When Sandra Maria Garcia Rubio and her family came to the United States, they were looking for better opportunities. It was the ‘80s, and a political fight over immigration would soon change the trajectory of her life.

Garcia was born on a ranch in Mexico. She loved school. She loved to learn. But after her family moved to the U.S. when she was 7 years old, Garcia couldn’t go to school because she was undocumented.

Nuns at All Saints Catholic School in Fort Worth taught English and other basic skills to Garcia and other undocumented students to prepare them for school. At the same time, a legal battle played out to determine whether undocumented children could attend U.S. public schools. 

Then, in 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Plyler vs. Doe that the U.S. couldn’t deny students a free public education based on their immigration status. 

Garcia became one of the first undocumented students admitted to Fort Worth ISD, according to an archived article from the Spanish newspaper La Estrella de Tejas.

All her life, Garcia says, she was told education was “the path to everything.” Now, because of her dedication to public education and volunteer work, she will be honored with a Heroes for Children award by the Texas Education Agency. 

Heroes for Children

From the Texas Education Agency website: The State Board of Education established the Heroes for Children award program in 1994. The award is designed to recognize excellence in advocacy for education and to highlight the many outstanding volunteers whose efforts represent significant contributions to public school education in Texas.

Since its beginning, the award has provided a means to recognize Texas residents who render selfless acts of service by offering their time, effort and support to public schools and students. The award honors volunteers who have made outstanding contributions to student learning or who have demonstrated sustained periods of involvement and support of public education. Each year, the 15-member Board recognizes one Hero from each of their districts. The Heroes for Children award recipients are honored at the September SBOE meeting.

The TEA tries to identify leaders in the community who have done extensive, impactful service for public education for the award, Fort Worth ISD Volunteer Specialist Alma Mora-Pohler said. 

She nominated Garcia because of the work she’s done with young women in Fort Worth ISD to help them get into college through her work with nonprofit organizations like MANA and the Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas Latinas in Progress program. Mora-Pohler also nominated Garcia because of her advocacy for public education at the Capitol.

“A lot of people are involved in stuff, but you see who just shows up for happy hours or parties,” Mora-Pohler said. “I can see the ones who do the work and she does the work.” 

Putting herself — and her siblings — through school

Garcia didn’t get to stay in Fort Worth ISD for long. She started third grade at Denver Avenue, now Rufino Mendoza Elementary School, but her father moved the family around the state, working from ranch to ranch.

The family’s situation changed when former President Ronald Reagan passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which gave undocumented people who entered the U.S. before 1982 a path to permanent residence. 

Garcia and her family returned to Fort Worth and settled in the Diamond Hill neighborhood, where she attended Diamond Hill Elementary School.

“I didn’t understand the political system, but we were bullied,” Garcia said. “Even though I’m very light-complected because of my ancestry — I have some Spanish ancestry — but we were bullied. It was like they knew what families were undocumented, so they would call us mojadas and mojados — wetbacks.”

The bullying angered Garcia, but she decided to prove her detractors wrong by working harder and getting better grades. After Diamond Hill Elementary, Garcia attended W.A. Meacham Middle School and graduated from Trimble Tech High School in 1990. 

The following fall, she started college at Texas Christian University, but said she struggled with being on such a large campus with so few Latinas, and soon realized she couldn’t afford to stay at TCU. Garcia transferred to Tarrant County College, but didn’t find her higher education fit until she started at Texas Wesleyan University. It took her 12 years, but Garcia got her degree in international business in 2002 and her master’s in 2009.

During her higher education journey, she was also helping to guide her siblings to success.

In October of her senior year of high school, Garcia’s father was in an accident at work and was injured, he was never able to work again.

“So it fell onto me, the oldest of eight, and my mom to take care of the family,” Garcia said. “I told my brothers, ‘I’m going to get you through high school, but if you want to go to college you have to figure it out and when you graduate you have to get a job.’ My goal was to make sure they finished high school, that’s the basics to get a job.”

All of her siblings graduated.

From hermana to tía

Instead of acting as an older sister, Garcia sees herself as more of a tía, or aunt, to girls in Fort Worth schools. Her goal for them is similar to her goal with her siblings: get diplomas, earn degrees.

When she started her volunteer work with Latinas in Progress, which helps young Latinas navigate the college application process through mentorship, she was smitten.

“I fell in love with the program,” Garcia said. “I felt like, ‘If I can help these kids not make the mistakes I did, it would be great.’” 

When one of her previous LIP mentees graduated college, Garcia said it was a reminder of why she works so hard volunteering.

Sometimes, she still has to convince parents of LIP students to let the girls apply for college.

“In our culture, women are supposed to stay in the house and not go to school,” Garcia said. “So I remind parents when I recruit, we’re not trying to steal your kids, we’re just going to tell them they have options.”

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at kristen.barton@fortworthreport.org.

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