Latina Leadership Program Takes Off

Beatriz Aguilar, chair of the music department at Edgewood College, sometimes volunteers as a translator at Madison-area schools. Once at Madison East High School, some parents asked her what she did for a living, and when she told them, their Latina high school daughter perked up and asked Aguilar if she had a doctorate.

“And I said, ‘Yeah, I have a Ph.D. And she just opened her eyes and said, “Oh, that means I could,” Aguilar said. “And I almost cried.”

Aguilar said that this interaction inspired her to start a program to encourage middle and high school Latina girls to pursue higher education and pursue their career ambitions.

In addition to music, Aguilar has studied race, class, gender, and social justice, and she has tracked research that found Latina women lag behind other groups in higher education and high level management to companies. Latinas have made progress in terms of graduation, the number of Latino women earning associate’s or bachelor’s degrees rose from 17% in 2000 to 30% in 2017—in fact, they surpassed Latino men. But some researchers worry that the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic could hamper further progress.

Aguilar invited other high-performing Madison Latinas to talk to the girls about the challenges and opportunities they’ve faced. Dulce Danel, community engagement coordinator at Madison Area Technical College, said she “jumped at the chance” to be part of the program. As a Latina who grew up in South Texas, she remembers the shock of moving to Madison.

“It was the first place I moved to, where it was very difficult to meet other Latinas. You really had to go out there and look for that space,” Danel said. ‘to have a room full of Latina women who want to know more, who are here specifically to engage in empowerment and get that opportunity presented to them.’

Danel speaks frequently with young people for her work, and instead of a lecture, she prefers to have a conversation about her life and answer any questions they might have.

“The representation is huge,” Danel said. “Being able to share with them and connect them to your story is, I think, a really cool moment because we don’t get to do that a lot. You don’t see those stories represented all the time.

Beatriz Aguilar and participants of the Latina Girl Empowerment Session at Edgewood College | Photo courtesy Beatriz Aguilar

Aguilar’s parents had both earned graduate degrees, so she had a degree of privilege that made it easier for her to consider earning a doctorate. and a pulpit. But she grew up in a conservative culture, where “I was expected to be a wife and a mother.”

“And it’s fine if you have a career, but I felt a certain weight in the traditional role that I had to play,” Aguilar said. “And I think a lot of these girls grow up with that and try to balance that with what’s expected in American society and the American dream.”

In addition to allowing the girls to interact with Latina role models, the program taught them skills such as body language and communication, to help them thrive in corporate environments.

Michaela Miller, who teaches English Learners and Spanish for Heritage Speakers at Sun Prairie High School, said she loved seeing how the body language lesson, taught by a drama teacher, affected his students.

“Many of my students hide when they are in regular classes. Especially when there are mostly white students in the room, they don’t feel as confident,” Miller said. “I thought it was really cool that the girls were all together with girls from other parts of Dane County and strutted around the stage.”

Aguilar also included programming on self-esteem and how Latin culture can be an asset in the workplace.

“The fact that you face a lot of prejudice in the culture can impact your self-esteem,” Aguilar said. “So I want to give girls the tools to fight against that and be aware of it, so that they protect themselves and realize the precious things of their backgrounds and cultures.”

Danel said that when she started working at Madison, she felt “this need to make me smaller, to not stand out too much. Because I was already standing out.

But as she grew in confidence, she became more comfortable expressing her Latinidad, or Latin identity, in small ways, like wearing hoop earrings and a nameplate necklace. She also became less shy about correcting people’s pronunciation of her name.

“It seems so small, but being able to bring my identity into my professional work, into the way I sell myself, into the way I speak, to really own and be very proud of my culture, my name, where I’m from, it’s something that pushed me to gain confidence and really grow in my own space,” Danel said.

Miller said one of the unintended benefits of the program was that it gave Latino students — who haven’t socialized much during the pandemic — an opportunity to connect with each other.

“The school I work at is diverse, but it’s also very large, which doesn’t mean they’ll naturally find each other,” Miller said. “I would say they made some pretty solid friendships through that experience.”

Aguilar is planning another session and has learned that the demand for the program is greater than she thought. She expected ten girls to sign up – she got 40. One of her hopes is to get a grant to provide transport so more girls can join. Eventually, she would like to see programs outside of Dane County and across the state.

After seeing how much the girls enjoyed the last session, Miller said she will continue to spread the word and recommend other girls to attend in the future.

“They definitely came away with a lot of guidance and a lot of hope, knowing they can do it. If they want to go to college, there are pioneers before them who paved the way,” Miller said. “I would definitely invite the girls to do it again.”

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Kevin E. Boling