Born in Mexico, Chantel Barcenas recalls what it felt like to grow up in Memphis as the only Latina student in her elementary and middle schools — and how education offered her “the chance to find myself.”

Chantel Barcenas
Chantel Barcenas

“That was really hard, but now I feel like I know my identity more,” the high school senior said Monday while attending a youth rally for Hispanic students in Shelby County. “The more you learn about the world in school, the more it helps you do that.”

Barcenas was one of three Memphis students to perform spoken word poetry before 800 of her peers, many of whom are fellow immigrants or children of immigrants, at this week’s event.

“We have gone through struggles that so many don’t know about to get to a place where we have education and opportunities,” said Barcenas, who attends Cordova High School. “To be able to come together and share our personal stories through poetry for so many, that’s powerful.”

Latino Memphis, a nonprofit organization aiding the Mid-South’s Hispanic population, partnered with Shelby County Schools to bring students from nine high schools to its annual Congreso conference. This is the second year Congreso has included a rally for high school juniors and seniors to hear motivational speakers and talk with representatives from local universities.

Chalkbeat spoke with several Latino teens about their opportunities and challenges as students. Here are some of their responses, condensed for brevity.

What does successful education look like to you?

“It’s the opportunity to be someone in life,” said Janeth Brigido, a senior at Wooddale High School. “It’s like a gift … but a really hard gift. If you work really hard and have the right people to help you, it can be the chance to offer something to your parents they never had.”

What’s been one of the biggest challenges of attending public schools in Memphis?

Oscar Mancilla
Oscar Mancilla

“Learning the language, not being able to talk or connect with others,” said Oscar Mancilla, a 12th-grader at Sheffield High School. “Even though I was born in the states, I was raised to speak Spanish. There are still words I don’t understand. That’s frustrating when you don’t feel like people understand how difficult it is to learn a new language when you’re older. It’s not a quick thing.”

“Racism,” said Tina Velasquez, a junior at Kirby High School. “It took a year and a half for me to really learn the language. “I felt like I had to prove myself more than the other kids around me … like that I could be a part of the honors society and that I deserved the same opportunities as everyone else.”

“You’re really just thrown into the system,” Barcenas said. “There’s not a lot of guidance, especially with the language. I also wish we were introduced to our peers in a better way. Instead of just, ‘This is the new kid who can’t really speak your language,’ helping us tell our classes where we’re from and why we’re here. Some people have no idea what we went through to get here.”

Shelby County Schools is under a federal civil rights investigation for discrimination of migrant children. Have you or anyone you know been blocked from going to Memphis high schools?

“A friend of mine had to really ask the school administration to stay at Wooddale. He was older and didn’t speak much English, but he really wanted to go to high school and learn. He was able attend, but not everyone is,” said Brigido, who is originally from Mexico and has lived in Memphis for 12 years.

From left: Cynthia Ayala and Janeth Brigido attend a Congreso rally from Wooddale High School.
From left: Cynthia Ayala and Janeth Brigido attend a Congreso rally from Wooddale High School.

Cinthia Ayala, a junior at Wooddale High School, said she has not seen or experienced students being kept from enrolling in school.

“It’s something that’s talked about,” she said. “For those who truly want to go to school, to make a better life, it’s terrible to not get that opportunity. How are they supposed to rise above if they aren’t given a chance to study?”

What are you hoping your next steps will be after high school?  

“I plan to attend the University of Memphis or Southwest Community College and eventually become a pediatric nurse,” said Velasquez. “I mean, who doesn’t love babies?”

“Christian Brothers University is my dream college,” Barcenas said. “I think I want to study psychology or social work. Those seem like direct paths to making a difference.”