Gloria Torres is into her first year of commuting from south Oklahoma City to Puerto Rico offering encouragement and helping to build stronger education systems in both places.
The former Oklahoma City Public Schools principal and current OKCPS school board member helps district administration to better navigate the needs of Hispanic families and children on the south side.
Recently, she accepted a position working with the Secretary of Education in Puerto Rico.
It’s her job to bring the once-heavy education bureaucracy of the country closer to the people it serves and to help the people understand the system better.
For most, it would be a daunting life. But Torres seems to be energized by it.
“Any time I get the chance to encourage people and tell them to keep moving forward I’ll take it,” she said.
When Free Press caught up with her Wednesday, she had just spoken to Oklahoma Teacher Walkout participants at the Capitol encouraging them to keep going.
Then, she was at UCO to speak to a small group of students who are the first generation from their families to go to college from homes where Spanish is the first language.
The group is part of a grant program called LA META which stands for Latino Americans Motivating, Educating and Transforming America.
The focus is to keep students encouraged, resourced and in school when the going gets tough.
Nora Contreras, Project Director, LA META Student support services in the Division of Student Affairs oversees the program.
It’s an outgrowth of several grants, the first one being in 2001.
The session that day was the part of the program where they provide faculty, peer and community mentors for the students.
“This time of year in April is when they really need inspirational support to complete the school year well,” Contreras said.
“It needs to be someone who has been there and done it – to step up and meet the challenge. So, it’s great for us to have people like Gloria to be with us.”
Torres talked to the group about her past and some of the hurdles she had to clear along the way as a Latina in Oklahoma City when the culture was invisible to many in the larger metro.
She talked about how important it is to offer experiences and even advice to other Latinos.
“It’s important to speak up,” she told the attentive students. “Go ahead and speak up and give your two cents worth of advice even if someone around you doesn’t ask. You never know who it might help.”
She said that many people take their turn feeling like they are the only one to go through the struggles they are in, but that just isn’t true.
“The truth is that we all have those struggles. And we can find the strength to go through them in the community around us,” said Torres.
Within the category of those who came from Spanish-speaking homes, there was a wide spectrum of backgrounds represented by the students even in that small group.
Terance Fields said he is “half Pawnee and half Mexican.” He found Torres’ speech “relate-able” and said he needed the encouragement at this time of the year.
The junior’s father died last year, so this year has been a hard one, He said the encouragement from his peers and other mentors has helped.
Erin Yusko is a sophomore who graduated from Edmond North High School. She is majoring in Spanish, French, and English with the intent of getting her Ph.D. and teaching at the college level.
LaBryanna Gilbert is in her senior year pursuing her degree in Marketing. She is a graduate of Millwood High School on the northeast side of OKC. She wants to own her own business someday.
Anahi Ceniceros is from Buffalo, Oklahoma and one of the student peer mentors in the LA META program. She is a Junior and working toward her degree in Nursing.
“It helps to give encouragement and to get it in April,” she said. “This is the time in the school year when you want to give up.”
Torres was preparing to get back on the plane for another six-hour flight back to Puerto Rico.
“It seems like when I’m there I’m working on education matters in Oklahoma City and when I’m here, I’m on the phone a lot with people in Puerto Rico,” said Torres about her unique commuter life.
The recent hurricane devastated Puerto Rico, a sovereign country, but a protectorate of the United States since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Since Puerto Ricans have been citizens of both Puerto Rico and the United States since 1917, many people with family and the financial means left the island for the U.S. after the hurricane.
“We just closed 300 schools,” said Torres. “The island had an exodus of close to 40,000 students after the hurricane.”
Parents and other residents are confused and upset by the massive disruption to their school system.
It’s Torres job to reach out, and build a system of community engagement to connect parents and students to the decision-making process.
After our interview, she was off to another engagement later in the day and then had to start preparing to leave for Puerto Rico later in the week.
She seemed eager.
“The opportunity to impact education in two countries is exciting,” she said.