8 Latinx Leaders Shaping The Future Of Their Communities
This Latinx Heritage Month, we celebrate these Teach For America Latinx leaders ushering change in the lives of some of our nation’s most vulnerable students and communities.
September 12, 2018
In the face of adversity and injustice, a diverse Latinx network of leaders is mobilized, determined, and demanding inclusion. Together, they are putting intersectionality into practice to create generational change in their communities.
They are community organizers, social justice advocates, educators, and entrepreneurs, and are dedicated to expanding equity inside and outside of the classroom.
This month, we recognize the power of culturally responsive leadership, and we celebrate roots, the value of our differences, and the collective impact of Teach For America’s Latinx community, leaders who are working across sectors with unflinching perseverance to build stronger communities.
Elora Diaz (Phoenix ’12)
Director of Strategic Partnerships and Initiatives
An Arizona native, Elora Diaz was the first in her family to attend college. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Arizona State University, where she is today working toward a doctorate in education leadership. Elora joined the corps to realize her dreams of becoming a teacher and working with young people who face similar obstacles.
Elora went on to help found a countywide collective impact coalition, Opportunities for Youth, which seeks to reduce youth disconnection rates—youth ages 16 to 24 who are neither working nor in school—in Maricopa County. She was policy advisor to Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, and today serves as director of strategic partnerships and initiatives in Arizona State University’s Educational Outreach and Students Services Division. She is also a candidate for the Phoenix Elementary School Board, where she hopes to bring a focus on equity, teacher retention, recruitment, and community involvement into her district, which is over 90 percent students of color.
“ My goal in life is to help create a community ecosystem that affords every child the opportunity to forge their own destiny so they can lead a healthy, happy, and prosperous life. Whether a child wants to become a scientist, an electrician, an armed-services member, or a teacher, we must ensure they have the resources and information available to make these decisions.”Elora DiazDirector of Strategic Partnerships and Initiatives at TFA
Maritza Perez, Esq. (Greater New Orleans ’10)
Sr. Policy Analyst for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress (CAP)
From HuffPost’s “40 Under 40: Latinos in American Politics” list to being named a finalist for WIN’s Young Women of Achievement Awards for Service Beyond Measure, Maritza Perez is frequently recognized for her leadership and service.
As senior policy analyst for criminal justice reform at the Center for American Progress (CAP), Maritza analyzes and advises on federal legislation and works alongside stakeholders to improve outcomes for justice-involved individuals and repair the criminal legal system.
Prior to joining CAP, Maritza was a legislative staff attorney at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). She began her legal career at MALDEF as a Soros Justice Fellow, advocating for policies to end mass incarceration and the disproportionate representation of Latinxs in the criminal legal system.
Maritza earned her J.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Before attending law school, Maritza joined Teach For America and was a fourth-grade teacher in New Orleans.
“ I am passionate about social justice and believe that all people deserve opportunity and dignity. This drives my work. I also understand, that relatively speaking, I have more privilege than many people and need to use my privileges to help others. I want to see an equitable, compassionate world and will always work toward that.”Maritza PerezSr. Policy Analyst for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress
Priscilla Aguilar (Rio Grande Valley ’15)
Manager of Teacher Leadership Development at Teach For America, Rio Grande Valley
Born in Tamaulipas, Mexico, and raised in Texas, Priscilla Aguilar was brought to the United States at age 5 by her mother in pursuit of a better life. When Priscilla was 19, her mother was deported to Mexico, and Priscilla became responsible for her three siblings. Through an arduous journey driven by a determination to succeed and give her siblings a good life, she was able to finish college and go on to pursue a professional career. Although life has been full of challenges at every corner, she has persevered. Her awareness of the hardships that immigrant families endure for a chance at the American dream drives Priscilla’s commitment to educational equity for all students, documented or not.
Today, Priscilla works on the teacher development team and supports first- and second-year teachers in the Rio Grande Valley. She is part of the DACA Alumni Board, which provides professional development to corps members for supporting undocumented students and strategizes to uplift the voices of undocumented immigrants. She has been part of several media campaigns in support of the Dream Act and is currently a graduate student and fellow with the Dream Lead Institute in partnership with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation.
“ Being a Latinx, undocumented woman is such a big and beautiful part of my identity. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the many challenges and lessons attached to my immigration status. I am so very proud of my roots and proud of how far my siblings and I have come. My dream for the future is for all undocumented students to have access to an excellent education; just how my mother wanted the best outcomes for me, I want the best outcomes for children growing up in similar situations. I will fight with all I have in me to make that happen.”Priscilla AguilarManager of Teacher Leadership Development at Teach For America, Rio Grande Valley
Marcus Ceniceros (Houston ’08)
Director of Regional Impact for Houston, Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE)
In September 2016, Marcus Ceniceros launched weekly Impact Meetings in Houston to help educators and students build the skills necessary to eliminate educational barriers. Since then, more than 500 people have engaged with LEE and ONE Houston, a volunteer community-organizing group. Their work has led to major policy shifts in school discipline practices that overwhelmingly affected students of color. The group continues to support undocumented and DACA students, as well as disrupt the Houston school-to-prison pipeline.
As LEE’s regional director, Marcus coaches and supports alumni and corps members in improving their impact in their current role, preparing for careers in policy and advocacy, taking collective action using community-organizing strategies, and exploring elected leadership.
Marcus identifies as Mexican-American and is committed to engaging the Latinx community in civic change, voter participation, and clearing the path for a strong, youth-led movement. Alongside his husband, Chong-Hao Fu (Mississippi Delta ’01), he has lived and taught in Houston, New Orleans, and Chicago.
“ We know this to be true—education policies will change, people will come and go, but a community’s commitment to educational equity is essential for our success. We must value doing what’s right for all students, rather than what’s easy. TFA created the opportunity for me, beyond the two-year commitment, to work incredible teachers and leaders. We all have a moral responsibility, whether it’s supporting our undocumented community or drastically reducing the number of arrests of young people of color, to not just speak of change, but to take action toward it. ”Marcus CenicerosDirector of Regional Impact for Houston, Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE)
Phillip Garza (Houston ’03)
Chief College & Diversity Officer at IDEA Public Schools
Phillip Garza is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied music and art history. The first in his family to graduate from college, Phillip knows the value proposition of an undergraduate degree.
Currently, Phillip serves as the chief college and diversity officer at IDEA Public Schools, a growing network of K–12 public charter schools serving nearly 29,000 students across Texas. His position includes setting the vision and strategy for everything IDEA does to send students to and through college, thus achieving its goal of becoming the leading producer of low-income college graduates.
As chief diversity officer, he works to ensure IDEA Public Schools is a highly diverse, equitable, inclusive, high-performing organization. Before working with IDEA, Phillip was a teacher, instructional coach, and talent recruiter. Most recently, he was managing director of alumni affairs at Teach For America, where he was responsible for alumni strategy and executed the systems necessary to realize that the 900 TFA alumni living in Houston were collectively driving significant educational equity advances.
“ When I am bogged down by the bolder, trying the best I can, but losing steam and losing hope, I think about the very first thing I heard from my very first teacher, in my very first year at UTexas...it was a poem by Shel Silverstein: 'Listen to the mustn'ts, child. Listen to the don'ts. Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me... Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.' ”Phillip GarzaChief College & Diversity Officer at IDEA Public Schools
Roel Escamilla (Jacksonville ’14)
Fourth Grade Teacher, Kimball Wiles Elementary Alachua County Schools
Roel Escamilla joined Teach For America in 2014 after serving in the Marine Corps and has remained an educator ever since.
In 2018, Roel spent the summer as diversity, equity, inclusiveness facilitator (DEIF) at Teach For America's Miami Dade Institute before making the move from secondary to elementary education at Kimball Wiles Elementary Alachua County Schools, where he continues to work to address the gaps in representation as well as access to resources. Roel also serves as an advocate for teacher training that focuses on cultural competencies that allow for deeper relationships in classrooms.
This year, Roel looks forward to teaching his students about the diverse community of Florida as well as introduce them to cultural celebrations such as Day of the Dead. He makes it a point to continue working with emergent bilingual students and families so that they receive the services they deserve to be successful.
“ A big part of my life has been built around the idea of taking space and making space. If I, as a person of color, am not taking space for my voice than I am making space for my own oppression. If I, as a person with privilege, am not making space for voices other than those who share my identity than I am taking their voice. We, as a community, must stop taking the voices of others. We, as a community, must stop making space for our own oppression. ”Roel EscamillaFourth Grade Teacher, Kimball Wiles Elementary Alachua County Schools
Manager, Office Management at TFA
Prior to joining Teach For America 10 years ago, Jhon Valdes worked as an art teacher at the after-school program Urbanwordnyc. Today, Jhon ensures that people at the TFA New York office feel like they are part of a supportive, engaged, and striving community. In addition to building community at the New York office, Jhon is the co-leader of Conexion Latinx, a resource group that brings together TFA's national and regional Latinx community. Its mission is to engage the Latinx Community in personal and professional development opportunities, build relationships, and discuss issues that pertain to our communities.
Jhon’s proudest TFA moment was being able to produce and edit a video to welcome incoming Latinx corps member and having the opportunity to teach an identity storytelling workshop at the national Latinx Corps Member Summit. Jhon is currently pursuing an M.F.A in creative writing from at The New School in New York, is an Impact Entrepreneurship Fellow, and is working on his first novel.
“ I believe in the power of storytelling. As a member of the Latinx community, I am proud of the work of our ancestor and draw strength from their stories. As an educator, I believe in continuing to move forward our ancestor ’s compassion, resilience, and perseverance to propel our Latinx communities into new heights. ”Jhon ValdesManaging, Office Management at TFA
Managing Director, National Procurement at TFA
Denise Diaz stumbled upon the Teach For America website while searching for a tutor for her son and was immediately intrigued and drawn to the mission of the organization. So much so, she applied for a role as an administrative assistant for the information technology department’s business operations team and hit the ground running as an active member of Conexion Latinx.
Five years later, Denise co-leads the National Procurement Team, where she is charged with overseeing all procurement-related activity for the organization. For three years, Denise has also co-led Conexion and been part of the Latinx Advisory Committee, analyzing Latinx survey data and having in-person conversations with Latinx staff regarding trends and drafting recommendations.
“ In my most important role in life, I am a mother to three incredible sons (ages 20, 16, and 3) who have shaped who I am as a person, I learn from them daily. The knowledge that I am playing a role in shaping the world they will live in is what drives me. I know children mimic what they see and I am always mindful of the fact that they are watching. My desire is that they surpass my current definition of a great leader and leave a lasting impact on the lives of the people they encounter.”Denise DiazManaging Director, National Procurement at TFA
Learn about our Latinx Alliances and how you can advocate for educational opportunity for Latinx children.