Dana Contreras is a senior at Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School in Dallas, TX.

In my family, I am the middle child. Unlike me, my older brother and sister were completely new to this country. They were born in Mexico, and they came here when they were toddlers. For years, they had to work around the struggles that come with being immigrants. These struggles included not knowing English, looking different from others, and having no guidance.

I was fortunate enough to have their guidance growing up, and I didn’t have to face nearly as many struggles. Their experiences have inspired me to stand up and advocate for my people who don’t have that kind of support.

Today, I’m a senior at Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School, a prestigious magnet school in Dallas, TX. I learned about this school only because my elementary school informed my parents about this educational opportunity in our home language. My elementary school handed out flyers with information in Spanish. That simple act—giving out a pamphlet in Spanish—had the power to change a kid’s life.

Keeping Home Languages Alive

I believe the distribution of school materials in families’ home languages is critical to the success of bilingual students—and something that all schools should do. If schools can’t find staff to translate these materials, they should invest in a translation system. Many parents, whatever language they speak at home, want to be involved in their child’s education. However, a language barrier can make that difficult. But it’s ultimately something that can be handled as long as schools are willing to put in that extra effort. (Editor’s note: Translation of school communication into home languages is required by law. For laws and regulations applicable to educating English Language Learners, visit colorincolorado.org/ell-basics/ell-policy-research/ell-laws-regulations.)

Fortunately, the elementary school my siblings and I attended was predominantly Hispanic. More than half the staff spoke Spanish, and the school offered Spanish classes for students. My parents, who were new to this country, only wanted the best for my siblings, as most parents do. They decided to enroll my older siblings in English classes so they could assimilate to their new environment (at the time, my brother and sister only knew Spanish). While the approach worked for my sister, it actually hurt my older brother because he began to struggle to speak his native language.

But when I went to the same elementary school four years later, my parents decided to place me in both English and Spanish classes, so I was able to practice both languages growing up. This allowed me to be fluently bilingual. I grew up believing that all schools had this system in place so that Spanish-​speaking students like myself would be able to learn English while still practicing their home language. However, I now understand this isn’t true.

I believe that students should be able to learn a new language while not having to abandon their native language. Many students, just like my brother, are at risk of forgetting their home language, even with it being spoken at home. At school, they shouldn’t be forced to choose between losing their native tongue and learning a new one.

Celebrating Hispanic Culture

After elementary school, I enrolled in a middle school with girls from many different backgrounds, and that was something I had to get used to. Thankfully, there were many girls who were Hispanic like me, and I bonded with them through our similar lived experiences. Middle school was where I learned to truly embrace my heritage.

My love for my identity has only grown during high school; I love the fact that I am a Mexican American woman. This school has shown me the true beauty of my culture, which I admit I have always questioned. Now, I am able to proudly represent my culture and community—something I believe every Latino student should be able to experience.

I attribute this change to the welcoming feeling I get whenever I walk through the doors of my school. Here, I know that my culture is seen and valued. One way my school achieves this is by celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15–October 15). We wear T-shirts and hoodies the school has made in honor of this month, and we participate in activities such as trivia to learn more about Hispanic culture and watch performances such as Folklórico—a type of music and dance from several Mexican cultures. In honor of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), November 1–2, our school makes ofrendas (offerings)—little memorials with significant items that the deceased person enjoyed—of Hispanic celebrities and prominent people. They are spread out near our cafeteria where everyone can see them and are usually displayed for a week. Actions like these help to raise awareness of Hispanic culture and make students feel welcomed and appreciated in their schools.

Being a newcomer to any place, whether a country or a school, can be extremely intimidating. That’s why representation matters. I know the main reason I became so confident and outspoken is because of my teachers. Seeing educators who look like me and who come from the same background is comforting and affirming. I’m grateful that my school does an extremely good job at hiring staff who represent our students, though I understand that not every student has this kind of opportunity.

When students don’t see themselves represented in school staff or in television shows and movies, it creates this mentality of never fitting in. I know that my classmates (all of whom are Hispanic) and I look up to and see ourselves in our teachers. Every time a new Hispanic teacher is introduced in our school, we get excited because it’s someone just like us.

One teacher I hold especially dear to my heart is my former Spanish teacher and current PALS (Peer and Assistance Leadership Service) teacher, Esmeralda Martinez. Ms. Martinez has known me ever since middle school and even now, during my senior year, she continues to help me feel close to my heritage.

Growing up, I always felt distant from my culture because of my skin color. I remember being told I was too white, and compared to my siblings I was. However, being in Ms. Martinez’s class made me feel just as Hispanic.

I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today if not for my school making me, as a Hispanic woman, feel welcomed and included. Because of school, I was able to build self-confidence and feel secure in my own ethnicity and culture, which is something I’ll forever be grateful for. My schooling has also helped me connect more to my Latino roots, inspiring me to dream of becoming an immigration lawyer.

I want to be the voice for my community and help others strive in a world of unlimited opportunities. All our schools must do better in helping students from all walks of life feel welcomed and empowered to pursue their education.

Dana Contreras is a senior at Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School in Dallas, TX. As a junior, she was recognized as a Distinguished Student Leader by National Student Council (NatStuCo).