Dina Flores has poured her soul into two things in her life: teaching and her family.
Flores has been a dedicated educator since 1979. She describes herself as a workaholic, often working 12-hour days when teaching public school. Now, as the director of Escuelita del Alma, a Spanish-immersion preschool Flores founded in 2000, she finds a balance between work and devoting time to her family: her daughter, Alma, and her partner, Cynthia Perez.
About 160 tiny students from a myriad of backgrounds converge at Escuelita’s classrooms to sharpen their motor skills and learn about shapes, colors, numbers and letters. From the time the children start at the school, as young as two months, their instruction is all in Spanish, enabling them to be bilingual (or trilingual) by the time they “graduate” from the program at 5 years old.
“A lot of people think at this age, they’re ‘just playing,’ but it’s actually when the bulk of the learning takes place,” said Flores, also known as “Ms. Dina” to her students.
Flores grew up on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border, attending private school in Del Rio, Texas, while residing in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, till she was 12. She was immersed in a world of dual language, using only English at school and speaking Spanish at home. “Living in a border town, speaking both languages comes naturally,” she said. At 17, Flores moved with her family from Del Rio to San Antonio.
It was only natural for Flores to pursue a career using her bilingual skills, so she pursued a degree at Our Lady of the Lake University in bilingual elementary education. “I felt teaching was a natural talent I had; I bonded with children really well,” she said about entering the teaching field. Flores later achieved a master’s degree in early childhood education at the UT San Antonio, moving to Austin in 1988.
Flores met her partner of 22 years, Cynthia Perez, at the restaurant Perez co-owned, the legendary Las Manitas, originally located in downtown Austin. In 1994, Flores left her teaching position to do the bookkeeping at the restaurant. For six years, she worked in the restaurant business, which she described as unfulfilling. After a while, she wanted to get back to what came naturally to her: teaching.
During her time as a public school teacher, Flores felt she had little control in her students’ curriculum. She also saw that many children entering kindergarten lacked the motor skills that are necessary in learning how to read and write. This ultimately inspired her to open Escuelita next door to Las Manitas, which was conveniently located for parents working in the buildings downtown. By the end of the first year, there was a yearlong wait-list to be enrolled in the learning center.
At the end of 2006, Escuelita was forced to relocate from its original location on Congress Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Streets to make way for a high-rise hotel. Despite the circumstances, Flores was very proud to see the response from her students’ families. They organized and fought to keep Escuelita open in its downtown location. Ultimately, however, in 2008 they relocated to their current location at I-35 and 32nd Street.
“It was a couple of years of stress and headaches finding a new place for Escuelita. Once we found this building, every single family (we had 100 families at the time) followed us to our new location,” Flores said.
Being gay in the Latino community is often a taboo subject with an enforced “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Flores said she lived a double life among her family for 10 years after having her first lesbian relationship in her 20s. “I never dated any men and I lived with a woman,” she said. “They all knew, obviously.” It wasn’t till years later when Flores wanted to bear a child through artificial insemination that she told her parents. She chose a friend, Abel Salas, to be the sperm donor because she wanted her child to grow up knowing the father.
“Dina always dreamed of being a mom,” said Perez, now the director of La Peña arts organization. She admitted that she had some anxieties in becoming a parent. “Parenthood is a lifelong profession,” she continued. “There’s no harder job than hoping that you give to the world a more compassionate, better human being. It’s really hard work.”
Now 16 and a sophomore in high school, daughter Alma is a bright girl who is passionate about ballet folklorico, folk dances that reflect the rich culture of Mexico. She spends most of her free time practicing with her high school team and Roy Lozano’s Ballet Folklorico Company. Flores proudly declared that she’s a “folklorico mom,” transporting dance team members and hauling costumes from place to place. Alma has her sights on Stanford University to study linguistics and early childhood education.
Even though she has an unconventional family, Alma considers it similar to her friends’ families. “You would think that a lot of our issues are different because our family is differently structured, but there are still similarities,” she explained. “We still have the same problems and the same complaints and same things we love about our parents.”