Celeste Cervantes still remembers, when she was in the fifth grade, coming home with the form to choose her middle school. She already knew how she wanted to fill it out. She wanted to attend a STEM magnet school with her friends.
When her teacher handed her the form, though, it came with instructions to have her parents fill it out.
Dutifully, she took it straight to her mother.
“And she was like, ‘I don’t know anything about that,’” said Cervantes, who was born in Winston-Salem to parents who immigrated from Mexico.
Cervantes’s mother, Guadalupe Pantoja, places great value on education — something she picked up from her own father. She made sure her kids kept up with their homework and went to school every day. But her English wasn’t great back then, and besides, parents didn’t make decisions about where kids went to school back home in Ojo de Agua de la Trinidad. Teachers did.
She handed the form back to her daughter. “I can’t really help you,” she said.
“I didn’t really get the form turned in on time,” Cervantes said. “It’s a lot of responsibility for a 10-year-old to remember that sort of thing. So they just ended up sending me to my [base] school.”
It worked out fine for Cervantes. Her base school was also a magnet. While there, and also in high school, she found several teachers who took an interest in her and guided her. One even pointed her to a college preparation program called Crosby Scholars. It helped push her throughout the remainder of her K-12 schooling, and it guided her and her parents through the college application process.
But Cervantes’s schooling experience is a series of these sorts of happenstances. Her parents weren’t always informed about opportunities, but things worked out anyway. Cervantes is in her final year of college at UNC Greensboro. Majoring in elementary education, she wants to be a teacher so students like her won’t have to depend on chance.
“For families like mine, if their parents don’t know the education system here, and maybe they only went through middle school where they are from, I want to be that teacher who can help them,” she said. “I want to represent, particularly, Latinx communities, but also underrepresented students in general.”
Cervantes was a speaker this week at the 2021 Latinx Education Summit hosted by LatinxEd. She joined a chorus of educator, student, and family voices in conversation about advancing the Latinx student experience — an especially urgent issue as the Latinx population in North Carolina grows quickly.
One in six children through age 17 in North Carolina is Hispanic, according to census data presented at the summit by Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography. That works out to nearly 400,000 Hispanic youth in the state. According to American Community Survey results, 93% of them were born in the United States.
“We dream of a North Carolina where every community and school has a culturally sustaining environment that recognizes, meets, and honors the diverse needs of Latinx immigrant families,” said Elaine Utin, who, along with state Rep. Ricky Hurtado, co-founded LatinxEd and kicked off the summit a day after the organization’s third birthday.