An event for more than 100 Catholic middle school students carried a two-pronged approach of embracing cultural heritage, yet having grandiose visions for the future.

The program, “Rooted in the Past, Reaching for the Future,” last spring was aimed toward Hispanic students attending one of three schools – Prince of Peace, St. Adalbert and St. Rafael the Archangel – on Milwaukee’s South Side. Adult speakers of Hispanic origin shared with eighth-graders the importance of graduating from high school and considering higher education.

The half-dozen speakers represented a variety of professions during the program, initiated by the Near South Side Catholic Schools Association and held at Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare’s Franklin facility.

“The purpose of the event is to provide encouragement and role models for our students as they head off to high school,” said Carolyn Ettlie, president of the Near South Side Catholic Schools Association. “We would like our students to stay in school and to feel confident in their abilities to succeed in whatever career they choose.”

Enrique Figueroa, director of the Roberto Hernandez Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was among the speakers. Figueroa coordinates UWM’s Latino studies certificate program and is a professor at the school.

Figueroa grew up in Texas, but his parents immigrated to the United States. His story was not unlike that of many of the students attending the program. Figueroa shared with his younger peers the cultural gap that can develop between parents and children, with the younger generation more in tune with American customs, the English language and the educational system.

“They’re simply not as familiar with it because they’re busy working and making a better life for you,” Figueroa said. “All of you, I hope, have the opportunity to find out about who you are. It’s very important for you to have a cultural sense of who you are.”

In addition to his work at UWM, Figueroa serves on boards overseeing a number of area organizations. Among them: United Migrant Opportunity Services, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and the National Cranberry Marketing Committee. He shared with students the virtues of volunteering and being involved in causes.

“It’s very important,” Figueroa said. “It’s about doing what we can to better the lives of people in this community.”

Noting that half of the babies born in the United States are of Latino or Hispanic origin, and the ongoing swell in the country’s overall population, Figueroa said it is important for youth to realize their potential.

“We need all of you to be getting educations,” Figueroa said. “There’s going to be a large segment of us representing this country. Unfortunately, we don’t have a history of being successful. But that doesn’t mean all of you don’t have the capacity and ability.”

Another speaker, Rigo Macias, is a Milwaukee native who attended school in the same area of his younger peers. He graduated from Marquette University High School and earned a degree from the Milwaukee School of Engineering. A software engineer, Macias works for HK Systems.

Macias, whose parents hail from Jalisco, Mexico, shared with students the disparity between his life and the lives his parents lead.

“They come from a different world,” Macias said. “They think of hard work as physical labor. But they did teach me I had to work hard. It’s not going to be given to you.”

Throughout his formative years, Macias said he had difficulty asking his teachers for help and implored his audience not to fall into the same trap.

“You have to get away from being proud,” he said. “You can’t fix everything alone. Sometimes you need the help of others.”

Cecilia Salazar, who heads a cultural competency initiative within Wheaton Franciscan, gave the audience some parting words of advice.

“You have to love who you are, and be proud of who you are,” Salazar said.