When Cristina Perez Zamora was just 9 years old, her father decided to move the family from Mexico to Maine. He’d fallen in love with the community and the environment in Milbridge, she said, and made it their new home in 2005.
After enrolling in Milbridge Elementary School, it wasn’t long before she began to feel the same way. There, she learned English with the help of language teachers and became part of a growing population of Mexican and other Latinos who now number about 600 in the Washington County community. Then she went to high school, followed by the University of Maine.
When it came time for her to find a job, she returned to Milbridge, walking back through the doors of the school where she started, to teach where she learned.
“When I decided to be a teacher, I really wanted to come back to where I grew up, and just teach students that have or have had the same experience I had when I came here,” said Perez Zamora, now 27.
One of the two Latino teachers in the school district, Perez Zamora oversees a pre-K through sixth-grade English to Speakers of Other Languages program at the Pre-K. She’s also pursuing her master’s in Educational Leadership and is seeking to become certified for a principal’s position. She’ll graduate in May.
Perez Zamora said she’s constantly finding ways to “still fall in love with how strong the community is here and how much we share between the community I come from, Mexico, and here.”
Suzen Polk-Hoffses, the other Latina teacher in the district, called Perez Zamora a “unicorn.”
“She has a story of the old-fashioned American Dream — you work hard, you succeed, and she did it,” Polk-Hoffses said. “She’s a success story, not because of the color of her skin but just because of the person she is.”
WATCH: From Mexico to Maine, change thrives in Milbridge
Perez Zamora teaches English to 40 children at Maine School Administrative District #37. She works at four total schools in the district and volunteers her free time to help the schools in other ways, like picking up extra recess duty.
In high school, Perez Zamora was already showing signs of leadership, said Laura Thomas, director of access in advocacy programs at Mano a Mano, which, among other things, aids immigrants in Downeast Maine. Perez Zamora tutored in an after-school program for younger students, helping them the way she was helped at their age.
Thomas said Perez Zamora was always dedicated. She struggled to find the exact words to describe Perez Zamora’s work ethic.
“There’s so much passion and so much drive and so much, I don’t know … it’s like this deep desire to support her community,” Thomas said. “She could be anywhere teaching, really, I mean, she’s got so much to offer and she came back.”
Milbridge Principal Carol Ann Lisee said Perez Zamora is “extremely valuable to our school and community,” and added that “she goes out of her way to be helpful.” It also doesn’t hurt that the students adore her, Lisee said.
“She’s extremely kind,” Lisee said. “The students, whether they’re Spanish-speaking or English-speaking, they all just think the world of her.”
Perez Zamora said many of her students are children of her former classmates or people she knew from Mexico, and connecting with parents is her favorite part of the job.
The relationships are a major part of what makes her special, Polk-Hoffses said. Perez Zamora speaks the language they do, understands their culture, and encourages them to embrace it.
“It gives people value when your own child’s teacher is saying it’s important to speak your home language, it’s important to continue to celebrate the traditions of your culture,” Polk-Hoffses said. “That’s what she brings in.”
Perez Zamora said she incorporates the parents as much as possible, taking advantage of a common language.
“I know when my parents came, they didn’t know there were meetings or school events,” Perez Zamora said. “I wanted these parents to know.”
Thomas helped Perez Zamora do this. She also helped Perez Zamora land her role. Having worked with her throughout high school — days in class and nights dedicated to extra tutoring, and eventually scholarships and college applications — she said she knew Perez Zamora was the right person to take over.
“She was the first person I told. I was like, ‘I am going to be leaving this job, you need to apply for this job,’ ” Thomas said. More than five years later, Thomas added that “the school district is so lucky that they have her.”
Perez Zamora said the support she received from family and friends throughout the years, including from Thomas, helped her build confidence.
“I never saw myself as a leader, so I feel like just having people like that keep believing in you, and that you can do more and more has been really important for me,” she said.
Now she strives to be a role model for her students, bringing them the diverse leader she lacked as a child in Milbridge. While Polk-Hoffses taught at the time, Perez Zamora came into the district as a fourth-grader and never had her as a teacher.
“When I grew up here, I didn’t have teachers that looked like me,” she said. “There weren’t any textbooks with people that look like me, so it was really hard to see myself represented in the school curriculum. So I feel like students really need leaders or teachers they can see themselves in.”
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