Hispanic Liaison’s José López Garcia aims to empower youth in new role

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SILER CITY — When José López Garcia was 10 years old, his parents crossed into the U.S. to give him and his sister a shot at the education and opportunity they never had.

Now, at age 26, he’s following their example. Formerly a Chatham County Schools parent liaison and teacher, López Garcia became the Hispanic Liaison’s new youth program assistant in December to mentor Chatham’s Hispanic youth and empower them to achieve their dreams.

“I’m glad to be here because I wanted to keep helping my community,” López Garcia told the News + Record. “I didn’t know if I was just at the right place to do that, and El Vinculo Hispano, I think, is the right place to help my community and especially young — well almost young — adults.”

As youth program assistant, he works with the Liaison’s youth program director, Selina Lopez, to support the 60 Hispanic high school students involved in Orgullo Latinx Pride, the Liaison’s youth group.

Launched in late 2017, Orgullo Latinx Pride (OLP) is a free year-round youth program designed to provide Hispanic students multiple pillars of pivotal support: academic support, cultural education, mentorship, and even “a second little home,” according to Lopez.

Up until last summer, the program had only served Jordan-Matthews High School students. After signing a memorandum of understanding with Chatham County Schools last June, however, the Liaison expanded OLP to Seaforth High School with district backing. Among other things, the MOU also granted the nonprofit increased access to CCS buildings and $50,000 — funds which enabled the Liaison to hire López Garcia.

“We’re thrilled to have José on our team,” the Liaison’s executive director, Ilana Dubester, said. “He’s a bright, talented and committed young man whose personal and professional experiences are invaluable to our youth and our program.”

‘I’m proud of you’

Originally born in Villagrán, a city in Guanajuato, Mexico, López Garcia and his family emigrated to the United States in 2006, when he was 10 years old. He, his parents and his younger sister went directly to Siler City, joining a few relatives who had already been living there for some time.

To provide for his family, López Garcia’s dad had spent several years going back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico; finally, the third time he returned to Mexico, he decided to bring his family back with him to the States — permanently.

“I woke up one night at 4 a.m. I had no idea what was going on, got on the bus, and next thing I know, I’m at the border of the United States and Mexico,” López Garcia recalled. “... We actually got caught by ICE in San Antonio. We got deported, and we had one last chance. Somehow we made it past San Antonio … and then from San Antonio, we came straight to Siler City.”

Why did his father take the risk? It’s a familiar story, López Garcia said, with familiar motives.

“My dad wanted us just to have a better opportunity, especially in education,” he said. “He only finished 3rd grade. My mom finished 9th grade — the equivalent to 9th grade here. I’m really grateful for his decision. He passed away in 2017, so I will always be grateful for him making that choice for his family.”

Upon arriving in Siler City, López Garcia enrolled in Silk Hope School — and its ESL program — during the last six weeks of 4th grade. It was quite an adjustment, he recalled; he had to start over, build new connections and learn an entirely different language.

Yet, while he found learning English challenging, he found it even harder to make friends. He also struggled to embrace his cultural background in a “predominantly white” school.

“Especially when I was at Silk Hope, it was weird because I didn’t have the resources — especially the money, I would say — that my classmates did,” López Garcia said. “I had limited clothing, a really old car that my dad would drive, so I was really embarrassed, you know. I started embracing my background when I started high school because I saw more people probably in the same or worse situation than we [were in].”

While attending Jordan-Matthews, he was accepted into the AVID program — which, he said, was one of the best things that could have happened to him. In that program, he met a mentor, Terry Greenlund, who “really helped [him] to basically attend college.”

“I was able to make friends who basically had the same goal of attending college or university after high school,” he said, “so just surrounding myself with that group of people really helped me to stay on the path to get there.”

López Garcia graduated J-M in 2014 and enrolled thereafter in Guilford College, a private liberal arts college in Greensboro, where he double-majored in Spanish and accounting.

While there, he served as the Secretary of Hispanos Unidos de Guilford (HUG) as well as the Music and Live Chairman of the Campus Activities Board (CAB). In his senior year, he also became one of the first DACA beneficiaries — or “DACAmented” students, as he put it — to serve as president of Guilford College’s CAB.

He graduated in 2018 — something he counts among his greatest achievements for making his parents proud.

“I was able to hear my dad say that he was really proud of me,” López Garcia said. “Whenever they dropped me off at Guilford College, he pretty much said, ‘Oh, I never thought I would be eating in the cafeteria of a place like this. I’m proud of you.’”

‘I took a shot’

After graduating from college, López Garcia returned to Siler City, where he found work as a dual-language science teacher in Chatham Middle School.

He promptly discovered, however, that teaching 7th-grade science was not his calling.

“I majored in accounting and Spanish, so I think they only hired me because I spoke Spanish,” he said with a laugh, adding: “I was able to pull through for the whole academic year, and then after that, I just decided not to continue because, first of all, I did not major in science and … because I thought maybe I wasn’t really teaching them what they needed to know.”

So, he transitioned from supporting students to supporting parents: About two years ago, he took a post as a Chatham County Schools parent liaison with the Global Student Support Center, which seeks to support CCS parents and students with limited English proficiency and ensure they receive equitable access to educational services.

López Garcia worked primarily with Spanish-speaking parents, helping them navigate Chatham’s school system and providing them translation and interpretation when needed. He also sought to equip them with the tools and knowledge to take an active role in their children’s education. In many cases, he saw that lack of knowledge about the American — and Chatham County — school system contributed to minimal engagement among Spanish-speaking parents.

“I had parents who were like, ‘Oh, do you know if my student is gonna be able to get into school?’ because for example, in Mexico, there’s a certain amount of students that they have, you know, spots for,” he said. “So once those spots are covered, your student needs to wait either for the next academic year, or you’re hoping that some student moves out and your student is next on the waiting list.”

One day last year, while searching for a job closer to his home in Mebane, López Garcia stumbled across the Liaison’s opening for a youth program assistant.

“I was like, ‘You know, I already work in Siler City, I have commuted to Siler City, it’s not a problem. It’s going to be almost the same,’” he said. “So, I took a shot.”

One of his biggest goals, he said, is to be a better and more involved advocate for his community, especially Hispanic youth, and working with the Hispanic Liaison seemed to him the perfect way to achieve that. The Hispanic Liaison’s youth program, he said, serves as a crucial stopgap that helps to prevent students from falling through the cracks, especially in a school district like Chatham’s with a student body that’s nearly one-third Hispanic.

“Programs like Orgullo Latinx Pride do need to exist because it is what our people need since schools cannot attend to every single student,” López Garcia said. “ … I wish I was part of a program like this transitioning into high school because it would have just helped me more, help me talk about more social justice issues and also embrace my cultural identity.”

Welcoming López Garcia to the team has been “amazing,” according to his supervisor, Selina Lopez, especially with his diligence and dedication to the work they do.

“Having him as OLP’s program assistant has been awesome for me because I now have another person to bounce ideas around with and work together to advance our work with our Latinx youth and families,” Lopez told the News + Record. “He brings his personal and professional experience to the work, which is a huge asset to the program, especially because he grew up in Chatham and has a super inspiring story that is encouraging for youth to hear. I’m super lucky to have him be part of the OLP team.”

Others had similar things to say; when the Liaison published the news in December, various people on Facebook celebrated the nonprofit's choice in the comments.

“So very proud of Jose!!” wrote Angela Jones Lawrence, a former ESL teacher. “He was one of the most eager to learn and do-well students I’ve ever taught!”

“Excellent teacher and good human being,” commented CCS parent Lilia Lara in Spanish. “Magnificent choice. Congratulations.”

About two months into the job, López Garcia has dabbled in a little bit of everything — from reaching out to colleges, students and parents to monitoring grades and providing college application support.

“I’m still learning honestly; this position, and especially this program, has a lot of components that Selina has put in place,” he said, adding with a laugh: “I don’t know how she did it by herself because it’s a lot, and there’s always something you need to do — either helping a parent, helping a student every day while getting the tasks that we need to get done for the day.”

Moving forward, he hopes that his experiences will provide an example to the youth he works with and ultimately inspire them to persevere in whatever they do.

“My life experiences — getting here and immigrating, and getting in and attending college and graduating, and now — will definitely help [show] students that there’s not a straight path to where you want to go,” he said. “There are obstacles and challenges, so it just really depends on you and being resilient and consistent in the work that you’re doing. Then it’ll work out in the end.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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