Ivonne Arguijo has spent her career working to better the lives of Hispanic children and their families in the Memphis area. She’s a key local leader in a unique program – an ongoing effort in cooperation with the Mexican consulate to provide education to Spanish-speaking teens and adults.
As a schoolchild in Durango, Mexico, Ivonne Arguijo remembers being a natural leader, with her classmates following her around and hanging onto her every word.
Her father, a politician, hoped she would use this innate sense of authority to travel the world and encouraged her to pursue a career in international politics or as a flight attendant. But against her father’s wishes, Arguijo worked for 12 years in Mexico in the education system as a teacher and as an advisor in schools for Mexican states Durango, Chihuahua and Zacatecas.
When she married, her husband moved to Memphis with their two eldest children, but reluctant to fully settle in Memphis, Arguijo spent four years rotating between her job in Mexico and life in the U.S.
“I really don’t want to come because I don’t want to lose my job. I had to decide: it’s me or the whole family to be together,” she said. “For me, for us, our family, we need to be together. So I’m here, and I’m happy to help the community. I think my career is between education with community, to engage the community in discourse on education because I really want to see the parents’ view in the schools. We have a different point of view about the community.”
Arguijo started working with Memphis-Shelby County Schools about 20 years ago in the early childhood department, then in the English as a second language department at Egypt Elementary School. She became an indispensable talent, landing a role as a multicultural specialist for the district.
“We always welcome the families whether they come from different countries. It doesn’t matter if they don’t speak the language. We’re ready to help them all the time. We are open to receive them in the best way that we can, economically and academically,” Arguijo said. The goal is to create wraparound services to ensure the success of Hispanic students and families in Memphis.
Arguijo is one of many educators who have worked for years to meet the needs of the Hispanic population in local schools, said Yesenia Ubaldo, MSCS bilingual communications manager. This includes addressing the language barrier by employing staffers in preschools, registration and discipline.
Most Hispanic people in Memphis are immigrants or children of immigrants. The most common country of origin is Mexico, followed by central American nations including Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The population of children in local schools has grown dramatically since the 1990s, and today Hispanic children and teenagers make up 17% of the school system’s population, or roughly 17,000 students. According to the U.S. Census, from 2010 to 2020, the Hispanic population grew almost 50% from 41,994 to 62,167.
Many students and parents lack legal immigration status, but federal law makes clear that local schools must provide an education regardless of immigration status.
Historically, many immigrants from Mexico and Central America had little education due to their families’ poverty and lack of opportunity in their countries of origin. It is still common to meet adult immigrants in Memphis whose education ended at the ninth grade or earlier.
Through a unique partnership between the Mexican government and MSCS, new Memphis residents have a chance to complete their education and obtain documents that validate their livelihoods.
“When families come to Memphis from different countries, what do they look at first? School and church,” she said. “Community, students, families and people were looking for something from us, and we are in the best position to help them.”
Plaza Comunitarias – community plazas – are resource centers for adult education where Spanish-speaking adults can learn how to read, write and obtain education up to a high school diploma. The program is sponsored by the Mexican government through the National Institute of Adult Education and the Mexican Secretary of Education.
First created in Mexico, Arguijo brought the program to Memphis in 2014. The curriculum is presented largely online and provided by the Mexican consulate. This free-of-charge program allows participants to attend on timelines that work for them.
Parents, students and community members can also meet with a representative from the Mexican consulate to receive new documents. Arguijo and the consulate have been able to obtain Mexican passports and identification cards for some graduating students who are originally from Mexico and need the documents to enroll in higher education.
With the nearest Mexican consulate based in Little Rock, Arguijo said, many families don’t have the resources to make the trip for appointments in person, so the consulate has set up a “traveling consulate” that comes to the schools. The emotional response from the community is overwhelming, Arguijo said.
Arguijo recalls a student who fell to her knees in gratitude after waiting, “She come out with a passport…and said, ‘Thank you.’ And I say, ‘No, no, no, don’t do that.’ These things just happen…. We can make it happen. Together, we do so many things.”
Arguijo emphasized that not only are the plazas educating the Hispanic community, but they’re also exposing children of other ethnic backgrounds to the Spanish language with bilingual books and activities.
“Plazas Comunitarias is not only for Mexico, it’s for the whole community, it doesn’t matter where they come from. They can come from China, or they can be from Germany, and they can speak another language, but they can go in because we have a lot of people in different countries and other states. And they want to learn Spanish. And they finish with it,” she said.
After seeing success with the Mexican government, the district is working on forming a similar relationship with the Guatemalan consulate in Atlanta.
Recognition from Mayor A C Wharton and from the Mexican government has been an honor, Arguijo said, but that’s not what keeps her motivated.
“I thought nobody could see my work because I’ve been involved,” Arguijo said. “How the community provides different awards, that does not make you who you are. This is my heart.”
Astrid Kayembe covers South Memphis, Whitehaven and Westwood. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (901) 304-7929 or on Twitter @astridkayembe_.