Guest Post: How We Can Empower the Next Generation of Bilingual Latino Leaders

A dear friend and contemporary theologian wrote that persons of great conscience stand at the crossroads of righteousness and justice on a journey which he called each person’s exodus story. These are stories of moving, of migration from one place to another, from one mindset to another.

Latina/o immigrants share a communal exodus story. Being on the move causes displacement and loss of home and familia. Latina/os acknowledge and remember fondly in dreams and songs of that other place, an older ancient place, a homeland left behind. We all share a cultural yearning for rootedness—for our own piece of ground. Our shared language, if celebrated, allows us access to that rootedness. For some, it can also present our communities with a barrier—not just to navigating and gaining roots in a new world, but to connecting with our children and their children.

Many Latina/os live with a lifelong gratitude of the sacrifice of our parents, our grandparents and weave these powerful stories into our own narratives. We often begin our personal narrative with storybook introductions like:  “…my father was from the state of Nuevo Leon, Mexico, and my mother was from the Rio Grande valley in Texas,” or “I remember my grandmother and grandfather who came to the U.S. during the revolucion,” and  “…when Castro took over, we fled our country…” or “en la isla, we didn’t know we were poor…”  These are all familiar touch points that mark a common theme for us as a community. Our collective narratives add to our strength as a Latino community. But how can our children access our shared stories and the power of our narrative when they are deprived of the gift of their ancestral language? An acknowledgement of this narrative is connective tissue for our history and for our future. The disconnect Latinos often feel with organizations or companies in adulthood stems from a failure of those institutions to recognize the power of our stories, how that’s entwined in our language, and how each of our particular stories has actually prepared us for our potential as leaders.

Why Story is Important for Addressing Common Barriers

I grew up learning to navigate the dichotomy of two worlds—a kid born in Texas, but living most of his young life in Mexico.  In Spanish, we say, “Ni de aqui, ni de alla” (we are neither from here nor from there). A cognitive dissonance accompanies those of us who lived between two universes—in our hearts and in our heads. We grew up daily trying to integrate the social and practical responsibilities of how we must work in this country and how we continue to live out our traditions. Sadly, sometimes remembering or living in our traditions and cultura is considered a source of guilt, regret, and even shame.

In my many conversations with young aspiring Latina/o leaders, the impact of the messages received in early education mark a resonant theme.  Their aspirations and their frustrations can stem from their own childhood educational experience where, as school children, no one said “you are gifted,” or “you have something to offer,” or “you are unique in your capacity to navigate between two cultures, in two languages.” Latina/o kids still don’t generally accept that the world in which they live, including the language spoken in their homes, is something to be honored and valued. For many, a common theme is that no one invited them to a greater aspiration. The converse is also true: where Latino/as were counseled, mentored and subsequently invited to graduate from high school and attend college, they have thrived.  

We Need More Bilingual Latino Leaders in Education

In 2015, I founded Latino Educational Equity Partnerships (LEEP), a non-profit organization whose mission was to identify, recruit and train new leaders for a network of high-performing dual language schools. I began with the proposition that dual language education was the best way to tap into the giftedness narrative of each Latina/o school child, and to affirm that giftedness as an asset for their learning. At the same time, the giftedness in each child would be a mirror for Latina/o teachers and school leaders to acknowledge their own giftedness. Latina/o teachers and school leaders would grow in their skills, scaffolded in what might be missing in their experience and prepared for their future leadership even beyond LEEP.

I started LEEP in response to a growing gap. At 13 million, Latina/o students represent nearly 30 percent of public school students. Yet Latina/o leadership is nowhere near representative of our ever-increasing Latina/o student population– Latina/o principals make up only 7 percent of principals nationwide, while Latina/o superintendents account for less than 2 percent of superintendents. And they don’t always find themselves supported in shifting cultural narratives to uplift the strength of our Latina/o community.

Moreover, Latina/o students account for over 75 percent of our nation’s 5 million multilingual learners, and there’s a shortage of certified educators equipped to serve these learners. Research suggests that dual language instruction presents gains for multilingual learners that are equivalent to 3 additional months of schooling, and bilingual students who build on their native language to gain proficiency in English are shown to outperform their peers.

But dual language schools don’t just benefit multilingual learners. They could benefit all students by providing a culturally and linguistically responsive education. In 2018, I founded our first LEEP Dual Language Academy in Brooklyn—a community of children whose parents emigrated from Mexico, Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala and a wonderful diversity of Black, Asian and White students living in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhoods. LEEP Academy would provide Latina/o school children a leg up on their academic journey, with Spanish-speaking Latina/o teachers and leaders who every day, affirm each student’s story to open up new avenues of opportunity through multilingualism and the corollary habits of effort, persistence, reflection, empathy, and multicultural awareness.

Past as Prologue: We Must Support Each Other in Recognizing Our Leadership Potential

We know from research that Latina/os do not feel reflected or included at the leadership table. Those who have achieved success have done so because they had mentors, sponsors, gate openers, which I call madrinas or padrinos, of all colors, who have recognized our giftedness,  supported and encouraged us. They invited us to step into leadership.

Just as we inspire our Latina/o school kids, Latina/o emerging leaders must also be invited and supported to become future leaders of schools, networks, and systems that will in turn nurture the giftedness and leadership potential of the children they serve. Generations of Latina/o Americans have contributed, unbidden and unsung, to the cultural, intellectual, and economic edifices of our nation. Imagine the contributions that will pour forth when communities of learners, adult and student alike, are encouraged, counseled and equipped to lead. And most importantly, invited to lead.

I am grateful for all the padrinos and madrinas who opened doors for me. I have a responsibility to open similar doors to women and men, emerging from a generation of Latina/os, who are growing up in a divided world, not so different from my own. At LEEP, we look for leaders who can communicate in our languages, celebrate our cultural narratives, and in a spirt of respeto and cariño convey to the children who learn with us that to be a Latina/o in America is, by the very nature of the experience, to be a bridge-builder. Ours is a legacy, with all of its lights and shadows, that orients toward a shared purpose and prepares us for the challenges that are coming.

To lead we only need the invitation. We already have the heart.

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