Luz Jazmin Romero Estala is preparing to walk across the stage in Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium this month and receive her Riverside High School diploma.
Luz is the first in her family to graduate from high school in the U.S. Her family immigrated to Durham from Mexico when she was only 2 years old. Now, at 18, she plans to attend Durham Technical Community College, study Spanish and Chinese, and become a language translator.
“I’m expecting more doors to open,” said Luz, who spent the week before graduation finishing her exams at Riverside as well as picking out her shoes, dress and hairstyle for her impending graduation party with close friends and family.
When she entered sixth grade at Lakewood Montessori Middle School in Durham, she joined Enlaces, a program for Latino middle school students and their families. The Durham program, which was created in 2009 and is organized by the Duke Office of Durham & Regional Affairs, helps Latino families build positive relationships with teachers, school administrators and other parents, as well as offers parenting workshops about adolescent development, school procedures and culture, and immigration issues in the U.S.
Enlaces now helps a total of 90 students from Lakewood Montessori, Rogers-Herr Middle School and Durham School of the Arts every year. Many of the weekly student conversations at the schools and quarterly parent workshops revolve around balancing life as an American, whether students were born in the U.S. or emigrated from Mexico at a young age, with the importance of honoring and understanding their Latino heritage.
“Enlaces is a place where people can relate to each other,” said Channa Pickett, senior program coordinator for Enlaces in the Duke Office of Durham & Regional Affairs. “The perseverance, energy and love the parents have for their children and their willingness to overcome challenges for the family has made a big impression on me.”
Luz continues to attend Enlaces parent workshops as a teenage volunteer. She helps greet parents as they arrive and makes announcements in front of the group to work on her public speaking skills. She also has a family connection to the program – Her middle sister, 12-year-old Brenda, is currently enrolled in Enlaces at Lakewood Montessori, and her youngest sister, 9-year-old Monverrat, is destined to join Enlaces when she becomes a sixth grader.
Luz helps the young Enlaces students with their homework. She answers their questions about high school and the challenges that come with growing up.
“I see myself at that age again,” Luz said. “My response is if you hang out with people who are going to influence you in the right way, your high school years are going to be easy.”
About 30 former Enlaces students, including Luz, are graduating from high school this year. Luz’s mother, Alejandra Estala, said that Enlaces brought their family closer together.
“Sometimes, as parents, we say that we know everything, but that’s not true,” Alejandra said in Spanish. “There are things that you don’t want to accept about what our kids are going through. The Enlaces program has taught us not only how to be united as a family, but also motivated us to keep going.”
Luz said when she was transitioning into ninth grade at Riverside, she did not talk very much with her parents. She felt disorganized. She was hanging around an unsupportive group of friends, and her grades were suffering.
“Going through this program and being involved with my mom and other family has helped us to be communicative and have the trust that we need with each other,” Luz said. “Always try to find those people who are going to help you in life and make you a better person.”
When asked how she felt about watching her oldest daughter graduate on June 13, Alejandra’s eyes filled with tears.
“I’m happy and content that she continues succeeding and that she’s continuing to grow and follow her dreams,” Alejandra said. “And I’m here as her mom to help her in whatever way I can.”