A Latina in academia: My individual experience

by Guest Contributor Daily Chicana, originally published at The Daily Chicana

In my post Latina/os in academia: A look at the numbers, I shared a several statistics concerning (both in the sense of “about” and “these numbers are sad and should concern us”) Latina/os’ overall educational attainment in the US. As you may recall, it was inspired by a story I read about three Latinas who just received their Ph.D.s in English from UTSA.

What inspired me to reflect on my own particular educational journey was how much it contrasts to those of the women featured in the article. For example, one of the women opens up about the lack of encouragement she received, even being told that she “wasn’t college material.” Nevertheless, she worked towards an associate degree from a community college over four and a half years and eventually ventured on to graduate work. Another of the women only started looking into the possibility of attending college after others expressed surprised to hear that she did not plan to apply. The third woman, who was on a more traditional educational track (going to college right after high school and then on to be a full-time graduate student), still notes wistfully that Latina/os often experience an identity crisis in classrooms where “your culture is repressed and your language isn’t validated” (emphasis added).

These kinds of stories are all too common. In fact, they represent the dominant narrative of “the” Latin@ educational experience (btw if you’re wondering, “Latin@” is shorter way of writing “Latina/o”). The related assumptions include: Latin@ students are often the first in their families to have been born in the US. They grow up with Spanish as their first language, learning English either through older siblings who are already in school or not until enrolling in kindergarten. They must frequently act as the primary translators for their parents in school settings (as well as in the world beyond). They do not receive much encouragement to consider college, either from their own family members or teachers and administrators in general.

I’m generalizing here, and I want to emphasize that many Latin@s do share this kind of experience and do overcome tremendous odds to make it into college and beyond. Low retention rates from K-12 and into post-secondary degrees clearly indicate that the struggles are intense, and far too many Latin@ youth fall by the wayside.

So with this as the background, I can say that it sometimes feels strange to be Latina and have an experience far different from most, or at least from what I see described in academic literature and represented in popular media (say, a film like Stand and Deliver). I didn’t realize the extent of the differences until I began teaching at my current institution, and when the realization set in, I felt very foolish to have been so blind to others’ struggles.

Here’s my story: I grew up in a suburban area that has many Latin@ families now, but back in the late 70s and early 80s, it often felt as though mine was one of the only Mexican families around (though overall the town was diverse for the Midwest). The first language I learned was English, as my parents had both been born in the US, raised with American culture and spoke only English between themselves. My mom, who is fully bilingual, wanted my sister and me to learn both languages at home, but my dad wasn’t crazy about the idea, since he knew no Spanish at all–and I don’t judge him for it, because when he was young, speaking Spanish was punished in school and more or less marked you as “poor.” I at least heard enough Spanish spoken between my mom and grandmother that when I began learning it in junior high, I didn’t have the gringo accent. Today I can pronounce it and read it well enough, but my textbook vocabulary and awkward, halting speech advertise the fact that Spanish is not my mother tongue (for example, I learned ice cream as “helado,” not “nieve,” which my Spanish-speaking friends in college thought was absolutely hysterical).

Anyway, I had a great time in school and thrived from an early age. I was involved in many extra-curricular activities, from Girl Scouts when I was a kid and then the newspaper, yearbook, etc. in high school. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was a tremendous boon to have parents who already were so familiar with the American educational system, having gone through it themselves. As I mentioned in my mother’s day post, I had a mother who did not bow down to any authority figure, so whenever a boneheaded administrator or teacher seemed to be unfair to me in the slightest way, she was on the phone with the principal that every afternoon. As a result, I grew up feeling…well, “entitled” isn’t the right word, but at least empowered to speak up for myself. Like that time in 11th grade when I wrote an angry letter to my math teacher who had the nerve to say that I did not belong in his class. “Teachers are supposed to encourage student learning, not shut it down!” I huffily explained to him.

From an early age, I received the message that I would go on to college–and that not doing so was not an option, as my mom was so bitter about never having the chance to pursue her education after high school. It wasn’t just my mom–my teachers were supportive and believed in me, as well. When I began applying for and winning college scholarships, there was some blowback: For example, My own best friend ruefully wished that there were scholarships for “average white girls” like her. Such comments made it clear that some people assumed I was winning these opportunities only because of my race, rather than the fact that I had taken all honors courses, studied hard and earned excellent grades and had a well-rounded profile with all my activities and whatnot.

Yet being the first in my family to apply to college was still a challenge. I picked schools haphazardly, mainly because I liked the idea of them, and without any real knowledge of how my parents would afford to send me there. For instance, I applied to Georgetown because I imagined it would be exciting to get involved in political culture and to work as an intern (and thank god I didn’t go, because I just might have been another Monica Lewinsky). I was also interested in Oberlin because the editor-in-chief of my favorite magazine, Sassy, often wrote about her time there. In the end, I was fortunate to get accepted to an excellent, private research university not far from home. My mom worked at a company affiliated with the university, so as her daughter, I automatically got a half-tuition reduction, and then I won a competitive scholarship from her same company to cover the other half. It worked out, because that just left my room & board to be paid for, and my parents and I took out subsidized student loans to cover those expenses.

At my college, Latin@s were a small minority–perhaps 3% of the total student body. This was not a shocking environment for me; in fact, it was what I was used to, having been the only Mexican girl in all of my classes from K-12. When I found out there was one Latin@ student organization on campus, I was thrilled! It was the most Latin@s I’d ever seen outside my family gatherings. However, I was in for a major shock when some of those urban Latinas looked at me and said, “You grew up in the suburbs?! You don’t speak Spanish?! You shop at The Gap?!” To them, I was not a “real” Latina, and I was hurt to be rejected by my own people. Over time, I made friends with people in the group. Some didn’t have as much scholarship as I did and had to do work-study to support themselves, but overall we all had the fortunate of being full-time students, living on campus, involved in activities, getting wasted at frat parties…you know, the full college experience.

It just so happened that when I entered my freshman year, this university had just hired a young Latino professor who did the same kind of work I wanted to do. With the help of his mentorship over the next four years, I entered the graduate school track. I had the special support of a program meant to encourage talented minority students to consider becoming professors in underrepresented fields. I had the chance to undertake my own research project and prepare a strong application for graduate school.

It worked: after taking a year off as a break from school, I was accepted into a Ph.D. program at another elite, private university, with several years of funding and very little teaching. And the program was great: almost all my faculty and colleagues were people of color doing cutting-edge work. We were blessed to be at a well-to-do university with a huge endowment that could provide incredible intellectual enrichment and networking through workshops, speakers, research opportunities. I received a truly world-class education.

Ironically, this excellent education that enabled me to snag a tenure-track job also left me completely unprepared to understand the realities and struggles of the students (of all races) I work with day-to-day. Most of my undergraduate and graduate students work full-time, in addition to going to school full-time; many are young parents themselves, or have the responsibilities of helping to support extended families; a significant number of them must take remedial math and English before they can enter their majors. These are students who bear the brunt of our current funding cuts; they can’t get into the required classes that they need in order to make timely progress, and the student support centers they used to turn to often are no longer in existence. I have tremendous respect for them and the privilege of working with them has made me an infinitely more thoughtful, better teacher.

So while I’m so proud to be a role model for my students–I’m often the only Latina professor they have during their education–it’s odd when they assume I must have overcome struggles similar to theirs. I didn’t. Compared to them, I had the most charmed educational journey. I get to thinking:

  • What have been my challenges? What have I overcome?
  • What else have I probably taken for granted this whole time?
  • Why was I so unaware of how hard most students must struggle, even though I myself am Latina, teach lessons on the history of Chicano educational inequalities, and am an active mentor and advocate for my students?
  • Has my experience been the result of being at the right place at the right time, and if so, how far back does one have to go to reach the one domino that set the chain in motion?
  • Where is the line between the help and support we get from others, and the initiative we take on our own?

Are these questions thought-provoking, or the result of needless angst? I didn’t expect all this to get stretched into yet another post, but I’m tired of writing for now, I’m sure you’re tired of reading, and so it looks like I’ll have to take up these questions tomorrow. Whew! Thanks for coming on this journey with me…it probably seems like it was played out in real-time!

  • Daily Chicana

    Thanks so much for this eloquent and thoughtful response to my post, as well as sharing a glimpse into your experiences. I love the Piñero quote you shared and I’m glad to have learned it from you. And I agree: the network of support that we create for each other has a far broader impact and accomplished much more than any singular chain of dominoes, neat or not!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=506395064 Angelica Moreno

    After reading your original post and following through and reading the article in the san antonio express I started to think of my own journey because, like you, I didn’t see myself in those stories. Bits and pieces yes but still different. I grew up in El Paso, TX and never had to think about being latina. My parents didn’t go to college but they engrained the importance of education in me from the beginning so there was never a question of whether or not I would go to college. I ended up in Minnesota where I should have suffered from culture shock but never did because I knew what I was getting into. I was going to a predominantly white university where I would be one of 10 latinas on campus.  I think about the challenges that I had and mainly think about my body image. The identity I had as an obese female stands out for me then being a latina ever did. Maybe there are other factors compromised in your identity where you have similar struggles. I’m still processing here so I’m not sure if I’ve even said anything spectacular but just adding to the convo.

  • http://gabyrippling.tumblr.com/ Gabriella M

    Hrm. I’m latina (parents are both Colombian-born and raised) and I had never heard of “nieve” as a term for ice cream, even in Colombia. So I’m confused as to why that’s funny? But I definitely empathize with worries about authenticity and being too privileged to connect easily with my Latin@ peers. Thanks for the lovely post. 

    • Sarah Salguera

       Yeah I would agree. There are still many places in the Spanish speaking world that they do use “helado”. In Nicaragua, where my husband is from, they probably would crack up laughing if you called it “nieve.” They just call it by the brand name “Eskimo”.
      The difference in helado vs nieve I think has more to do with where the Spanish speaking friends were from versus the author’s use of using a word learned in school that is not a correct word.