Montserrat Garibay still remembers what it was like going to an Austin middle school in 1993 for the first time as an undocumented eighth grader who didn’t speak any English.
The Mexico City native was brought illegally to Texas by her mother who wanted to not only provide a better life for her family but also escape an abusive husband.
“It was really hard because I didn’t speak the language,” Garibay told VOXXI. She became a U.S. Citizen last fall. “I remember the first day not speaking a word and seeing all different diversities and cultures was shocking.”
As fate would have it, what Garibay needed the most—an understanding smile, a compassionate voice and guiding light—that first day was exactly what she found in her teacher Ms. Cristina Hernandez.
“I had the honor of being her first ESL teacher in the United States. She was determined to learn the English language and be the best student she could be,” said Hernandez.
Today, Montserrat Garibay doesn’t hesitate citing Hernandez as playing a key role in not only helping her assimilate into American culture but also finding her calling in life.
“She was kind of the first person that really inspired me,” Garibay said. “She had a great relationship with my mom, with all of the other students, and she was kind of like my mentor. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher but when I had her as a teacher, I was sure I wanted to do that. I wanted to do the things that she did with my sister and I, kind of mentoring us and guiding us through the whole high school process. I wanted to do those things for my students as well.”
After graduating from Anderson High School in Austin, the then-undocumented Garibay had no choice but to return to Mexico if she wanted to attend college. After two years at Universidad de Guanajuato, she returned stateside after her mother’s employer became her sponsor allowing her to enroll as an international student at Austin Community College. In 2004, she graduated from the University of Texas with degrees in education and Spanish language teaching.
Garibay then spent the next eight years as a bilingual pre-kindergarten teacher in Austin’s Lucy Read Pre-Kindergarten Demonstration School.
“I have had the privilege of witnessing Montserrat in becoming an amazing young professional in her career in education,” former teacher Hernandez said. “Her passion for teaching her students and supporting their parents is second to none. A teacher can ask of no greater gift than to see your former students succeed in life and continue the journey in educating all of our students.”
Montserrat Garibay: ‘We must work together’
Montserrat Garibay says her teaching style is simple: Educating the whole child and building partnerships with parents.
“The great thing about being in pre-K is the kids start fresh,” Garibay said. “They love to be in school, they love to learn.”
“One of the things I used to do at the beginning of every year is I’d have home visits, where I’d go to the children’s houses and kind of start a relationship. I’d say, ‘I’m here for your child, and I’m a teacher, but the first teachers are the parents.’ I’m empowering them to own that because they’re the first teachers and it’s a partnership between the school and the family. If we don’t work together, they’re going to have a hard time.”
“I also wanted to make sure they knew I was there for the long run and creating this partnership was really important for me.”
Currently long-term for Garibay is being the Education Austin Vice-President for Certified Employees, which finds her taking two years out of the classroom to help organize teachers in her area. She’s been quite active in her community after last summer’s Deferred Action announcement from the Obama Administration to not deport certain DREAM Act–eligible undocumented youth.
“As a union, we’re giving information to the teachers and counselors and they’re giving that to the students,” Garibay said. “So we’re doing a lot of engaging the community with social justifications.”
When looking at Montserrat Garibay’s 20 year journey, it’s hard not think she’s living the modern day American dream. And part of that ideal is giving back to the community that helped her achieve her career goals. Furthermore, it’s easy to see that Garibay has become a “Ms. Hernandez” to her students.
“I hope so,” Garibay said. “That was always like my dream. She was like my guardian angel. She was there when I needed somebody to hold my hand. And I want to be the same thing for students.”