As a first-generation Mexican-American, I constantly saw the gap between the American dream my mother had for me and the reality that surrounded us in the South Side of Chicago.
Like other first-generation Latinos, it was my duty to validate the sacrifices my mom had made by emigrating to the United States. She had a clear vision for me: I was to graduate college, get a great job—preferably as a doctor, lawyer or teacher—and make good money.
The only problem with this vision was that I had never seen it happen for people from my neighborhood. I had never seen a Latino walking through my neighborhood in a suit and tie.
What I did see were gang members on the street corner, shootings throughout the neighborhood, and the periodic news that someone I knew had become the latest victim.
The only time my mother’s vision of the American dream seemed possible was when I encountered teachers who looked like me and saw in me the potential that I didn’t see in myself. Although I can count only a handful of Latino teachers among the many I met in my educational career, the very few I had were crucial to my success now, as a college undergrad.
The principal of my high school, Ms. Gomez, had a particularly profound impact on my transformation from gang member to college scholar. Born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, Ms. Gomez looked like me, spoke like me, shared the cultural references and traditions I grew up with and had overcome the same struggles I was facing.
In most schools, not everyone gets to know their principal, but at Garcia High School, a charter school in Chicago, the freshman class was only 100 students. As a freshman, I got in trouble regularly. It may seem odd, but I built a close bond with Ms. Gomez while serving suspensions in her office. She saw a lot of me. And she saw more than just the boy who got in trouble all the time. She would tell me she knew I was good at social studies and that I had a lot of potential. Her ability to speak Spanish and to relate with my mom made them a powerful duo every time I got in trouble. She told my mom that I would never snitch on my friends, that I wouldn’t hesitate to take the blame and keep them out of trouble. Part of me likes to think that she respected that.
The turning point for me came in my junior year, when once again I was serving a suspension in Ms. Gomez’s office. This time, she tossed me an internship application.
“What is this?” I asked.
“It’s a paid internship,” she told me. “Apply. If you need a recommendation letter, I’ll write one for you.”
The internship was with Mikva Challenge, an organization that involves youth in the political process. I was selected and placed in an alderman’s office in the North Side. Later, I went on to serve as a member of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Youth Commission, worked with the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and am now in Washington as an intern in the U.S. Senate.
Although we have had disagreements about politics, I will always be grateful to Ms. Gomez for being the role model I needed.
I’m not the only young person who needs a Ms. Gomez. But they are very hard to find. Although Latino students make up 46 percent of the population in Chicago Public Schools, only 19 percent of its teachers are Latino. At the national level the disparity is even worse: Less than 8 percent of teachers nationally are Latino, compared to 25 percent of the nation’s public school students.
With the many challenges Latino students face, how can we show them it is possible to achieve their dreams, if they don’t see those dreams represented in the classroom?
Latino educators are among the very few professionals many Latinos will ever see in their neighborhoods. The presence of Latino educators in our communities can give young people hope that our parents’ vision of the American dream is not so farfetched after all.