Fortaleza: A Catalyst for Latino/a Students

In the spring of 2023, we announced the first set of Community Action Grants awards to seventeen local coalitions and grassroots organizations under our new approach to community impact as it seeks to build more equitable communities and advance economic opportunity. In the changemakers series, we will tell the stories of these organizations and their impact in the neighborhoods they serve.

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1. Empowering

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2. Solidarity

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3. Building

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4. Gathering

Empowering Academic Success and Breaking Barriers

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Marianela Rivera, Executive Director of Fortaleza

Dr. Marianela Rivera was born and raised in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to Puerto Rican parents. In 8th grade, she transitioned to a private high school and realized she was two years behind her peers.

Dr. Rivera lived firsthand the achievement gap many Latino/a students still experience today. She knows what it feels like to struggle with a course, advance more slowly than others, and lean on mentors to rise from the bottom of the class to the top. Now, as Executive Director of Fortaleza, Inc, she recalls, “Not only do I have the lived experience as an organizer, but I have the lived experience as a Latino student who struggled academically. This mission is so closely connected to my heart”.

“This mission is so closely connected to my heart.”
— Marianela Rivera

Moved by her heart, roots, and passion for education justice, she decided to take on the leadership role at Fortaleza to help eliminate the many barriers she encountered in education so that other Latino/a students may thrive. Despite her struggle, she graduated cum laude from Northeastern University with a clinical doctorate in physical therapy.

Fortaleza LogoFortaleza, Inc was brought to life through an impassioned effort to unite a diverse group of Latino/a stakeholders in Lowell, who were committed to closing the persistent achievement gap among Latino/a students in Lowell Public Schools, even though they faced similar challenges as other student groups. Hence, Fortaleza’s core mission is to ignite collective action among parents, educators, community members, and faith leaders to advocate for eliminating education opportunity gaps, including access to higher-level courses, graduation, student attrition rates, and access to extra-curricular activities.

According to a publication of the Gastón Institute, in 2020, Latino/a students represented the largest minority student population in Massachusetts. At 205,136 students, this population was 22% of the total Massachusetts student enrollment (948,828) and the fastest-growing student population. “From 2010 to 2020, the size of the Latino student population increased by 45%, at an average yearly growth rate of 3.8%.

Given the growth of the Latino/a student population, most notably in the past decade, and the impact that systemic barriers have had on their future college enrollment and retention, United Way is committed to funding partners to help Latino/a students realize their educational aspirations.

Fortaleza is dedicated to breaking down obstacles for Latino/a students, but like all community-based organizations, they must also find ways to financially sustain their operations. “I think the biggest challenge now is being able to build capacity as an organization because there’s a fine art between balancing the coalition-building and the programming work that we need to do,” said Rivera.

Winning UW’s Community Action Grant not only represents a financial lifeline but also serves as a symbol of the belief and investment of others in their cause, and it affirms the importance of their work. This grant will help them to forge ahead. “I’m so appreciative of this opportunity because we’re going to be able to hire a part-time organizing staff member to help with coalition-building so that I can do that development work and continue to build the organization,” Rivera said.


Working in Solidarity

two hands shaking handsThe realities that many Latino/a students face discourage their educational aspirations. Barriers such as poverty, lack of academic support resources, brief time in the U.S., developing English skills, and racial discrimination interfere with their education success and attainment. Many 16- to 25-year-old Latino/a students drop out of school because of the financial pressure to support their families. Disparities can be evidenced in some of the indicators of academic progress for Latino/a students, such as the number of absences and disciplinary actions, dropout rates, academic achievement, and graduation rates.

“One of our big successes is being able to build a really good partnership with all public schools. This is not a battle; this is about let’s do this together.”
— Marianela Rivera

The systemic barriers impacting educational outcomes will not be broken down by one outlying effort. There is an urgent need to ensure a more equitable experience for Latino/a students by bringing together communities, schools, educators, students, community organizations, and government. Fortaleza Inc. is an excellent example of an organization working in solidarity by building a solid partnership with Lowell Public Schools to advance systemic change.

Lowell is the sixth-largest public school district in the state. According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, for the 2023 school year, there are 27 public schools serving 14,130 students from PK-12 in Lowell, MA . The district’s minority enrollment is 78% of the student body (majority Hispanic and Asian), which is more than the State’s minority enrollment of 45.3% (majority Hispanic)

Dr. Rivera states, “One of our big successes is being able to build a really good partnership with all public schools. This is not a battle, this is about let’s do this together, let’s put our egos to the side, let’s be fully transparent about the data so that we create some baselines and set strategic benchmarks and objectives.” This collaborative approach is helping to open the door for post-secondary education and higher-paying career opportunities, which are critical levers for residents to achieve economic justice.


Building Bridges Between Community and School

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Alejandro Bonilla, advocate for Fortaleza

Born and raised in Lowell to a Colombian mother and a Puerto Rican father, Alejandro Bonilla successfully graduated from high school in 2021. Throughout his academic journey, Alejandro excelled with good grades and actively engaged with his peers. However, despite his achievements, he faced an unexpected challenge. Although he was one of the 14,000 Latino/a students in Lowell, he experienced a sense of loneliness due to the lack of Latino/a representation in high-achieving environments and among the teaching faculty. “I didn’t see a lot of Latino/a students taking advanced courses, there were limited resources to support them. I also did not see teachers around me that looked like me. There just wasn’t a lot of Hispanic, Latino/a representation on either of those fronts. So, I felt very disconnected from my own community in that sense. I felt like I didn’t really have a story that was worth sharing because I felt like I was so estranged from the typical Latino/a student experience,” he said.

A student protest in Lowell in June 2020 was another turning point for Alejandro. The protest was sparked by racist comments made by staff, students of color being held back from taking higher-intensity courses, and the lack of teachers of color in advanced courses. “So, a lot of students not only weren’t being given the opportunity to succeed at the level that they could have, but they also weren’t seeing themselves represented as educators or as people capable of going beyond what they were given,” explained Bonilla. This scenario made him aware of the perpetuation of systemic racism by limiting educational opportunities in his school, led him to question what was being done with Latino students and prompted him to get involved as an advocate for Latino/a students.

He started working with the Lowell Public Schools community, serving on an advisory board with the Superintendent and joining the Hispanic Student Success Task Force, which was created to address educational barriers and inequities. It was through this group that he became deeply involved with Fortaleza as an advocate on behalf of his experience as a Latino student in Lowell. Fortaleza was the catalyst for Alejandro’s involvement in his school and community. “For the last two years, Fortaleza has given me the opportunity to connect with families in my own community, to inspire them to get involved in their children’s education and success,” said Bonilla.

“For the last two years, Fortaleza has given me the opportunity to connect with families in my own community, to inspire them to get involved in their children’s education and success”
— Alejandro Bonilla.

This past October, during Hispanic Heritage Month, Alejandro shared his story as a Latino student whose parents were not involved in his school activities but who worked diligently to keep him on the right path. He spoke about how critical it is for a parent to be present in the academic lives of their children. His story resonated. After his talk, a parent came up to him with her son, who was just finishing elementary school. She let him know that his presence at the event was inspiring to everyone there and thanked him. Alejandro was touched by the parent’s words. “I want to show people there is a path to becoming successful. It’s not clear, it can be hidden at times. It can be a little foggy, but there is a way of making it through. I believe the more Latino/a students I can help, the better. The more doors I can open for them, the more opportunities they will have to succeed”, said Bonilla.

He has been involved in several initiatives outside of school that have helped him to connect with and contribute to the Latino community. He worked as an intern in his senior year with State Representative Donna Howard. He is currently a fellow with CARE, an organization that is working to pass a bill that would establish ethnic studies in the school curriculum for Elementary and Secondary Education. Alejandro’s work with CARE is an example of how he is working to make the school environment more suitable for Hispanic and Latino/a students. “Working with legislators and as well as with other community-based organizations, I really get to see the ways that I can engage outside of the classroom and advocate on behalf of Latino/a people who either are unable to give their voice or are unsure how to”, he said.

Alejandro’s commitment to service, which was largely enabled by Fortaleza, earned him a full scholarship to UMass Lowell to study music. He is grateful for the opportunity to study and stay connected with his community without having to worry about financial constraints.

“The lack of Latino/a representation among the teachers is really discouraging when you want to enter the education field. It made me doubt whether this career path was truly attainable for someone like me”
— Alejandro Bonilla.

After just one year of college, Alejandro is already making plans to use his skills and passion to make a difference in his community. He is particularly interested in working with Hispanic and Latino/a children and he hopes to inspire them to break through and pursue their dreams through the power of music. Alejandro wants to see a more diverse and inclusive educational system in Lowell and is working for it. He firmly believes students of color should be able to see themselves represented in their teachers and leaders to believe that they can achieve their dreams. Reflecting on his own aspirations, he shared: “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, but during my time at school, I couldn’t envision myself in that role. The lack of Latino/a representation among the teachers is really discouraging when you want to enter the education field. It made me doubt whether this career path was truly attainable for someone like me.”

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Fortaleza Team


Gathering Around Culture

two figures sitting at a table talkingFortaleza’s efforts serve not only students but their parents. Many of them have also experienced discrimination, making it challenging for them to interact with the school or take ownership of their child’s process. Fortaleza implements various strategies and initiatives to bring parents and the community together, creating a strong support network for students and their families. Cafecitos is just one aspect of their comprehensive efforts to nurture parent engagement. They host various workshops and events to empower parents with essential skills and knowledge to support their child’s education effectively.

Small cups of coffee – Cafecitos – are more than just having coffee together; they are community gatherings that foster a strong connection between schools and Latino/a parents. These gatherings provide a platform for parents to bond, socialize and share relevant academic information from reports that might be challenging to comprehend alone. Embodying the essence of Latin heritage, Cafecitos evoke memories of family, friendship, and the comfort of home.

“I think Fortaleza works best by bridging the gap between people who are traditionally excluded from the educational system and the system itself”
— Alejandro Bonilla.

“I think Fortaleza works best by bridging the gap between people who are traditionally excluded from the educational system and the system itself. They help make things understandable for the Hispanic community and advocate for programs and resources that help them navigate the many challenges of everyday life in the United States such as how to enroll their children in school, how to sign up for healthcare, and how to overcome cultural and language barriers. This is especially important for newly immigrated parents, who may not be familiar with the American system and may not speak English.” Said Bonilla.

Fortaleza Inc. continues to be a catalyst for Latino/a students, fostering a supportive environment that empowers them to pursue their dreams and achieve academic success. Through the collective efforts of Dr. Marianela Rivera, Alejandro Bonilla, and the entire Fortaleza team, they are breaking down barriers and making a meaningful impact in the lives of Latino/a students in Lowell, propelling these students towards a brighter future. Their ultimate vision is to extend their advocacy efforts to encompass additional school districts, aiming to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for Latino/a students throughout the region.

For more information about Fortaleza please contact Marianela Rivera