By Yvette tenBerge
The Barrio Museum, a one-room building on the corner of Roosevelt Street and Walnut Avenue in Carlsbad, is alive with the chatter of voices and the hum of space heaters. The slow-warming air is filled with the aroma of homemade beans, rice and chicken fajitas, food that has been carried over from Lola's Market across the street. Fifteen women, some wearing sharp business suits and others wearing broken-in jeans and sweatshirts, pull their paper plates and their fold-out chairs up to tables arranged in the shape of a large "U."
To an outsider, this group of women could be family members gathered together for a celebration. The friendly, informal tone of the conversation combined with its obvious affection bring to mind the intimate relationship shared between mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters. It is only after Leticia Chavaria-Iglesias, president of the North County Latinas Association (NCLA), calls the Wednesday evening meeting to order that it becomes clear that these women are colleagues rather than relatives. They are here not to celebrate an event, but to take on the ambitious task of developing and implementing ways to empower young Latinas "socially and economically through education."
"You will find that the most effective way to trouble shoot is to do grassroots work and get moms, tías, sisters, aunts and abuelas involved," says Ms. Chavaria-Iglesias, the 31 year-old former director of the Parent Institute for Quality Education in San Diego. "You probably notice that we are all different ages, but we all have one mission: to make a difference and persuade these girls to stay in school and succeed." That mission does not come without its costs, as each of the roughly 40 mothers, professionals and retirees who make up NCLA donates her time and efforts on a voluntary basis.
With the passing of each year and with the publication of numerous studies and articles on education and the Latino community, it appears that NCLA's mission is right on target. A 2000 study released by the National Alliance for Hispanic Health on at-risk behaviors reports that the four most serious threats to the health and education of American girls today are pregnancy, depression, substance abuse and delinquency. This report goes on to claim that these threats are "more prevalent in Hispanic girls" than they are among their non-Hispanic white or African-American peers. A June 18, 2000 article published in the North County Times estimates the percentage of Latino, high school dropouts in North County to be as high as 55 percent, with Latinos making up only 30.4 percent of those students actually enrolled in school.
Experiencing statistics similar to these first-hand is what motivated a group of ten women to start NCLA in 1992. Their goal was, and still is, to increase the number of North San Diego County Latinas seeking Higher Education. Along with establishing a scholarship fund for middle and high school students, NCLA supports a local mentoring program for Latinas between the ages of 12 and 18. They also formally recognize outstanding service to the Latino community by honoring distinguished Latinas at the annual Latinas of the Year award ceremony and conduct monthly meetings that provide networking opportunities. NCLA is, perhaps, best known, though, for its annual Adelante Mujer Conference, a full-day conference for hundreds of young Latinas and their mothers that focuses on education, careers, leadership and positive motivation.
"NCLA's membership reflects the diversity and the commonalties of the Latina community as a whole. We feel passionately that our young Latinas are full of potential successes. If nurtured and given a true sense of their options, Latinas will blossom and break free from the cycle of poverty and all that this entails," says Mica Estrada-Hollenbeck, Ph.D., the vice-president of NCLA. A graduate of Harvard, she is currently a professor at California State University, San Marcos and at the California School of Professional Psychology here in San Diego. "NCLA organizes the Adelante Mujer Conference each year because we feel this is an effective way to empower, nurture and educate young Latinas about their true potential and their various options."
The Adelante Mujer Conference targets girls from the 6th through the 12th grades, the age range in which young Latinas make decisions about what they will study in their schools. Their choices about their education, and their level of achievement in their education will, eventually determine their eligibility to enter college. Interested mothers, whose presence will help to bring this year's attendance up to 600, also frequent the conferences. Conference workshops are taught by professional women who, like the members of NCLA, volunteer their time. Each year NCLA also awards roughly six scholarships to Latina students who exemplify a real desire to pursue higher education. Awards of $600 are presented to high school seniors, all of whom have been accepted to accredited colleges, and Savings Bonds of $100 are given to students in middle school. Winners are selected from students who have written essays describing leadership or describing their "heroine."
Although the majority of NCLA's members have full-time, professional jobs as well as children of their own, they do not hesitate to take time out of their lives to make a difference for San Diego's other young Latinas. "If you notice, everyone [in NCLA] is passionate about what they are doing. In a lifetime, you might not be able to meet this many people who are passionate about one thing. Here [in NCLA], people do what they say they are going to do," says Ms. Chavaria-Iglesias. She then explains why she finds a way to dedicate up to 25 hours of her week to the organization while also caring for her five month-old daughter; "When I [have speaking engagements] I remind people that my daughter will affect [them] no matter if she is white, red or green. You bet she will effect [them] if I do not raise her right. By doing what we are doing here, we are making a difference for the community in general."
This year's Adelante Mujer Conference begins at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, March 24th and runs until 3:00 p.m. It will be held at Carlsbad High School located at 3557 Monroe Street. Cost is $10 for students and mothers. For more information, please call NCLA at 760-431-3812.