Neighbors: Lupita Garcia
Student enrollment among Latinos in the Arcola School District is growing fast, and recently the first Hispanic was chosen to lead the parent-teacher organization at the local grade school.
Back in 2000, student enrollment in the Arcola School District was about 80 percent white, and nearly 20 percent Latino. These days it is closer to 50-50. Arcola is like a microcosm of the rest of the country, where the Latino population is rapidly growing. The PTA president at Arcola Elementary is at the center of much of that change.
I first met Maria Garcia, who goes by Lupita, back in December at a Christmas Party for Arcola students and their families. The party, held in the grade school's cafeteria, was packed.
Garcia was constantly on her feet, passing out cookies and hot chocolate. When she was not working, she surveying the crowd, and making new connections.
“I know the most people here,” she said with her eyes scanning the room.
A couple of year ago, Garcia joined Arcola Elementary’s Parent Teacher Association, formally known as Project Success. She came to Arcola from Mexico City more than 12 years ago. When she initially arrived to visit her brother, she did not plan on staying put, but that changed after she met her husband.
“It’s a small town,” she said. “You know everybody at school. It’s safe for kids. You can live with your door open, and nothing happens. Good people live here in Arcola.”
Garcia is a stay at home mom with three children. When she isn’t working on school business or watching over her kids, she’s taking English language classes three times a week at Lakeland Community College.
In September, Garcia became Arcola Elementary’s first Latino PTA president - in part - to help attract a more diverse group of parents.
“Not a lot of people, Hispanic ladies want to come,” Garcia said. “They’re afraid about the language because they no speak English. So, now I’m the president and the ladies feeling better because I’m here.”
Angela Ramirez came to Arcola more than a decade ago from Mexico, but she didn’t get involved in the PTA until about a year ago. She said she always wanted to be better connected to her kids’ progress in the classroom, but she never felt comfortable joining the parent-teacher organization because of her limited English.
Ramirez said Garcia changed that for her.
"That was one of the things she inspired me to do,” Ramirez said through a translator. “She gave me the confidence I needed, so it wouldn't be so difficult to understand the meetings.”
Garcia does not take all the credit for drumming up interest in the PTA. She saves a lot of that praise for Arcola Elementary School Principal Angie Gentry, who encouraged her to become the PTA president.
“I encouraged her,” Gentry said with a smirk. “Gently nudged her, and she was very willing.”
Principal Gentry (pictured with Lupita Garcia to the left) said having a Latino PTA president at Arcola Elementary was long overdue.
“It’s almost been a need for parents in the community to come together because we can’t separate our kids from wanting to play with each other, and we can’t let our language barriers prevent us from our kids enjoying the company of each other and getting to know each other’s cultures and families,” Gentry said.
Gentry said Garcia’s leadership of the PTA was just one of the major recent changes to the group’s structure. She said after meeting with several Hispanic parents, it became clear what else needed to happen.
“When they came in, I did present them with, you know should we have a separate Hispanic group and our English-speaking group, and they were adamant about, ‘No, we want to blend the two. We will be here,’” Gentry said. “I said that’s wonderful, we’ll have a translator.”
At one of the recrent PTA meeting, roughly 10 people, including an interpreter, were seated at atable. One of the first issues Garcia brought up is raising money for the school. Seated next to her was her ace in the hole and husband, Valente.
“This is actually my first meeting,” Valente said. “I kind of let her take ownership of it. Today, she asked me to come in and help.”
It did not take long for the group to embrace Valente. At one point, he suggested holding a softball tournament for parents as a way to raise money.
“I mean if you guys are planning on having a tournament, I’ve done many, so I know how to run it, what it takes,” he insisted.
Principal Angie Gentry laughed along with other PTA members, and then she exclaimed: “Mr. Vice President!”
The diversity of this group goes beyond race, language, and culture. During her tenure as PTA president, Garcia said she wants the school’s library and playground to expand, and for there to be a greater emphasis on Spanish language education in the classrooms.
“The Hispanic people and the American people need to know that we need more stuff, more for our kids. So, we need to work more and together,” she added.
It is these dreams that help break down language barriers that might keep some parents from getting involved in a growing Arcola.