In Support of Latinx Students

Amidst a challenging climate, we all continue to work to educate and mentor Latinx students, as well as students of color and first-generation students. As members of the Latinx Talk Editorial Board we take this opportunity to reflect on our role as educators to all students while also understanding that the reality that Latinx students, students of color, first-generation students, and undocumented or DACAmented students sometimes require us to think more deeply and critically about our role as educators and to act more boldly and courageous as advocates.

In the spirit of identifying common experiences, approaches, and strategies in working with our varied student populations, we sought to answer these questions:  What does it mean to be a Latinx scholar-activist in today in this climate? What does it mean to work with Latinx students in higher education? How do we as Latinx scholars and educators get to know the aspirations and dreams of our students? How do we as educators help students obtain those goals? And, how do we help them overcome their biggest hurdles? Some themes emerge in our varied experiences and stories: Working as a Latinx scholar-activist at a predominantly white institution offers a different set of opportunities than doing similar work at an institution with greater racial diversity and Latinx representation. Our positions in different programs, departments, and divisions within our institutions mean that our interventions take on different shapes and forms. Some members tackled one question while others took on multiple questions; what follows is our collective conversation on these topics. This diversity of experience and context among the board members is evident in the diversity of this roundtable discussion. Our conversation  identifies strategies and approaches, but it also incites new questions about what it means to educate, mentor, and advocate for students. We invite you to pose your own experiences, strategies, approaches, responses, and questions; conversation about the varied ways that our institutional placement and regional homes shift what it means to be a Latinx scholar, teacher, and activist requires that it is always ongoing and in-process.

How Curriculum Matters 

Adriana Estill, Carleton College
Latinx Talk Board Member
November 2017 – Present

A few years ago, I could not have imagined my current morning routine. Wake up. Roll over and pick up my phone. Check Twitter. Read first-, second-, and third-hand takes on current events. Feel my pulse quicken; fury’s seed. This morning, for example, details scrolled through me: how the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency fired tear gas at migrant-refugees, many of them women and children, at the U.S.-Mexico border. Where do I go from here? And my students ask me this too, after learning about the imperial, colonial practices that have shaped the United States and undergird its workings: now what?

I teach at a predominantly white institution (PWI) and up until few years ago I had faith that my courses, by fostering deep, transformative learning about race, class, and culture, served as a kind of activism. Erik Olin Wright suggests that one aspect of scholar-activism is to “diagnose and critique the world as it is, with guidance from those moral concerns. This diagnosis and critique should be scientific and relentlessly rigorous.” The discipline of American Studies requires that students examine how their belonging to this country forms in ways that are persistently racialized; white students learn to critique whiteness. In other words, American Studies invites a diagnosis and critique of our world that then urgently demands students’ self-reflection that is attentive to structure and history.

Waking up these days it dawns on me that diagnosis and critique occupy too much space on my pedagogical stage. Wright suggests that scholar-activism also needs to build theories of alternatives and theories of transformation. Those theories can only emerge and become part of the discussion when we articulate forcefully and clearly why our diagnoses and critiques matter, in other words, what is the moral foundation for our analysis?

Using collective liberation as the moral foundation propels us to, as adrienne maree brown describes in Emergent Strategy, “intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.” After the mass shooting at Las Vegas, brown wrote:

it feels like everything is broken. we must, each of us, fix our attention on the nearest wound, conjure within us the smallest parts of ourselves that are still whole, and be healers. heal with words and prayer and energy, heal with money, clean water, time and action.
there’s enough destruction. there’s enough nothingness swallowing the living world. don’t add to it. there’s enough.
our visions are ropes through the devastation. look further ahead, like our ancestors did, look further. extend, hold on, pull, evolve.

This last term, I made sure to end the course with some speculative texts. I wanted to offer my students a chance to dwell in the future, in horrific possibilities as well as utopic promises. These texts offer options, gambles on how we might evolve. And they let my students know that, even though I don’t have a lot of concrete answers right now, I am invested in workshopping my future with theirs, growing my capacity to imagine a different world.

Miroslava Chávez-García, UCSB
Latinx Talk Board Member
November 2018 – Present

In all honesty, I don’t know how to answer what it means to work with Latinx students in higher education specifically because I really don’t know what it is most Latinx undergraduate students seek as professional or life goals, beyond obtaining their degrees. Many of them, as I have learned first-hand, seek to return to their communities to work at the local level in positions of advocacy. I cannot claim, however, that all have similar aspirations. Before thinking about our role in working with Latinx students, we need to recognize that they are highly diverse. Many don’t identify as Latinx and we can safely say they come from a range of political, economic, racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Some are native-born, second, and third generation U.S. citizens, while others are undocumented, permanent residents, or hold temporary protective status (TPS), though, under the recent White House administration, TPS was threatened to be rescinded. Some Latinx are cisgender, while others identify as LGBTQIA. My role, then, is to keep their diversity in mind while trying to reach out to them and play a supporting role in pursuing their educational goals.

That said, as I see it, my role is to help them achieve their educational aspirations and, when possible, work with them to chart their immediate futures. In the classroom, my role, as a historian, is provide the mirrors through which they can see their families, communities, and histories reflected to show them how they are part and parcel of the nation’s past, present, and future. I also integrate mirrors into the curriculum to make them feel welcome, included, and supported at all stages of their classroom experience. I believe, too, that my purpose is to create opportunities for them to aspire to higher education as a professor or to professional careers within and beyond academia. To that end, I have served as an advisor for student honors courses, advised them about graduate and professional school, and provided a supportive environment in their moments of crisis. Within and without the classroom, my role is to provide mentorship, guidance, and support for their endeavors, as well. In the community, I believe my role is in helping to bridge the achievement gap and shape a generation of informed, relevant, and sharp-minded young people who can work to inform the larger public about issues Latinx communities care about and are central to their everyday lives. For me, working with Latinx students is one of the main reasons I went to graduate school—to inspire students to recover and rewrite our histories, to go out and share those histories, and to make them proud of being Latinx. Equally important to me is to train students in finding ways to make institutional change.

Roberto C. Delgadillo, UC Davis
Latinx Talk Board Member
November 2018 – Present

What does it mean to be a Latinx scholar-activist in today in this climate? And/or what does it mean to work with Latinx students in higher education? How do we as Latinx scholars and educators get to know the aspirations and dreams of our students? How do we as educators help students obtain those goals? How do we help them overcome their biggest hurdles?

It means to be aware of the issues affecting the Latinx community from a historical, political, social and psychological perspective. It means connecting with the community, being a part of those communities by establishing bridges and venues to change realities through educational settings. As a librarian, within academic libraries, my expertise is often requested by faculty instructors to model database searching for their Latinx students. When this behavior is modeled within the context of a particular class research assignment—I demonstrate for Latinx academic community members how to select topics not just based on one’s individual interests, but to choose topics grounded in that individual’s collective historical, political, social and psychological perspectives. Instead of choosing a “generic” topic or keyword string which can be used as a sample search in the library database, I will instead select to relate my testimonio as a student and scholar and walk students through the process, verbally and visually. I will show them how I to select a topic of interest to them, in relation to the constraints of their particular class assignment. I will also relate how that assignment is connected to past, current and future directions their research takes them and how these changes affect the communities they come from or serve.

What is essential is to view Latinx students or otherwise not as an information problem to be solved, but via existential solutions. They must be viewed as unique individuals, rather than as mere consumers of bibliographical materials and techniques. Their questions may involve unexpected discoveries, including the interests, goals, problems, backgrounds, and abilities of each individual student.

In addition, in the context of the Latinx community I serve it means to work from a social justice perspective. It means to be political, critical, and coherent and consider education a right for all. It means to be active in our roles and communities by sharing knowledge, promoting changes through actions. It means to care. It means to connect with them at a personal level, to learn about their families, their narratives. It means to work within the context of our cultural values and to create a sense community that is coherent with those values. It means to help them to navigate systems to be a mentor and advocate for them, to inspire and to understand the resilience and strengths that our students have by overcoming multiple challenges. It means to suffer with them when they are mistreated, discriminated and when I hear what they go through. It means seeing hope for the future. Working with Latinx students is one of the most rewarding experiences; they bring love to dehumanized spaces. They give meaning to our existence.

Creating Coalitions and Serving Multiple Communities 

Isabel Espinal, University of Massachusetts
Latinx Talk Board Member
November 2018 – Present

To be a Latinx scholar-activist starts with the very fact that I have taken up this terminology, I have taken up the term Latinx, to the point that I had it printed on my business cards. My adoption of Latinx took some time from the first mentions I saw of it in writing. I was seeing it in many places and seeing a debate around the term, but I just wasn’t sure about it. I actually didn’t even know how to pronounce it! Some people were saying that it was an awkward term that only resonated in writing and only by academics. Yet it was at an activist rally in Springfield Massachusetts, that I finally heard the word pronounced flowingly by Nelson Román, a queer boricua who was speaking in support of the release of then political prisoner Oscar López Rivera. All those written debates about the term Latinx suddenly were settled for me.

Some Latinx scholars, such as Lorgia Garcia Peña and Agustín Laó Montes and countless others, are leaders in activists’ movements. I have tended to be more of a participant than a leader in Latinx movements, although I did serve as the female co-chair for the Latinx Caucus of the National Green party a few years ago. For me being a scholar-activist often means just showing up and listening, participating and contributing within a larger effort. Being part of the community. All my life I’ve been part of Latinx communities.

As a librarian scholar, when I work with Latinx students or faculty or folks in the community, I bring all this to the table, remembering what it was for myself to be a Latinx student, always a part of the community, not apart from it. As a Latinx scholar working with Latinx students, I have to be aware of my own story of having been a Latinx student. But I cannot assume that my story is the same story as any particular Latinx student. I have to allow for them to tell their stories as I share mine, as we find commonality as well as difference. There are also commonalities and differences in the climates that they encounter versus the climates that we as scholars came up under.

There is one area in which I connect with students and their aspirations and dreams in which I do take a strong leadership role and that is the recruitment of more Latinx librarians as well as more librarians of color in general. In addition to talking to students about this career, I also have been writing about it and giving presentations in my field as well as to funders. I’ve been in this field for 27 years and the numbers of us just has not improved. So I’ve been making a greater effort lately, being more active. Trying to bring more Latinx folks into our professions, into scholarship, PhD programs, librarianship, is a form of activism as well.

Felipe Hinojosa, Texas A&M, College Station
Latinx Talk Board Member
November 2017 – Present

The news first broke on Tuesday, November 22, 2016. Richard Spencer, the famed white supremacist, was coming to Texas A&M University on December 6. Somehow Spencer’s people, which included a former Texas A&M student, had not only raised the money necessary to bring him to campus, but had managed to move at lightning speed through the bureaucratic hurdles that usually come with booking a lecture hall at a large public University in Texas.

Over the next few days, as students and faculty organized to protest Spencer’s visit, questions were raised around why Texas A&M seemed to be bending over backwards to defend Spencer’s visit as a matter of free speech. But rather than giving in, students and faculty got to work. For us as faculty, it was never a question of whether we should be there to support our students, or whether or not the students should protest, it was about making sure that students knew that faculty would stand in solidarity with them. It was also about taking the lessons from the classroom—the lessons from the great reformers and radicals in history—and putting them into practice. This sort of education, one that takes seriously what we teach and how we might use those lessons for social transformation, are central for me in my work with Latinx students in higher education.

The night Spencer spoke, students were out in full force, with music, chants, songs, surrounded by (and this surprised us), parents, community leaders, grandmothers and grandfathers. They were loud, they protected each other, they blocked the Spencer supporters, they remained disciplined, and they kept it non-violent. Resistance is really a beautiful thing. How did it all work so well that night? I credit student preparation, their connections with multiple student groups on campus, and a concerted effort to take care of each other. Even more importantly, students disrupted much of Spencer’s speech, some stood in silence, and others walked around with protest signs, all in an effort to make sure Spencer did not have the floor.

Student activism and resistance is most certainly a critical part of the learning process, but in the twenty-first it has also become a central part of the college experience for Latinx students. Scholars who follow student movements tell us that today’s freshman class is more likely to participate in student led protests than in each of the five decades that preceded it, including freshman from the 1960s and 1970s.[1] As someone who has worked with students at universities in Texas and Georgia, I have seen this dynamic up close.

I’ll never forget the night Latinx students—and students of all backgrounds—came together to push back against racism and white supremacy at Texas A&M. It really was a beautiful night and, I believe, a transformative moment for a University known more for its conservative politics than for radical protest. Working with Latinx students in higher education means creating campus cultures where student protest is welcomed, where it is seen as a learning opportunity, and where students put into practice the democratic ideals they are learning in the classroom. At Texas A&M, I work with students who have a deep love for their university even as they work with dignity and pride every single day to transform it. Our job as educators is to stand with them, listen to their concerns, and together work for ways to make the University a space where everyone has equal access.

Mentoring and Advising

Yalidy M. Matos, Rutgers
Latinx Talk Board Member
November 2017 – Present 

The question of how we as educators, get to know the aspirations and dreams of our students is a bit perplexing to me. The need for the question implies that there is variation in educators’ investment in helping to bring to fruition the aspirations and dreams of our students. Is that not what we, as educators, signed up to do from day one? The question indicates a bigger problem within higher education: that some of us are deeply invested in the future of our students while others are not. I am an educator because getting to know the aspirations and dreams of my students and/or help them obtain these goals and overcome hurdles is my job. These things—among a myriad of ways I invest time and energy to make sure my students are better equipped for the real-world outside of college—make me an educator. As educators, we should all be invested.

In both my scholarship and teaching, I aim to further a pedagogical project that understands theory, in Chandra Mohanty’s words, as “a deepening of the political…an intensification of the personal.” As an Afro-Latina, 1.5 generation immigrant, and first-generation scholar, my pedagogy is rooted in the personal. Due to my intersectional identities, my insistence in empowering my students is because I was empowered to do the same by my mentors. My identity—Latina, Black, woman, immigrant, native Spanish speaker, first-generation—provides me with perspective. It is from this vantage point that I am able to insist on a kind of knowledge that goes beyond textbooks and canons. It insist on the kind of knowledge that arises from within, that intensifies the personal and thus deepens the political.

There should be nothing special, unique, or exceptional about investing in our students. Our job as educators is to care deeply about our students, to invest our time, our energies, our resources to aid in our students’ development as active participants who think deeply and critically about the world. I do so by providing my students with reading, writing, analytical and critical thinking skills so that they are empowered to obtain their own goals. I let my students know that they are in control of their own education.

How do I help my students? I show up. Authentically as myself. I share my story. I admit when I don’t know. I admit when I do know. I admit when I’m wrong. I applaud hard work, effort, commitment to learning. I encourage my students to share their own stories. I push and challenge them. I ask them to demand more of me and of others.

Kevin Escudero, Brown University
Latinx Talk Board Member
November 2017 – Present

“Holding Space as a Means of Paying it Forward: The Development of a Mentoring Practice as an Early Career Faculty Member of Color in the Academy”

At the conclusion of a lecture I gave during the first week of classes this semester on race, ethnicity and racialization a student came up to me and shared, “Thank you for your lecture today. You know, you’re the first teacher of color I’ve had in my entire educational career.” This first-year student’s comment caused me to reflect and ask myself: What does it means to be the first faculty member of color that this student has had? Relatedly, what types of responsibilities does that fact bring along with it?

I most certainly understand that I would by no means be this student’s only faculty member of color, but I did appreciate the opportunity to be counted as one of the first faculty members of color that the student works with over the course of their educational career. It made me reflect on, however, the importance of having faculty members of color, in particularly in institutions that have historically not been very racially/ethnically diverse. Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article citing a survey which found that for more than 5,000 recent college graduates, faculty mentors were by far a critical source of support and mentorship for students, especially those in the humanities. Yet, there was a disparity in terms of students who were able to find faculty mentors among those who identified as students of color.

The son of a Vietnamese/Cambodian refugee mother and Bolivian immigrant father I identify as a faculty member of color. In my own academic career I have benefited greatly from faculty mentors of color during my undergraduate and graduate degrees and now as a faculty member through Brown’s Faculty of Color Network. I was also recruited to Brown through the Presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. Thus, I see my role as a faculty member as supporting all students on our campus and doing so with a critical focus on the multiple identities that our students hold. Through this work I seek to meet the need, as the article notes, of increased numbers of faculty members of color mentoring students of color in colleges and universities today.

Among the students I mentor at Brown, I seek to hold space for students in a way that encourages them to: (1) shape their educational pathways in ways that are important and meaningful to them and (2) emphasizes their role in bridging the university-community divide both during their time in college and afterwards. During a recent interview American Studies and geography scholar Laura Pulido shared how her desire to become an academic and as a result, a scholar-activist, was shaped largely by her interest in seeking to make sense of the complex, dynamic world in which she lived. I, too, hope that by acknowledging the importance of lived experience and personal narrative, my students will also see the strength in their own observations, identities and perspectives in the academic work they undertake. Through Pulido’s example, I also hope that my students will see their work as contributing to a central tenant of the Ethnic Studies project: engaging members of the broader public and valuing their knowledge and epistemological viewpoints. While these conversations are not always easy and do not necessarily provide definitive answer for either of us, they do serve a central purpose in assisting students in reflecting on the purpose of their education, their goals while they are in college and their plans after graduation. These three areas as ones that the Chronicle of Higher Education outlined, but also ones that I find most relevant to the needs and experiences of the students of color, immigrant students and first-generation college students I mentor. Ultimately, this work embodies the way I seek to “pay it forward” acknowledging all those individuals who have assisted me throughout my own academic journey.

Working With Students in an HSI 

Miguel Juárez, UTEP, EPCC
Latinx Talk Board Member
November 2017 – Present

As a Latinx scholar-activist, I feel extremely fortunate teaching in two institutions with majority Latinx students. In addition, because my two institutions are on the U.S./Mexican border, it adds another layer of depth not found in other parts of the United States. The University of Texas at El Paso is one of the few doctoral/research universities in the U.S. with a majority Mexican-American student population. Eighty percent of the University’s students are Hispanic, 83 percent are from El Paso County and 4 percent are Mexican nationals.[2]

The environment makes for a rich classroom experience. In 2018, El Paso Community College, the other institution I teach in, will celebrate its 50th-year-anniversary.[3] EPCC provides an important educational foundation for students who want to learn a variety of skills and professions and who want to enter the workforce sooner after earning their associate’s degree or who may want to complete their basics before tackling a degree at a university. We also have high school dual credit students. Most of the students I teach are first-generation college attendees and come from immigrant and/or working-class families.

According to the 2016 EPCC Factbook, 85% of the student population is of Hispanic or Latino descent.[4] First generation students account for 45% or 10,693 of the population.[5] EPCC enrollment includes 27,000+ credit students and 8,000 continuing education students each semester.[6] Summers at EPCC see dual credit and students from around the globe who are in El Paso and want to earn some transfer credits. I teach at the Valle Verde Campus location, which has a large percentage of Latinx students. The students in the classes I teach at both institutions are similar, but there are also differences between them.

The similarities are that I have students from Mexico in all my classes. Many of my students make the daily commute into El Paso from Cd. Juárez, and now with much uncertainty in this political climate. How will my students from Mexico come to class if President Trump decides to close the border due to the xenophobia of the refugees seeking asylum? Teaching in this time necessitates we find the means to teach students regardless of the limitations imposed by our governments.

I also have veterans in my classes. Veterans bring a wealth of experiences to the classroom experience but often they just want to blend in and not call undue attention to themselves. Both institutions I teach in have created Veteran Centers to assist returning adjust to their classes, etc. I also have a considerable number of Latinx parents with young children in my classes, so much that I allow them to bring them to class if they cannot locate a babysitter. Teaching students with family challenges means we as educators we need to come up with new and creative ways to reach students in the locations in their lives. Last semester one of my students asked me if she could leave class early because she was dropping off her husband at the airport because he was getting deployed. It was a no brainer.

Other differences are economic. Most everyone in my university classes have cell phones, computers and Internet at home. Some have iPads. Not everyone in my community college classes have these luxuries, now turned necessities. I have had some students in the past who have been homeless or had food insecurity or maybe they only have one parent, or no parents taking care of them. Teaching students with varying economic issues means we as educators must provide positive learning environments which understand that students are under difficult economic and home environments. Many years ago, I was one of the students. When I was an undergraduate, I had very few or no Latinx professors. My academic journey included attending EPCC, UTEP as well as other institutions. I see my past in many of my students and I feel lucky to be teaching them now as Dr. Juárez.

Magdalena Barrera, SJSU
Latinx Talk Board Member
November 2017 – Present

My home institution, San José State University, has an undergraduate Latinx student population nearing 30%. Many, if not most, of these students are first-generation and come from immigrant and/or working-class backgrounds. What teaching Latinx students means to me, in the work I do as a faculty member and undergraduate advisor for Chicana and Chicano Studies, is constantly pushing back against the deficit-based frameworks that some faculty, staff, and even the students themselves often use to explain the “achievement gap” for historically underrepresented minority (URM) students in higher education.

This deficit mindset–blaming students’ families and home cultures for the shape of the current Latinx student educational pipeline–perniciously permeates the policies, practices, and pedagogies of higher education. Institutions are all too eager to reach the status of “Hispanic Serving Institution” (HSI)–enrolling 25% or more full-time Latinx students–yet treat that label as a mere numbers game that opens the door for Title V funds that rarely make their way to programs that actually support Latinx students. Rarely is HSI status seen as an opportunity for campus leaders and faculty to interrogate and reinvigorate their own academic identities, asking themselves how they and their campuses can and should change in response to increasingly diverse student bodies.

In contrast to deficit models, my colleagues and I are trying to help shift the culture of SJSU to be based more on a model of community cultural wealth, which emphasizes the many strengths (such as linguistic, familial, navigational, and resistant forms of capital) that Latinx and other URM students bring with them to higher education. Through our pedagogical approaches and in the programming, we help to facilitate at our new Chicanx/Latinx Student Success Center, we are creating a culturally-sustaining and academically-affirming environment that helps students feel valued as campus contributors and connected to a community of support. This past semester, for example, I helped to facilitate our annual three-day Latinx student leadership retreat and facilitated a five-part series on academic resilience.

This work has provided a refuge of sorts not just for students but also for Latinx faculty. No doubt, there are moments when planning and coordinating this work can feel like yet one more enormous responsibility in addition to keeping up with my ongoing research and current teaching and service assignments. Yet in our current national political climate, connecting with Latinx students in such positive, meaningful ways via mutual conocimiento is an invigorating and empowering political act in and of itself because it means that we are claiming a small piece of the university for ourselves. In that way, we are not only of helping Latinx students overcome institutional barriers but also pushing ourselves to reinvigorate our teaching practices, stay connected to the latest research on Latinx student success–even when that work is outside the primary fields in which we trained (such as literature, in my case)–and constantly model for students what it means to be an engaged scholar-activist.

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Photo taken on April 21, 2011 by Flickr user GARNET. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

[1] Philip Lee, “Student Protests and Academic Freedom in an Age of #blacklivesmatter,” Ohio State Law Journal Vol. 79, No. 2 (2018), 270.
[2] University Communications, UTEP Ranked a Top Degree Producer for Hispanic Students, September 24, 2018, https://www.utep.edu/newsfeed/campus/UTEP-Ranked-a-Top-Degree-Producer-for-Hispanic-Students.html
[3] “College History,” El Paso Community College, http://www.epcc.edu/AboutEPCC/Pages/CollegeHistory.aspx, accessed December 1, 2018.
[4] El Paso Community College Fact Book, Fall 2016, “The Community We Serve,” Demographics for El Paso County, Texas, and the United States, 12.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.

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