Meet the woman building a community for Latinx parents at Evanston Township High School

By Paola de Varona
Medill Reports

Evanston Township High School’s Latinx pride can be found tucked away in Mercedes Fernández’s small office in the welcome center. Peruvian and Latin American textile art line the walls, photos of Latinx ETHS families pepper her bulletin boards and a rendition of the Rosie the Riveter poster reimagined with “¡Sí se puede!” written across it hangs proudly behind her desk. With dark-rimmed glasses perched on her nose and a desk littered with paperwork, Fernández is an unassuming activist. As the Latino liaison for families at ETHS for over seven years, she interprets and translates, spanish-speaking families and school staff over the phone, through Individualized Education Program meetings or through encounters with faculty. Often, it means translating every academic document sent out to families. Born in Peru, Fernández later moved to the U.S. and became a reporter for Hoy and La Raza, where she learned to interpret on the fly when conducting interviews in English for a Spanish-speaking audience.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the portion of Latinxs in Evanston grew to 12 percent last year in 2018-2019.18.5 percent of ETHS students came from Latinx families. In 2012, when Fernández began her work as a liaison, acting as an interpreter at school events, not a single Latinx parent showed up. Now she’s cultivated a community where 70 to 80 parents attend sessions and request parent-teacher conferences. In a time when immigrant children are incarcerated at the border, and manifestos calling for the eradication of Latinx people in the U.S. circle the web, liaisons like Fernández are taking on more than ever – creating a space where the undocumented parents of ETHS feel comfortable enough to confide in her and each other for help. As the school gears up for its Latinx Heritage Month celebrations, Fernández spoke about her role, the changes she wants to enact and how she connects with local families. 

What are your favorite duties as a Latino liaison?

I really love coordinating the Latino Advisory Committee. It’s a space where mostly Spanish-speaking [parents] meet once a month. What we do is educate and inform Latino parents, especially the ones that have this barrier in the language, to learn how to navigate the system. If you are playing any game in a casino, if you don’t know the rules, you will always lose. So we meet once a month – we have food, childcare, coffee, water. And most of all, we have tried to create this environment where families feel a freedom to ask any questions in their own language. They get information about the school and the processes, from how to report an absence to how to deal with the deans.

How does your experience as a Peruvian mother of three help you connect with the families?

 I always tell them, I was a single parent of three. My dad used to live with me, and he was undocumented. So I was the head of the household of five. I had three children in college. If I could, you can. What are you going to tell me? Sometimes they come with the, “but you’re an educated Latina.” I say, “Yeah, but my parents were not. My mom didn’t finish elementary and my dad didn’t finish high school. You don’t have a higher education, but you can put your kids in college. No excuses.”

 What is most rewarding?

How parents feel when they can communicate. Let’s say a parent has a meeting with a counselor, and the parent has a concern about the student. When the parent is able to express herself, to take everything out through an interpreter to the counselor, that sense of, language is not a barrier anymore because there’s someone here in the middle that is making this happen. That feeling of satisfaction is amazing. When I started here, there were two interpreters for the whole Latino segment. I said, “Well, we can set up a system where the parent could call me with the student ID number and I get the training to create the schedules [for parent-teacher conferences].” So I started with 12, next year 15. Now we have 75 to 80 schedule requests and 52 interpreters requests.

 What would you like to improve?

The invisibility of the Latino community in ETHS. There’s nothing that suggests that there are 18 percent Latinos here. Everything is black and white. You go to the website, you don’t see brown faces. I will keep trying to make our community more visible. We have to keep working on leadership and technology. Say you don’t speak the language, work three shifts to support your family, don’t have enough money to pay for the internet or don’t have a computer. Just posting it on the website, that’s where we’re failing. I’m thankful the administration approved our basic computer classes in Spanish. During the summer, we had a bilingual and bicultural instructor for parents, and they learned the basics: how to grab the mouse, turn on a computer, type your name, move the cursor. Eighteen parents graduated with their diplomas. The parents felt empowered. They say, “Mercedes, we’re going to have level two?” I said, “Yes, why not?” We got it [the course] from September to December. Now they know [Microsoft] Word, copy and paste, internet, filling out job applications, navigating the ETHS website. We have 26 people signed up this year.

What future do you envision for the Latino liaison position and the relationship between the community and ETHS?

What I would like to create is a space where parents get trained, but also [become] aware of their potential. So they can express their voice and be visible. I know that other places around Chicago in the suburbs, and I’m talking about 15 years ago, 14 years ago, there are welcome centers, where they get trained in everything. Schools have to be this haven for immigrant parents to get all the information. If not the school, where?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Mercedes Fernández posing by the bulletin board in her office.  (Paola de Varona/MEDILL)