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In 1970, as a freshman in college studying sociology and education, I learned that I was a "child-at-risk." As the daughter of a single mother, who raised me and seven other children in the barrios of San Antonio, I was, according to some experts, not supposed to have made it to my high school graduation. At a time when statistics had begun to paint a grim portrait of Hispanic youth in crisis, with alarming rates of school drop-out, low academic achievement, and juvenile delinquency, I marveled at the fact that by society's standards, I was a mystery.
When I read those foreboding numbers, I began thinking back to the Alazán Housing Project and our tiny wood-frame house on Colima Street in the city's West Side, where my mother, a widow with no more than a third-grade education, successfully raised her children in spite of the drugs, violence, and crime that threatened the streets. I asked myself, just what was it that this woman did, what secret or strange magic did she possess to have successfully raised her children despite the odds?
Several years of study, a Ph.D., and three children of my own later, I found out that it was no secret or spell. For my mother, Lucy Salazar, it was a combination of her unwavering faith, her deep sense of commitment to family, and the support she received from the extended family and neighbors in el barrio that made her unique. The greatest support came from my grandfather, Lázaro "Papayo" Villegas, who became for me, at the age of two, a loving father figure after my father died. Central in my family were an unconditional love, dedication, and high expectations for the children. There was also a profound sense of commitment to la cultura, which they so proudly bestowed on us as a special gift that needed to be preserved and cherished.
In spite of the fact that we were poor, I remember always coming home to a loving mother who prepared a table of food, complete with a plate of warm tortillas piled high. Although we had a small yard where we lived, my mother always managed to fill it with fragrant perennial flowers and beautiful rose bushes, which, along with the pecan trees, made the yard beautiful and made it seem bigger than it was. Though my mother taught us the importance of humility, she also emphasized el orgullo, or pride, stressing that we should always hold our heads high. She had my sisters and me dolled up in gloves and pretty hats to show off the brightly colored petticoat dresses she sewed for la Navidad and Día de Pascuas. Each one of us was made to feel important and special. An intense sense of obligation to la familia took shape during those early years, for as sisters and brothers we were expected to look out for one another. As children, we were expected to show respeto to our elders. As Latinos, we were infused with a sense of pride and dignidad because we were part of nuestra gente, our people.
My mother's favorite dicho, or saying, no hay mal que por bien no venga, out of everything bad comes something good, became a familiar creed in our house. Though she relied on my grandfather for support, my mother served as both father and mother to me. She was, like my mother-in-law, la Doña, always making clear in no uncertain terms what she expected from her children and never deviating from the rules she set. Like many Hispanic parents, among those things she considered most important was nuestra educación, a learning that included not just what we read in books, but how we behaved, our attitudes, our principles, and beliefs. To be bien educados, to be well educated, meant not only that we knew how to read and write, but that we possessed the virtues of respect, loyalty, compassion, and hard work, and the ability to distinguish right from wrong.
One of the most vivid memories of my childhood takes me back to when I was not more than four years old. I was standing on the sidewalk in front of my building in a housing project when an older child plowed into me on her bicycle, sending me flat on my face as she pedaled away, indifferent to my injuries. My mother, who saw the incident from the second-story window of our building, was so enraged and upset that she called the police, and the incident, much to the surprise of my neighbors, was even reported later in the local newspaper. What stayed with me long after that day was the way my mother, always vigilant, courageous, and headstrong, never failed to use every one of her resources and energies to keep her children standing. Mientras que hubiera aliento en su cuerpo (as long as there was breath in her body), she was determined to make sure that no one was going to knock us down and keep us from becoming who God intended us to become.
This woman who had so little, managed to fill us with so much love, hope, and pride that we could never imagine not meeting her expectations to stay out of trouble and pursue our goals. Both she and my grandfather made sure we knew that we were special. I remember my grandfather telling us, "Dios cuida a los huérfanos y las viudas," God takes care of orphans and widows. "He has a special purpose for each of you."
My purpose in life these past twenty-five years, besides my family, has been Avance, a nonprofit organization that has been recognized worldwide as a leading parent-education and family-support organization and wins praise from both the mainstream and Hispanic media as well as politicians on every side of the political spectrum. Dignitaries including Prince Charles, Barbara Bush, Jesse Jackson, Governor Ann Richards, Surgeon General David Satcher, and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley have visited the Avance programs. Avance has been recognized in books written by three First Ladies: Barbara Bush's First Teachers, Hillary Rodham Clinton's It Takes a Village, and Rosalynn Carter's Helping Someone with Mental Illness. In 1997, an Avance family and I were invited to the White House by President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to represent Avance as a model program at the White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning. Avance was able to expand its parent education and family support services because of the support of the largest foundations and corporations in the United States, including Carnegie, Ford, Kellogg, Rockefeller, Hilton, Mott, Hasbro, and Kraft/General Foods.
This book brings the strategies and principles, which have helped so many Avance parents from the neighborhood where I grew up and beyond, to all Hispanic parents. The model that Avance has cultivated over twenty-five years of research and experience is based on meeting children's four basic needs: the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional. In addition to these, for the purposes of this book, I have added a fifth need that is interwoven throughout the Hispanic cultural fabric: our faith and spirituality. Using activities that embrace and celebrate the traditions of nuestra raza, our people, I show parents how their culture can enhance the experience of child rearing. I build on our strengths as Latinos, namely our language and cultural values, as I help parents acquire knowledge and skills essential to becoming better parents. These values include devotion to children, marriage, family, faith, and community. Nuestras costumbres, our customs, are powerful forces that can shape children's minds and hearts, creating proud and confident individuals who have something very special to offer society.
All of us want to see our children become healthy, happy, competent, and successful human beings. We want them to excel in school and grow up to be honest, compassionate, hard working, and responsible individuals. Of course, children do not automatically come with these virtues, nor do they come with instructions. Likewise, effective parenting does not come naturally; it is an art and includes skills that must be learned, like any other important role in society. You already possess many of the essential ingredients for effective parenting, including the love, hopes, and dreams you have for your children. With the right tools, parenting can be the most fulfilling and gratifying experience of your life.
Hispanic Americans, about to become the largest ethnic group in the United States, face great opportunities and challenges. As mothers and fathers, many find themselves struggling to navigate their children through an increasingly urban, mobile, and impersonal competitive society, where negative influences seem to lurk around every corner. The natural support systems associated with la familia, a strong marriage and a network of uncles, aunts, friends, and neighbors, is still strong among many Hispanics, but must be reinforced as families become more mobile and Americanized. My husband and I are like many working Hispanic parents who want to maintain old traditions in this ever-changing world while coping with the demands of two careers. I know the obstacles that many of you face. Nevertheless, I also know that there are ways to merge the best of both worlds, the Latino culture and the American culture, to help maintain a strong marriage and family and to help your children succeed in a bilingual, bicultural world.
With my training in the fields of education and child growth and development, I can provide you with the most up-to-date information and research to help you guide your children. Certainly, children around the world have the same basic needs. However, as a Latina who is raising three children and who has worked with countless other Hispanic parents, I want to discuss these principles with a voice that speaks to our community. In doing so, I will draw upon my experiences from my own upbringing, my professional training and development, my teaching experience, and examples from the Avance and the Rodriguez family. I will also apply the knowledge I have gained from my own sons and daughter, Salvador, Steven, and Vanessa, as they learned about their world and their rich Hispanic heritage and as they developed their enormous potential. My children have served as my laboratory while I have tried to apply the theories that I learned in child growth and development to each of them through every developmental stage. Parenting can certainly be a challenge as our children test the limits and strive for autonomy and independence. At times humorous, often harrowing, the anecdotes I will share are, above all, full of heart, for they let you know that you are not alone in your frustrations and fears, nor in your hopes and dreams for your niños.
Through anecdotes, dichos, songs, and games, this book will offer you a rich cultural framework for absorbing the information you need for parenting. These elements may teach, entertain, humor, and perhaps even surprise you. But mostly, they will remind you how unique and important your culture is and how it can enrich your family and community and help you fulfill your parental roles and responsibilities. At a time when families and communities everywhere are looking for new buffers against the forces that pull them apart, you will find that the consejos, or words of advice, in this book still hold a message that speaks to all people in the twenty-first century. The sanctity of the extended family, the belief in community and our unique sense of compadrazgo, godparenthood, reflect our devotion to relationships. For generations, these ties have held Hispanic families together. Like the countless elders who counseled my mother and whose words of wisdom were passed on to me and to my own children, this book will offer some consejos on how to bring about un niño bien educado, a well-educated, well-rounded child.
This book covers the first twelve years of a child's life. With the last of my three children, Vanessa, having just turned thirteen when I began writing this book, I marvel at all that she and my two sons, Sal and Steven, learned during the first twelve years of life. Important milestones take shape during this critical period, from children's ability to learn basic concepts, languages, and values, to developing their self-esteem and personality. These are the important years when they establish their character and when their interests and talents emerge. Half of what children learn between the time they are in the womb and the age of seventeen is learned by the age of four. The critical message of this book, therefore, is that there will never be another person who will have a greater influence in the development of your children than you. If you lay a good foundation and establish a strong parent-child relationship during these important years of life, then the likelihood of your children doing well in school and life will be even greater.
This book is for individuals who are parents or who are planning to become parents. I want to help you understand what is expected and needed during these years so that you will create the right kind of environment for your children. Being an effective parent requires a great amount of time, energy, patience, and commitment, knowledge, and skills. I hope this book will help you acquire the information and skills to help you improve the way you interact with your niños. Just as was true for my mother, a combination of your faith, your deep sense of commitment to your culture and your children, as well as the support that you will receive from your spouse, family, neighbors, friends, and community will help you in your parenting role and in enabling your children to reach their potential.
As you read this book, I want it to appeal to your mind as a rational adult who wants to provide the best upbringing for your children. But I also want it to touch your soul as a Latino or Latina who recognizes and is proud of your cultural roots. It is clear that we have much to be proud of. I want Hispanic parents or those individuals married to Hispanics to be able to help their children find a place in the world where they can shine. As nuestros niños learn about their rich cultural Latino heritage, history, and language, while absorbing the American culture and English language, they will be ready to assume their leadership roles in this country and in the world.
Over the years, I have received numerous awards and recognition for my work in parent education, from Hispanic magazines, including Hispanic, Hispanic Business, and Latina, and from the mainstream media, including the New York Times, ABC's World News Tonight, Lifetime Television, Parent's magazine, and Working Mother magazine. While I may be considered by some to be an expert in the fields of parenting and early childhood education, I do not profess to be the perfect mother, nor my children model children. I doubt if there are such individuals. I certainly have made some mistakes in child rearing and, in retrospect, could have done some things differently. However, I do know from experience that effective parenting, with some training, guidance, and support, can be achieved to a great measure. As with everything in life, you, too, will deviate from the mark, but with a strong foundation, you will find you can survive the pitfalls and find the experience as joyful and fulfilling as I have.
You may remember being told the following words by a parent or grandparent: Hijo eres, padre serás, según lo hiciste, así lo verás. Loosely translated, the refrain says, Child you are, parent you will be, just as you have done, it will be done to you. As a strong-willed child, my mother used to tell me, "Vas a pagar todas las que debes," You will pay back all that you owe. This was a warning that I remembered with a sense of excitement mixed with fear upon the birth of each of my children. I asked myself, was I prepared in the same way that my mother was to meet the enormous challenges of raising these tiny human beings who would surely grow up to be strong-willed individuals like their mother? How could I take the lessons of her experience and apply them to my own reality?
These are the kinds of questions that you, too, may be asking yourself as you begin the greatest journey of your life preparing the next generation of leaders, citizens, workers, and parents. I hope that the pages that follow will give you some answers as you proceed paso pot paso, step by glorious step.
Copyright © 1999 by Gloria G. Rodriguez, Ph.D.