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A Seat at the Table: Latino Educators on Mentorship and Education in KC Three Stories, One Common Goal - Higher Education

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Above image credit: Latinos and Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S., but lag behind in higher education. Here's what Kansas City educators and mentors are doing to bridge the gap. (Canva)
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9 minute read

In the past 10 years, college enrollment has steadily increased among Latino and Hispanic groups in the United States.

Education is among the top five most important issues for 84% of Hispanics in the U.S., according to a Pew Research Survey. However, navigating higher education is more difficult for first-generation students, many of whom are Latino. Notably, Latinx or Hispanic populations ranked last in college completion compared with White, Asian and Black communities. 

In Kansas City, these factors have motivated educators, mentors and other professionals to support and prepare students, whether it’s with skills or financial guidance. The following are three different stories that illustrate how Kansas Citians are paving the way to help Hispanic and Latinx students attain success in higher education.

‘An Oasis for All Brown Kids’

Hang out with 90.9 The Bridge every Tuesday during Hispanic Heritage Month for song recommendations and hints of stories to come this month.

Jackie Madrigal was 8 years old when she knew she wanted to be a teacher.

Growing up in Raytown, Missouri, Madrigal was an avid reader like her mom. While her father was out working his second job, she’d pick up a book and read. But at school, something was missing. None of the books she was assigned were written by Latino authors.

“I just didn’t really feel like I connected so much with those stories,” Madrigal said. 

So she went to the Mid-Continent Public Library and read every book she could get her hands on that dealt with Hispanic and Latino history. Even the librarian knew her. A voracious learner, she checked out the 1996 PBS series “Chicano!” on VHS.

Madrigal recalled a middle school history course. Her reading assignment was about the 1960s civil rights uprisings. She noticed there was only one small paragraph about Cesar Chavez and the Chicano movement. 

She knew there was more. Everything she’d been reading at the library and documentaries she’d watched said so. She asked her teacher why the text provided a limited historical account of Chicanos. He couldn’t answer. 

“(Latinos have) always had a presence here… Half of this country was Mexico. You can’t deny those things. All of us – with our K-12 education – have been brainwashed to believe this was open land,” she said.

At 13 years old, with the knowledge she’d accrued at the library, she and her history teacher created a unit on Latinos and the Chicano movement and she was tasked to present it to the class. 

“From that moment, I knew that I needed to when I became a teacher, that I needed to present this information and this beautiful story to students and for them not to sit there and wonder, ‘Where am I?’ ” she said.

Madrigal is the first in her family to attend college. Her father worked two jobs and would tell her and her siblings: “I’m working for you guys. My hard work is to give you your leisure time,” she said as her voice trailed off, and tears welled up. 

Madrigal always gets emotional talking about her dad, she explained, because when she was 17 years old, in her senior year of high school, her mom died. So her father has been and continues to be her rock. He paid her way through college and supported her through her studies so she could focus on her degree. 

“When you look at academia it’s sitting around, reading a book, writing essays. It’s not digging a ditch, manual labor. You need someone to afford that (leisure) time for you and my dad’s the one who did that,” she said. “Like he came over today and rotated my tires. I still rely so much on him to this day.”

Her father also helped anchor her Chicana pride. Her father’s tenacity and the drive she found as a child has fueled her passion for teaching students at Shawnee Mission North the value of Latino stories. Her goal is to fill in the incomplete narrative about Latinos found in history books, fiction novels and movies.  

“There’s a lot of negativity when it comes to Latinos here in the United States,” she said. 

She’s taught students in English Language Learner classes for 18 years now. Many of her students are immigrants – some from Guatemala, some from Afghanistan – and it’s always in flux. About five years ago, she began teaching an elective class on U.S. Latino literature. 

Jackie Madrigal is a teacher who wanted her students to learn more about Latino literature and history, so she created the course herself. (Contributed)

“When you don’t see yourself in what you’re learning or you’re learning a watered-down, mutated form of history/literature you just want to get out. Be free,” she said. “So because of my experiences, I knew I needed to offer an oasis for all of the brown kids who feel the same way I did.”

Madrigal spent three years poring over the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, the first compilation of its kind. She selected books and wrote the curriculum, all without pay. Then she submitted paperwork for the new course, which had to go first to the school administrators then to the board for approval. 

It was rejected.

“I believe it’s because I didn’t have a seat at the table,” she said, acknowledging that she’s one of maybe two Latino teachers at the school. “Nobody else could speak to the work except for me.” 

That didn’t stop her. The following year, Madrigal proposed the same course, but this time she was at every meeting and made her case. Now, five years later, she’s built the Latinx Literature Library full of 600 books. She was able to buy texts through grants out of the Shawnee Mission Education Fund, Latina Giving Circle and Hispanic Development Fund. 

“Because of my experiences, I knew I needed to offer an oasis for all of the brown kids who feel the same way I did.”

Jackie madrigal, shawnee mission north high school teacher

It’s the only course of its kind in the Midwest, she says, and it took her pushing to make it happen. Book after book, her students are in disbelief, taught history they weren’t taught in general U.S. history textbooks.  

“My personal story is what they’re reading, it’s me on paper,” she said. 

Plus, the class has expanded not only her students’ worldview but also her own. For the first time in her 18 years, she taught a white student and it was all because of the new elective course. 

Although Hispanic Heritage Month is in full swing, Madrigal says that she’s a Chicana every day of the year. Rather than participate in month-long festivities she said: “I feel like my class is the way to really show the beauty of what it is to be Latino.”

“I want, eventually, for education to get to a place where students, young people, don’t have to give up (who they are) at school to be accepted. Where they can come and be themselves, whether they’re dancing cumbias in the hallway or speaking Spanglish, whatever it is. That they can come into a place and be accepted and understood, more than anything else.”

Stream the four-part series, “Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement” on Kanopy

Full Circle Mentorship

The Greater Kansas City Hispanic Collaborative (KCHC)in Kansas City doesn’t just mentor students. 

It also gives students access to professionals in the metro, mentors them on college applications, coaches them on networking and, on top of it all, provides scholarships to Latino youth, in addition to other BIPOCs. The three KCHC programs are the KC Biz Fest, Latinos of Tomorrow and Young Latino Professionals.

Alad Aguirre is one of many students who benefitted from the Greater Kansas City Hispanic Collaborative's programs.
Alad Aguirre is one of many students who benefitted from the Greater Kansas City Hispanic Collaborative’s programs. (Contributed)

This is how Alad Aguirre, 23, got his start. A once shy high schooler, he became the first in his family to attend college with the collaborative’s guidance. 

“(My mom has) always instilled in us hard work and dedication. Especially with education, she’s always told us that that’s the one thing that no one can take away from you,” Aguirre said. “When I heard about Latinos of Tomorrow, you know, being first-generation, I had no idea what it took to apply for college.”

Throughout high school, he would attend free workshops and networking events and shadow Carlos Gomez, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Thanks to Gomez, Aguirre has met people he likely never would have before – such as senators, representatives and successful company owners. 

This mentorship afforded him opportunities to advance and grow, he said.

Today, Aguirre is a Master’s candidate at Rockhurst University, plans to apply to law school in the fall and returned to the Hispanic Collaborative as a project manager.

Amarilis Valdez-Dempsey, board vice-chair of the organization, has seen first-hand how free advice, networking and mentorship affect students. She’s motivated to provide these resources to students because growing up, she didn’t have the help. Her parents moved from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. with very little money and little understanding of the U.S. education system. 

“My driver was the fact that we struggled so much when I was growing up. And even when it was time for me to go to school, you know, go to college, I didn’t know what you needed to do,” Valdez-Dempsey said. 

Amarilis Valdez-Dempsey (second from left) has dedicated the past 15 years to Kansas City youth mentorship.
Amarilis Valdez-Dempsey (second from left) has dedicated the past 15 years to Kansas City youth mentorship. (Contributed)

So, she got to work. Now, 15 years later she’s helping provide Kansas City’s youth the guidance and resources they need to fill the achievement gap. While the collaborative is a conduit for success, the student’s success is dependent on them.

“We don’t do the work for you. You got to put in the work,” she said. 

From Cop to Youth Mentor

Eva Santiago’s resume is a mosaic of experiences. 

Seven years as a Kansas City cop. One year as a legal assistant. Eight years as a yoga instructor. And, most recently, a program coordinator for Kansas City Public Schools. Santiago, who is Puerto Rican, serves as a liaison between the students and their families. 

“The beauty of it is that exactly what happened happened. I’m still using all the skills I had as a police officer engaging (with the community) in the Northeast,” Santiago said. “So the same neighborhoods I used to patrol at night where you only ever see a lot of bad, the same streets, the same neighborhoods that’s where I am right now, except during the day.”

Eva Santiago uses the skills she honed as a police officer to support Kansas City’s students. (Contributed)

Her career trajectory shifted and she tried to be a yoga instructor for a living. It just didn’t pay the bills. After a career in law enforcement, Santiago never imagined she’d wind up working in an education setting. But it fit. 

She hit her stride. And it was all for mentoring youth, many of whom are immigrants and DACA recipients. 

“I did that thing where you find yourself,” she said. “Then I came back to Kansas City and took the job with Kansas City Public Schools… and that was right around the 2016 election.” 

At that time, the school system started Plaza Comunitaria, a collaborative effort with the Mexican consulate that helps Mexican nationals complete primary and secondary education for free. 

She said there was heightened anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment, so her new position catered to unique issues and a community she was so familiar with. 

“I’m really immersed in the fabric and inundated with the community,” she said. 

Santiago does a lot of family engagement, health and wellness and addresses social and emotional needs. This encompasses everything from mental health, sex, drugs and immigration status. 

She’s helped create various programs at five different schools in the district, particularly focusing on undocumented families and students. This year, she helped plan a fundraiser that would exclusively help recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals at Lincoln College Preporatory Academy. This effort is supported by the Hispanic Development Fund, which has provided scholarships to students with DACA before. 

Parents see higher education as a way out of poverty and difficulty, but they have extra hoops to jump through. 

“(Latino students) need support,” she said. “Do you know how hard it is for an undocumented mom to fill out that kind of paperwork?”

She has seen first-hand the mounting pressures students face when trying to navigate regular high school stressors and how to apply to college, not to mention figuring out how to pay for school. 

Santiago’s experiences are robust, one of which being her brief stint as a legal assistant for immigration attorney Jessica Piedra. This has informed how she aids the students she meets. 

“Add immigration insecurities, you don’t know where to go to school, or get a job,” she said. 

This is where she steps in, advising youth on which area colleges are immigrant- or DACA-friendly. Part of the issue, she explains, is the lack of Latinx educators who understand the nuance of being a first-generation or immigrant student and can advise them with the students’ experiences. 

“There’s a lack of representation in Kansas City Public Schools,” she said. “(Some of) our schools are 40% Latino and we don’t have many Spanish-speaking teachers or (teachers) who identify as Latinx.” 

And this is why she doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon. To Santiago, helping these students fills a much-needed void.

“This is my home right now,” she said. “Here (in Kansas City), I can use my individuality and my uniqueness.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Eva Santiago worked as a yoga instructor for 20 years. Santiago has worked as a yoga instructor for eight years. The article has also been updated to

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