First Lady Jill Biden and Isbella Guzman, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, visited El Centro in Kansas City, Kansas, to learn more about the experience of Hispanics living in the region. (Photo by Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
KANSAS CITY, Kansas — First lady Jill Biden toured the nonprofit El Centro, which serves Latino communities, on Monday for insight into the challenges of trailblazing entrepreneurs, a university student and a poet.
Biden marked Hispanic Heritage Month with Isbella Guzman, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration. They had a conversation, or charla, that touched on stories of people striving to overcome educational, social and economic barriers to build on sacrifices of their parents and previous generations. It was part of a daylong trip that also took President Joe Biden’s wife to Pennsylvania and Illinois.
“During the campaign, I talked to a lot of young Hispanic youth and they told me, ‘I don’t know that we’re being heard.’ So I started some charlas,” Biden said. “I can’t wait to go back and tell him all your stories and how inspiring you all are.”
The first lady made passing references to the infrastructure bill pending in Congress and the DREAM Act, which would grant temporary conditional residency with the right to work to undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as minors.
Another element of the trip was to emphasize how the administration of President Biden had supported Latinos across the country as they endured the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. She said it was important to talk about the administration’s championing of the needs of businesses and families.
“I hope that people of Kansas see that government can be good and can do good things and does help people,” Biden said. “People don’t have a really positive image of the government.”
Biden and Guzman heard from Olivia Caudillo, a 20-year-old junior in aerospace engineering at the University of Kansas. She was born and raised in Kansas City, Kansas, and was salutatorian at Sumner Academy of Arts and Science. Her career goal is to work at NASA.
“Education is a value that is extremely important to my family,” she said. “My grandma, she only made it to elementary school. My grandpa dropped out halfway through high school. They always pushed education on their children and eventually their grandchildren. For me, that meant the world to me.”
Caudillo is among 10 women in the aerospace engineering program at KU, and the lone Latina.
“The first day I felt scared. I felt out of place and underrepresented,” she said. “There’s been many times, not because the course work was so hard, but because I was so alone, I thought about switching to something else that I knew wasn’t for me. Then, I thought about my grandparents and my family. I wanted to keep doing that for them, to kind of be a role model.”
“Olivia, you have to pay it forward,” Biden said. “It’s so important that we get more young women interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Your story is so beautiful. You have to mentor other young women.”
Ari Rodriguez Boog, owner of the Lenexa sustainability-focused architecture firm Archifootprint, was born in Michigan while her Venezuelan mother studied medicine and her father sought a degree in engineering. In her mid-20s, Boog returned to the United States to earn a master’s degree. Her architectural career has centered on work with U.S. clients in the energy sector, but she launched her own firm in 2018 to spend more time designing sustainable housing.
Her business suffered during the pandemic and may not have survived without federal financial support, including Paycheck Protection Program loans, Boog said.
“To be honest,” Boog said, “I don’t think we would be here otherwise. We are on the road to recovery.”
Huascar Medina, a 38-year-old Lawrence resident, had a Panamanian mother and Puerto Rican father in the U.S. Army. He moved to Kansas in 2001 after graduating from high school in San Antonio. He found a home in books and developed into a writer in Spanish and English.
He served as poet laureate of Kansas from 2019 until this year — the first Latino to hold that role in Kansas.
“Poetry has been the only constant thing in my life. Poetry is how I’ve learned to explore and share hard truths. I’ve been able to travel the state and share my story of being a second-generation immigrant in the United States,” he said. “I personally prefer the word ‘new American’ to describe myself living here in the U.S.”
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