Rebecca, a 16-year-old Latina who attends Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology High School, sits on the floor. She is one of eight Latina teens who surround me at the Behailu Academy in NoDa, a place where at-risk youth have the opportunity to learn about the arts.
They’re part of a select group of young Latinas from various Mecklenburg County schools who are being mentored, motivated and empowered by women who have formed Circle de Luz, a nonprofit that invests emotionally – as well as financially – into the future of these girls.
Today, the girls have come to Behailu Academy to learn improv comedy techniques. Circle de Luz’s goal in sending them there is to help them develop the ability to think quickly on their feet.
Speaking softly, but with sincere intensity, during a break, Rebecca gives me a glimpse into her world.
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“My mom was from El Salvador, and because there was war in her country, she had to quit school to come here,” Rebecca said. “My dad was sent to work on a farm, so he couldn’t go to school. My parents came here because they want me to have the opportunity for education and for a better life.”
But based on government educational statistics, it seems Latina girls are having a difficult time finding those opportunities. Each has her own obstacles, and each is trying to trying to find a way around or over them with the help of Circle de Luz.
Since 2001, Latina girls going to school in the United States have been identified as “girls most likely to drop out,” according to a national trend that was reported by The New York Times. The article published that year stated, “According to government data, 26 percent of Hispanic girls leave school without a diploma, compared with 13 percent of black girls and 6.9percent of white girls.”
Fortunately, a 2013 study done by the U.S. Department of Education reported that that trend has taken an upward turn, and that “more Latinos are graduating from high school than they were nearly a decade ago.” But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan indicated that the rate is still too high and Latinos have a long way to go, according to a statement published on the Fox News website in January.
It is because of those statistics that Davidson-based Circle de Luz was founded six years ago by author, speaker and educator Rosie Molinary.
Molinary, who lives in Davidson and is of Puerto Rican descent, wrote a book, “Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina.” While talking with young Latinas during her book tour, she came face to face with their daily struggles.
Some of the barriers these girls face include limited English proficiency, poverty, high pregnancy rates, gender and ethnic stereotyping, and undocumented immigration status, according to an article published in Newsday in 2009.
Molinary determined that this segment of our population was not getting the support it needed. So in 2007, she assembled a group of women who wanted to help. The result was Circle de Luz, which means “circle of light.”
The group’s mission is to “radically empower young Latinas by supporting their transformation through extensive mentoring, holistic programming and scholarship funding for further education,” according to its website.
Jenny Pertill, 39, lives in Huntersville and is one of the class captains for Circle de Luz. Among other duties, the class captain is responsible for establishing a mentor relationship with the girls when the program begins in seventh grade. They develop this relationship through in-school mentoring programs, college and career planning, and leading special events. The mentorship continues through graduation, when the organization gives $5,000 scholarships for post-high school education.
“All high school students could benefit from having a group of people invest in them like this,” Pertill said. “It’s been wonderful to watch the girls grow and change over the last three years. These experiences are empowering them to pursue their life goals, dreams and passions.”
The girls surrounding me agree that this is true. Maria, 15, who attends East Mecklenburg High School said, “They believe in us. They believe we can be something better than a stereotype.”
Rebecca agreed: “They are motivating us.”
Sitting quietly, 16-year-old Ariadna, who attends North Mecklenburg High School, lifted her hand in a respectful gesture to ask to speak.
“In seventh grade, I wasn’t even thinking about college,” Ariadna said. “I didn’t even know if I would be able to graduate high school. I figured I would just start a family and get a minimum-paying job because my family didn’t have the money to send me to school.
“But with this program I have become more motivated and looking and (am) striving for a better future. I started dreaming, and then I started to make my dreams become a reality.”