“The Latina in me is an ember that blazes forever.” – Sonia Sotomayor, First Latina U.S. Supreme Court Justice in History
Lisa Garza, IDEA’s Chief Schools Officer, is proud of her Hispanic heritage but remembers when her unique identity made her stand out for all the wrong reasons.
As a bilingual student at an elementary school in Beasley, Texas, a small community about 45 minutes southwest of Houston, Garza remembers the shame and resentment when her teacher treated her differently because of her ethnicity.
“I got my first taste of prejudice in elementary school when our family moved to a small town where I was one of the very few Hispanic students,” recalls Garza. “I will never forget how my teacher was mean and didn’t like me. She put me in the lowest-performing group in our class, and I shouldn’t have been there.”
The experience left an indelible mark on her.
Garza’s mother and father met through a friend, and the two were married within six weeks after a whirlwind courtship. Garza was born in Dallas, Texas, where her father was an employee at Texas Instruments before the family relocated to Houston when she was a year old.
“My parents had me, and then my twin sisters were born 10 months later; so, we grew up like triplets,” she says. “My mother is from Mexico; so, Spanish was my first language, and it was all we spoke at home.”
Her mother encouraged them to watch Sesame Street for its educational content, and the show helped develop her English skills. When Garza started kindergarten, the school wanted to place her in a bilingual classroom because of her native language but was quickly re-assigned into a regular classroom.
She recalls being aware of her Hispanic heritage from an early age. The family took long trips to Mexico to visit their large extended family during school holidays every July and December.
Garza admits she was a bright, eager student, so when she entered the third-grade at her school in Beasley, she was surprised by her teacher’s reaction to her.
She recalled, “[My teacher] treated me differently because I was Hispanic, and I never experienced anything like that,” she continues.
Garza says she was also bullied in later years as a student in Needville, Texas, for being an active participant during class.
“They saw me as the teacher’s pet because I was a smart girl and loved being called on to answer questions,” she says. “They once even locked me in the restroom at school. It was tough.”
The experiences led Garza to become more of an introvert until her parents got her involved in extracurricular activities like softball.
“Softball helped me be part of the community. I made some good friends, and suddenly everyone wanted to come over to my house because of my mother’s delicious, authentic Mexican cooking,” she says.
“She would make enchiladas, which were amazing, arroz con carne with homemade flour tortillas, and tostadas with beans and cheese and carne molida,” she continues.
While her parents imparted the rich language and culture of their native heritage, they also instilled the importance of a good education. Garza’s father had experienced prejudice growing up in Alice, Texas, and joined the army after high school. After a stint at Texas A&I University, now Texas A&M University-Kingsville, her father worked his way up at Texas Instruments.
“My father moved up through the ranks and was working with engineers, only they had a degree, and he didn’t,” says Garza. “It wasn’t a matter of if we would go to college. In our family, it was always when we go to college. He always told us to work hard and that an education would give us opportunities.”
“Hispanics and Latinos come in all different shades and colors. I was lighter-skinned, but my last name, Trevino, was enough to make me a target in areas where there weren’t many people like us,” she adds.
Garza’s trajectory in education began in high school. As a member of the National Honor Society, Garza got to “take over” an algebra class for a teacher for a day and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Her Spanish teacher, Ms. Wheeler, also encouraged Garza to consider a career as a bilingual teacher—an idea that excited her.
“I enjoyed math and loved teaching the class for a day, and when Ms. Wheeler told me about teaching bilingual students, I felt like I would love being a teacher,” she says.
With help from Wheeler, Garza navigated the admissions process and enrolled at Houston Baptist University with a double major in elementary and bilingual education.
After teaching bilingual elementary students in Rosenberg, Texas and third grade English Language Arts (ELA) in Houston, she relocated to the Rio Grande Valley and taught for another six years.
“I loved teaching English and helping bilingual students fall in love with great literature while building their writing and comprehension skills,” she says.
Garza joined IDEA in her 21st year in education to help the Chief of Schools coach Academy principals. She eventually became Vice President of Schools, and later, Executive Director. She currently serves as Chief Schools Officer, managing IDEA’s Executive Directors and Regional Superintendents while leading IDEA’s strategy to ensure all students graduate college-ready from A-rated schools.
Throughout her years as an educator, Garza has encountered many students with backgrounds like her own, and each experience fuels her belief that all children can succeed.
“When I was a principal, there was a student who had trouble learning because he had ADHD,” she recalls. “He was such a smart young man, but we had to work to find the right way to teach him, but once we did, he began to do well in school and went to college and is a registered nurse.”
“It’s just further proof that education can be transformational and rewarding,” she says with a smile.
Garza also says children must see leaders that look like them and with similar backgrounds.
“Our children need to see that there are people just like them who have succeeded because they refused to let their circumstances dictate their path,” says Garza. “As a Latina leader, I have to ensure that Latino children know that we believe in them and that I am proof they can do anything they set their mind to.”