and what were the values taught in your home? My story started in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, with family roots from Barranquitas, PR. Since my family was from el campo, we had strong family ties and conservative values. My mother, Neida Fonseca, raised me to be independent, resilient, and accept change as it comes. Education was important, and she had high expectations of my brother and sister to graduate college, something she always dreamed of doing.
What was your experience as a student? The journey from Puerto Rico to Buffalo happened right before my Quinceanera. My brother was sent the previous year to stay with my aunt Gladys Santiago to see if he liked the school system, and since he had a good experience, we came to Buffalo. I was not in full agreement with the move since this was before the time of cell phones. I knew I would lose the connection with friends, novios (lol), and most importantly, my extended family. My family was afraid of “las nuevas juntillas” (negative peer influence) and thought it would be best to advocate for high school placement in a monolingual school with ENL support (Bennett High). It was unheard, to take ENL services outside a Bilingual school. Grover Cleveland High was the only option if you needed support in English for your classes.
R&B, Reggae, and HipHop became my teachers of acculturation into the new environment. I also had a best friend named Fatima from Mali that served as a guide. She had gone through the same experience years earlier when she arrived in Buffalo. I had amazing teachers and others like the English teacher that told me, “Don’t take the Regents, you will not pass.” Well, don’t tell a Latina she can’t do something; she may just prove you wrong! I was in the top 20 of my graduating class with a Regents diploma of almost 300 students at the time attending Bennett High.
At the time, Bennett High offered an International Program that was progressive, offering multiple languages like Spanish, French, Italian, Latin, and Chinese. The Latinx population was very small, and to make our little Borinquen, we created a Multicultural Club that highlighted the school’s cultural diversity. During one of the multicultural assemblies, our group danced to “el baile de perrito” that none of us ever forgot. Also, I would sneak go after school to Grover to meet my cousin and dance for their salsa band. These experiences served as a basis for my passion for working with people from multicultural and linguistic backgrounds.
When did you start working and what was your first or favorite job? I started working in Buffalo as a cashier on the old Tops on Niagara Street. Many around my age group have fond memories of this supermarket as it was the unofficial hangout for many in the Westside of Buffalo. I currently work for the Buffalo Public Schools in the Special Education Department as a Spanish-speaking Community Education Leader and for the Parent Network of WNY as a family support specialist for parents that have children with disabilities. Both jobs have provided the opportunity to assist families with multicultural backgrounds experiencing difficulties and barriers.
What was the moment that you were inspired to take control of your future? The moment that inspired me to take control of my future was, unfortunately, the experience of going through difficulties with my children. Early in life, I became a mother of four, with two of my children having special needs ‐ one son with Central Processing Auditory Disorder (CPAD) and another one with mild Autism. As a Latina mother of children with disabilities, life became considerably difficult. I was a single mother due to domestic violence, and my children had behavioral difficulties in school. I was often called to pick up my children from school or to stay with them in the classroom.
In the subsequent years, I struggled to secure services and navigate through the educational system on behalf of my children. Then, I sought and became employed by the Special Education Department of the Buffalo Public School (BPS). I began to work as a paraprofessional for children with disabilities and later as a Community Education Leader in the Special Education Department. After my boys graduated from high school, I thought that now was my chance to sign up for school and receive a degree to continue helping in my community.
I applied for college at SUNY Empire State. A school that allowed me the flexibility of an online schedule, to be a full-time mother, employee, and college student. Hard work paid off, and I earned an Associate in Science and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology as Summa Cum Laude. Afterward, I took a leap of faith and applied for a graduate degree in the Department of Counseling, School, and Educational Psychology (CEP) at the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB).
I am currently enrolled in the School Psychology program to obtain initial certification and build my credentials as a practitioner and a scientist in the field. It is important for me to work with children and families who have linguistic and multicultural backgrounds. Furthermore, my goal is to serve children at risk of being identified with a disability due to academic or behavioral concerns. Providing appropriate interventions in school could reduce the high number of minority children that are currently being over-identified with an educational classification.
Most of my schooling I have done between my late thirties and early forties. You may think, why are you doing this now? Because the present moment is the best time to build the future, you want to see yourself excelling. I do not consider myself “super smart” or “special”, I am your regular Latina who came from Puerto Rico to the West Side of Buffalo. In my life, I have been through difficult situations like domestic violence, acculturation, and struggles to learn about my children’s disabilities. Still, the problems only temporarily stopped me from the future I wanted to provide for my family.
What advice do you have for other Latinx people who want their voices to be heard in their community? The best way to have your voices heard in your community is to be involved and engaged. For example, if you are having problems with your children in school or are not sure what a recent diagnosis means towards your child’s future, reach out to individuals in your community that can provide answers to those questions. Your child’s school has a school psychologist, social worker, and special education teachers that are willing to assist parents. Also, outside agencies like the Parent Network of WNY offer free educational training for parents in various Special Education topics and a support group in Spanish that I lead every month. For more systematic changes in Special Education services within the Buffalo Public Schools, the parent group to reach out to is SEPAC. They need LatinX parent representation to advocate for our children and specialized needs. Reach out, get involved and raise your Voz!
What is your theory on human potential? My theory on human potential is that everyone can learn and achieve personal goals if they are supported with services and a community that caters to their needs. This is especially true when students with disabilities are given the specialized instruction, they need in the classroom to accommodate differences in abilities or learning. A person also needs intrinsic or extrinsic motivation to work towards those goals. This is where the community comes into play to remove systematic barriers of ableism, sexism, colorism, and xenophobia that discourage individuals from creating goals and prevent them from seeing themselves in positions that they can achieve to reach their full potential. What is your opinion on the fact that Latinx women are the most underpaid demographic in the United States? The fact that Latinx are the most underpaid demographic in the United States is a sad reflection of the complexities of systematic sexism and xenophobia that exist within our society. Often, our madres y hermanas, must work twice as hard to get a job or position and are expected to make double the effort. Also, cultural expectations of keeping the family running and familial duties prevent Latinas from taking risks applying for higher jobs or leaving home for better education or job opportunities. Education and organization offer the chance for Latinx women to fight those systematic oppressions that exist. Let’s work together to highlight the plights of Latinx Latinx women that promote transformational changes within our communities.
INTERVIEW # 10: Featuring MIGDALIA VIAS
My roots are from the Lower East Side.
The Lower East Side of Manhattan always existed in my mind as a mythical place I belonged to. When I think of who I would have been if we stayed in Manhattan, I think of Titi Migdalia Vias.
She is Manhattan, well postured, poised, educated, and sleek. She gives the right type of love that helps you find your gifts and break generational curses. Appropriate, beautifully dressed, and present – fully always watching —- Pendente – watching because we are from the Lower East Side. And we are not going out like that.
We are from the projects– Papi is proud of that. Titi is too, the childhood love of my uncle, My Titi is the lower east side embodied in a cardigan and a murk.
She’s a fighter. Period. Migdalia Vias fought for every opportunity she ever had. Coming out swinging – slight, and quiet but a champion. Her weapon of choice? Hard work.
There are 174,000 units of public housing presently in NYC. Each one of them is occupied by families whose aspirations, like Migdalia’s, are born at such a steep economic disadvantage (in relationship to the capitalistic incline), it is almost impossible to scale. But she did.
Though born in poverty, Migdalia’s early life was marked by the love of her seven brothers and sisters. As a child, she worked at a grocery store, during school and after. She got herself a job in third grade, enough said.
Quadruple shifts that about sums it up. She worked singles, doubles, triples, teaching, mothering, cleaning, cooking, scrubbing, reading, and learning. First, taking care of the home and her motherly responsibilities, then in the world of “work”, and then usually in the evening another job, at night – she worked on her own aspirations. Earning a 4.0, (perfection), which was her goal in her master’s program.
She signed herself up for opportunity with the risk that she would fail, but with the faith that she would not. She is a gifted and blessed woman – full of the spirit of our Lord and the determination that comes with loving Christ in a world of sin.
Her favorite quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Greatest is not in where we stand, but in what direction we are moving. We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it but sail we must and not drift nor lie at anchor.”
Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child states children can build a “biological resistance to adversity.” Faith, love, culture, desire, resilience — all these things formed the child that got herself a job and was collecting a paycheck long before they even figured she could. The Lower East Side raised my titi Migdalia Vias, and she was raised right…
What values were taught in your home? My family taught us to always show respect. My mother was born in Albonito, Puerto Rico, where she was taught how important respect was. She always taught us to respect others, and more than anything, to respect ourselves. She taught us to never disrespect our values and our elders. It was always important to my mother that our last name will stand for people who respected and honored their human values.
What motivated you to become an educator? In part, it was my background that motivated me. My parents got divorced when I was 5 and then things were different for all of us. Seeing my family and community struggle with poverty, I knew there had to be something more, more than the projects and poverty. As a young female, there wasn’t anybody who talked to us about attending the correct schools (junior high school and high school). I didn’t even know that college existed. I learned that my way out of the life that I had was through education. I had several teachers, specifically in 8th and 9th grade who impacted me. The most impactful was a Mexican female instructor who came from a very poor family. I’ll never forget when she told me I could be anything I wanted to be; I was shocked to hear that because no one ever told me that. This teacher, she really taught me things that I was never exposed to, like going to better schools than the ones I was in, which were tough schools. She also taught me not to be afraid of other people with money, or because I was from the projects. She taught me I could do just as much or more. For example, when I went to register for school, I was already married and had children as well; I had the responsibilities of a household and a mother, and I had two jobs. I worked during the day teaching and then at night I taught parents how to communicate with teenagers. Sometimes, I wouldn’t get home until 9:30 pm at night, to start with homework and household responsibilities. I remember, just to register, I went three times and left. Three times I was so embarrassed that I went, and I didn’t ask for papers or anything to do with registration. I then thought “If I don’t do this now, I won’t do it at all.” I finally showed up again, and all I said was, “I want to go to this College.” I remember there were so many papers to fill out, and I didn’t know what to do. I took the papers to a friend, and she helped me fill them out. Another person I remember that motivated said, “You are going to make it, you are going to be a success story of the Lower East Side.” I took the papers back and I had to meet with one of the advisors. She asked me what classes did I want to take, but because I didn’t know, she decided for me. They were horrible but I passed! After that, I knew that I was going to do it – complete my degree in Early Childhood. I took 15- 18 credit hours per semester to make it go faster. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Education/ Literature I went to work for the catholic school system and continued my love for education.
- When did you start working? My first job was in third grade. We were poor, we were on public assistance, and received food stamps. I always wanted to do for myself. I worked in Miguel’s grocery store, my best friend’s family store. I used to make $40 dollars a week working during the school day (lunch time) and evening (after school). I would have dinner there and I worked until 11:00pm, then I would go home. My mother had so much responsibility, she had less to do because I could do for myself, and I was proud of that. I had my own money.
- What advice would you give to other Latinas who want their voice to be heard in their community? You must believe that you have everything and tools you need to stand and speak. I want them to know that they have a valuable voice to share, that there is so much to say from their perspective and experience, and that they need to know your worth. Just because you don’t speak proper English, just because you don’t have the material things that others have, to remember that they have something very valuable. We have experience that very few have. We have a strong Latin heritage from our parents, grandparents, and ancestors who never gave up. We are who we are because they believed in themselves, specifically to come to this country without knowing what was going to happen to them. So, we – as Latinas- need to stand up and speak up!
- What was the moment you were inspired to take control of your future? The moment I became a mother –I wanted my daughter to know that the sky was the limit. This was the time that I knew that would give her that example but not by what I said, but by what I did. Everyone has potential, whether you are at the top, the middle or wherever you are, everyone has something to bring to the table. Potential isn’t just expressed by academics; what about your experience? What about what you bring to the table? I would say, you show potential in actions. You show potential in what you are doing for someone else. In what you do to make this a better world. That can’t be measured by just books it must be measured by actions.
INTERVIEW # 9: Featuring JUMIRNA ALCOBER RAMIREZ
A child of Washington Heights and ambition, Jumirna Alcober Ramirez has accomplished more than many. She earned a master’s degree at 23 years old, organized her community around the state, conducted academic presentations, wrote papers, organized & joined demonstrations, and gave interviews, and “Jumie”, as her close friends call her is just getting started.
She earned her bachelor’s degree at Buffalo State. As a student leader, and later, as President of Adelante Estudientes Latino (AEL), she was the center of a universe — both locally and statewide. “Go ask Jumie?” was often muttered amongst the students. Jumirna and others did well in holding up the legacy of on-campus civil rights advocacy and leadership, which began during my father’s era, and earlier by other AEL members. The Latino student voice is so important in Higher Ed, where today the percentage of Latino professors hovers around 4% percent. From its inception, the Civil Rights Movement was fueled by young leaders like Jumie.
She went on to attend Medaille College, where she earned her master’s degree in Organizational Leadership in only a year. Only a sliver of the national Latina population will go where Jumirma has gone, gain knowledge, and bring it back to their communities.
After graduate school, she became further involved in community activism, bringing issues and ideas to the forefront in a substantial way, and using her lived experience to make the messaging of those ideas relevant and spur action. She campaigns, participates, and shows up for her people; that is one of the reasons she is just so breathtaking; she is fully present. She is on the cutting edge of progress – spending the summer working on a local political campaign – Uptown for Angela, when nationally only 1% of public officials in America are Latino. More specifically in New York, Latinos make up about 19% of the population, and only 9% of all New York state lawmakers are Latino.
I have a feeling Jumie and her colleagues may do something about that. Her leadership transcends her neighborhood, her borough, her city, her region. She is truly statewide. With a national and international network that extends well past Washington Heights, Jumie brings Washington Heights with her, specifically its energy – even to Buffalo.
In her interview, she says: “People remember how you made them feel, so treat others how you want to be treated, even when they don’t deserve your kindness.”
Learning about Jumirna and her journey will give you an opportunity to get a good glimpse of the future. The future’s leadership in this country belongs to Jumirna, and to women like her.
- Where you raise and what values were taught to you? I was raised in Azua, Dominican Republic and Washington Heights, NYC. Growing up and still relevant today, my family instilled within me and my sister to value education, especially in the United States. Your knowledge, experience, and credentials are things people cannot take away from you. Dedication, productivity, and commitment to responsibilities were also values that were taught to me. These values have helped me maintain optimism throughout challenging times and build me into a better leader. To this day, these values are still highly embedded in me. I try to bring these values into the teams I lead and create a culture where everyone can grow together.
What was your experience as a student? As a first-generation Afro-Latina, my experience as a student was unique. Many times, I felt like my identity was confusing to many people and I did not know where I would be embraced the most. I also did not see myself represented in roles of leadership or many roles in general. When I was younger, I was embarrassed to ask questions because I felt I would delay everyone else in the room. As I matured and realized how much of an effect not asking questions was having on me, I then decided to change. I became more vocal and expressive. Through the guidance and support I received from the mentors I have had throughout my time in school, I learned the importance of using my voice. Once I became aware of the power of my voice and the power I held as a student, I started to use that to advocate for underrepresented students across the board.
- When did you start working/what was your first job? My first job was assisting my parents clean a local pre-school. I would wipe down shelves, tables, toys, and things of that sort. I did not like it because there were these big glass windows around the business that people can see directly through, so I was embarrassed that someone I know may see me. I did not want people to know that’s how my family made money. I did not want people to see me and my family “struggle”. It was a learning experience at the end of everything. Through this maintenance job, my sister who also cleaned with us, later got hired as a teacher then promoted to lead teacher. There she found her interest in early education and children’s development.
- What is your theory on human potential? I don’t necessarily have a theory on human potential. I see potential as something people build within themselves. I cannot say who has the potential to do what, because I feel it comes from internal drive. However, as an external factor I try my best to uplift people and help individuals find and or embrace their unique qualities, goals, and interests. I use my identity to help inspire others.
- What advice do you have to educators today? My advice to educators today would be to evaluate your whys. Across the country I feel educators are undervalued, especially those who are genuine and prioritize the wellness of the students/learners. Education is not as easy as it may seem, a lot goes into play. Now with modernization and technological advancements, educators have strategies to maximize the usage of that as well. Educators should know the value they bring and the impact they have on lives directly. When you (educators) need a break, please take one. Hold your fellow peers accountable. Create opportunities for students who are usually neglected. Lead by example and help decrease biases in your workplace.
- What was the movement you were inspired to take control of your future? When my parents were incarcerated, I realized I have to change and take control of my life. Statistics show that young people who have incarcerated parents are likely to become incarcerated themselves. That data was so prevalent in my mind and it made me afraid to take the wrong path. I started to think more about what I wanted for the future, how I wanted to feel, how I wanted to live. Throughout the time they were away, I took a good look at myself and my surroundings. What should I be doing now to make sure I am okay later? Who can I turn to when I am down? Where should I be investing my time? Answering those questions helped me make better decisions and motivated me to keep pushing. Reflecting on who I am today, I believe this experience was a highlight in my life. It helped me learn so much about who I am and what my role is in making this world a better place.
- What advice do you have to other Latinx voices who want to be heard in their community? My advice would be, be prepared to have people try to dim your light and learn how to refuel after burnout. Advocating on behalf of one’s community has never been easy. However, sometimes we have an internal calling we must listen to. Sometimes people don’t like new ideas or embrace creativity. Sometimes people will dismiss you, ignore you, disrespect you, but it’s all about learning to be better than how people make you feel. Sometimes even your own people may not believe in you, but you must find the power to keep on going and stay committed to your goals. Whether it’s becoming an entrepreneur, buying your first car, running for office, or starting a family, things will not come easy. Take the time to appreciate yourself and regroup. Be honest with yourself. Be committed to your mission and true to your values. Be a student first and be receptive to feedback and advice. Learn from others and be consistent.
INTERVIEW # 8: Featuring MAKAYLA SANTIAGO
Every culture has a word for it, “moxie” in Sicilian, “chutzpah” in Hebrew, “brava” in Spanish and those are all the ways I know how to say it. It is the spirit when someone got when they are a “shining star”, when little light shines so bright, even they themselves are blinded. Some people got it.
My mother told me- “you got it.” I was a westsider, I was Sicilian, and I was her daughter, and most importantly, because I came from a long line of hard-working Sicilian women. That is right, as Puerto Rican as I am (wepa), my mother’s- mothers have forever been Sicilian. Relentless- my maternal DNA is because- that is how you describe Sicilian mothers. When my ancestry DNA report was delivered- it was true I was more Sicilian than any other ethnicity present in my DNA; so, I accepted my fate. Smiling- I knew it meant one thing- I am unbreakable. Because I come from a long line of hard-working Sicilian women, and they told me so.
When I got to know Makayla Santiago, I got the impression that she, herself, was from a long line of hard-working women; and that takes generations. I respected her immediately. I could tell she hustles. She is a shining bright star from the Bronx, and she can succeed in any environment – the mark of a strong woman. She has mastered the dense city and the flowing open spaces of rural life. Makayla’s love is art and storytelling, and in Puerto Rico that has dual functions.
Our artists have kept our history, there was no other choice in the beginning with the lack of books. The first library was established in Puerto Rico in 1523 by the Spanish in El Morro. Private families and or religious groups held small collections during the early colonization of San Juan, but they kept literally getting destroyed – in attacks. The first documented library (supported by the government) was established in 1874- when the first and true public library was opened in Mayaguez, 381 years after Puerto Rico was “discovered.”
For 381 years, artists and shining stars like Makayla have told the stories of a place. Good thing Makayla is from a long line of strong women; she and others have a lot of storytelling to do, something which is both a blessing and a responsibility.
Makayla’s a storyteller. In her interview, she says, “Take action and find connections.” She and her line of strong women are sure to inspire. Her grandmother is someone that she attributes much of her success, and that is the real beauty.
Read Makayla’s interview and read the story of a storyteller who casts light in dark spaces with her art.
1. Where were you raised? What values were you taught? I am a proud Nuyorican from Highbridge in the Bronx and shout it out at any opportunity I can. I love being a Latina/Hispanic woman. There is so much beauty and life in our culture, food, families, and values. I was raised surrounded by strong women who shaped me to be the person I am today, but the most important thing was,
“Educate yourself. They can take everything away from you, but you will always have your education.”
My mother and grandma did everything in their power to make sure I had a good education. My grandmother would walk me to and from my elementary and middle schools. I attended a catholic school from 3rd grade to 12th. Tuition was covered in different ways. My grandmother worked as a lunchroom monitor to cover a portion of my tuition, my pediatrician covered a portion, and my mother paid the rest. If it were not for the help we received, we would not have been able to afford it. When it came time to go to high school, my 8th-grade school principal helped work towards a scholarship program in which an anonymous doctor paid for my tuition. I was incredibly lucky and blessed to have so many people guiding me towards my education.
The second most important value I was taught was to simply “Work hard. Everything you do, do it with your heart.” And that is what I did. It led me to a dream job and starting a podcast. I knew I wanted to be a voice for the voiceless and now I am.
2. What was your experience as a student? High School: I was busy chasing boys. If I knew what I know now, then. I would not have given them a time of day. I was on the student council, was a cheerleader, played on the softball team, and maintained good grades, but the drama overshadowed my passion for learning. No one in high school really saw my potential… except for my English teacher Ms. Wilbekin… we all always have that one teacher, but I felt like there was nothing in the Bronx for me. That is why I chose the farthest college from my doorstep, with state tuition. I needed to break free and understand myself as an individual.
College: At first, I thought I knew what I wanted to be. I started out with a dream of being a Music Therapist. I wanted to use music to change the world. I quickly learned that it was not the path for me and began to explore other career paths. I changed my major a whole 9 times and finally settled on becoming a dual major, Business Administration with a concentration in the Music Industry and Arts Administration with a concentration in Public Relations and a dual minor in Communications & Leadership Studies. Yes, that is a mouthful, and it took me 5 years to finish, but I did it. To build my resume, I had a couple of part-time jobs in the arts, held internships at Warner Music and Universal Music in NYC, and sat on executive boards for multiple organizations in the college. To say I was busy would be an understatement. BUT I LOVED IT.
Grad School: I loved my grad program and I remember the day I received the email to learn of my acceptance like it was yesterday. I was the second LatinX/Hispanic identifying woman to graduate from my program. I really wanted my thesis to revolve around studying Hispanic women in the workplace. I was discouraged to do this because of the lack of studies I could pull from, and I would not have been able to secure the amount of female-identifying Hispanic women I need to have a valid study. This was also an especially important moment in my life. I realized that I needed to be part of that change, no matter what my next step would be. I was especially inspired by my supervisor at the time. I was able to attend Canisius College because she took a chance on me and hired me as a graduate assistant which helped me pay for school. Associate Vice President of Advancement at Canisius College, LatinX, and expert in the art of fundraising, I chose to follow her path, which led me to where I am today.
3. When did you start working and what was your first/favorite job? Chautauqua Regional Youth Ballet- Experience: My first job after college was working at the Chautauqua Regional Youth Ballet in Jamestown, NY. I loved it because I had the opportunity to be a part of every step of management. My mentor there let me try everything and anything I wanted, within reason. I wrote press releases, planned events, controlled social media, helped backstage, and they even gave me a small part in performances. This was the place that jump-started my career and passion for working in arts administration.
Mark Morris Dance Group- Culture
The first time I experienced the feeling of true belonging was working at the Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn, NY. Being back home, living in the Bronx, and surrounded by colleagues from all over the United States and the globe. Being in Brooklyn, one of the most diverse places on Earth, fueled my passion. This is where the idea of Chatty Carmens was started, alongside my incredible Social Media Manager, Joleen Richards. It was also the first place I had ever worked where there was more than one woman of color in an executive role.
4. What was the moment you were inspired to take control of your future? I was unhappy for a while as a fundraiser. I knew I was not doing the right thing while I was in grad school, but I thought maybe it was because I was in Buffalo and not at home in the Bronx. But then I felt the same way while working in Brooklyn, and again when I returned to Buffalo to live with my now, husband. I felt like something was off, and in my heart, I knew I was not in the right profession. I became a fundraiser because I thought it was the highest paying department in the nonprofit sector, there was a direct path to becoming an executive director, and it was an opportunity to help nonprofits keep their doors open. When I was let go from my position in downtown Buffalo at the start of the pandemic, I was divested. I was angry at the world, and I felt like I was not enough. Through my tears and self-doubt, I had to remind myself that:
- There was literally a pandemic happening around us!
- My heart was not in it, and I needed to rethink my path.
- I am a BOSS who has done a lot in my 28 years of life.
- Everything is going to be ok.
I had to remind myself, what my WHY was at the beginning of my career journey. Why did I think fundraising was it?
I wanted to help people and give others the opportunity to do their craft. So, I decided to start the Chatty Carmens Podcast, with a simple vision, that female-identifying change-makers of color deserve a platform to share their stories, and I was going to be someone to provide it. During the process of creating, I realized my heart was in marketing and communications. Marketing amazing work, finding ways to communicate the magic to the masses. I feel lucky to have found it in the creation of Chatty Carmens and my new full-time position at Chautauqua Institution as the Arts Marketing Specialist.
5. What advice do you have for other LatinX voices who want to be heard in their communities? Act and find connections. Every move I have made in my life has been through building relationships with those around me and, and learn how to speak highly about yourself. But if you talk a big game, you must be able to back it up. Educate yourself on whatever you are passionate about. For some that means going to college and getting an education, for others, it means getting the rights training and certifications. Always strive to be the best version of yourself, and do not compare yourself to others.
6. What is your theory on human potential? Everyone has potential, they just need the right tools and opportunities. Historically, the problem has been that the tools and opportunities have not been accessible to underprivileged communities.
7. What is your opinion of the fact that Latinx women are the most underpaid demographic in the United States? I feel this in so many ways, and I see it. Give more LatinX women more power! Give creators opportunities. Hire more LatinX women. There is no reason that we are not being put into higher-paid positions except for bias on behalf of hirers. The talent is there. After working in entry-level jobs for a few years, and feeling I could take the next step, I was discouraged by a recruiter and advised to take another entry-level position and keep trying to work my way up. How many women are given the same advice and listen? I did not listen, and I did not settle.
Interview 7: Featuring EVELYN ROSARIO
Papi was a teamster, proud of it too. Nothing wrong with being blue collars, far as I was raised. Better than being no collar, if you know what I mean. Growing up – I thought the union had superpowers, because my father was the strongest, and he told me – union was stronger than him.
Unions, something folks fought for, my Irish ancestors specifically. They show up is all. Union means different things to different folks really, part of the beauty. But for me at least, the best thing about being a Union girl, is I get to be part of something bigger than myself and my own ambitions. By joining the union, I made a promise that I am going to show for folks that I do not even know but call family. Especially when the going gets tough and that makes me proud — my mother raised me tough and proud.
Being raised a union girl means you take care of your part when it counts. Properly, mom always beeped when she saw her union brothers or sisters taking up signs, making their line, singing the songs, holding space. She always slowed down, beeping, waving her hand- to make sure they saw us. To make sure they knew we were with them –even in the car. When she was able, she gave her time, to her union sisters, when they ran out of sick time and that helped their families. That stuck out to me as a kid. Union was something to remember.
The Union means peace of mind to me, but to Evelyn Rosario, a Ph.D. Candidate, it meant a chance at fulfilling a lifelong dream of achievement. Ms. Evelyn Rosario used her union benefits from UUP to pursue an education while working full-time and raising her daughter. Ms. Evelyn Rosario is indomitable-like a union in fact. She is steadfast and parable, the woman that you aspire to be. Semester by semester, working toward achieving her Ph.D. while shepherding our students into and through SUNY Buffalo State. The guiding light for many down the path of higher ed.
Ms. Evelyn Rosario – made Latina herstory in higher education as a student, a staff member, and a campus member, defying the odds- always postured and well poised. Ms. Rosario is currently a Ph.D. candidate and one of the most interesting people you will ever get to know.
She says, “Becoming an agent of change and a role model for others to emulate is something that I value greatly.”
Read our column to learn more about my union sister that will not stop striving. And when you can – beep let the #union know, you are with them, even from the car.
Interview with Evelyn Rosario, M.A., Ph.D. candidate
Evelyn Rosario, M.A. PhD Candidate
1. Where were you raised and what were the types of values that were taught in your home: I was born and raised in Yabucoa, PR (southeast coast). My parents were very family-oriented and good neighbors. We shared some of the fruits and food that grew up and cultivated in our land. We were very closed as a family with our grandparents and extended family. We had strong religious faith and try to live by principles. Hard work and work ethics, decency, and a sense of community. They were strong values to motivate us in doing well, for ourselves, our neighbors, and our community. Respect, critical thinking, being factual, trustworthy, and telling the truth no matter the consequences. We strived to become positive role models. We looked forward to help the less privileged students.
2. What motivated you to become an educator? I was quite impressed with my teachers from first grade to higher education, many of whom left a positive and permanent impression to this date. I was in Junior in college when I decided to explore education as a minor, and once I started taking courses, I loved it. Another factor was my counselors in school. I used to visit the guidance counselor in school and the interaction we had made me develop an interest in becoming one following their model the one in my first two years in higher education.
3. What was your experience like as a student? I loved the experience. I learned to interact with people who had different ideas, political orientations, problem-solving, and conflict resolutions. As a student whose financial background was less than enough, I learned to be happy within my limitations. I was a dedicated and devoted student overall. [ I entered college with a 3.52 average and a full scholarship to undergraduate studies at UPR (Humacao/Rio Piedras)]. College was for me a big adjustment since I lived in boardinghouses away from home.
4. Did you like school/learning? I loved school and learning. Although my focus was academic and religious, and not much social, I had a good relationship with friends and people overall. 4. How did your experience as a student inform your leadership style as an educator? Understanding that I am responsible and accountable for my own behavior and expectations. As a student, I learned to have work ethics and fairness and to render quality service; taking initiative and emulating positive traits of the leaders I learned from.
5. When did you start your work as an educator and what was your role? I completed my bachelor’s degree when I was 20. I started working as a Guidance Counselor in the Office of the School Superintendent – I had four Junior High Schools under my care. I assessed the referrals from the guidance counselor and the principals. I made referrals to the social worker and collaborated with the health counselor for presentations at schools. Later, I worked as a Psycho-social Technician for Mental Health and had a caseload that included children and adolescents, adults and geriatric, including prisoners. After married, I moved to Buffalo and started a career as an EOP Academic/Counselor at Buffalo State.
6. What was your favorite/most informative role? All my work experience was valuable. I learned about human dynamics and human complexity, issues, and concerns. I feel that I had a greater impact on higher education.
7. What advice do you have for educators today? Respect diversity and cultural differences are key elements. Being sensitive and empathetic to difference, developing listening and observational skills, showing genuine interest in others, and facilitating the opportunity for others to share their stories are crucial. Becoming an agent of change and a role model for others to emulate, something that I value greatly.
8. What is your theory on human potential? I believe that external and internal factors including traumatic experiences could interfere in human development, but with a support system in place, including financial assistance, people have opportunities nowadays that were not necessary there in the 30s’, 40s, and 50s. Everyone has the potential to develop themselves in any area if structure and support are in place, and when this does not exist, educators should reach out to discover and explore that potential by means of the classroom, social workers, counseling centers, accessibility services, financial means, etc. Not everyone is interested in college but in a trade or a non-academic career; guiding them to do what they like and are motivated to develop is important in encouraging them to excel.
9. What is the single most important value/thing to keep in mind when working with students? To recognize and respect everyone as a different entity; who has the potential to be developed; that is not like others, although he or she may share similar interests and vocations, etc.
10. What is the most important thing a student taught you? Each student contributed to my learning and growth and reinforced the fact that I do not know it all. Nevertheless, the interaction between the two was extraordinary and a standardized win-win situation.
Interview 6: Featuring BEATRIZ FLORES
Elvira Velasquez stands elegant with a deep stare, in her 90’s but with an essence of youthfulness about her. The story was that she was a looker, and the whole town of Camuy knew it. I have one photo of her, to prove my linkage to the blackness that Puerto Ricans like to negate. Hand on her hip, she lived between centuries, colonizers, (last names), husbands, masters, and empires. I asked in fear- what would be of me if I did not have this picture? To make the pieces of my soul who yearn for Africa – whole. Elvira, born a slave and died a free woman who knew bomba. — Y tu abuela, ¿dónde está?
African slaves were introduced in 1513 and institutional slavery would not be abolished until 1873. Slaves had to remain on their Master’s property for three years to work off their freedom. Even the free were not free in Puerto Rico. Restricted movement, chains weighing down their bodies, forced labor, control, dominance, submission, deprivation, anguish, all limiting conditions of slavery. From bits of spirit, they wove together culture in response to those limiting phenomena, a knot to bind all tribes and peoples together, no matter what their mother tongue.
That knot, a culture, and a lifestyle called Bomba. A celebration of the most absolute kind, one, that in its mere existence, is a miracle. The abundance of 500 years of dance, represented here in Buffalo by one face.
INTERVIEW WITH BEATRIZ FLORES
Beatriz Flores is the Founder and Director of El Batey-Puerto Rican Center of Music and Dance. I met her first- when I heard her drummers- well before I saw her face, I knew she was beautiful. Curiously peering into her performance space, I could tell she was in charge. Time froze to be rebuilt around her body’s movements. She stopped- with a flash of her perfect smile to greet me. After talking to Betty, you feel seen- you feel acknowledged- full of hope and promise. That is what Betty does; she is one of those people who fill up your spiritual cup of Cafesito. Rightly so, one of those people – people love to know.
The face of “Betty” Flores as she is known to her adoring fans, has ushered in a new period of appreciation for OUR traditional arts and folklore across the entire city and we are grateful.
Betty Flores remains humble in her interview she says:
“As an individual being teachable cultivates humility.”
Betty’s job? To remind us, that even though we do not know the steps, we know the way because bomba runs deep in our souls, and here in Buffalo, Bomba lives at el Batey…
1. What motivated you to become an educator?
I teach an over 400-year-old oral tradition called Bomba. It has the power of lived experiences that hold incredible wisdom. The power in the stories of the people who came before us. We are the descendants of that history. This centuries-old tradition holds our history within it. A history that encompasses all that we are and defines us as a people. This type of education gives kids the knowledge to understand and be proud of who they are.
I honestly believe that without our culture and traditions we cease to exist as a people. Being part of the Puerto Rican diaspora intensifies that belief, so the natural response is to do what we call in Puerto Rico, “hacer patria”, to be in service of Puerto Rico and of our people by preserving our traditions and culture. Yo hago patria aunque esté en la luna, that is my main driver.
2. What was your experience like as a student?
I went to school in Puerto Rico, my memories of being a student there were great! I recall teachers were like an extension of your family, discipline entangled with love and encouragement. I was a quiet student on the honor roll and had all As except for Spanish class! Go figure! Now contrast that to my experience in the states as a teenager, the school felt like an institution where kids had no voice, there were no teachers I connected with, coupled that with the shock of the racial divide, and the violence that it breeds. It was not fun. My experience as a Puerto Rican student in Puerto Rico allowed me to thrive academically as opposed to here where I was met with a harsh institutionalized culture that left me feeling completely disconnected. I did not do well as a student and ended up dropping out.
3. Did you like school/learning?
Yes, both in my work and in my personal life constant learning is part of what sustains and guides me. I think having a student’s heart is the key for me as an educator. As an individual being teachable cultivates humility.
4. How did your experience as a student inform your leadership style as an educator?
It is the reason why I am very intentional about building relationships, bonds, and trust with my students. Pouring love, light, and hope into them without exception. In our classes respect is mutual. And support is not conditional. Allowing them to have a voice, to make mistakes, to have choices, to learn at their own pace is critical. Students blossom under that type of environment. Those are life principles they will learn to apply in their own path.
5. When did you start your work as an educator and what was your role?
I am not an academic educator in the traditional sense. I began my work as a dance instructor, and this led me to discover Puerto Rico’s oldest cultural expression; Bomba. My role was and still is that of a student of the tradition. I went ahead and founded the first Puerto Rican center dedicated to our music and traditions 4 years ago called El Batey. The mission is to empower and honor our people through our music, history, and traditions. It is all about community building from the root! Our roots.
6. What was your favorite/most informative role?
I absolutely love teaching the youth, to see them grow into actual cultural practitioners, dancers, drummers, ambassadors of los nuestro. Our music and traditions are not something that was or is easily accessible to our youth here in Buffalo, NY. And unless you come from a musical family you most likely will not grow up knowing our traditional music and folklore… All our classes range from adults to preschoolers, but our focus is the youth, programming for this very same reason.
7. What advice do you have for educators today?
Is not about having the right class rules and rigid teaching environments to prevent behavior issues. Is about having the right relationships. Students want to know that they matter, that are cared for, and are seen. Creating an environment of community where we all are invested in each other is the goal. Being strictly tied to curriculum, policies, and procedures, is what sacrifices human connection.
8. What is your theory on human potential?
That is limitless, truly. But on an individual level, it is not attainable without an immense amount of support, resources, and interconnectedness. This is especially true for historically marginalized communities. Individualism and “hard work” alone are not enough. It is important to reach our potential.
9. What is the single most important value/thing to keep in mind when working with students?
I think it is important to meet them where they are, rather than have certain expectations. Identify their needs, their strengths, what makes them happy, what motivates them, and work from there; that only comes from getting to really know them.
10. What is the most important thing a student taught you?
To be honest and to be fearless.
Interview 5: Featuring EVELYN PIZARRO
This month I will be introducing Evelyn Pizarro, an educator who worked and retired from the Buffalo Public School system.
Evelyn Pizzaro is a Puerto Rican integrationist. She integrated the white schools of the Sicilian West Side in the 1960s. Evelyn’s parents achieved social mobility and bought a house. One of the three Latino families in the West Side. Buying a house allowed Evelyn the privilege and the responsibility of being one of the first Latina children to attend BPS 03. At the time attending, all the white schools were understood to be a privilege because all white schools were better. While Evelyn’s parents were integrating the West Side, Puerto Ricans were fighting hard to access “better” for their children all over the country.
For the folks who like definitions, social mobility is defined as a change in social status relative to one’s current social location within a given society. In the West Side commonly referred to as “the come up.”
Mendez v. Westminster was filed in 1946 in California because Felicitas, a mother from Juncos Puerto Rico, was on the come up too. She refused to accept the fact that her 9yr old daughter Sylvia was denied access to their local white school. Felicitas was not backing down and took that case to the Supreme Court. Evelyn’s parents were not backing down either- part of the first 2000 Puerto Ricans to settle in Buffalo they both worked two jobs. Literally and physically working night and day to earn enough money to buy a house in a good neighborhood so Evelyn could go to school.
Latino sacrifices to access education have not always been well understood and or well documented. For that reason, history won’t tell you the Mendez case came before Brown v. Board of Education and that Sylvia was ½ Puerto Rican or that the case led to the integration of California schools. History will not tell you about Evelyn Pizzaro who integrated a school and returned as its Principal.
So simply we must rewrite history. In honor of the women like Sylvia and Evelyn. Who as girls were isolated, and not wanted inside their own school buildings and in response grew into women who out-worked and out achieved their peers? Evelyn’s grit remains today, she says in her interview:
“I was known as a toughie in the neighborhood. I wasn’t one that was intimated very quickly and that stayed with me as a student.”
Help us rewrite history and read Evelyn’s interview on my blog. Learn the true story of a trailblazer that fought for Latinas before she even knew it- every time she stepped into the classroom.
INTERVIEW WITH EVELYN PIZARRO
1. What was your experience like as a student?
I went to Buffalo public schools I graduated from BPS # 03 at Porter and Niagara – around 15 or so years later I came back and became the principal. You finished at school 03 and then you would go to Grover Cleveland High School. Back then there were neighborhood schools, so you went to school where you lived. At the time I went to school the West Side was a mostly Italian neighborhood and only a handful of Puerto Ricans lived there. My family lived around the block from the school. What was special about my family was that we were accepted by the Italians and we owned the house that we lived in.
2. Did you like school or learning?
I was the first Latino principal in the City of Buffalo because of my parents. “First of all, in my house, you never failed”. If you failed, you were going to get your ass kicked. My parents made it known that “You better come home with passing grades.” If any of the six of us failed any classes, you would have to spend the whole afternoon at the table. And then if not, you were reading out loud so my mother could hear you. My parents understood education was important. My parents came from Puerto Rico and they met in New York City. I was born in New York City, but my family moved to Buffalo when I was a baby. In those days, most Puerto Ricans only went to school until 08th grade because children were also working in the fields. During my parent’s time, If you got a high school diploma you were lucky. So, when my parents came to Buffalo, NY they worked hard. First, my father was working in the fields. Then our neighbor down the street got him a job driving a garbage truck in the morning. And then he got a job at the steel plant. He had a garbage truck in the morning and a steel plant job in the evening. Then we had enough money to buy a house. My mother worked at the cannery and sewed at home at night. There were only 3 Hispanics in the whole neighborhood when we bought our house. Little by little more people started to realize – if you can buy a house and you use your money to invest in your house you can make money.
3. What were your experiences like as a student and how did they inform your leadership?
I was considered a tough cookie. I did not take any abuse from anyone. When my friends had a problem with the Italians. I would go to them and take care of that problem. I would say “Why are you calling her a spick?” Or telling her that “we should be on the farm?” Then I would say “you give her a hard time again- I am going to kick your ass!” I was known as a toughie in the neighborhood. I was not one that was intimated very quickly and that stayed with me as a student. I studied here in Buffalo in the West Side. I went to D’Youville college in the West Side because they had bilingual courses. I then went to SUNY Buffalo State and earned a master’s degree in Elementary Education and one for early childhood too. During that time Jose and I worked at the college. We were responsible for recruiting students to college and for talking about college. When I went to graduate school Jose was at home with our two children watching them. I wanted to get a PhD., but I had to raise children.
4. When did you start your work as an educator and what was your role?
I was a teacher first I was working at BPS #12, there was a school that had a bilingual program #BPS 33- and I worked there as a teacher also. Being a teacher, I really enjoyed, it, you must teach the kids how to work hard and how to play hard. I would tell them “do your homework, and If you do not know something, ask someone for help. Do not wait until it is too late to figure it out. “We always had verity schools and bands to showcase culture. As a teacher, I was the kind of teacher that was with fair kids. I did not go out of my way to do things the way I wanted them. Some teachers are hard on the kids and go out of their way to make their kids miserable. At that time teaching there were mostly American teachers, and we had some ethnic groups – we had some Asian kids coming to buffalo – most of them lived on Grant Street. At times I witnessed some of the American teachers would treat the Asian kids unfairly because they did not know how to do things. I would tell them. “Just because your English is not 100% that doesn’t mean you’re stupid.” I would talk to the teachers and tell them the children were bright when they were making fun of kids because they had an accent. I was always saying “that child can speak in two languages.” “How many can you speak?” To get my point across. As a teacher I knew -You must treat children fairly. I was not going to treat them badly just because they did not meet a “so-called standard” that people said they had to meet. First, you could take the state exams and local exams in English and Spanish. Then they decided they would all be English and that made things harder for students.
5. What was your favorite and most informative role?
Principal – I became principal of P.S. 03 and I was the first Latina principal in the history of the city of Buffalo. Like I said most of the Puerto Ricans/Latinos who came here- came here with an 8th-grade education so when I was principal of BPS# 03 I ran a class for the parents. There was an annex on Normal and Rhode Island and right behind there was an extension of the building. My students’ parents were there taking classes. One of the most amazing things was when I saw my parents graduate with their GED. We graduated 8 parents – from BPS #03. To have the children see their parents achieve it showed the kids that if my parents had to do all that to catch up – I better get my diploma now. The Mayor at the time, Mayor Masiello – he would come and shake their hands when they graduated with their GED. We always had important people from the neighborhood and Mayor Masiello came all the way to our graduation. As principal, I always brought Latin bands to show our culture and to teach the children our culture is important. I always thought that bringing special guests teaches the children how to behave.
6. What Advice do you have for Educators today?
First, you are coming into a society and culture that is very mixed especially if you are going to work on the Westside. Educators today should be ready to embrace all the cultures and languages and the people and how they were raised and what have you.
I always fought for my kids. Sometimes I would need desks because there were too many kids and I went straight to the service center with my truck and got my desks.
You must work. You cannot be afraid of work. As a Principal, I would stay up countless hours after working a long day to apply for state grants and Mary taught me. Mary was my mentor and extremely helpful. People are afraid of paperwork but if you know how to apply you can have everything you want for your classroom. We had classes, in the late 1970s my parents had computers – we applied for them for the state – we had a little computer lab for the parents. I always fought for my kids because they went through a lot, especially in those days. I worried for them when they were at home. One time I was the principal at school 03 and I had to send a student home and I was really scared for him. I decided to send another student over to his house to do a welfare check shortly after school ended. I was so scared that the kid was beat-up that I sent another kid to the house to check if the kid was ok. I figured if the parents would allow the boy to be seen- he did not get beat up bad. But if the parents would not let the boy be seen or out of the room – then he got beat up. I remember I was waiting in my car for the report. I did not go home to my own kids because I was so scared that my student was going to get beat up bad by his parents. Our girls lived hard lives too, sometimes more than they could handle. I remember one time we had a girl that was in sixth grade who thought she was pregnant. Sometimes I would worry so bad I would go directly to the house. One time I nearly had to follow the kid home. I came just in time. I could hear the kid upstairs getting beat up by his father and screaming. I ran right up to their door- alone- screaming. “I know what’s going on and I’m not going to leave here until it stops, and the first thing I am going to do Monday morning is to check that kid from head to toe,” I remember staring at the stairs, waiting, just sitting in that hallway in the upper west side because I cared about my kids.
7. What is your theory on human potential?
People do not realize the potential they do have. Growing up I was not thinking that I would be a teacher or something like that. That is why I had to leave home early. I wanted to take courses and my parents wanted me to get married right after high school. And I said no I wanted to go to college and take classes. So, I left. I even participated in a beauty contest and won!
8. What is the most important thing a student taught you?
You must be fair with kids and you have balance in your interaction with them; you can’t play a game that his kid is better than that kid because this kid speaks English or because this kid did better on the state exam- kids know when you do that.
Interview 4: Featuring HEIDI ROMER
Education is supposed to be an equalizer. But in the beginning and increasingly now, it is a polarizer. What school you go to, if you have the internet or not, and what zip code you live in indisputably- matters in terms of educational access, and in society’s understanding of your perceived ability to “succeed.”
Accessing education has always been a challenge for us – part of how institutional racism is expressed in this country. For the folks who like definitions- Institutional racism is a form of racism that is embedded as the normal practice within society.
Most often – girls were the first to be denied any education.
Writing from Puerto Rico, I close my eyes and think of my abuela. She only had a third-grade education, but she was one of the wisest people I will ever know. She taught me “education” is more than whatever “lessons” I would learn in “school”.
Two years before abuela was born in 1921, the United States reported only 41% of the nearly half a million school-age children in Puerto Rico were “enrolled in school”. In 1945, the year Puerto Rican troops were returning from World War II, only 50% of their sisters and brothers were accessing primary education. Now, ask yourself, where did the other children learn? Who were their teachers if they were not “enrolled” in school?
The answer? Their “educators” were leaders in their own community.
Heidi Romer is a community educator, she teaches/advocates for health equity. Additionally, in doing so – she drives progress, speaks for the voiceless, the vulnerable, and those needing care. Heidi’s bright eyes look excited because she believes in possibilities. Heidi has conquered impossibility. As a strong Puerto Rican woman, she says:
“Be bold, be brave, be humble. Pursue your dreams, Ask the right questions. Fight for what you want. Be your own cheerleader, advocate, and pastor. Find a way or make one. Love yourself. Love your neighbor and lift up those around you.”
March is Women’s History Month, and Heidi, like the rest of the women who inspire me, embodies the idea that living is giving. Her entire life is an example.
Values are taught outside and inside of the classroom, and Heidi’s commitment to communicating hers is why you should read her interview on my blog. Our message? Always be open to learning in spaces – outside of the classroom- those lessons are equally as important now, as they were for the women who came before us.
INTERVIEW WITH HEIDI ROMER
I attended classes all day and remember running to class because the school was overcrowded and if you were late, you most likely had to sit on the floor. I also attended night school three times a week and worked on three take-home courses on the weekends called concurrent options. I graduated in January and gave birth to my first son in March. I attempted to attend Bronx Community College but realized I needed to work sooner than later. I went to an open house at the Katharine Gibbs School and asked the counselor, “What is the shortest program, offering guaranteed job placement and making the most money?” I immediately enrolled in the Legal Executive Assistant program and a few months later I was making more money than most of my friends. I hated working in a law firm.
What was your experience as a student?
My student experiences are a bit of a blur. I attended many schools throughout my life. I traveled between New York City and South Florida until 9th grade. Looking back, I can say I was not academically challenged, and subjects came easily to me. My favorite subject was History, and my concentration was Performing Arts. I thought I was going to be an actress. I am laughing out loud just thinking about it. In 10th-grade I was a victim of a hit-and-run accident. I am dating myself with what I’m about to tell you, but all I can remember is returning the movie rental Boomerang to Blockbuster Video- – -yes, that was a thing and eating McDonald’s French fries. I was in the ICU for two weeks, spent one month in the hospital, had surgery to repair a broken fibula and ankle, and missed a semester of school. I spent my junior year making up classes. Shortly after I was pregnant with my son. My only goal at the time was to graduate high school early. “I will either find a way or make one”-Hannibal.
I had my second son when I was 20 years old. After 9-11, I moved to Buffalo, NY, and obtained my degree from SUNY Erie Community College and thought I could be a CEO with AAS. I am laughing out loud again just thinking about it. It took me ten years to complete my bachelor’s degree. Every time my life changed my priorities changed. Survival of the fittest and cannot stop will not stop sums up what my experiences as a student were like.
Did you like school or learning?
I did not like going to school or being in a structured environment at all. In New York City, schools are built like a fortress. In Florida, schools are built like mini college campuses. In New York City, you must get yourself to school and that meant buses and trains. In Florida, gym class was held outside in the blazing sun and heat. These were real issues for me at the time. I am laughing out loud again.
I love to learn and experience, and explore. I am a lifelong learner and understand “I know that I know nothing”-Socrates.
How did your experience as a student inform your leadership style as an educator?
Traveling between the Bronx and Miami throughout my childhood did have its benefits. My father is German, and my mother is Puerto Rican. I am a first-generation American. My best friend at the time was Vietnamese. My babysitter was Italian. I was always exposed to diversity, cultures, food, traditions, languages, and religions. It is all I know, and I am so grateful to have grown up in such a dynamic environment.
Although I faced many challenges in high school and as a young adult I kept going and kept moving. I had to, what was the alternative? It is because of these experiences that I can relate to many people who face adversity and uncertainty. I meant what I said — I will help you, guide you, fight for you and remind you of your gifts, your excellence, and your worth.
When did you start your work as an educator and what was your role?
I began working in the community about ten years ago. I was employed at a manufacturing company in Buffalo, New York as the Executive Assistant to the CEO and transitioned into a community leadership position. It was during this time I realized there was a tremendous opportunity to do something that hasn’t been attempted before that could positively impact the lives of employees in the community. I became the expert who brought the experts together to help create momentum and change in an underinvested neighborhood. A multi-sector coalition, new housing development, regional recognition, and an international design award were direct results of this project.
What was your favorite and most informative role?
I do not believe I have a favorite role however, there is a group I have been a part of for several years in Buffalo, New York. The Healthy Corner Store Initiative is comprised of the most dedicated and inspiring community champions I know. The mission is “We address disparities in food access by creating a culture of health through the engagement of residents in a healthy lifestyle in partnership with neighborhood stores.” Think in terms of food access + food justice =health equity.
I must believe in the work. The mission needs to align with a right and just cause. At this point in my life, I will only spend my time and energy on projects where passion and purpose intersect. The Impact has to be real; progress has to be amplified, intentional, and meaningful.
What advice do you have for educators today?
-Do not forget, those closest to the issues or problems have the answers and solutions.
-Approach every interaction as an opportunity to learn, help or heal
-Seek to understand first
-Lead with love
-A kind word, gesture or conversation can change someone’s trajectory
-Ask the right questions
-Help empower those around you
-Be intentional, not transactional
What is your theory on human potential?
I believe everyone could fully reach their potential. I also believe it is hard as hell to reach that potential without a support system, guidance, tools, and love.
I read an article about the inequality of “choice sets”. Many Latinos do not have the luxury to choose between two equally great options. Often, the “choice sets” are between a rock and hard place.
It is our responsibility to create opportunities for those who do not have opportunities. It is our responsibility to reach out and help those around us. Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor said it best, “Not everyone can just pull themselves up by the bootstraps-unless you do something to knock it down or help that person up, they will never have a chance”. I am one of those people who never had a chance. And by the grace of God, a few, knocked down the barriers for me.
What is the single most important value to keep in mind when working with students?
We need to be the resource for the student. To ensure their voices are heard and matter. I meant what I said- -I will help you, guide you, fight for you and remind you of your gifts, your excellence, and your worth.
What is the most important thing a student taught you?
Last summer, I had the opportunity to work with two interns from Say Yes to Education Buffalo. What a breath of fresh air. These young ladies were humble, confident, happy, and optimistic. When the internship came to an end one student would resume classes and the other student explained that she had a plan. I asked her, “What do you want to do?” Let me help you. She declared, “I’m going to work for the FBI”. She said it to the universe.
Can you believe she called me in around late January to tell me she got a job working for the FBI in Buffalo, New York? This young, beautiful soul reminded me that “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”- Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Interview 3: Featuring: REBECCA HANNON
INTRODUCTION: Faith leads us through the dark. It is the single thing that unites us and motivates us to hope-or that one’s hope is not in vain. Gloria Dios. I can hear it, with the flashes of smiles and smells of my childhood. God, it seems, was always part of my memory. But how? Faith is deeply engrained into many Latinos’ lives that we often do not ask ourselves, how? How did our faith get there?
In my community, your faith is taught to you. First by your parents, second by your extended family. In my case, huddled together on the pew, waiting for the service to get going, so we did not notice how cold it was inside the church, despite our pants under our long skirts. Abuela always said “You are never alone; you walk with God” (“Tu Nunca estás sola; tu caminas con Dios.”). Never forgetting this fact, when I discovered I was pregnant, I decided to walk toward him. Different than walking alongside him. I knew I needed help.
Because I knew Faith was the product of strong leadership. How proud I was, as a child, that my Tia was our Sunday school teacher- a leader so vibrant and principled as she preached to us. In my memory I saw strong Latina women- keep the faith. I mean literally hold it up, that and a church full of men and make the rice. And if you ever went to Pentecostal church- you know what I mean.
That is why, when I met Rebecca Hannon – she made sense to me. Young and despite that she’s an unwavering spiritual faith—that I could literally feel when I met her. In her interview, Rebecca talks about her vision.
“I have a dream to see every family who lives in Buffalo reach their full potential. I believe that this can begin through the conduit of faith-centered education. As a result, I ventured out in 2018 and opened Strong Academy, a private school located on 14th street, right in the heart of my beloved community in the Westside of Buffalo.”
Rebeca is a creator – for faith-based education-because we need it and she will tell you, it is a part of her leadership. Read her interview, support her school, learn about her dream in faith, and if you cannot simply move closer to the source of your faith, because lessons come to us in all places, and that’s what Rebecca would want.
Interview with REBECCA HONNON
“Imagine a world-class Christian elementary school on the West Side of Buffalo…What types of leaders would emerge if children in Buffalo were afforded the opportunity to build their lives on the foundation of Jesus Christ? What kind of entrepreneurs, pilots, doctors, lawyers, politicians, religious leaders, advocates for humanity, celebrities, and other world-changers would rise up? Could we see the next president come from our neighborhoods?” — Rebecca Hannon
- What motivated you to become an educator?
What was your experience like as a student?
The short answer is that it is in my blood! My grandmother was born and raised in Puerto Rico. She came to Buffalo not knowing any English. She faced many adversities as she adapted to a new language and culture all while raising her two daughters, my mother, and my aunt. Despite the difficulties, she preserved and taught her daughters to do the same! When I was a little girl, I had the greatest honor of watching my grandmother and my mother walk across the stage at their graduation from Buffalo State College with their degrees in education. They paved the way for me to dream big. I am now a 3rd generation educator!
2. What was your experience like as a student?
I had such a wonderful privileged of learning Spanish as my first language. I attended Head Start on Niagara street starting at age 3. From there I attended a Bilingual Buffalo Public School where I learned English. The staff there was so loving and encouraging. I remember the first assignment I completed in English as a 1st grader. My teacher was so proud of me that she went down to the principal’s office and showed it off! I was so moved by this teacher’s support of me that it inspired a lifelong love for learning in me. From there I attended a small private Christian school until 4th grade and then went back to Buffalo Public schools all the way through High School. I am a proud Hutch Tech Alumni!
3. Did you like school/learning?
Yes! All throughout my school career I encountered numerous educators who loved their profession and loved their students. These educators made it easy to love school and love learning. By the time I reached High School, I was so involved in extracurricular activities that I was often in school as early as 7:00am and would stay as late as 5pm on some days. To say I loved school and learning is probably an understatement!
4. How did your experience as a student inform your leadership style as an educator?
I was always most impacted by the dedication of the educators who were in my life. Their examples inspired me to always be the type of educator who truly took the time to get to know each of my students and their families and to love them like my own. I take my job so seriously because I know that it is a job that will shape the future of each of my students and the world that they build.
5. When did you start your work as an educator and what was your role?
I began teaching in a small Nursery school as a teacher’s assistant. It was a fun role and was a great way to ease into the field of education.
6. What was your favorite/most informative role?
My favorite role as an educator was serving as an afterschool Reading tutor with the 21st Century program in Kenton. Getting to help students in areas where they struggle the most is so rewarding. It reminds me that no one is beyond help if there is someone in the world willing to step up to help!
7. What advice do you have for educators today?
Do not give up! Working with kids can be so challenging. Everyone has an individual personality and their own set of trials and struggles. However, everyone also has a purpose that they were created to fulfill. There is a reward of staying the course despite daily challenges. That reward is seeing the kids we work with fulfilled the purpose that they were created for. Not everyone has this opportunity because they do not have someone willing to stick with them through thick or thin. Educators have the unique opportunity to do that for their students if they do not give up!
8. What is your theory on human potential?
Humans have endless potential with the right love and support. Often the home life of many children is not set up to provide the type of nurture needed for these children to succeed and reach their full potential. However, when they come to school it is like they have another chance at life! If educators can bravely provide the love and support needed to nurture their students, there is a particularly good chance that their students will reach the potential that’s inside of them!
9. What is the single most important value/thing to keep in mind when working with students?
Something I say in my mind often is: “One day this kid could be my president”. At first, that may seem crazy, but the reason I do this is that I want to elevate my students in my mind to a place of honor and respect that they deserve. If every educator mentally pictured a beautiful future for their students, then the chances of each of their students realizing a beautiful future would increase exponentially. If we treat and teach our students like presidents, scientists, engineers, educators… One day, they will go on to fill these very roles.
10. What is the most important thing a student taught you?
Working with children teaches you to stop comparing. Every human develops at a different rate and the end goal for every human is distinctly different than the person next to them. Students are individuals and should be treated and taught as such. We cannot compare one student’s development to another and expect good results. We must nurture individualistic growth!
Interview 2: Featuring: ICHIERY RIVERA
INTRODUCTION: When I was growing up, we were poor, but we were rich in human capital. What do I mean by human capital? Well, according to Investpedia, human capital can be classified as the economic value of a person’s experience. This includes assets like education, training, intelligence, skills, health, and other things employers value such as loyalty and punctuality. The people who raised me did not have much formal education but boy, did they have high human capital. They were bright and had skills that life taught them rather than a textbook.
They had lessons to teach and I absorbed them. And in those rare moments when I was “out of the house” and alone to decide what kind of person I was- I thought of those lessons. What I learned literally helped me survive urban poverty and the side effects of being Puerto Rican and under-resourced – if you know what I mean. It took a village for me- comprised mostly of my cousins and father’s six brothers and sisters. Sprinkle some neighbors on top, between my porch and the corner store, that was my entire life. But that foundation bred, resilience in me and in countless other children.
Your family builds the first wall for your village. Your community builds the outer wall for your village, and if you are lucky, people like Ms. Ichiery Rivera of Say Yes Buffalo add to the journey. People like her are bridge builders. Those who connect our children to resources within the school setting that are designed to change the trajectory of a life. Impossible to leave out, advocates like Ms. Rivera are an essential part of urban education.
Ms. Rivera has a laugh that resonates down the halls of even the busiest high school hallway- I have had the privilege of hearing it myself. Her mission is to fight for every student. Her advocacy is an ode to her father whose commitment to community was well known to Puerto Ricans in Rochester, New York — her hometown. Her vibrant energy and storytelling connect people. Ms. Rivera shows up for work highly present, motivated, and authentic; leading by example and rising early in the morning while texting students to get ready for the day.
Ms. Rivera of Say Yes Buffalo has motivated and comforted students on their toughest days and hugged them as they sailed across the stage on graduation days.
Interview with ICHIERY RIVERA
In this interview, she will tell us why she has dedicated her energies to children and what her journey through education has taught her:
1. What motivated you to work with youth?
I have always been motivated since a young age to work with youth. My mom had in-home daycare when I was very little. So, in my first job, I was like 5 and it was my responsibility to fan the babies when they would cry. I would get paid 50 cents. Lol After that I was hooked and absolute the joy in taking care of another little human. I spent the rest of my childhood growing my experience in the field so that I could pinpoint what I wanted to do in the future. I babysat, worked in daycares, summer programs, etc.
2. What was your experience like as a student?
As a student, I struggled academically often. Math was my enemy, spelling was a villain, and grammar was the devil himself. And attending catholic school my whole life- I was sure I knew what the devil was. In high school, science crept tear, the rest of my academic confidence down. After struggling in math 1 and science 1 realized my hopes of being a NICU nurse were never going to happen. So, like Elsa I let it go. I was always very adamant that I did not want to teach. I did not want to be a social worker either. I knew him I wanted to encourage and support youth through the ups and downs of life.
The beginning of my life I often describe as straight out of a sitcom. 2 parents who fell in love in High School. Got married at 19 and left PR for Rochester NY. They busted their butt working to get everything that they had. They built a family out of pure love. That love was the foundation of that family and life they created. My Father went from a 19-year-old newlywed to a man with 2 kids, a public investigator with the public defender’s office, and a big social activist in the Latino community. Which in turn led me on a path to be conscious of social justice issues and added another layer of youth activism to my path.
But at the age of 13, my foundation was shaking to the core. My Father my rock my everything the light of our community died. Like any sitcom story, there was a shift in the whole dynamic of the show and the main character left behind. My life is changed although our life was never extravagant it was stable. It’s hard to feel stable when half of your heart is missing.
3. Did you like school/learning?
As I said before I struggled in school. It was later discovered that I could have benefited from ESL education, but it was not offered at any of my schools. Due to speaking two languages and the way my brain processed everything. I was unable to be a strong speller in any language but being bilingual allowed me to be able to use my decoding skills and have a high level of reading comprehension. Once I figured that being bilingual made me stronger in other areas during my junior year of high school. I was able to figure out my learning style and be a much more successful student. So, when I hit college, I LOVED school. Let alone going to school for Child and Youth services studying a topic I was passionate about made it a great experience It was also the 1st I left home. Leaving Rochester and going to school at Medaille College gave me an opportunity to breathe, leaving behind the shadow of my father’s death. I was able to see the world through a new lens a brighter one at that.
4. How did your experience as a student form your leadership style as a youth advocate?
Hugely I went to a very prestigious private school from 7-12grade. I was one of 3 Latinas in my graduating class of 110 students. There was no other student/teacher or even admin who understood me and all that came with me and my identity. Being Latina growing up in the hood, I was raised in a single-parent, home-based out of tragedy. My mother was very strong, but I lost my father, who much of our community knew and loved, at a young age. I was impacted tremendously because of my father’s death. Losing him motivated me to want to be a person that students could relate to and count on. I hoped that they could respect me and know that I would support them from a very nurturing, genuine, and sincere place. The crazy part after working with students is when it hit me, how much I was lacking in my high school experience. I was lacking support and someone to relate to. As a young person, It’s really hard to find yourself when you don’t have people encouraging you and you have no role models who have achieved the goal that you dream of. I am fortunate that my family felt that if I wanted something it was their job to help create a way for me to achieve it. So, I made it to where I am now, understanding that if you want something YOU have to do the work. YOU have to want it. YOU have to push yourself. But in the end, it’s on you.
5, When did you start your work in the education field, and what was your role?
I worked in high school in a daycare as a floater. My mother worked in the daycare too so I would go after school and work during school breaks. I loved it and just continued to solidify the gift I had been given to able to connect with children.
6. What was your favorite/most informative role?
My most Informative role was when I was the ASSISTANT DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS of a chain of daycare centers. I accomplished so many things I never would ever have imagined. Working with one of my closest friends and teaming up to turn a gym into daycare, a bar into daycare, and an ex technical school into daycare was mind-blowing. But it was so gratifying to help build something from the ground up and make spaces for families and their children. But my favorite is my current role at Say Yes Buffalo as the Near Peer Mentoring supervisor. 1st the organization is a place like I have never worked in before. The level of mutual respect that everyone has for each other is mind-blowing. The passion, which each of us carries into our positions, to support and encourage students- from birth to beyond college is transformative. I get to fulfill my wish to be a part of a full support system that serves thousands of students. But at Say Yes Buffalo -the fact that I can honestly say the work that I do, I do not do it alone. Because so many of my colleagues carry that same desire and wish every day into work and it’s humbling. I feel like my personal values are aligned with my roles at Say Yes Buffalo and that makes “work” not feel like “work”. Being able to support students and connect them with individuals who also want to connect, being able to create relationships and support them is more fulfilling than I could have ever imagined. I am so blessed.
7. What advice do you have for educators today?
The biggest thing I tell anyone who works with youth in any capacity is to be genuine. I tell my mentors and mentees I work with: “I don’t do Fake”, and I do not want to see it in this program. Just because you cannot relate to someone’s experience does not mean you cannot be supportive. I say that because in my own educational experience I was surrounded by people who could not relate but still tried. Their effort meant more to me than anything. Those efforts gave me hope in humanity. I also tell Mentees and Mentors- if you can relate to a situation then share your story. We often hide in our own progress and forget what got us to the point of success. The fact that we made it and that we do have a story to share, is what will inspire the next generation to go even further than us.
8. What is your theory on human potential?
Everyone has the capability to tap into their own potential just must do the work. There is a lot of self-reflection involved in that. You must be willing to grow as a person even when it hurts, and it is uncomfortable to move forward. There is so much that youth today face, so many obstacles and trauma even. But you must deal with those things to move forward. If you do not, they will creep up. Later and get in the way of you reaching your goals.
9. What is the single most important value/thing to keep in mind when working with students?
That if you want to create an environment, where kids can learn and grow, then you as a person have to wake up every day and try your best, to create a world that can reciprocate that to them. There are certain things that each generation has continued to repeat and if we do not continue to break cycles and make strides for our communities, we have no business putting expectations on our youth. In the end, when working with youth you must realize it all starts with you. You must value and appreciate the opportunity you have been given to make a life-lasting impression on a child life. Make It Count!
10. What is the most important thing a student taught you?
That I am enough. My work, my students have provided me with so much self-worth and fulfillment. That they have given me and my life so much more meaning. I could not imagine my life without them.
ICHIERY RIVERA, Educator
Interview 1 Featuring WILDA RAMOS
December 2020 Issue
INTRODUCTION: The reason I chose to do my work in education, as a child, I was caught between two languages. I knew I was smart but would spend the better part of my early life trying to figure out how to express that fact. Public school did not know what to do with me- indicating to my parents at one time that my difficulty in expressing myself and slow reading meant I was “behind”. Not a new problem though, a girl who speaks two languages but who sometimes, will not speak at all.
Both my paternal and maternal grandmothers were English as second language students, one speaking Sicilian at home and the other Spanish. Buffalo Public Schools educated my maternal grandmother, a bi-lingual first-generation Sicilian American, in the 1930s. She a Sicilian speaking child, I am sure knowing the great pause that comes about you – when your picking between two languages. Though we never talked about it. Dual language a theme in my heritage and academic interests. When I started my professional journey inside Buffalo Public Schools, I looked for people. People, who knew that kids like me, were smart and we were worth fighting for. Then I met Wilda Ramos. She was just what I was looking for and that’s why her story is our first LatinaHerstory. Wilda’s interview documents her distinct Latina educational leadership inside a system with a rich history of supporting bi-lingual, and multilingual children, in her voice.
Interview with Wilda Ramos
Wilda Ramos, Language Assessment Coordinator — Buffalo Public Schools
- What motivated you to become an educator?
I had good educators that inspired me to become an educator and believe that I was going to be successful in life, starting with my parents, who inspired me to get educated and to contribute to society. As an adult, when I moved to Buffalo, all my friends were educators. As I was working at the University at Buffalo as a Spanish-speaking clerk-typist, my supervisor at the time, Dr. Lillian Malavé asked me to help with the registration committee at the New York State Association for Bilingual Education (NYSABE) Conference (I have attended the NYSABE conference since then). At that conference, I was able to experience the educational environment and what educators do to become better teachers and leaders. Participants worked together to discuss new practices, policies, and different strategies to teach English language learners how to maintain and value their first language and also learn English. This motivated me to become an educator.
2. What was your experience like as a student?
Education was a priority with my household growing up. We were nine siblings and eight of us achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher education. I moved to Buffalo, NY when I was 21 years old from Puerto Rico, I already had a 9-month old baby. I had completed an Associate Degree in Secretarial Sciences from the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico but did not speak or understand English at an academic/professional level, for that reason, I couldn’t work outside the house. I was not able to communicate with people that spoke only English, for that reason, I decided to go back to college. I attended Erie Community College for the purpose of learning English but decided to continue my studies at the University at Buffalo shortly thereafter. I finished my Bachelor’s Degree in Arts. After that, I received a scholarship based on academic achievement that covered my tuition, fees, and books, which included a monthly stipend of $400 to finish my Masters in Elementary Education with a minor in Bilingual Education. I was able to experience learning English as Second-Language and went through the same experiences that students go through when they enter US schools without the English language base (supposedly) in mainstream US households.
3. Did you like school/learning?
I loved going to school and learning new things. I also enjoyed the social part of being in school.
4. How did your educational experience form your own educational leadership?
I was fortunate to have great leaders in my life starting with my mother and my father. My parents were my first educators. They taught me responsibility, and love for learning, and perseverance. The experience as a graduate student at the University at Buffalo, and leaders like Dr. Lillian Malavé and other leaders from the New York State Association for Bilingual Education paved my way to be an educational leader. I have been a member of NYSABE since 1989 and was elected to the Delegate Assembly and the Executive Board. In 2007-2008, I became the New York State President of the organization. All these experiences have helped me develop educational leadership.
5. When did you enter public education, what was the year, what was the role?
I attended public education all my life from Kindergarten to grade 12. I was a clerk typist from 1989 to 1995 -first at the University at Buffalo for a year. After that, I worked as a clerk-typist with the Buffalo Public Schools. In 1996, I started working as a teacher. I worked as a support teacher for 11 years and worked as a Language Assessment Coordinator during Summers since 2004 and full-time from 2015 until now.
6. What was your last role?
Language Assessment Coordinator
7. What was your favorite/most informative role?
Each one of my roles has impacted my life. My favorite was being a teacher because of the impact you can have on students. My most informative role is the one I’m doing now as a Language Assessment Coordinator. I’m able to assess students to help determine the best educational programs for them. Also, I give orientations to parents about the different programs the Buffalo Public Schools offer and provide information pertaining to their rights as parents so they can make informed educational decisions for the child.
8. What advice do you have to educators facing the challenges they have today?
Do not give up! We are living very difficult times and it is very challenging to teach/learn remotely, but you still have a lot of influence on your students and they will appreciate your efforts later on in life.
9. What is your theory on human potential?
My theory on human potential is that each child has potential and it is our job as teachers to help that potential flourish.
10. What is the single most important value/thing to keep in mind while working for children?
Teachers can make or break students. We can make them believe that they can succeed or we can break them by telling them that they have no potential or cannot succeed in life. Make a positive impact in your student’s life. Have empathy and love your students; children can tell if you are sincere. Show the love you have for your students and your profession.
Wilda Ramos is a resident of Buffalo, NY. This is her 30th year with the Buffalo Public Schools. She has three adult children – ages 34, 32, and 21 who are all bilingual, bi-literate, and bi-cultural. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or at 716-422-0097.
TALIA’S VIDEO CORNER: Wilda Ramos’ interview documents her distinct Latina educational leadership, inside a system with a rich history of supporting bi-lingual, and multilingual children, in her own voice.
Watch Interview with Wilda Ramos: December 2020