Teresa Granillo followed her heart to Con Mi Madre

All her training in psychology and social work is helping to make Austin group a national model.


Pairing mothers and daughters in program helps Latinas make it through school and into college.

Breakthrough program Con Mi Madre could become a national standard for helping Latinas make it to college.

Neither of Teresa Granillo’s parents attended college.

Her father is a retired mechanic whose family emigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico. Her mother — her parents divorced when she was 8 — is a retired secretary whose people are from “all over Arizona.”

Growing up in Tucson, Ariz., Granillo wasn’t expected to go to college either. She fell in with the wrong crowd, some of whom committed minor crimes, mostly out of boredom.

But there was a catch: Granillo was very, very good at school. A science teacher pulled her aside for a little advice.

“You need to do something with your life,” she told Granillo. “You are way too smart. Join the Physics Club. Do extra projects.”

She gave Granillo a book titled “Women in Science.”

“My teacher said: ‘Read it. Think about it,’” recalls Granillo, now 34 and executive director of Con Mi Madre, which pairs up 750 Latina mothers and daughters from the sixth grade on to prepare them for college. “Then I got a packet in the mail from Northern Arizona State University. I hadn’t even applied for college, and they offered me a full ride. That started me on a different path.”

As Con Mi Madre prepares for its Corazon Awards ceremony at Brazos Hall on Saturday, Granillo considers all the social and cultural obstacles that stand in the way of promising young Latinas.

“In a traditional Latino home, most of the females are reared to maintain family responsibility,” Granillo says. “This is changing generationally, but we are supposed take care of everyone. Not that you are going to get an education and a career. So there’s an ongoing discord between family expectations and what the girl finds she might be interested in.”

The mixed messages from home and school, she says, are particularly hard on Latinas.

“No, you can’t go out late; you can’t date; and you have specific roles in your family,” Granillo explains. “Then at school: Explore yourself; be independent; be who you want to be. Girls think, ‘I want that. But am I being disloyal to my family and my culture?’ Mom says, ‘Uh-uh, we don’t do that here!’ So there’s what we call cultural incongruity. It just eats at you.”

Making the numbers click

Wiry and keen, Teresa Granillo talks quickly, precisely and excitedly, then listens deeply.

“There was a time when I was making poor decisions,” she admits. “I was rebelling against growing up in a very traditional Catholic home. Mom raised us on her own, and she worked all the time. My grandmother helped out a lot. But my brothers were a lot older, so not a lot of sibling activities.”

She didn’t join a true gang but hung out with kids who got in trouble, like shoplifting or beer-grabbing and running.

“It gave me a sense of belonging,” she says. “That’s a very common thread. When a person doesn’t feel like they belong somewhere, these groups, they can sense that. I felt like I was part of a group.”

Meanwhile, Granillo worked at as many as three jobs at a time to afford a car — the ultimate teenage liberator — and continued to make excellent grades. Despite the offer from Northern Arizona, she ended up studying psychology and Spanish at the University of Arizona in her hometown. Her first impulse was to practice clinical psychology and help people directly.

“I had a lot of people who reached out and helped me,” she says. “When I got to college, that’s what I wanted to do.”

At one point, she found herself in a summer program for minority students meant to help them prepare for graduate school.

“What is that?” Granillo wondered. “I don’t even know what that would be.”

She started falling in love, however, with the research end of her field in two labs, one run by Mexican-American Studies, the other for social psychologists. Supervisors from each program gave her conflicting advice, and she felt torn between academics and clinical psychology. She told school leader Maria Teresa Velez that she was considering graduate school at Arizona State University.

“No, you are not,” Velez told her. “You’re going to Arizona; here’s a letter.”

But Arizona’s clinical psychology graduate program wasn’t her cup of tea. While taking a year off from school, she worked in a restaurant, at a nonprofit and in research. (Always with the three jobs!)

She realized that her heart belonged to social justice. Then the University of Michigan offered her a full ride for six years of joint study in social work and psychology, focusing on Latina adolescence and well-being.

“We were finding high rates of depression and suicidal ideation,” she says. “How are these girls getting help?”

After earning her Ph.D. at age 28, she was hired by the University of Texas as a tenure-track professor, specializing in Latina adolescent mental health and help-seeking behaviors.

“What’s the difference between the girls who make it and those who don’t?” Granillo asked. “Why are they experiencing so much distress? How can we help?”

One day at UT, she saw a little office with a little sign that read “Con Mi Madre.”

Granillo: “I think I need to be involved with that.”

Her true calling

Granillo became, in effect, UT’s liaison with the nonprofit, which started, like many good things in Austin, as a volunteer program of the Junior League. The group had accumulated data, going back to 1992, about how mothers and daughters had performed in the program. Familial learning pairs attend weekend conferences together, then split up for breakout sessions tailored to their ages.

“Then they come back together at the end,” Granillo says. “Mom is learning alongside daughter.”

That isn’t all. The girls receive academic and socio-emotional training in their schools year-round. In 11th grade comes the “college academy,” intensive courses in college selection, applications and enrollment. Other programs include entrepreneurship training and a bilingual STEM fair.

“There’s a ripple effect,” Granillo says. “Mom is walking away with all sorts of knowledge that she can use with her other kids as well as with her neighbors and friends.”

Back when she served as the UT liaison, she was fascinated by Con Mi Madre’s programming.

“Show me your data!” she said. “I gotta see the data! They had graduation rates and college enrollment rates, but not college completion rates. So you are showing success, but how? Is it really the mom being involved? Is there a change in the relationship that propels the girls to do better? You are sitting on a gold mine of data — decades of girls and moms!”

Granillo knew from her academic training that this data, if collected, managed and interpreted correctly, could be used all over the country for a phenomenally fast-growing population. In other words, done right, Con Mi Madre’s success could be replicated.

The group’s founding director resigned in 2013. Nonprofit leaders Fayruz Benyousef and Cookie Ruiz asked to have a conversation with Granillo, ostensibly to discuss potential candidates.

They told her, “Well, actually, you are the top candidate.”

“That’s all it took,” Granillo says. “They asked, ‘What would you do?’ Well, I’d double down on the data and the metrics. But would I really walk away from a tenure-track position at the No. 7 social work program in the country? I did. No regrets. I followed my heart.”

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