Esmeralda Herrera-Teran’s role as Director of the Antonio E. Garcia Arts & Education Center is steeped in deeply personal aspirations. “I am the west side,” she said of her childhood just around the corner — no one loves the community around the Garcia Center like she does. It raised her, shaped her and launched her into decades of educational endeavors that have brought her back to where it all started. Now, in her third year as director, she’s casting a vision for the next generation, one program and relationship at a time.
The children who have the privilege of participating in programming at the Center are seen for who they are: Individuals with astronomical potential, now with a role model who has faced and broken similar barriers, paving the way for them to do the same. A director who is committed to forming the whole child with classes and activities that will embrace culture, advance artistic expression and cultivate space for them to shine.
As director, Herrera-Teran focuses on budgeting, programming and partnerships. However, what sets her apart is her exceptional relationship with the community; it’s the reason she landed the coveted position — after applying three times — in the first place. “You want me here because I love the people, I love the campus and I want to make sure the community knows there is a University [here] that wants to connect with them, that wants to change lives and instill confidence and growth,” she said. It’s no coincidence that she personally is intent on doing the same.
She enrolled at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC) at age 30 while juggling four kids and a career, seeing education as the gateway to a bright future for herself and her family. She went on to complete her bachelor’s degree, plus a master’s in counseling and a master’s in business administration — making her a first-generation college graduate, and a proud one at that.
“I never even realized I had a passion for my culture, for my past, you know, because I was trying to get away from my past and do something new,” Herrera-Teran said, remembering the epiphany she had while obtaining her counseling degree. In what some might describe as destiny, her past has now become the gateway to connecting with the kids at the Center. “I don’t have to tell anyone my story. I just say I was raised on the corner of Coleman and 19th and then all of a sudden they feel like I’m no longer the director, but just one of the people.”
Through Taste of the Westside potluck celebrations and creative ofrenda displays during Dia de los Muertos, she reinforces the shared culture and tradition of the community, because “remembering where you come from and what you’re made of,” as she put it, is paramount.
The director wears many hats: community liaison, partnership seeker, funding manager, program coordinator, et cetera … but Herrera-Teran has added volunteer, tutor and friend to the list. You can also catch her mowing the lawn and sweeping or mopping floors without hesitation. Though her accolades precede her and the right to boast is certainly hers, she sees herself as merely a single piece of the Garcia Center and the West Side puzzle.
She also has a boots-on-the-ground mentality. She identifies deeply with the community and rather than assuming needs, she’s built programs by simply asking what the needs are. “I could go out and buy someone glasses because I see they need glasses, but they might have more pressing needs,” she said. “It’s not about what we can offer, it’s about what they need first.” In her tenure, she’s committed to retention and making sure there are engaging programs for kids of all ages, especially ones that families can join. Herrera-Teran has learned that “when working with teens, if they’re happy and they’re confident, then guess what? Mom and Dad are happy.”
This past year, she spearheaded an entrepreneurship program for middle school students in which they heard from local business owners and were challenged to create a product and pitch it “Shark Tank”-style. The parents were then invited to participate in a fish fry celebration with the kids. Other programs include cooking classes in partnership with Grow Local South Texas, Barrio Writers, Ballet Folklórico and family chess club, often all happening at the same time — Herrera-Teran can be found moving tables in between rooms to make it all work.
She describes her tenacious mother as her hero and the person she hopes to emulate in this life. Her children and grandchildren are following in her footsteps in their own ways and perhaps it was her big academic achievements that inspired them or the thoughtful moments, like when she would get to work early at the TAMU-CC Early Childhood Development Center to be a volunteer crossing guard for her grandkids. Regardless, Herrera-Teran is a community visionary in each space she enters, seeing beyond circumstances and breaking every barrier in her way.