At Patterson Park, a group of Latina girls gathered this summer to construct a mosaic for the Esperanza Center, an immigrant resource center for health care, education and legal services that first opened in 1963.
The mosaic pieces were imported from Mexico, and the bold red, blue, green and yellow colors were inspired by Peruvian and Guatemalan textiles. The artwork’s theme was immigration. The girls cut and glued pieces of glass together in the shape of swallows and other migratory birds. They shared at least one thing in common: being current or former members of ¡Adelante Latina!
The free education and mentor program supports Baltimore City Latinas from 10th through 12th grade to attend college, because “culturally among Latinx families the education of girls is not a priority,” said Leonor Blum, the program’s founder and executive director.
Now in its eighth year, the program has graduated five cohorts and 95% of its graduates have enrolled in college. ¡Adelante Latina! focuses on improving reading comprehension, vocabulary and writing skills, as well as guiding girls through submitting college applications and applying for financial aid.
Blum said education has been a through line of her life. She was born in Argentina to Jewish immigrant parents who fled Nazi Germany. Her father did not complete high school and her mother only got to the eighth grade, but they were strong believers in education.
“I’ve never worked this hard in my life,” said Blum, who sometimes puts in 12-hour days with the program, which occur mostly at Notre Dame of Maryland University, where she is a a professor emerita.
Her tasks can range from lesson planning to organizing transportation, coordinating programming with teachers and students and fundraising.
“Being a professor at Notre Dame was easy compared to this,” she said.
Blum immigrated to the United States to study journalism at Columbia University and international relations with an emphasis in Latin American studies at the Johns Hopkins University before teaching at Notre Dame.
“I worked there for 30 years and had many Latina advisees,” Blum said. “I realized that many of them, either for financial reasons or because they didn’t have the proper or enough of the understanding of higher education, were having problems. Their immigrant parents don’t know the educational system here.”
The paid staff of 10 includes a coordinator that supports alumni and the families of ¡Adelante Latina! students with financial literacy, health care access, scholarship and academic advice. Forty tutors volunteer to coach the girls one-on-one, with targeted classes for STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and SAT prep. Notre Dame provides classrooms and computers for ¡Adelante Latina!.
Most of the girls live in Highlandtown and come from families across the Latin American diaspora: Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They are applying as first-generation college students and their parents mainly work in construction, landscaping and cleaning.
Michelle Castro Lemus, a sophomore at University of Maryland College Park, credits her full-ride scholarship to ¡Adelante Latina!
Blum personally read over Lemus’ essays and edited the college application before it was submitted.
“Ms. Blum did an incredible job, really pushing us to get out of our comfort zones in terms of our academics, and she also pushed that we should believe in ourselves and our intelligence and our uniqueness,” said Lemus, 19.
Lemus said the college prep program is still a part of her life. ¡Adelante Latina! connected her with Baltimore Gas and Electric, where she has interned for the past three years. She participates in social and cultural events with the current cohort of 33 girls, going to movie nights for “In the Heights” and creating the mural for the Esperanza Center.
Today, Lemus is a treasurer for the Maryland Latin Dance Club and in the honors program at her university’s business school. Lemus joined ¡Adelante Latina! when she was in 10th grade at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Her graduation from the program and saying goodbye to Blum remains a special moment for her.
“I knew that, at the end of the day, if I had a question or if I needed an opinion on an application or if I needed someone to look at my resume, that she was going to be there,” Lemus said. “I just remember crying and very sincerely saying thank you to her, because I know for a fact that if it wasn’t for her help, that I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at email@example.com.
Stephanie Garcia is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her at @HagiaStephia.