GROWING UP in Puerto Rico surrounded by a large, supportive family, Eneida Román learned to believe in the power of role models. As a girl, she wanted to be like her female cousins: popular and successful. She understood by osmosis that she would pursue an education. Her family made that abundantly clear.
But for many Latino families, the role modeling ends with relatives. The notion of taking steps to help a young person outside of the extended family may seem strange, almost unnatural. That’s one of the reasons why there’s a lack of volunteers to mentor the 500 girls, most of them of color, on the waiting list of Big Sister Association of Greater Boston. That’s also why Román’s decision to reach outside the family circle to help young girls in need of role models is so noteworthy.
Román, 41, is a strong-minded and lively Latina whose passion and energy is impossible not to rub off. She got involved with the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston after building her career as a lawyer a decade ago. She was quickly matched with a South Boston girl named Migleila, then just 7 years old and of Puerto Rican descent as well. She’s now 16, and thanks to Román, sees the world through more than one lens. About once a month they cook together in Román’s Wellesley home, or visit a Latin restaurant, or go to the MFA. They often take Migleila’s older sister Elizabeth on their outings.
Fun stuff, but the magic of being a powerful role model happens on a deeper level. For Román, who is also a licensed psychologist, the moment came when it became clear the message about education was sinking in. “At some point, Migleila was completely against college. But that’s what they hear in their surroundings. They hear it makes no sense,” Román says. “But I kept drilling, I would say to her: You can study whatever you want, it’s not like high school, it’s a great experience, you can have a better life and make a difference.” Eventually, says Román, both Migleila and Elizabeth were repeating what she was saying.
“They did end up listening to me! It took me a while, at least a year, to convince them,” she says proudly.
Even though her exceptional volunteer efforts have been good news for Migleila and her family, there are not enough Eneida Romans to go around. While any dedicated mentor is welcome, there’s a particular lack of Big Sisters of color. Just 5 percent of the approximately 2,400 Boston-area volunteers are Latina. Of the 2,800 girls served by the organization through all of its programs, 35 percent are black and 30 percent Latina.
The Big Sister Association in Boston is trying to do something about this gap, and to that end Román was asked to join the organization’s four-year-old Diversity Council. She also serves on the National Hispanic Advisory Council of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
“Hispanic families often don’t want to send their kids to these programs because they don’t trust the people involved, they don’t see it as natural,” Román tells me, switching effortlessly between English and Spanish. “But you and I understand the culture, we can capture nuances automatically. I know that Migleila’s mother tells me things and talks to me about certain things because I’m Latina and I get her.”
That, says Román, is bad news for kids on the margin, kids who could benefit from the Eneida Románs of the world.
“My concern is that, if we don’t have mentoring in place for a lot of Hispanics, without those role models, without these mentoring programs in place and without these tools to help Hispanics achieve their maximum potential, i.e., education, we’re going to be a community of marginalized and poor people. We don’t want that. The potential is there.”
And part of sensing the potential is seeing people like you be successful. “I know Migleila’s self-esteem has flourished after seeing me and my friends,” says Román. “She and her sister have met some of my friends, and they are people who look like them and are successful women, so that has impacted their life as well. Being with me, they see beyond the communities that they live in. They see professional woman, and they say, I can be like them.”
Migleila aspires to own a fancy Newbury Street salon. “I always tell her, ‘Well, you have to study business first.’ And I tell her I’ll be her first client, but she has to go to college first,” she says smiling, but dead serious.
Marcela García is a special correspondent at Telemundo Boston and a contributor to the Boston Business Journal.