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.

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Latina/os in academia: A look at numbers

Patricia Portales, Margaret Cantu-Sanchez, and Candace de Leon -Zepeda are receiving their doctorate degrees in English from UTSA this weekend [12 May 2012]. While Latinos make up 15 percent of the U.S. population, they account for only 3.6 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded in the United States and can be counted in the low thousands. Helen L. Montoya/San Antonio Express-News
Photo: HELEN L. MONTOYA, SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS / ©2012 HELEN MONTOYA PHOTOGRAPHY

This past weekend, I came across “Latinas blaze path to doctoral degrees” (12 May 2012), an article that tells the story of the three gorgeous Latinas pictured above, who are newly minted Ph.D.s in English from the University of Texas at San Antonio. First and foremost, I want to send out my congratulations to them and to wish them all the best as they continue their academic careers! I hope I will have the chance to meet these new colleagues in person one day. For now, I’ll just look forward to sharing their story with my students, who I know will be tremendously inspired by the challenges these women have overcome.

The nature of the challenges–and particularly the numbers and statistics behind them–are ones that I lose sight of all too easily, even though I myself was a first-generation doctoral graduate. The caption of the image above begins to hint at the rarity of what Dr.s Portales, Cantu-Sanchez and de Leon-Zepeda have achieved. Latina/os (note: the term “Latina/o” includes people whose origins extend to any Latin American country, not just Mexico) comprise 15% of the US population, yet according to the National Center for Education Statistics, we received only the following in 2009:

  • 8% of bachelors degrees
  • 6% of Master’s degrees
  • 3% of Ph.D.s.

Moroever, Latina/os comprise just 4% of college faculty. (By way of comparison, whites received 71.% of bachelors degrees, 64% of Master’s and 63% of Ph.D.s. and make up 75% of faculty.)

These numbers are made even smaller if we keep in mind how many Americans (25 years or older and of any race) earn a doctoral degree in the first place: 1.5% of the US population as a whole in 2011. Therefore, these three women and I represent a select group only .045%. We don’t even make up one half of one percentage point.

Now, to focus specifically on Mexican Americans, here is a handy flowchart and more numbers that astound me (and as a Humanities scholar, numbers usually don’t move me all that much):

From “Leaks in the Chicana and Chicano Educational Pipeline,” by Tara Yosso and David Solorzano, Latino Policy and Issues Brief No. 13 (March 2006).

Again, we see that Chicana/os do not make up a full percentage point of doctoral earners. Seeing this figure always shocks me, particularly when I discuss it in class with my students. (The part that always gets to me: of the seventeen students who attend a community college, only one will successfully transfer to a four-year institution…such a tremendous gap!) As I explain to students, I live in a strange world where most of my close friends are people of color with Ph.D.s and who are either tenured or on the tenure-track at top universities (as well as, of course, my colleagues and the people with whom I interact on a day-to-day basis at work). On some days, it seems to me, “Everybody gets a Ph.D. Big deal.” And yet it truly IS a big deal. You just have to conduct the most cursory examination of these facts and figures to appreciate it.

Looking at that flowchart again, I don’t have the time/space/energy to start get into all the reasons why Chicana/os graduate at such low rates. One thing I do want to do, though, is to caution against engaging in any theories of cultural deficiency, which basically means blaming some monolithic notion of Mexican American or Latino “culture” for whatever is “wrong” in Latino communities. For example, there is a terrible stereotype that Latino students don’t perform as well as whites as Asians simply because “Latinos just don’t care about education,” a pernicious idea that gets bandied about not just in popular media, but also from the mouths of administrators at my own university campus, who should know much better than to think this way. Instead, I will point you to the excellent work of Critical Race Theory and education scholars such as Tara Yosso, Daniel Solorzano and Marcos Pizarro, who are helping to transform our understanding of the Latina/o educational crisis by analyzing the impact  issues such as educational inequities, lack of funding, historical trauma, racial battle fatigue and microagressions.

Okay, so there are the numbers in my head for today; it’s a lot to wrap one’s brain around. However, this is the numerical groundwork I have to lay for an angsty post about my own education experience and class status that I have planned for tomorrow. Now doesn’t that sound like a fun read? See you tomorrow…

On the significance of blogging (to me)

There are a number of reasons why I was inspired to start this blog. It’s not the first one I’ve begun. For many years, I was the proud owner of a photoblog. And last spring, I set out on WordPress with the intention of sharing my experiences with research and writing–somewhat similar to what I hope to do here. (Unfortunately that last attempt only lasted for two posts…which was rather embarrassing because I’d sent out a big, showy email announcing it to my friends.)

I don’t know who will ever stumble across these posts here on the Daily Chicana. Perhaps–and this is quite likely–no one at all will ever read them. But that’s okay, because I have to learn to derive a certain amount of satisfaction just from the act of producing writing: Pulling the thoughts out of my brain, making them coherent, push them through my fingertips and over the keys and finally watching them pop up onto this screen. For me, this has to be about the process, not the end product. In fact, I am struggling to emerge from a long bout of writer’s block, a struggle that could potentially be career-ending, as I must publish my work in order to earn tenure. I am hopeful that this forum will get me back into a daily writing habit.

All that being said, there is a larger significance for me in writing the Daily Chicana: I’m the first woman in my family to be in a position to record my musings in this way. I come from a long line of smart, passionate, opinionated and amazing women…none of whom had the opportunities to pursue their educations in the way that I have had the fortune to do. I’m the first in my family to attend college straight out of high school, and the first to attend graduate school and earn a doctoral degree. I have had the honor of seeing my name in print (on obscure topics in academic journals that only other specialists will ever read), a thrill that never gets old. It’s something that I do not take for granted.

My paternal grandmother, Esperanza, actually had to walk to the US from central Mexico with her parents when she was only eight years old (in the 1910s). Once the family was established in Midwest, her father refused to allow her to attend school, although he encouraged her two younger brothers to do so. In his eyes, education was only for men. However, Esperanza was very close to her brothers, and so every day when they came home from school, they eagerly taught her what they had learned that day. So in this way, she managed to learn the basics of speaking, reading and writing in English.

Meanwhile, one of my great-grandmothers on my maternal side, Manuela, aspired to become a nun, a goal that for the time represented the highest educational goal for a young woman in Mexico. A the age of fifteen, and with the support of her parents, she was able to begin the process at a convent near her hometown. However, due to the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution and increasing anti-Christian sentiment at the time, the nuns informed her family that they could not guarantee her safety, and Manuela was sent back home. Upon her return, she married my great-grandfather and they began their family…and thus her life took her down a very different path from what she had imagined just a few years before.

One of her daughters, my grandmother Claudia, attended school up to the fourth grade, which was more or less typical for urban Mexican girls of the late 1920s. Manuela had died when my grandmother was only twelve, and as one of the oldest children of the family, Claudia was then responsible for raising the younger siblings. Therefore, continuing her education would not have been an option for her, even if she had wanted to do so.

My own mother, born in the late 1940s and raised in the US, was a voracious reader who loved going to school and was an excellent student. Although my grandmother Claudia– who had a well-meaning but incredibly strict, old-fashioned view of women’s roles–pushed my mom to drop the books and pick up a spatula and broom, my mom always retained her passion for learning; it was her only means of escape and a way to travel around the world. In the mid-1960s, she graduated as the salutatorian of her high school class. However, not a single person in her family, nor any teachers or administrators, once encouraged her to consider attending college. The assumption was that with a high school degree, her education was complete, and the next step would be to get married, which she did at the age of nineteen.

My mother always lamented not being able to attend college, and it was her biggest dream for my sister and me to earn a bachelor’s degree. After my sister decided not to go (in favor of pursuing her passion for beauty and skin care, in which she enjoys a successful career today), my mother’s hopes were all pinned on me. Fortunately, I had inherited her love of learning and reading, and success in school came very easily to me. I am thankful that she pushed me so hard to take my classes seriously and enabled me to focus exclusively on school; for example, I was never required to have an after-school job in high school, even though my mom struggled as a single parent after the divorce. Some of my earliest memories center on weekly trips to the library with my mom, from which we both would return with a stack of books so high and heavy that we could barely carry it. And though she always refused to buy an Atari or Nintendo system for me, she never denied me a new book from the local bookstore.

So will the Daily Chicana represent at times a bit of navel-gazing? Perhaps…but I do it in honor of all the women of my family who came before me and who did not have the luxury of doing so. Through my area of research and now through my musings here, I hope to share their stories and legacies for other people to see.