Latina leadership program takes off
Role models offer advice, connection for girls in Madison
Middle and high school girls from Madison, Sun Prairie, Middleton, Fitchburg, Verona, Monona, McFarland take a body language class as part of a session on Latina leadership started by Beatriz Aguilar, a professor at Edgewood College | Photo courtesy Beatriz Aguilar
Beatriz Aguilar, chair of the music department at Edgewood College, will sometimes volunteer as a translator at Madison-area schools. One time at Madison East High School, some parents asked her what she does for a living, and when she told them, their high school Latina daughter perked up and asked Aguilar if she had a doctorate.
“And I said, ‘Yeah, I have a PhD.’ And she just opened her eyes and said, ‘Oh, that means I could,’” Aguilar said. “And I almost cried.”
Aguilar said that interaction inspired her to start a program to encourage middle and high school Latina girls to pursue higher education and their career ambitions.
In addition to music, Aguilar studied race, class, gender and social justice, and she’s followed the research that has found Latina women remain behind other groups in higher education and high-level management at corporations. Latinas have been making progress in degree attainment, with the number of Latina women earning associate or bachelor’s degrees increasing from 17% in 2000 to 30% in 2017 — in fact they were outpacing Latino men. But some researchers worry that the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic impacts could hinder further progress.
Aguilar invited other high-achieving Madison Latinas to speak 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 opportunity” to be part of the program. As a Latina who grew up in south Texas, she remembers the shock of moving to Madison.
“This was the first place I moved to, where it was very hard to come across other Latinas. You really had to go out there and look for that space,” Danel said. “It’s a rare opportunity that we get to have a room full of Latina women who want to learn more, who are there specifically to engage in empowerment and get that opportunity presented to them.”
Danel speaks with young people frequently for her job, and instead of a lecture she prefers having a conversation about her life and answering questions they may have.
“Representation is huge,” Danel said. “To be able to share with them and connect them to your story is I think a really cool moment because we don’t get chances to do that a lot. You don’t see those stories represented all the time.”
Aguilar’s parents had both attained graduate degrees, so she had a degree of privilege that made it easier for her to envision attaining a Ph.D. and a professorship. But she grew up in a conservative culture, where “the expectation was for me to be a wife and a mom.”
“And it’s great if you have a career, but I did feel some weight into the traditional role that I was expected to play,” Aguilar said. “And I think a lot of these girls, they are growing up with that and trying to balance this with what is 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 like body language and communication, to help them thrive in corporate environments.
Michaela Miller, who teaches English Language Learners and Spanish for Heritage Speakers at Sun Prairie High School, said she loved seeing how the body language lesson, taught by a theater teacher, affected her students.
“A lot of my students do hide themselves when they’re in the mainstream classes. Especially when there’s mostly white students in the room, they don’t feel as confident,” Miller said. “I thought that was really cool that the girls were all together with girls from other parts of Dane County and strutting their stuff across the stage.”
Aguilar also included programming on self esteem and how Latin culture can be an asset in the workplace.
“The fact that you experience a lot of biases in the culture, it can have an impact on your self-esteem,” Aguilar said. “So I want to give the girls the tools to fight that and to be aware of that, so that they protect themselves and they realize the valuable things from their background and their cultures.”
Danel said that when she first started working in Madison she felt, “this need to make myself smaller, to not stand out too much. Because I was already standing out.”
But as she gained confidence, she became more comfortable expressing her Latinidad, or Latin identity, in small ways, like wearing hoop earrings and a nameplate necklace. She also grew less shy about correcting people’s pronunciation of her name.
“It sounds so tiny, but being able to bring my identity into my professional work, into the way I sell myself, into the way I talk, really taking ownership and being very proud of my culture, my name, where I’m from, that’s something that came with me growing into my confidence and really growing into my own space,” Danel said.
Miller said one of the unintended benefits of the program was that it gave Latina students — who haven’t gotten to socialize much during the pandemic — an opportunity to connect with one another.
“The school I work at is diverse, however it’s also very large, so that doesn’t mean that they will organically find each other,” said Miller. “I’d say that they formed pretty strong friendships from the experience.”
Aguilar is planning another session and has learned that the demand for the program is greater than she thought. She was expecting maybe ten girls would sign up — she got 40. One of her hopes is to get a grant to provide transportation so even more girls could join. Eventually she’d like to see programs outside Dane County and across the state.
After seeing how much the girls enjoyed the last session, Miller said she’s going to continue spreading the word and recommending other girls to participate in the future.
“They definitely left with a lot of advice and a lot of hope, knowing that they can do it. If they wish to go to college, there are trailblazers before them that have paved the way,” Miller said. “I would definitely invite the girls to do it again.”
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