By Maricella Garcia
USA: A little more than a year ago, I was minding my own business happily ensconced in my position as executive director of Lita’s House, a program whose mission is to help Latino families in Little Rock, Arkansas keep kids in school and gain higher education.
I had started Lita’s House because I felt very passionate about improving educational outcomes for our community. Less than 60% of Latinos graduate from high school and only about 12% go to college and gain their bachelor’s degree.
In Little Rock, Latinos make up less than 1% of the local university’s population. For me this was a critical issue that needed to be addressed, and I felt that I could help others see the importance of education, but also work through the process which can be very daunting for a student who has never done it before.
You might ask why I felt compelled to step into an issue that doesn’t directly affect me; after all I don’t have any children.
For me, it was a necessity to give back the blessings that I have been given. I am the product of the fulfillment of the American Dream.
My grandparents immigrated to the United States from Nicaragua with seven children and later had two more in California. They worked hard: my grandfather in a factory and my grandmother enrolled in beauty school and taught herself English.
My grandmother especially believed that education was important because as she always told me, “It is the key to success in this country.”
Yet, of my 8 aunts and uncles, 4 brothers, and 29 first cousins, I am the first to gain my bachelor’s degree.
I believe education is the key to success and that is why I help other Latino students gain the same privilege of education that I received.
I was pretty well settled on my path with Lita’s House. I knew what I wanted, I knew what I was doing, and I knew that it was important work. It was also rewarding for me to see kids who previously hated school feel like there was something there for them.
Then, I got an e-mail that changed my life, literally.
The Clinton School of Public Service was looking for a Latina for their second class. I had followed very closely the development of the Clinton School since I believed strongly in their vision and values.
The Clinton School offers the nation's first Masters of Public Service degree. The program stresses academics for the real world by integrating students’ public service practice at the individual, group and international levels with a curriculum focused on equitable and lasting social change.
The Clinton School has provided me with many opportunities over the past year and a half that I still haven’t had the chance to process them all.
I have met and worked with a variety of people just as passionate about their issues whether it is education, environment, economic security, etc. as I am about mine.
And, through this opportunity I have learned countless things that I can take back to my community to make it stronger. However, I can say with simple certainty that the most powerful experience of my life was provided by the Clinton School through the International Service Project.
I knew from my first interview where I wanted to go for my summer project: Nicaragua.< SPAN style="mso-spacerun: yes">
My mother was four when her parents brought her to the United States and she hasn’t been back to Nicaragua since she was ten. For myself and my mother, the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua for an internship was the fulfillment of a family dream.
I spent three months in Nicaragua working with an organization called La Familia Padre Fabretto.
Fabretto provides critical education services to the most underserved populations in Nicaragua. I traveled to three “rural” areas near the border of Honduras to provide parents and students the opportunity to participate in a programmatic evaluation of Fabretto.
The children that I met inspired me greatly; they were smart, talented, and incredibly generous to me even though I was an outsider. Their parents struggled to ensure that their children received every opportunity.
Nicaraguan children serviced by La Familia Padre Fabretto.
Coming back to the United States, I am filled will purpose. There are solutions to seemingly intractable problems, it just takes people dedicated enough to find them and to commit to the long battle.
I think education in our country is at a crossroads. All the discussion surrounding No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) reauthorization has shown that the reality for many children, and especially Latino children is that they are in fact left behind and that their schools are ill-equipped and ill-prepared to stop it.
NCLB, and more broadly, educational opportunity for Latinos was just one issue that was addressed at the Senate Democratic Youth Summit in Washington, DC which I was lucky enough to attend on October 16th and 17th.
In addition to education, the conference addressed a wide range of issues including immigration, civic engagement, voting, juvenile justice, and civil rights.
Speakers were on hand from various civic organizations such as Excelencia in Education, Voto Latino, MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund), and NCLR (National Council of La Raza), as well as key staff members of senators, and the senators themselves to address the issues most important to our community.
One of the most exciting things for me to see at the summit was that for the first time in the history of the Senate Hispanic Taskforce, it is chaired by Latinos.
Senator Bob Menendez
Co-chairs Senator Robert Menendez and Senator Ken Salazar were on hand to meet with the students at the Summit and give us the first-hand benefit of their experiences.
Senator Menendez opened the Summit talking about how many times in his life people had told him he could not achieve some goal because he was only a Latino. And, how his every response was “Si, se puede.”
For me, this story really resonated, because this is what I see happening to the younger generation of Latinos today. Many opportunities are being closed to them, but unlike the Senator, a generation of kids are growing up thinking that the way it is, is the way it has to be.
What I saw in DC is that there are many people working on these important issues and they don’t believe that this is the best our country can do.
I too think that we can do better and having seen our Senators at work in DC, I am hopeful that the coming year and the upcoming election will bring positive change for our people.
Throughout the Summit for me, the idea was enforced that as a people, Latinos are the sleeping giant.
Comprehensive Immigration Reform and now the DREAM Act have failed because people fear what we might do if we realized the power we could wield.
We have to wake up! Our power comes from our vote, but unfortunately, we seem to be the only ones who don’t realize our own potential.
If we want to seek comprehensive change and if we want our elected officials accountable for their actions (including the 10 democratic Senators who didn’t vote or who voted against the DREAM Act), we have to exercise our power by registering and going out to vote.
As young people, the future of our country is in our hands. As Senator Salazar said during the Summit, “The future of the Latino community resides with our young people. Over half of Latinos in the United States are under the age of 26 and will continue to be the fastest growing sector in our Nation’s population…we must remember that investing in our young people will pay off in the future as we enable them to reach their potential and become catalysts of change in their communities.”
Returning from DC to Little Rock, I am more motivated than ever to continue my work in social change. I will graduate from the Clinton School of Public Service in December of this year and will still be working on completing my joint degree from the Bowen School of Law.
After I graduate I plan to continue working with the Latino community to empower the newer generation to know that our power rests with their willingness to be educated and involved.
Learn more about Maricella
Maricella Garcia is a graduate student in the joint program at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and the William H. Bowen School of Law.
A graduate of the University of Maryland, Garcia has worked with an advocacy program for Latino families for the past five years as a program coordinator. In addition, Garcia also established a nonprofit organization, Lita's House in 2005.
Lita's House is dedicated to educating Latinos families about the college application process and helping young people achieve an education.
After graduation Garcia intends to continue to work with the Latino community through advocacy.