Dr. Luz Mary Rincon , Texas A&M-Texarkana professor of Spanish and bilingual education, believes in and advocates for education to open worlds of opportunities for minority students.
Empowering through education has an exponential effect, she said. "It is a noble profession, teaching. You think how can we teach them, and then their students, and then the students of their students," she said.
With an impressive list of academic presentations and publications, Luz Mary was recently honored as one of 15 A&M System Regent Professors for 2019-2020. She is the first Hispanic professor at TAMU-T to accomplish the feat.
The Regents Professor Award recognizes faculty members who have made extraordinary contributions to their university, as well as to the people of Texas.
As a professor at TAMU-T for 15 years, she is well-known for practicing experiential learning, helping students overcome the hurdles of obtaining an education and cultivating a sense of community and helping students experience diversity and international studies.
"When we talk about diversity, everything comes from that. It is a way of experiential learning. Our college diversified the education community in 2008 with a trip to Mexico," she said.
The trip was planned and organized by the late Dr. Tom Gandy, who was instrumental in obtaining funding for TAMU-T's Spanish program in the mid-2000s.
After the Mexico trip in 2008, TAMU-T faculty and students traveled to South America to countries including Costa Rica, and Luz Mary's home country, Colombia, to make academic presentations.
"And I said, 'let's move a little farther away,' so I started going to Peru and Spain," she said.
Hispanic cultures are different in their dialect of Spanish, economic structures and cultures, Luz Mary said. It cannot be deduced to thinking Hispanic equals, or is synonymous, to Mexican.
"No, the world has much more than this," she said. "For my students, it shows a global community and broadening their perspective."
Luz Mary says programs like Connect 360 allow students to improve their thinking skills and their ability to relate to what they and others have. She hopes the trips abroad can continue after the pandemic is over.
It was at a learning trip to her native Colombia in 2015 at the Study Texas, Feria de Universidades, when she shared her aspiration of being an A&M Regents Professor. Then-TAMU-T Provost Dr. Rosanne Stripling asked Luz Mary what was her biggest goal. Luz Mary says Rosanne was her biggest supporter but she also credits receiving the Regents Professor Award to her colleagues and leadership community at TAMU-T, including Drs. Sara Lawrence, Abbie Strunc and Del Doughty.
"You learn from everybody by having conversations. Leadership has brought me to this achievement," Luz Mary said.
Luz Mary started the Spanish, bilingual and ESL programs at TAMU-T. While she credits colleagues as her source of professional leadership, she has provided professional leadership to her students.
"I don't know how many students I have served, but I have had students who are principals and superintendents now," she said.
While growing up Bucaramanga, Colombia, in the last stretch of the Colombian Andes, Luz Mary's parents instilled several life lessons.
She wanted to become a teacher because of her mother, Alcira Rincon
"She was teaching us to read and write, syllables and math. I remember when I went to my private Catholic kindergarten, I knew all there was to know. So they moved me to the first grade," she said.
Luz Mary and her five siblings are each a year apart. As the eldest, Luz Mary was taught the ways of homemaking, including cooking and cleaning while her father traveled.
Her mother advised her to study languages and go places.
"Your parents have a lot to do with who you are of course and what you become," she said.
Her father, Alirio Rincon , was a railroad conductor. She remembers him "walking so fast, going to places so fast." His trait of walking fast, among others, was passed down to her.
As she was finishing last summer's classes at TAMU-T, she had 17 graduates seeking their Alternative Certificate Program as she met with them via Zoom.
"In the meantime, I was getting ready for a presentation and publication. I received a call at the end of July that dad was hospitalized and had COVID," she said.
She continued to focus on her students and mission to prepare them for certification, but joined virtually with her large family to pray for her father.
In the Hispanic tradition, the family performed a novena, praying the rosary nine days for Luz Mary's father. Two days afterward, he died.
Luz Mary says she has not had time to mourn her father's death but she has a theory of how he contracted COVID-19.
At age 85, he liked to take morning walks. When the pandemic hit, he, like others, was assigned days to walk outside.
"When it was my dad's day to walk, he was taking buses, taking taxis. He went running errands, going to the bank and visiting relatives. He just went everywhere. You could not stop him, he was very active.
"Really, I was the one closest to him," she said.
She recalled that at the time she sought her bachelor's degree, her father was retired and would drive her to the university.
"He was there waiting for me to take me to school. He was there the whole time. That was special and we talked a lot in our little drives. He was like 'never give up.' He died doing that—never giving up."
Her journey here
Luz Mary said her story of coming to TAMU-T began when she was an immigrant.
Her coming to the United States was not about economic opportunities for her family, but her professional aspirations.
After obtaining her bachelor's degree in foreign languages, she traveled from Colombia to England and taught for one year.
"After returning to Colombia, I kept thinking about my first experience being abroad at such a young age," Luz Mary said. "I started working as a high school teacher (in Colombia) and I said, 'Well, there is more to do.' It was more my decision to connect professionally. I wanted to explore different worlds, people and cultures."
She attended Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. In 1994, she earned two master's degrees in Spanish and in teaching English as a second or foreign language.
She combined her parents' advice about not giving up and studying languages.
"Being an immigrant is not just about cultural behaviors and finding your way. It takes twice as much mental work. It is not easy, but it is rewarding," Luz Mary said.
In 2004, she earned her doctorate in applied linguistics at Ball State. It was her love of diversity that drew her to Texarkana, as Dr. Gandy had applied for a grant to start a Spanish program at TAMU-T.
"In 2005, Texarkana's Hispanic population was small. In 15 years, it has grown," she said.
And so has the area's diversity.
Luz Mary said that when she goes to stores, she sees more Hispanics. The New Boston Road corridor appears to be where most of the Hispanic commercial growth is concentrated with the number of shops increasing.
The city has even sought her help translating and communicating about the recent U.S. Census count and election.
"We need to use this foundation to grow a community. Instead of separation and segregation, we need inclusion," she said.
She said it is about reaching out and working in the local streets, not just the classroom or in another country.
Also, any new service, like COVID testing, is information that is disseminated at the shops and tiendas.
This community outreach is complemented by the increasing numbers of ESL learners in local schools.
For instance, Texarkana Independent School District has 16 languages its students speak, she said. Highland Park Elementary has 45 percent of its students classified as English Language Learners.
Luz Mary described her teaching style as helping students at their current level and "getting them ready to go on to the next level."
"It is like an equation," she said, "their current level plus one. It is not just cultural differences but the fonts of knowledge they bring from their home and their rich experiences and cultural variations as well as the differences in socioeconomic statuses.
"For me, it was easier because I had my education, but I think about minority students working and working. They start working at a young age to help their families and that stops them from pursuing their education."
Luz Mary's husband, Ramiro Rangel, is a Spanish teacher at Hooks High School. Their son, José Rangel, is a pharmacy student at University of Houston. Their daughter, Maria Rangel, is a senior at Texas High School.
Luz Mary reflected upon immigrants coming to a new land, learning new customs and implementing customs from their original cultures.
"From the time we make the long, unpredictable trek into America, we start reshaping ourselves to fit the expectations of a new lifestyle. We enjoy turkey enchiladas on Accion de Gracias, celebrate Christmas on the 24th and Posadas for nine days before, share Christmas presents on Dia de los Reyes," she said.
"But we also embrace the aspect that defines us — our culture. We create tight-knit communities: sharing our Hispanic heritage, celebrating our music — mariachi, reggaeton, bachata; our religion — Virgen de Guadalupe, Da de los Muertos, Holy Week parades; enjoying our pastimes and sports — loteria, soccer, rodeo; and enjoying the combination of flavors — cilantro, lime, avocado, pico de gallo.
"We influence the general American culture and way of life, but also incorporate our values and traditions. Whether it be Mexican or Colombian, Puerto Rican or Chilean, we are unified by keeping the memoir most defining of us — pride in our 'Hispanidad,' she said.