The research outlined in this paper explores two important issues relevant to understanding Latino identity and educational achievement: ethnic labels and educational injustices. The methodology used was an open-ended interview of a Latina graduate student. This interview was part of an ongoing oral history project for ANTH 3100: Latinos in the US. The interview provided insight into what Latinos experience in today’s society. The results were enlightening and disturbingly revealing. Latinos face a great deal of trials and tribulations with the educational system. They have to juggle a double consciousness along with educational odds that make the attainment of a good education a great obstacle.
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Imagine for a moment that you are a young Latino in a town that is predominantly White. You start school as the only non-White kid in your class. Finally, some children that look like you enroll in your school, but at this point in your life, you have already become more “White” just to fit in. You find yourself in some sort of limbo. You are “too white to be brown and too brown to be white (Anonymous, personnel communication, October 31, 2007).” Your skin is light and not dark. You speak Spanish, but do not have an accent when you speak English. You are accepted only by a few people.
If that is not enough, when you finally get into high school, campus that you attend is a low-scoring school located in a poor neighborhood. Your school receives little to no funding, and the building itself is in shambles. You have to change your route to class because an entire hallway has a constant, stagnant pool of water that has subsequently attracted a large swarm of mosquitoes. You cannot go to the bathroom, not because the teachers will not let you, but because there are few toilets that are functional, and those that are operating do not have doors on the stalls. Even if you are lucky enough to find a functional bathroom, you cannot properly sanitize your hands because soap is never available. You have had enough! You go to school board meetings and other school district functions but your pleas are ignored. Your voice is not heard, but you hope that you had enough influence to sway your classmates into taking a stand about the future, just as you did. Many Latino students face these kinds of educational injustices, yet many of them are resilient enough to look at education, not for what it is, but for what it could be.
The vignette presented here was based on an interview with a Latina graduate student as part of a class project where 10 oral history interviews were conducted. My partner and I used an interview protocol shared by the entire class; we recorded the interview using a digital audio recorder, and transcribed, and analyzed the data. The purpose of this research was to capture a small part of Latino life through the spoken word. Our interview took 45 minutes to conduct. The questions covered a range of topics, from general background information to educational history, and were designed to encourage the interviewee to delve deep into how her Latina identity affected her educational experience.
My partner and I interviewed a 25-year-old female graduate student. She is a second-generation Latina, which means she was born in the United States to parents who were originally migrant farm workers. After getting a higher education, her mother became a regional director of a large makeup company and her father obtained a job as a mortgage lender. This Latina graduate student was born in Texas and raised in the Plainview and Fort Worth areas. She spent her elementary school years going to school in White Settlement, and then moved to Fort Worth where she attended and graduated high school. After high school, she attended community college in Fort Worth before transferring to a public four-year university in Texas. She completed her undergraduate degree and is currently pursuing a master’s degree. Her goals are to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or local hospitals.
Culture as Identity
Because Latino students are becoming a minority-majority in many school districts, their experiences of school are largely related to their identity. According to Nuñez-Janes (2002), ethnicity has to do with negotiating boundaries by defining commonalities and differences in the context of unequal power relations. Thus, ethnicity has to do with how the differences between “us” and “them” are constructed. This Latina graduate student had to face being ethnically “different” in school. Being the only student of color in her elementary school was a daunting task for her as a small child. During the interview she said, “I feel I didn’t enjoy my time there. I didn’t feel like I fit in; I was kind of always a little off (Anonymous, personnel communication, October 31, 2007).” She explained that one of her most exciting days at school was when another Latino student joined her class. She said that she was so excited because she felt that she finally had someone to talk to. Unfortunately, her excitement was crushed when this student decided not talk to her because she had developed too many “American qualities.” As she pointed out, this experience could be explained by her being “too white to be brown and too brown to be white (Anonymous, personnel communication, October 31, 2007).” For many Latinos, the negotiation of racial boundaries is also reflected in ethnic and racial labels; they either have to be white or brown.Being White means abandoning their culture; being Latino means possible rejection by teachers and peers.
This same ambivalence is reflected in national debates about how the culture of Latinos does or does not fit into the parameters of U.S. national identity. Indeed, the reality of this bicultural experience is reflected by the 2000 U.S. Census, which reported that 37.9 % of Hispanics speak Spanish as well as English at home (Ramirez 2004). What does this tell young Latinos who are trying to find strength in their ethnic identity? Opponents of bilingual education like Linda Chavez believe that such educational programs are antagonistic and seemingly emphasize cultural differences rather than similarities of “Americans” (Nuñez-Janes 2002). In a world that strives to celebrate differences, bilingual education proposes to recognize and celebrate both American and Latino identities as legitimate ways of expressing U.S. nationalism. Proponents of bilingual education believe that it is a way to advocate the biculturalism and bilingualism that characterize the Latino experience in the United States. In other words, they propose an additive rather than subtractive view of “American” national identity (Nuñez-Janes 2002).
Ethnicity and Educational Quality
As in the case of the Latina graduate student described in this paper, it is sometimes hard to select ethnic labels that reflect the realities of this bicultural and bilingual experience of identity. You can speak Spanish and English, have no accent, and have light skin, but neither group accepts you. Although this particular Latina student preferred the labels Mexican-American and Latina, they do not reflect her mixed heritage, including her Native American, Mexican, and African ancestries. She explained this during the interview, saying, “I use Latino because, even though Mexican-American is the culture I associate with, Latino really describes everything and is a much broader term (Anonymous, personal communication, October 31, 2007).” However, she experienced conflicts when it came to her ethnic identity because to some Latinos, she was considered to have too many “American qualities.” She said, “I had to defend who I was. I don’t have an accent, but I do speak Spanish; I don’t have dark skin, but I am Latina. You know, it was a constant—another battle between being too brown to be white and too white to be brown (Anonymous, personnel communication, October 31, 2007).”
In addition to dealing with questions of identity as part of her educational experiences, she was in the unfortunate position of attending a low-scoring and poorly funded high school. Many Latino students attend these kinds of schools. In New York City, these types of schools are known as “Zone Schools,” or schools where “… everyone who lives within a certain ‘catchment area’ must be admitted; students often regard them as bad and sometimes dangerous” (Smith 2002: 117). These schools have low test scores, partly because they are in dangerous neighborhoods where violence and gangs are not only on the streets but in the schools as well. Teachers in these schools are not motivated to teach the students because, according to them, students do not care about the school and learning. In Robert C. Smith’s article “Gender, Ethnicity, and Race in School and Work Outcomes of Second-Generation Mexican Americans,” a Latino student is quoted as saying, “I’d just go in for lunch periods…(and) every Friday we had a hookey jam… yeah or if not, we’d make it a two-week vacation, and not go to school” (Smith 2002: 118). These educationally unjust contexts are shared by Latino students across the country. They have the lowest high school completion rate next to Native Americans, with only 62% of Latinos having finished high school (Nuñez-Janes, class lecture, November 7, 2007).
Good education is hard to come by in such situations. It is no wonder that this Latina graduate student felt compelled to take a stand and spend her high school years trying to get more funding for better facilities and to improve the overall educational experiences of her peers (Anonymous, personnel communication, October 31, 2007). She saw so many negative things happening around her that she had no choice but to take a stand. Stagnant pools of water in the halls, bathrooms with missing doors and no soap, and a student population whose view of their own education was slowly diminishing were huge motivating factors to advocate change in her school and peers. She went to school board meetings and spoke out about what was happening within her school, and when she needed evidence to prove her point, she brought pictures of the pools of water and bathrooms. In other words, she used research and her own voice to bring to light the inequities and detrimental circumstances she faced in her school.
The complexity of her identity led her to feel like a cultural outcast as a young student. She experienced social injustices as reflected in the infrastructure of her school and school district. Despite this, she managed to generate a passion for education instead of a dispassion. The experiences of this Latina student raise questions for further research, such as how to get rid of educational injustices and help poorly funded schools. How do differences in the public school system occur to begin with, and how do schools get to the point where their infrastructure cannot provide basic needs for their student population? What are students doing to change the educational system, and how can we support their efforts?
- Nuñez-Janes, Mariela. 2002. Bilingual Education and Identity Debates in New Mexico: Constructing and Contesting Nationalism and Ethnicity. Journal of the Southwest 44(1): 61-78.
- Ramirez, Roberto. 2004. We the People: Hispanics in the United States. Census 2000 Special Reports. U.S. Census Bureau. Electronic document, http://www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/censr-18.pdf, accessed July 9, 2008.
- Smith, Robert C. 2002. Gender, Ethnicity, and Race in School and Work Outcomes of Second-Generation Mexican Americans. In Latinos: Remaking America. Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Mariela M. Páez, eds. Pp. 110-125. Berkeley: University of California Press.