Mireya Reith, co-founder and Executive Director of the Arkansas United Community Coalition, shared her experiences of growing up as a daughter of Mexican immigrants and those of becoming a woman in a position of leadership during the Hispanic Heritage Month speaker event. The event took place on Oct. 10 with almost a hundred people in attendance, including Arkansas Tech University’s president, Dr. Robin Bowen.
“I didn’t have the opportunity to grow up with other individuals that looked like me, let alone have teachers or other leaders in the community to whom I could look [up to] and identify,” Reith said.
One experience that Reith shared was a story about her interaction with a first grade teacher. The teacher took her Spanish accent to be a speech impediment and when the rest of the class was learning their alphabet and how to read, she was “sent out to a trailer in the back where I had to do speech therapy.” That whole year was not a good experience for Reith.
An experience Reith recalled during this time was that “to reinforce my learning, my first grade teacher would hit me with a ruler every time I would pronounce a word incorrectly in class.”
The students of her class saw how the teacher treated her and they soon followed the example and gave her the nickname “Mexican Monkey.” This nickname was attributed to the fact that the students and others saw Hispanic people as “less than human.”
Children could not go to her house to play because rumors spread they would “get a disease because my family was Mexican.” Reith made it through first grade, saying there were many reasons to hate school and to hate this country growing up, but then second grade happened.
It was in second grade that she had a teacher who refused to send her to the trailer and “only saw the same potential in me that she saw in every kid in the classroom.” This teacher offered her specialized tutoring during lunchtime and would come visit Reith and her sister at home. That year Reith made straight A’s and continued to do so until she graduated as the first Latina valedictorian of Fayetteville High School.
“The great equalizer is education,” Reith said.
Reith continues her story to how she was accepted to every college she applied to, in fact colleges fought over her. When she asked why they wanted her, the colleges replied, “You bring a diverse life lens to the table both as an Arkansan and a Mexican-American; our colleges would be better and our students would be better knowing your story and having you in our classrooms.”
She is now the co-founder and Executive Director of the Arkansas United Community Coalition, a non-profit in Arkansas that helps the Hispanic community through 7 offices with a staff of fifteen.
Reith has not only made her own way but is creating new paths for other Hispanics to follow.
This event was hosted by the Department of Diversity and Inclusion as part of the Hispanic Heritage month events.