Posts Tagged ‘education


The Education of La Gente

In an earlier post, I wrote about my experiences as one of the few Latinos on my college campus, back in the day. At that time, the percentage of Hispanics at my alma mater was less than two percent.

In the years since, it has gone up, which is part of a larger, welcoming trend. Although Hispanics continue to be rare sight on American campuses, the number of young Latinos who are giving it the old college try is on the upswing. Some estimates say that about 12 percent of college students are Hispanic, which isn’t far off our proportion in the general population (currently at 15 percent and rising).

Furthermore, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 27 percent of Latinos ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in college. That’s apparently the highest the number has ever been, although it still pales in comparison to the percentage of young whites (43 percent) and blacks (33 percent). I don’t know the percentage of young Asian Americans in school, but let’s face it, I’m sure it’s impressive.

So more Hispanics are signing on for student debt and hitting on sorority girls and drinking too much on Thursday nights and living in shitty apartments with roommates who have loud sex with strangers in your bed… Sorry, I got a little nostalgic there.

One reason for the increase in Latino attendance is simple demographics. As Hispanics continue to assimilate into the general population (and assimilation is indeed underway, regardless of what you’ve heard on talk radio), they are more likely to adopt the cultural advantages of the majority. The chance to attend college, of course, is one of the biggest pluses of being American.

A lot of young Latinos see higher education as a natural extension, or as a clear benefit to their lives. Previous generations, including my own, were more likely to view going to a university as something for rich white kids, or as a laughable proposition that they were foolish for even considering.

When I was younger, several of my Latino peers even proclaimed that it was “selling out” to move past the twelfth grade. The implication was that choosing ignorance and poverty was a noble cause for La Raza. Today’s generation of young Latinos is far more likely to view this sad justification as the self-defeating prophesy that it is.

Another factor for increased Hispanic attendance is that major universities are more likely to actively recruit young Latinos. This is primarily because society has become more accepting of the idea that not everybody is white (well, most of America has, at least). But it’s also simple economics. A larger percentage of young people today are Latinos. As I’ve written many times before, Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the population. Therefore, if colleges want to continue to get students to fork over tuition, they must reach out to Latinos.

I’ll just mention that when I was eighteen and trying to pick a school, most universities’ minority outreach consisted of mailing out a pamphlet on the importance of diversity. And most of the time, all the pictures were of black people.

The fact that more Latinos are attending college offers one final interesting factoid. Hispanics who attend universities are now more likely to actually go away to college, as their white and black peers do, than they were in the past. According to the LA Times, “since 1975, the share of Latino freshmen at four-year colleges who choose schools more than fifty miles from home has risen to nearly 59% from about 46%.”

Of course, leaving one’s family provokes conflicting feelings within Latinos. Because many of us are first-generation, we can still access our parents’ immigrant roots. We can comprehend travelling great distances to start new lives.

However, the tight bonds of the traditional Hispanic family often clash with the individual’s need for fulfillment. At such times, will the biggest obstacle to a Latino going away to college be a guilt-tripping father or a perplexed abuela or a needy cousin?

It’s difficult to say. But I’m sure that for many of next year’s Latino college freshman, calling mom every day will be a top priority.


Bilingual Curious

All the members of my family speak Spanish better than I do. Some of them were born in Latin America, which gives them an unfair advantage. Others took to studying the language when they were younger, while I was busy mastering “Ms. Pac-Man.”

Regardless, I am now in solid adulthood and burdened with a foreign-language aptitude that can only be described as muy malo. I could easily let it go, because despite the shrill warnings of xenophobes, English is not going away anytime soon.

After all, English is the lingua franca of American pop culture, international business, and the internet. Nobody has achieved success in America without knowing at least some English. And people from Mexico to India to China are learning that it’s in their best interests to study the language.

So with English firmly ensconced, why should I, or anyone, bother to learn Spanish?

Well, first, there is the practical aspect. According to the U.S Census Bureau, about 12 percent of U.S. residents speak Spanish at home. They range from adults who don’t know any English to little kids who are perfectly bilingual. Within this range are millions of Americans who prefer to communicate in Spanish.

At some point, you will need to talk to someone who will throw a cascade of trilled R’s at you. It will happen. And when it does, gesturing randomly or yelling louder in English will not work. Even if the situation is not critical, your feelings of helplessness will be profound.

A second reason for learning Spanish is pure economics. Among the few booming occupations are jobs where Spanish is considered a plus, if not an outright requirement. Both the blue-collar construction worker and the white-collar marketing manager are learning that it’s smart to know the difference between “Lo siento” and “Claro que se.” In these recessionary times, a little awareness of Spanish can be the difference between landing the gig or spending another day watching soaps.

In addition to these practical matters, there is the fact that we are a multicultural society. We have always been a multicultural society, in truth. It just is no longer possible to wall ourselves off and demand that everyone acquiesce to the majority’s needs. Showing respect for other cultures, and gaining a basic understanding and empathy of others, is becoming a necessary skill – not a luxury for do-gooders.

Finally, exercising your brain and learning something new will never hurt you. So don’t worry.

Of course, for me, there is another, more personal reason. Growing up Latino without a firm grasp of Spanish is culturally confusing. It gets into messy questions of identity and authenticity, and we all love addressing those issues as middle age closes in.

So I’m going to hit the books and internet sites. When I get up to speed again, maybe I’ll take an intermediate class. It will take weeks, perhaps months, before I’m ready to tackle a conversation with a native speaker. When it comes, and I stutter past the initial “Buenos dias,” it will be a sublime breakthrough.



In his bestselling book, Thomas Frank asked the immortal question, “What’s the matter with Kansas?”

As someone who has spent time there I can answer, “A lot.” (Just kidding, all my Kansas friends; go Jayhawks!).

In any case, this story about one Kansas county, and the Hispanics who live there, recently caught my attention. There are so many elements at play in this one tale that I’m devoting a whole post to hyperanalyzing it.

First, the story points out that Finney County (population: 40,998) has just turned majority-minority. This means that over half the residents of this fine heartland community are not white (there is also a large Asian population present). Finney County thus joins the ten percent of U.S. counties to have this distinction – and yes, the number is growing. The gist of the story is that this change is happening in (gasps all around) the middle of the country, and is not just contained to wacky California and big old rambling Texas.

I’ve written before about the changing demographics of America, and what this means for the future. Whole books have been, and no doubt will be, written about what the United States will look like in the future, when the name Rodriguez is considered just as all-American as O’Malley. But it’s worth noting this fresh proof out of Kansas that the process is underway and irreversible.

Also, the article casually mentions that Hispanics have lived in Finney County for “more than 100 years.” This gives some context to the vitriol that Latinos are suddenly swarming into America and undermining traditional values. Sorry, but it’s clear that Hispanics have, for decades now, helped build the country, and this process is only accelerating.

Speaking of that, the fabled Latino work ethic makes an appearance in the story. As I’ve stated before, it’s not always an intrinsically good thing that Hispanics often labor like demons.

In fact, we don’t have to read far into the article before encountering the words “massive meatpacking plants,” which is a phrase inherent in any story about growing Latino populations in small towns. Is it really such a great thing that the shit jobs go to Hispanics, who are only too willing to take them because of their strong drive to work, work, work?


This relates to another topic I’ve touched upon in these posts: the antipathy that too many Hispanics feel toward education. One reason for this is the intense focus placed upon work, especially of the manual type. In fact, one Hispanic resident says that many of his fellow Latinos “tell their kids they don’t need to go to college because this is a good life.” Let’s be blunt: Asian and Indian immigrants don’t say things like that to their kids, and it shows.

Finally, the article touches upon the changes that occur and the tensions that arise when the culture shifts. Or as the article breathlessly states, “This Midwest enclave, home to hamburgers and hot dogs, is giving way to… Mexican tacos.”

Let’s set aside the fact that plenty of Hispanics like hamburgers and hot dogs (I myself am partial to bratwurst, but that’s another story). How are some of the white inhabitants of Finney County adjusting? Well, one resident says, “There were always whispers. Out at Wal-Mart, you hear, ‘Oh, look at how they’re dressed… wonder where they’re from, what they’re doing here?’ Especially if they weren’t speaking English.”

What’s funny is that, apparently, some of the longtime residents of the county don’t appreciate the cliché of an exotically dressed person jabbering away in a crazy language. So their solution is to become an even bigger cliché by whispering, “What are they doing here?” in the Wal-Mart aisle. I can only hope that they spit out a wad of tobacco before adding, “Damn foreigners are taking over!”

But it’s not all angry glares in town, veiled animosity on the street, and awkward moments at the superstore. Another resident says that it’s “nice to have those different cultures.” Another advises to offer “open arms to people that come in your community because they might be the person that’s going to help you when you have times of struggle.”

That same resident says that everyone should “just try to be a good person” to others, regardless of their differences.

His comments amaze me. Who let that radical in?


The Doctor Is In

I’m a little late on this news item, but it’s worth noting.

The University of Texas System has picked Francisco Cigarroa, a transplant surgeon, to be their new chancellor. He becomes the first Hispanic to lead a large public university system in America.

I say congrats to Dr. Cigarroa. It’s always good to erase the phrase “no Latino has ever” from discussions of leadership and accomplishment. The man even had to accept a pay cut to take the job, so he must really want to do it.

Perhaps his appointment is some sort of karmic balancing act that offsets the withdrawal of Bill Richardson (aka, the most famous Latino leader) from Obama’s cabinet. By the way, I’m still not sure what Richardson did that was so egregious, but the convoluted nature of his offense indicates that it was more politically stupid than actively criminal.

In any case, Cigarroa’s new gig represents a milestone for Hispanic leadership. But it is also more than that. The doctor’s quote upon taking the job was telling.

“I believe education is the equalizer of all mankind,” Cigarroa said. “The fact that I am blessed by being Hispanic carries an important responsibility for being a mentor and role model.”

First off, I like the reference that one is “blessed by being Hispanic.” It doesn’t always feel that way.

More important, however, is Cigarroa’s subtle acknowledgement that part of his job is to push Hispanics to take advantage of education’s power. Latinos have lagged behind other groups when it comes to graduation rates, test scores, and advanced degrees. There are several reasons for this, ranging from the travails of immigrant life to overt racism (sorry people, it still exists).

But I’ve always believed that the chief culprit is self-created. The lack of respect, sometimes bordering on disdain, that education receives in Latino culture is alarming. I’ve written about this before, and no doubt will again.

I doubt that one person’s appointment will change the attitude of those Hispanic parents who simply don’t emphasize the importance of education to their kids. But at least one educator recognizes how vital it is. And it helps that he was once one of those kids and knows what he’s talking about.


Classes Are Never Cancelled for Cinco de Mayo

When I graduated from college, I was one of about 500 Hispanic students on campus. At that time, the undergrad population of my alma mater was almost 30,000 people (yes, it was a big school). So Latino representation was less than two percent. For the other 98 percent of the students, spotting a Latino undergrad was about as likely as picking up a Phi Beta Kappa supermodel at a Metallica concert.

In my four years of college, I met only two other Hispanic students, and I didn’t become close friends with either of them.

One was a Chicano guy who worked with me at a campus laboratory, where our jobs consisted of washing test tubes and wiping down centrifugal-force machines. He didn’t talk much, and seemed, in fact, to be actually resistant to speech, like it was against his principles. This was unfortunate because it was a boring job and there wasn’t much to do besides scrub, talk, and ponder how many carcinogens you were inhaling.

The other Hispanic was a Puerto Rican woman who, while clearly intelligent, was unparalleled in her capacity to be humorless. She was not just angry most of the time; she exhibited eye-popping rage. Woe to the professor who disagreed with her verbose insights. Every comment in class was provocation for her to start a metaphysical debate that featured vocab-dropping like “fecundity” and “juxtaposition” and “vis-à-vis,” all delivered in a mesmerizingly earnest and fierce tone. The last time I saw her, she attempted to draw me into an argument over the true definition of art, as if the two of us would come to a definitive conclusion if we were just intensely serious enough about it.

I can’t tell you if these two individuals – a sullen loner and a confrontational intellectual – were representative of the Latino population at my school. Like I said, while I was there, I never met anyone else who was brown besides them and my own reflection in the mirror.

So does this discrepancy still exist? Hispanics are supposed to be taking over the country (I hear it all the time on talk radio, so it must be true). And will ivory towers be the last line of defense for ivory people?

Well, I am pleased to report that the latest stats from my alma mater (covering through 2006) show that Hispanic undergrads now number almost 900. That means there are almost twice as many Latinos on my old campus as back in the day (strangely enough, every last one of them is physically attracted to that cute blonde girl in Geology 210, but that will be the subject of another post). We even outnumber blacks on campus, which is really freaky.

The overall student population has stayed the same, so Hispanics have cracked the three-percent barrier… Well, I guess that arbitrary milestone is cause for celebration.

The larger question, of course, is why does a group that makes up 15 percent of America constitute only three percent of the students at a top university? Again, that will be addressed in a future post. For now, let’s just acknowledge that incremental progress is still forward motion.

All this statistical good news has made me reconsider the invitation I recently got from my university’s Hispanic Alumni Association. They want me to attend a campus reunion. It sounds like an exciting time.

I hear both members of the association will be there.

June 2019
« Apr    

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 9 other followers

Share This Blog

Bookmark and Share

On Twitter