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MEChA conference speakers empower students of color with stories of their struggles and successes.

XX - Students listen to speakers during a MEChA conference at Sylvan Middle School Monday, April 8.

Xiomara Torres spent years making legal decisions that impacted the lives of children, but today, her only mission is to inspire them. Torres, a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge, was one of three guest speakers Monday, April 8, at a MEChA Conference held at Sylvan Middle School. MEChA stands for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlan.

MEChA conferences are geared toward Hispanic and Latino students and aim to empower students of color while promoting higher education, community and culture.

Oregon Department of Education data show that students who are English language learners have a statewide dropout rate of nearly 5.3 percent, compared to a rate of 3.5 percent for students who already know English.

This is the second year in a row that a school in the Portland Public Schools district has hosted the statewide conference, which saw 475 students from 27 different middle and high schools from McMinville, Canby, Forest Grove, Tigard, Tualatin, Hillsboro, Beaverton, Portland and as far away as Eugene, attend on a day they were scheduled to be out of school.

As a child, Torres immigrated to the United States from El Salvador with her parents, with the help of a hired "coyote" or border crossing aide.

She eventually got split up from her parents and siblings after enduring abuse, and spent her teen years in foster care.

Her journey from immigrant child to foster care youth, to law school, and now, judge, is an anomaly. Torres told her story and answered questions from students who packed the gymnasium at West Sylvan.

She urged fellow Latina students "not to be ashamed" of their backgrounds.

"I think that we let this country, that's a country of immigrants, shame us for being here without documents, and it's primarily focused on racism," Torres said. "We should not be ashamed to be in a country of immigrants."

Torres's life journey was chronicled in the play, "Judge Torres" by Milta Ortiz, which debuted at Portland theaters earlier this year. She followed speaker Jonathan Garcia, PPS's chief engagement officer, at Monday's conference and ended her session by answering questions pitched to her in Spanish and English.

Torres said growing up in foster care hardened her and often made it difficult to open up to others. She's getting better about that now.

Despite overcoming barriers to attain a law degree and eventually being appointed by Gov. Kate Brown to serve as a Circuit Court judge, Torres still faces prejudice that she says might only be rectified by diversity in judicial spaces.

"I was always called 'the interpreter'" she recalls of being in courtrooms, when she was not, in fact, a translator, but the presiding judge.

"I was really surprised. ... We make assumptions about who the judge is in the room," Torres said. "That's not going to change until we have diversity on the bench."

PHOTO COURTESY OF BETH CONYERS, PPS - Xiomara Torres, who now serves as a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge, speaks to students about her upbringing as an immigrant child in foster care during a MEChA conference at Sylvan Middle School.

"It's really important for students to understand that they can have the support that they look for within their schools," Neomi Navarro, a MEChA secretary who works at Lincoln High School, said immediately following Monday's conference. "This is a place where they can grow their skills and get that support. Different students from Latin America, and even non-Latino students come here because they feel that."

At the MEChA conference, six students received scholarships in the form of laptop computers. Students also won raffle prizes and some took part in games and activities to break up the daylong conference.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero rounded out the day's guest speakers, recalling how music classes and a few good mentors helped him adjust to what was, at times, a very difficult life.

"I also grew up in a household where abuse was constant, alcoholism was present, and we never knew where the next meal was coming from," Guerrero said, peering out into a gymnasium full of students. "It took my small broken family, a few close friends, some generous neighbors, Boy Scout leaders, my music teacher and a couple teachers in school who cared ... to motivate me, to keep me in line, out of trouble."

Guerrero left his home in California's Bay Area to study music at the University of California at Los Angeles before eventually going on to Harvard University and earning two master's degrees.

"Here I am, fortunate to lead the transformation of a public school district, the largest school district in Oregon," he told students and staff. "Together we are the flame that will push our community, the state and the country into a future that is worth waiting for. Never doubt for a moment that you can make the difference, you can change the world."

The PPS superintendent said, as the first Latino superintendent in the school district's history, he recognizes the impact and opportunities of his position.

"I feel a responsibility of all our students, in particular to our underserved students who look like me," Guerrero said as Monday's event wrapped up. "I want all our students to know their potential. I want them to exercise a sense of self agency. Today it's a little more unique, because given my background, I can relate to them."

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