Latina educator among 2014’s ‘Remarkable Leaders’


For the past 27 years, Beatriz Villarreal has worked with the Latino community in San Diego County to prevent juvenile delinquency, first as director of a counseling program at juvenile hall, then as the head of the nonprofit Mano A Mano Foundation, which she created.

As an immigrant from Mexico, Villareal, an Encinitas resident, knows what it’s like to assimilate into a new culture. After studying in Mexico City, she enrolled at the University of San Diego, where she earned master’s and doctoral degrees in education. Her work has included producing videos and conducting classes for Latino parents and students, aimed at helping teens succeed in school and avoid pitfalls such as gangs, drugs and teen pregnancy.

“I’m trying to show them the way to get the American dream,” said Villarreal, 55. “They came to this country for a better life, and sometimes they get lost on the way.”

In recognition of her contributions, USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences has named her one of five “Remarkable Leaders in Education” for 2014, an annual awards program started in 2007.

The honorees, according to a letter from the school, “have demonstrated distinct vision and have positively transformed education by reaching far beyond their job description.”

Among Villarreal’s key messages to parents is that they have to get actively involved in their children’s education, familiarizing themselves with the curriculum, meeting teachers and learning how the educational system works.

“You have to be there,” knowing what’s going on at school and advocating for what their students need, Villarreal said.

Each year for more than a decade, she has put on a conference in Spanish in Encinitas, sponsored by the city. This year, she was awarded a $5,000 grant from the Encinitas city government to hold the conference, which will be Dec. 3 at the Encinitas Senior and Community Center. The two-hour program will be presented entirely in Spanish, the only program of its kind in the county, she said. Among the speakers will be bilingual county sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers.

The approach is meant to empower parents, and it seems to be working.

Leticia Espinoza, an Oceanside mother of five, said she has attended Villarreal’s classes in Oceanside and Encinitas, and said she learned how to talk to her children about topics such as gangs, sex and drugs, which are often taboo in Latino culture. She also took to heart the idea that Latino families must attend school meetings, become informed and talk to school officials about what they need to help their children thrive in their education.

Espinoza said she also appreciates Villarreal’s accessibility and willingness to help.

“She cares about people; she knows her job very well. She doesn’t care what nationality you are or if you speak Spanish or English, she treats everyone with kindness. And she’s willing to find someone to help you if she’s not able to do it.”

According to Villarreal, some Latino parents think they have done their job simply by delivering their children to school. But she tells the parents that only 30 percent of a child’s education comes from school: The other 70 percent comes from the home, in areas such as values, customs, traditions, discipline, responsibility and a structured schedule.

She also encourages parents to speak to their children in Spanish, because otherwise they may lose part of their heritage. She said the children will learn English through their daily lives, but they need to learn Spanish at home.

“It’s more than a language, it’s culture, roots and identity,” she said. “If you lose your identity, that’s where gangs come in.”

Villarreal said she learned of the USD education award through a letter from the school, and was overcome with emotion.

“I cried like crazy,” when she read the letter, she said. “It’s an honor to receive something like that.”

Her picture will be displayed in a hall at the university along with the photos of other honorees, and her mother and brother plan to fly to San Diego from Mexico City to attend the Nov. 8 award ceremony.

Villarreal and her husband, Jorge Jiron, an information technology director at a local company, have two children, a daughter, 24, and a son, 19. Her daughter graduated from USD with a communications degree, and her son attends MiraCosta College and plans to transfer to UCSD, where he will study mechanical engineering.

She also appears on a weekly Spanish-language show on the Televisa network, “Mas Que Palabras,” where she is on a panel with two psychologists to discuss issues that affect the Latino community.