Parents establish the foundation for personal growth and development through lessons, experiences and encouragement to pursue goals.
Rafa Diaz knows this well.
While in high school, he worked alongside his mother as a nighttime janitor at Education Service Center Region 20, a state-authorized center for educator professional development, in San Antonio, Texas.
He buffed hallways, took out the trash and cleaned bathrooms — all the while observing the educators around him who seemed so disconnected from his reality.
“Many of those same individuals who would not acknowledge me were expected to teach me,” says Rafa.
Although his experience was challenging, his mother was teaching him a valuable lesson: sacrifices must be made to accomplish larger goals.
“I functioned with the mindset that if only I pushed through just a little more, I would see my hopes of college come to fruition and be an example for my younger brother.”
Rafa is a first-generation, native born U.S. citizen.
His mom was born and raised in northern Mexico’s coal country. His dad came from Cuba in 1980 as part of the infamous Mariel boatlift.
“I have a wonderful mom, family and I had a great childhood,” Rafa says.
“Still, it was difficult not having an infrastructure of knowledge. There was no roadmap to success – just the hope that the destination was available to me and that I, and my brother, would arrive one day.”
Rafa knows it’s an experience shared by many immigrant families.
A Cultural Puzzle
“My family didn’t have a solid understanding of the American education system. You layer that with the language barrier and limited time to become deeply engaged in my education, and it led to some rocky stages.”
“The reality of many families, immigrant and native, is that out of sheer necessity they focus on keeping food on the table, often by holding multiple jobs, which limits their ability to be fully engaged,” Rafa says.
“So my mom relied heavily on and trusted that my educators would work in my best interest when she could not,” Rafa adds.
That kind of respectful concession to educators on the education of their children is common among Latino and Hispanic parents, especially those who emigrated to the U.S. from other countries.
Although unintentional, it sometimes leads to negative consequences.
“We know that parent engagement is a key component of success in school,” Rafa says. “It’s important to get Latino/Hispanic parents as involved, comfortable and knowledgeable as possible if we are to break cyclical challenges and impact the academic lives of students.”
That means building programs and strategies that meet parents where they are and not where we think they should be or believe that they are.
“Listen to your teachers”
Rafa grew up in Miami-Dade County during the 1980s and 1990s.
Although 1980s Miami evokes images of legendary nightclubs, chic fashion and welcoming beaches, residents remember the rampant crime, record setting homicides and desperation spurred by the drug wars which crippled communities.
His family lived in La Pequeña Havana, Little Havana, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
Despite the cultural barriers and socio-economic challenges they faced as an immigrant family, Rafa’s parents encouraged him to “pay attention and do well” in school.
“There was always the understanding and recognition that education was the key to a different door – a better tomorrow,” Rafa says.
“Within the Latino/Hispanic communities there is a deep respect for education and educators,” Rafa says.
“Every morning while being dropped off at school, I remember being told ‘Dios te bendiga y hazle caso a tus maestros’—I commend you to God and listen to your teachers.”
This small but powerful insight shows the deep respect and admiration that Latino/Hispanic parents have towards educators and education.
“There is often the misconception that Latino parents may opt out of the academic lives of their children. That can’t be farther from the truth,” says Rafa.
“That deep respect for the educator leads parents to hand over the reigns as they believe they cannot provide much value to the topic compared to the expert educator.”
Pathways to Success
Today, Rafa serves as the National Director for Engagement for GED Testing Service, Pearson’s joint venture with the American Council on Education, focused on giving adult learners a pathway to a credential and moving them onto the next step in their lives.
He’s also doing his best to help children, especially those of color, get through the hurdles he once faced by both working with them directly and working with parents.
“Ensuring that children feel supported in general is the key to raising them out from risky behaviors and situation,” Rafa says.
“This is especially true when we consider young men of color who statistically at higher risk of poverty, propensity for violence, incarceration, and lower levels of academic achievement,” he says.
Rafa attributes his and his brother’s success and life to their education which was fueled by family support.
“For the better part of my life we grew up without a father – I know the price I have paid for that and tried to spare my younger brother from paying that full fare. I also know the price our own father paid for the absence of his father,” said Rafa.
“The challenges my family and I faced still exist for a new generation,” he says.
“That’s why it’s so important to put students – and their parents – on a path to success. We need to ensure that we impact the overall tide so that all boats rise together.”
Rafa took that message—and his own story—to a recent Hispanic Heritage Youth Awards ceremony in Dallas, Texas.
He helped present a new award from Pearson celebrating the crucial role parents play as a child’s first educators.
Great Students Honor their Parents
This year, more than 200 students nominated parents who inspire them for the Hispanic Heritage Youth Awards Pearson Parent awards.
“It’s important to create paths for parents to be more connected and hands-on when it comes to education.” Rafa says.
“This award says ‘there is a place for you here in your children’s schools’.”
Rafa hopes the award can help spark meaningful change.
Honoring Deserving Parents
“I can’t talk about my mom without getting emotional,” Rafa says. “I’m amazed I got through the Hispanic Heritage Youth Awards ceremony with so few tears.”
“I looked around the room and saw kids who looked like me,” Rafa says. “It was super inspiring.”
When Rafa announced the parent winner, Rafa recalls her humbly repeating – over and over – “I am here to honor my child, not be honored” when she came up to the stage.
“Even in that moment, she didn’t feel she was deserving, “Rafa says.
“We want to get to a point where all parents feel worthy of that award. Although this award was granted to only a few parents nationwide, it is a symbol—more importantly the winners are symbols – champions – reflections of what is possible” he says.
“We want to get to a point where all parents feel worthy of that award. Although this award was granted to only a few parents nationwide, it is a symbol—more importantly the winners are symbols – champions – reflections of what is possible” Rafa says.
A New Culture of Engagement
Rafa is now a proud father of two and uncle to two.
“Having kids and nephews really puts things into perspective,” he says. “I want to set a good example for them but more importantly for all parents.”
He says he’s come a long way since La Pequeña Havana, cleaning offices and wondering how to ease the financial pinch they often felt.
And he hopes that a new culture of parent engagement in the Latino/Hispanic community will inspire supportive parents to become champions of kids who face the same challenges and understand the inherent gifts they have to give regardless of the cultural and socio-economic challenges present.
“This is an opportunity to help the next generation of Latino/Hispanic students by presenting new advocacy partnerships and tools, but also by celebrating the tools we inherently hold,” Rafa says.