• by Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • November-December 2018 •
Ismael and Paula Robledo crossed borders. They lived in Mexico, and they lived in Texas. Their four children knew Laredo, and they knew Mexico City and General Treviño. Cuca was the youngest of four. Her much older brothers experienced military life and work in the U.S. Midwest. Her sister, Lupe, was born with serious heart problems, and her parents had to focus on her health as little Cuca crossed borders with them.
Growing up in the Chacon area of Laredo, once marked as a dangerous barrio (unless you lived there), to go from El Chacon to downtown Laredo, the family had to cross on a bridge over the railroad tracks.
They struggled to survive, migrating to California and Wisconsin. Theirs was a home rich in love and warmth.
Cuca also crossed the border of class when going to high school. She attended Ursuline Academy, which was host to girls from Laredo’s most important families, and the nuns catered to her privileged classmates. Even as she excelled academically, she was reminded that she came from a family that was not wealthy.
Every border she crossed left a mark. She would remain steadfast in her love and pride in her family and everything they were: Spanish speaking, working class, religious and loving. Whether having to go to Chicago to live with her oldest brother so that her father could find a job, or picking crops, or living in a neighborhood that some Laredoans stigmatized, she knew her value and that of those she came from and grew up with.
The intense love never diminished. She supported her sister when she was going through a difficult divorce, and she became second mother to her niece and nephew and later supported her sister through her cancer to the point of seeing her pass away in her son’s bedroom, surrounded by a roomful of loving family. Those are tough borders to cross.
Cuca crossed an international border with Lucas, her husband and father of their two children, Ismael Gavino and Xavier Mario, from Texas to Ecuador.
Cuca is a practicing Catholic and a lector and Eucharistic Minister at St. Matthew’s Church. She is also a Zen teacher with dharma transmission by a Catholic priest and Zen master who also walks those two paths simultaneously.
Border crossing has also permeated and strengthened her professional work. Research, policy and practice are usually kept separate and, when advocated by groups, are seen as different domains that don’t easily connect – not so under Cuca’s leadership.
When Dr. José A. Cárdenas announced his retirement in 1992 in his 19th year as founder and director of IDRA, Cuca earned the position and has been President and CEO of IDRA for over 26 years – a major border to cross!
Samples of her leadership can be seen in eight milestones.
Non-profit Management. After taking over the reins of a financially-sound IDRA from the founder, Dr. Cárdenas, Dr. Robledo Montecel expanded the reach, multiplied the coffers by 14 times and belied the data of non-profits: most go belly-up after the founder leaves, and few prosper. And IDRA is today celebrating its 45th year strong.
Dropout Prevention. She developed and guided IDRA’s flagship program, the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program through its research and evaluation, expanding it to England and Brazil, and continues to succeed in partnership with the Coca-Cola Foundation. Since it began in 1984, this research-based, internationally-recognized dropout prevention program has been keeping 98 percent of its tutors in school, and the lives of more than 725,000 children, families and educators have been positively impacted by it.
Attrition Studies. Cuca led Texas’ first official statewide attrition study, which continues to be a powerful annual study that reminds all Texans of the need to support all students in completing high school and enter college.
Fair School Funding. She has taken the IDRA founding issue of equity in public school funding and has guided it through policy and legislative challenges and continues to support it through the Texas Latino Education Coalition (formed under her leadership) and embodied in the José A. Cárdenas School Finance Fellows Program, which she created.
Systems Change. From her doctoral study on the connection between education research and application in systems, to current leadership in data science, Cuca distilled the essence of institutional transformation with the IDRA Quality Schools Action Framework.
Families and Communities. Dr. Robledo Montecel spearheaded IDRA’s unique family leadership in education direction which moved family engagement from volunteerism and parenting skills to accessing the power in families and communities to create excellent schools for all children.
English Learner Education. Having grown up in a home where Spanish was the first language and having experienced the treasure of being fully biliterate, she has always proclaimed the civil right of children to an excellent bilingual program and the potential of nurturing the home language while developing full proficiency in English. Under her leadership, IDRA has influenced policy, research and school practices to improve education of English learners in all grades.
Cuca has crossed many distant borders in Spain, twice making the caminata de Santiago de Campostela – once with her son, Xavier and once with her Dharma group from San Antonio. Not many cross the border between Christianity and Buddhism: Cuca does so brilliantly, compassionately and firmly.
Her family is a complex map of border crossing: Husband Lucas Montecel, military veteran with a degree in architecture, runs a thriving leather import business. Ismael, the eldest son, just having completed his service in the U.S. Air Force and is now a senior data scientist who lives with his wife, Jill Potkalesky, in Washington, D.C. Xavier, the youngest, is close to completing doctoral work in theology. Cuca crossed a major cultural border with the celebration of her son Xavier’s engagement to Ryan Bowley at their home in San Antonio and the subsequent wedding in Boston.
All this border crossing is sustained by four deep and powerful groundings: Faith, Courage, Insight and Persistence.
Her faith is grounded in people and community.
Her courage, nurtured in her defense of the dignity of her family, blossomed into taking a stand for children in the face of deep biases and strong bigotry against many children and their families.
Her insight is her clear vision of what reality is, uncovering and pointing to the brilliance and potential in all children in the face of stereotypic and deficit views that permeate our institutions and those who run them.
Finally, her persistence has kept her in the battle and fray for the long haul. Savoring the periodic wins in a stream of losses. Keeping on keeping on… for the children. Not only not giving up, but always planning with hope for transforming schools to be the places of safety, excellence and possibility for all children – especially for children who grow up poor, or are of color, speaking a language other than English, recent immigrant… or all of the above.
As she now crosses the border from president to president emeritus, she leaves a legacy that inspires us to keep our faith in the children, have the courage to keep the battle for the children as forces seek to not just limit the resources but create parallel systems that are not public, maintain a clear vision of what is in the best interest of children, and to persist with vigor and with strategies that will transform our schools.
Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., is an IDRA senior education associate and directs IDRA Education CAFE work. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November-December 2018 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]