Educator. Risk Taker. Compasionate Mentor.

photo by Justin Barr

By Diane Kline

When Virginia Braxs left Argentina in 1988 to earn her master’s degree in Spanish literature at Washington University, little did she know she would be planting roots for a lifetime, as well as changing lives in the St. Louis Hispanic community.

Braxs is a senior lecturer of Spanish at the university, where she also runs the Latino Youth Tutoring/Mentoring Program for students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Her passion is helping first-generation Latinos (regardless of immigration status) to attend college, guiding them and their families through everything from ACT preparation to the financial aid process.

A lover of the arts, she helped create and lead the Hispanic Arts Council of St. Louis, and also hosted several programs on KDHX Radio about Hispanic culture. Braxs also is a co-founder of Upstream Theater, dedicated to producing plays by international playwrights. For this work, Braxs was honored in 2014 with the Woman of Achievement Award in Cultural Enrichment.

In her journey from South America to the American Midwest, Braxs has crossed many miles and faced many challenges. She shares her thoughts about creating an authentic life a continent away.

Not getting educated is a recipe for poverty.

Helping first-generation Latino students get to college begins with the parents. They can’t have the same expectations as they did in the rural areas of Latin America where people marry at 16, or children finish high school only to help support the family. If we can’t change the parent’s mind about the value of higher education, it’s very hard to help the student.

Confidence is a process.

Latin America is still very patriarchal in some regions where women are expected to be submissive, do what they are told and get married. It was hard 30 years ago for me to make the transition to a new country with language barriers and cultural differences. Now, I help others navigate the road to make America their own country. I see their success and think, “Wow, look what they’ve done!”

I said “no, no, no,” but they said “yes, yes, yes.”

I was resistant to leave Argentina, but family and friends pushed me. It was an insecure and frightening time because the country was recuperating after seven years of a military dictatorship. A woman was to become a mother, and maybe a nurse or a teacher. I could never have afforded my own apartment. There was little to hope for.

Hollywood taught me about America. 

I thought everyone was rich, and that women had open sexual lives with many partners! In reality, it was much more diverse than Argentina. I met people from different races, backgrounds and religions. I had to educate myself and stop pre-judging everyone, which changed me and the way I saw the world.

I was exotic… the first Latina many people knew.

When I moved here, there were only a few Hispanics at Washington University. Today, the school and St. Louis are rich with diversity, and there’s been an evolution of how people see “the other.” But I get tired of people asking, “Where are you from?” It’s uncomfortable if they get more intrusive because I value my privacy.

It took time to learn the art of gentle detachment.

I never stop being Latina, and I never stop being American. But I had to give up certain things from my culture growing up. In Latin America, we are very dependent and attached to family and friends. Here, I learned to be strong and became an independent woman who has flourished.

I became the mom of my mom.

My mother always wants to protect her children. So when I left Argentina, I made her promise she would be honest with me and not hide anything. We’ve developed a very strong relationship and now she looks to me for advice.

“How can I repay you for what you’ve done?”

Students ask me this and my answer is simple: Send me an invitation to your graduation. People say I’ve changed their lives, but I say, “No. You changed your life. I just opened the door.” They’ve helped me fulfill the driving force in my life: a desire to love people and to be the best person I can be.