|HARLINGEN, August 20 - RGV Focus, the grassroots group comprising school district and higher education institution leaders, has named Luzelma G. Canales as its first executive director.
Canales was born into a migrant farmworker family in La Grulla, Texas, and attended Pan American University, as UTPA was then called. She worked for South Texas College for 15 years before moving to Lone Star College in The Woodlands two years ago.
“It is great to come home,” Canales told the Guardian, in an exclusive interview. “Education is a passion of mine. It is something I truly believe in. I did my dissertation around this work. I did qualitative research on the experiences of Hispanic students in predominately Hispanic community colleges along the border. I think it is important to do this work with the student in mind. As I tell people, I see myself in my students. I am my students.”
Canales made this last statement, about being just like today’s students in the Valley, because of her upbringing. Her family on her mother’s side has lived in La Grulla for many generations. Her father, from a small town near Ciudad Camargo, Tamaulipas, was a Mexican national who worked in the United States under the Bracero program. Canales shared memories of her upbringing with RGV Focus members at a private dinner at TSTC-Harlingen last week.
“Every March we would head to Washington and Oregon. From birth all the way through my freshman year in high school, this was my life. I was up at 3 in the morning, in the fields by 3:30, off the fields by 7:30, at the bus stop at 8 and in school by 8:30,” Canales said.
“We worked on asparagus. Anyone who has worked asparagus knows the work ethic you have to have. As a student I would work like this until summertime and then once summer came you would work 12 to 14 hour days. After the asparagus was done we would do cherries and my parents would do hops. Then we would start school in Oregon in September and my dad would do potatoes, things like that.”
Canales’ father only received a 3rd grade education but he insisted his children get a good education. Canales came 13th in her class in Rio Grande City and then went to Pan American University to get her bachelor’s. She said back in those days there were no counselors to help her and so she took 13 hours of math she did not need.” All these extra classes delayed my education,” she recalled.
Canales married at 22 while still at Pan American. After graduating she worked for ten years at the university as an auditor, and then three years at COSTEP student loan servicing as an accountant.
At STC, Canales did a lot of community engagement work. She held various titles at the community college, the final one being Interim associate dean for community engagement and workforce development. She feels her work at STC will help her in her new post. “As Dr. Danny King said, I helped build some of the first early college high schools. I not only worked with K thru 12 but also in getting under-prepared low-skilled adults through ESL, Adult Basic Ed and into workforce programs. I did lots of work with VIDA and other community organizations to get our folks educated. Remember, prior to 1993, and the start of STC, 800,000 people in Hidalgo and Starr counties did not have access to a community college.”
RGV Focus comprises 11 school districts in the Valley and the five higher education institutions in the region, STC, TSTC, Texas Southmost College, UTPA, and UT-Brownsville. There are also community leaders in the group, such as Juanita Valdez-Cox of La Unión del Pueblo Entero, and Michael Seifert of RGV Equal Voice Network.
Canales said that although RGV Focus has only been going formally for one year, stakeholders have been planning the project for the past three years. “We began this discussion three years ago, in a boardroom with a funder, the Educate Texas folks, myself and some of my colleagues. It is nice to come full circle,” she said.
Asked what RGV Focus’ mission statement is, Canales said: “At this point our mission statement is ‘all kids go to college.’ It is about us being united and working towards the improvement of our community by educating our kids.” Asked if getting all kids prepared to go to college might not be a tall order, Canales said: “Is it not our responsibility to prepare our students, 100 percent, to go to college? Whether they go or not, that is their choice. But if we aim for 90 percent, what ten percent are we leaving out? Is it your kid? Is it my kid? Whose kid? Our responsibility is to establish high expectations with high rigor. We already know that college ready equals career ready. The employers tell us that. It is the same skills as are needed for entry level positions. We have that responsibility, especially in the Rio Grande Valley.”
Canales said the work RGV Focus is doing is not new. She said it is more about bringing together work that has already been done, the idea being to find out which programs are working best and achieving desired results and then getting Educate Texas and other philanthropic groups to help find the funding to expand those programs across the region.
“There is power in collective impact. It makes us objective. It allows us to remove whatever structural issues that might be in place. What is in the best interests of the students and what is in the best interests of the community? That is what we are looking for,” Canales said.
“I think through our collective voice we will be able to make a difference. I was sharing with the group earlier that I believe you have to change systems and processes. Forget fixing people. You have to get to the root of the problem. We need to get to the policy issues, forcing Austin to listen to the Valley. It is like my children say, if I do not ask I will never know if your answer might be yes. If you have a collective voice, it is not just one college or one university it is all our school districts.”
So, does this mean Valley communities can expect to see RGV Focus leaders travelling to Austin to push for more education resources, Canales was asked. She replied: “Absolutely, and driving the agenda. I believe you really need to drive. Gone are the days when we say, ‘what about us?’ Now is the day to say, “this is what we need, this is what we expect.’”
Canales rhetorically asked how many post-secondary institutions per individual there are in the Boston area. The answer is lots. And, in the Rio Grande Valley, she asked. Not so many. “Is that fair? Is that not a legacy of neglect that is almost criminal? I really do think it is nobody’s fault but shame on us if we do not do something about it. In today’s world you really cannot survive without education,” Canales said.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part interview with Luzelma G. Canales. Part Two will be published tomorrow.