Ivonne Arguijo defends Hispanic students in Memphis

Ivonne Arguijo has spent her career improving the lives of Hispanic children and their families in the Memphis area. She is a key local leader in a unique program – an ongoing effort in cooperation with the Mexican Consulate to provide education to Spanish-speaking teens and adults.

As a schoolgirl in Durango, Mexico, Ivonne Arguijo remembers being a natural leader, her classmates following her around and hanging on to her every word.

Her father, a politician, hoped she would use this innate sense of authority to travel the world and encouraged her to pursue a career in international politics or as a flight attendant. But against her father’s wishes, Arguijo worked for 12 years in Mexico in the education system as a teacher, as a counselor in schools in the Mexican states of Durango, Chihuahua and Zacatecas, and as an advisor to the commissioner. advice.

When she married, her husband moved to Memphis with their two eldest children, but reluctant to fully settle in Memphis, Arguijo spent four years alternating between her job in Mexico and life in the United States.

“I really don’t want to come because I don’t want to lose my job. I had to decide: it’s me or the whole family to be together,” she said. “For me, for us, our family, we need to be together. So I’m here, and I’m happy to help the community. I think my career is somewhere between education and community, to engage the community in the discourse on education because I really want to see the perspective of parents in the schools, we have a different perspective on the community.

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Arguijo began working with Memphis-Shelby County Schools approximately 20 years ago in the Early Childhood Department and later in the Egyptian Elementary School English as a Second Language Department. She has become an indispensable talent, landing a role as a multicultural specialist for the neighborhood.

“We always welcome families, whether they come from different countries. It doesn’t matter if they don’t speak the language. We are ready to help them all the time. We are open to receive them in the best way we can, economically. and academically,” Arguijo said. The goal is to create comprehensive services to ensure the success of Hispanic students and families in Memphis.

Arguijo is one of many educators who have worked for years to meet the needs of the Hispanic population in local schools, said Yesenia Ubaldo, MSCS bilingual communications manager. This includes overcoming the language barrier by employing staff in preschools, enrollment and discipline.

Most Hispanics in Memphis are immigrants or children of immigrants. The most common country of origin is Mexico, followed by countries in Central America, including Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The population of children in local schools has grown significantly since the 1990s, and today Hispanic children and adolescents make up 17% of the school system’s population, or approximately 17,000 students. According to the US Census, from 2010 to 2020, the Hispanic population grew by nearly 50%, from 41,994 to 62,167.

Many students and parents do not have legal immigration status, but federal law clearly states that local schools must provide education regardless of immigration status.

Historically, many immigrants from Mexico and Central America had little education due to the poverty of their families and the lack of opportunities in their country of origin. It is still common to encounter adult immigrants in Memphis whose education ended in ninth grade or earlier.

Through a unique partnership between the Mexican government and MSCS, new residents of Memphis have the opportunity to complete their education and obtain documents that validate their livelihood.

“When families come to Memphis from different countries, what do they look at first? The school and the church,” she said. “The community, students, families and people expected something from us, and we are in the best position to help them.”

Plaza Comunitarias – community plazas – are adult education resource centers where Spanish-speaking adults can learn to read, write and obtain an education up to a high school diploma. The program is sponsored by the Mexican government through the National Institute of Adult Education and the Mexican Secretary of Education.

First established in Mexico, Arguijo introduced the program to Memphis in 2014. The program is delivered largely online and provided by the Mexican Consulate. This free program allows participants to attend at times that suit them.

Parents, students, and community members can also meet with a representative from the Mexican consulate to receive new documents. Arguijo and the consulate were able to obtain Mexican passports and identity cards for certain graduate students from Mexico who need the documents to enroll in higher education.

With the closest Mexican consulate based in Little Rock, Arguijo said, many families don’t have the resources to travel in person for appointments. The consulate has therefore set up a “roving consulate” which visits schools. The emotional response from the community is overwhelming, Arguijo said.

Arguijo recalls a student who fell to her knees in gratitude after waiting: “She came out with a passport…and said, ‘Thank you.’ And I say, ‘No, no, no, don’t do that.’ These things just happen… We can do it. Together we do so much.

Arguijo pointed out that the plazas not only educate the Hispanic community, but also expose children of other ethnic backgrounds to the Spanish language with bilingual books and activities.

“Plazas Comunitarias isn’t just for Mexico, it’s for the whole community, no matter where they come from. They can come from China or Germany, and they can speak another language, but they can come in because we have a lot of people in different countries and other states. And they want to learn Spanish. And they end up with that,” she said.

After finding success with the Mexican government, the district is working to forge a similar relationship with the Guatemalan consulate in Atlanta.

The recognition from Mayor AC Wharton and the Mexican government was an honor, Arguijo said, but that’s not what drives her.

“I thought no one could see my work because I was involved,” Arguijo said. “The way the community offers different rewards, it doesn’t make you who you are. It’s my heart.”

Astrid Kayembe covers South Memphis, Whitehaven and Westwood. She can be reached at [email protected](901) 304-7929 or on Twitter @astridkayembe_.

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