Author Malin Alegria kicked off GEAR UP Day March 21 at the 2013 Festival of International Books and Arts (FESTIBA) at The University of Texas-Pan American by encouraging Rio Grande Valley middle school students to create new myths about what Latinas/os can be.
"Growing up, I didn't get to see any authors who looked like me, so I want to dispel those myths and show kids that no matter where they come from or what their background is, if they have a dream, they can do it," she said.
Alegria was scheduled to speak to more than 1,000 students from the Region One Education Service Center GEAR UP program on their visit to the campus March 21-22 to hear and experience an exciting and inspiring line-up of FESTIBA presenters and activities aimed toward improving their career and life success and to pursue a healthy lifestyle.
Initiated in 2006 by UT Pan American, FESTIBA promotes interest and appreciation for reading and early literacy, celebrates the arts and humanities, and broadens cultural awareness within the South Texas community. This year's theme for the weeklong event that runs through March 24 is "Literacy: Inspiring Healthy Minds and Healthy Bodies."
Alegria said she originally aspired to be an actress but didn't find roles other than as a maid or immigrant.
"I wanted to play a smart, sassy Latina, not a maid, not an immigrant. I was an urban kid, I grew up in San Francisco. I didn't grow up in the fields or a gang household. I did not fit the stereotype that existed," she said.
"I look at a lot of the issues I had growing up and what held me back - the obstacles which were very self-imposed," said Alegria, who encouraged students to look for successful mentors and not to be afraid to try new things or make mistakes.
During her presentation in the Student Union Theater, Alegria used her acting skills to read dramatically from her new series of books titled "Bordertown." It is the first Latina teen series published by Scholastic. The novels are set in a fictional town in South Texas and center on the experiences of a high school sophomore Fabiola Garza, her younger sister Alexis, and their cousin Santiago.
Sponsored by a GEAR UP grant in collaboration with UT Pan American, all of the students attending received a copy of the four books in the "Bordertown" series.
Alegria, who has read her work at Valley schools previously, said she "loves" FESTIBA.
"It is an amazing opportunity, an amazing show of love and support for the young people of the Valley. I'm really impressed with South Texas as a whole in terms of the amount of money they put behind education. They realize that the kids need mentors, they need to see people to aspire to become," she said.
While on campus, the teenagers also heard from accomplished GEAR UP and UTPA alumnus, Mike Guerra, in the Jeffers Theater.
Guerra, a Pharr-San Juan-Alamo North High School graduate, was a member of the first GEAR UP cohort. He now works for Radio Disney in Burbank, Calif. and is the first Spanish speaking live DJ for the southern California station.
He spoke to the eighth graders about the importance of applying for financial aid, preparing for the ACT and SAT, and crafting their own destiny.
The teens also heard from UT Pan American faculty and students about numerous academic programs in the arts and humanities that can help them express themselves.
Raymundo Fu, an eighth grader at Valley View Early College Campus, said FESTIBA has been a great learning experience.
"We have learned about things that we don't normally hear about in school. We are outside of the classroom and we are still learning," Fu said.
The middle school students then headed outdoors to the Quad for an interactive presentation with Noel Espericueta, the only Valley native currently playing for the UTPA men's basketball team. The Bronc freshman ran the students through a series of basketball drills to instill the importance of staying physically fit to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
"We want kids to stay active at least 60 minutes a day. It's a fun way to show the kids the facts about how successful you can be in life by being active and living a balanced life," Espericueta said. "If you eat right, stretch and you keep your life on track and go to school you will be successful in life."
Villa, a native of Commerce, Calif., told students about her journey to become a four-time Olympic athlete and a Gold Medal winner.
She began swimming and playing water polo as a child when her mother, who was afraid of the water, enrolled her and her brothers into a recreational sports program sponsored by the city in which they lived. Her parents instilled in her the importance of doing well in school.
Two goals Villa set for herself were to attend Stanford University and qualify for the Olympics. Villa was accepted and attended Stanford, but took some time off to train for the 2000 Olympics, before graduating with a degree in political science in 2003. Villa said her parents encouraged her to stay in school, but after she qualified for the Olympic team, her parents supported her decision to take a sabbatical from school to compete.
"There are sacrifices to be made, but as long as you're true to yourself and believe in yourself, whatever path you take will be the correct one," Villa said.
Now retired from her athletic career at the age of 32, Villa said she has started pursuing new dreams, including speaking to young people to motivate them to set goals and run Project 2020, a water polo and swimming program for girls in California.
"You should never stop dreaming, even if you've accomplished some dreams you can always dream new dreams," Villa said.
UTPA's educational partner to present FESTIBA is Region One ESC GEAR UP. The 2013 FESTIBA sponsors include the City of Edinburg, Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, The Raul Tijerina Jr. Foundation, Reading is Fundamental, South Texas Literacy Coalition, Dustin Sekula Memorial Library, Texas Book Festival, The University of Texas-Pan American Library, International Museum of Art and Science, Tocker Foundation, and the Scholastic Classroom and Community Group.
FESTIBA continues Friday, March 22 with Librarians and Educators Day, which includes a Congressional Roundtable on Hispanic Literacy led by U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (TX-15), and the community Festival at Jardín Del Arte at Edinburg City Hall.
For more information, visit www.utpa.edu/festiba,