A Latina in academia: My individual experience

[A heads-up from the Daily Chicana: this is a long post, folks! Grab yourself a cocktail, put your feet up and get ready to read. And read. And read.]

Two days ago, 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!

8 thoughts on “A Latina in academia: My individual experience

  1. Pingback: Microagressions: a follow-up to “A Latina in Academia” | The Daily Chicana

  2. wow…I’m only a junior in high school, and while my experiences are still very different from yours, I’ve never heard of someone so similar to me. I laughed when I read this: “My own best friend ruefully wished that there were scholarships for “average white girls” like her” because a similar thing happened to me the other day, as my friends and I are starting the college process.

    I also ask myself the questions “What have been my challenges? What have I overcome? What else have I probably taken for granted this whole time?” At times feel like I can’t call myself “Latina” because I don’t have the same struggles as most Latinas…but I wish that Latin@ didn’t have to mean disenfranchised or first-generation.

    Anyways, thank you!

    • Hi jc, thanks for your reply. You know, my friend’s comment about being an “average” white girl still makes me laugh today. Why should anyone who’s “average” win a top prize for anything? That’s not what average means–not outstanding or special in any way! It’s so illogical. Now I can see that it’s an example of the microagressions I wrote about in yesterday’s post.

      I’ve come to a place where now I can see that “Latina” is an umbrella term that describes many, many different experiences and ways of being. But it took me a long time to get to this point–through many of my college years, I tried to perform “Latina” in the way that other people thought I should, rather than defining the term for myself. So stick with it and know that if you feel Latina in your heart, then that’s what you are…even if you rarely see it reflected somewhere else!

      In the meantime, hang in there with the college applications. I can assure you from my professorly point of view that we need more bright, articulate and thoughtful Latinas like you in the classroom! If you ever are in need of encouragement, please let me know. I’ll be happy to cheer you on.

      • Hi again!
        I keep coming back to this blog post and your comment.

        Now I’m a senior and trying to figure out if I want to apply to this small liberal arts college on the east coast. I had this positive gut feeling about it, but the problem is they don’t have a Latino/a studies program (or even an African-American studies program), which worries me. The admissions officer couldn’t name a Hispanic faculty member either…and I know that the fact is that there just aren’t that many Latina professors out there, but they’ve got to be out there, right? Just not in small liberal arts colleges, I guess. I don’t know, should I go and be surrounded by white privilege and try to teach others? That isn’t really how I want to approach my learning though, as an ambassador.

        I guess it just means I have to “be the change I want to see,” right? If I want there to be more Latina professors, I should become one.

    • I don’t post a lot on blogs and can’t figure out how to reply directly the whole post, but I also wanted to respond to JC so I hope this will do!

      I am also a junior assistant professor and really appreciated this post. I am from a similar position dailychicana has described, but also have a White mother. And while I didn’t learn Spanish in HS, that’s pretty darn close :)

      I am both excited and a little sad to see so many people who have faced all of these questions. I wanted to reinforce what dailychicana said to JC – the Latino/a identity is complicated and multifaceted. I have moved around the country from the Southwest to the South to the North to the Midwest and I am continually having to re – understand myself vis – a – vis my new location and the people I interact with. I grew up some place with loads of Mexican Americans, including middle upper middle class MAs and some who were mixed like me. Now I live some place with almost no Latinos and where people sometimes ask me when I immigrated to the U.S. Our identities are never static. So I would say be proud of who you are. You get a jump start on knowing how complicated identity is! And you have to learn to ignore the haters – they having had their racial awakening yet.

  3. I’d like to provide a second wow to this. I’m a Latina tenure track prof at a large public research university. My experiences growing up were similar. College was never an option, but a strong expectation in my family. Once I arrived, having received significant merit based scholarships, my close white friends were quick to remind me it was not high standardized tests, high grades, a solid application essay, or varied activities, but the fact that I could “claim” Latin@ heritage that landed my place and scholarships. Unfortunately, my experiences in graduate school and in my current position have not been similar. I’m in a discipline dominated by white men. I am often looked to to speak for an entire ethnicity, which often makes me feel fraudulent knowing I occupy an incredibly privileged position.

    I know a strong Latino mentor in undergrad is the reason that I went onto and succeeded in graduate school. I try to play that role now, serving as faculty advisor for the university’s DREAMers (students advocating for the passage of the DREAM Act) and working with our various diversity groups on campus. But, there is definitely a part of me that struggles with the same questions you’ve posed at the end of your post.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Hi SP–thanks so much for reading and for sharing part of your story. As you’re well aware, it’s all too easy for people to point to our ethnicity to explain how we have somehow (unfairly, in their minds) gotten ahead. Moreover, they see it as a zero-sum gain: if we gain something, they “lose out” because it comes at their expense. Of course, when *they* receive great opportunities, it’s purely because of their hard work, right? Very frustrating!

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