Essential Latinx Educators: Teaching in a Time of Pandemic

COVID-19 continues to take a disproportionate toll on Latinxs because many have low-paying jobs that require them to interact with the public as “essential workers.” Given their roles in critical industries, Latinxs and other people of color are dying of COVID-19 at higher rates in comparison to their white counterparts.[1] Latinxs face contradictions as “liminal” citizens navigating in-between statuses along an indispensable (essential) and dispensable (expendable) continuum. This is what Cecilia Menjívar (2006) describes as “liminal legality,” a method used by governments to keep immigrants’ legal status undetermined. Purposefully ambiguous, it is meant to create economic and legal precarity. Undocumented immigrants are especially impacted; the government hails them as “essential,” yet fails to provide adequate health coverage, denies access to federal relief programs, and refuses to halt deportations. Although Latinxs range in legal status, they bear the brunt of pandemic.[2] Additionally, 65% of Latinxs experienced pay cuts or layoffs since the onset of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.[3] Consequently, the effects of living in liminality are reverberating across Latinx families and communities. For Latinx educators, staff and students, questions loom about fall classes during the pandemic.

As the Latinx community continues to confront structural inequities present long before the COVID-19 outbreak (think: employment, health care, housing, safety, and immigration needs), what is the role of Latinx educators during pandemic? As Indigenous Latina/Purépecha/Chicana (Alvarez Gutiérrez), Asian-Latina / KoreXicana (Fukushima), Latina/Chilean/Irish (Gaytán) first-generation professors in the state of Utah, we view our role as essential educators. We are mindful of the stakes of being called on to work – in the classroom as educators – and the unease of teaching and learning while the global pandemic accelerates. [4]

Although economically, socially, politically and racially diverse, Latinx students and professors’ stressors, many tied to “what is next” uncertainty, take their toll. In addition to the precarity of pandemic, many of us also navigate being activists in our respective communities, as educators, mentors, parents, caretakers of elders and extended family members. Alvarez Gutiérrez, as the faculty advisor of Mestizo Arts & Activism Collective, listens and talks to students, who fear that their elderly or essential worker parents may be exposed to the virus but are forced by financial necessity into situations of extreme risk. Similar to Alvarez Gutiérrez, Gaytán juggles family responsibilities (from afar) caring for working-class immigrant immuno-compromised parents who are second language English speakers. Also, as essential workers, Latinx professors take on more service. For example, in addition to having similar familial concerns afar, Fukushima is the lead for a Women of Color Collective, which is a network of support for women of color who may also be far from their families or first generation in academia. Through our social networks, we witness how Latinx educators are parenting, caring for sick or other family members, and supporting their communities, all the while being professors during pandemic.

The abrupt transition for educators on-lining in-person curriculum resulted in what Stacy Torres calls a “slow-motion disaster for disadvantaged students.”[5] The adoption of digital platforms assumes that students have equal access to technology and resources. However, many students do not have access to the internet, a safe space to work, or time at home to do their school work. Although the digital divide has narrowed, the Pew Research Center reports that 25 percent of Latinxs are “smartphone” only internet users, meaning that they lack conventional home broadband service,[6] and 46 percent of low-income households lack a computer.[7] While we recognize that the Latinx community is not a monolithic group,[8] addressing the challenges Latinx students and educators face is one step towards addressing larger problems of equity.

Like many educators who care for their students’ learning and wellbeing, adapting to the pandemic has been demanding. We have experienced an increase in the hours we spend mentoring students and adjusting our curriculum. As Alvarez Gutiérrez states, “I start my courses with checking in with the students. We spend the first part of the course checking in …everyone goes around and shares how they are coping with the pandemic, what new changes they have made to survive and thrive and what keeps them hopeful and sane. Because of the Latinx population I teach and collaborate with, it is important for me to keep updated on immigration policies (e.g., public charge, CARES Act qualifications, student relief).”  Staying informed about policies allows faculty to serve as a resource for students, diminishing some of the ambiguity associated with liminal identities in uncertain times. While these actions are critical, it is important to recognize that these responsibilities do not rest solely on individual faculty members. Educators also need to practice coalitional praxis which means encouraging students to connect with the range of resources and people available, from counseling, student centers, and other services in and beyond the academic institution.

It is difficult to know what to expect in the coming academic year. If our colleagues in the medical community are correct, we will continue to be impacted by the pandemic, and the need for ongoing physical distancing may be a reality for the unforeseeable future. Additionally, with institutions across the country (including ours) announcing budget cuts, austerity measures are likely to reduce resources for years to come.

There is no pause, delay, or waiting for the Latinx educator in K-12 or higher education and the workers who are vital to academic institutions. While mentoring or supporting communities, colleagues, and students at a distance, Latinx educators manage the contradiction of what it means to be essential and disposable. There are strategies that we may consider as we plan ahead.

Firstly, there is a heightened need to practice empathetic and realistic teaching and learning. It is imperative that Latinx educators and educators teaching Latinx students recognize that students’ lives have been disrupted and that the expectations for what is possible does not look the same for everyone. Additionally, in recognizing that we each inhabit “worlds” that are violently entered and shaped, we take seriously María Lugones’ recommendation to women of color in the U.S. that we “learn to love each other by learning to travel to each other’s ‘worlds.’” That is, we may travel to someone’s “world” as a way of identifying with, and a means to “understand what it is to be them and what it is to be ourselves in their eyes.”[9]

Secondly, balancing predictability is key in a world that is incredibly unpredictable. By now, the word “asynchronous” is a familiar term. Asynchronous teaching requires realistic expectations and recognition of cultural complexities. Latinx students, and, in some cases, educators, share laptops with their family members, do not always have regular access to the internet, and may also be navigating social challenges (for example, financially supporting family members, or taking care of themselves). Prioritizing an ethics of care is what Angela Valenzuela refers to as educación, or “a sense of moral, social and personal responsibility and sociality.”[10] For instance, educación is often manifested by placing the needs of elders above your own while navigating the landscape of pandemic. Educación also has implications for pedagogy and is fostered when educators cultivate collaborative learning, facilitate opportunities to connect with students, and assign work that reflects student lived realities and familial knowledge.

We are teaching amid disaster. Therefore, thirdly, reconciling the reality of teaching in pandemic means taking a trauma-informed, culturally responsive and social justice approach to our pedagogies. Prior to COVID-19, research showed that Latinxs were already at risk for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, where psychological distress was attributed to forced assimilation, underemployment, limited upward mobility, and greater exposure to violence. While problemas de la vida are handled in a variety of ways, mental health stigma perseveres in the Latinx community. When organizing our syllabi, we should keep in mind that students, professors, staff, and communities alike are experiencing ongoing traumatic effects of living in a pandemic.

The pandemic is a racialized and racializing experience for students and faculty, exacerbated by ongoing colonial systems that maintain heterosexism, classism, and ableism. For Fukushima, being an Asian and Latina has meant bearing witness to increased hate-crimes and racism towards Asian Americans and Asian diasporas in the United States in addition to witnessing the relegation of Latinxs to death.

Universities are making decisions to address economic austerity during the age of pandemic,[11] furloughs and layoffs, and transitions to online teaching. The cancellation of community and academic events means that students who find community and connections through university services, in the classroom, and through participating in campus organizations are experiencing decreased emotional and mental health[12] resulting from the abrupt loss of physical camaraderie. As the country feigns a future of normalcy, universities make financial decisions and states make budget cuts to education. We see our responsibility as not only supporting our communities, but also teaching about the ongoing structural realities and the histories of Latinx communities and communities of color during the pandemic and beyond.

Essential workers also help educational institutions run during pandemic: janitors, food industry workers, transportation services, medical providers, student affairs, housing staff, campus security, and educators. Latinx educators who are brown, indigenous, black, and Asian will continue to grapple with inequities amid and after a life of pandemic. Critical aspects of our positions in the academe are creating opportunities to connect socially, theoretically, and in praxis, in ways that move beyond western epistemologies of individualism. It is imperative that Latinx educators as essential workers incorporate collective care approaches that bridge relational ways of knowing, thinking, and seeing.

Endnotes

[1] McCormack, “Reports,” 2020.

[2] Morales, “Understanding why Latinos are so hard hit,” 2020.

[3] Krogstad et al., “U.S. Latinos among the hardest hit,” 2020.

[4] Rasheed et al., “Coronavirus pandemic accelerating,” 2020.

[5] Torres, “After Coronavirus,” 2020.

[6] Perrin and Turner, “Smartphones help blacks, Hispanics,” 2019.

[7] Anderson and Kumar, “Digital divide persists,” 2019.

[8] Cuellar, Understanding Latinx college student diversity and why it matters,” 2018.

[9] Lugones, “Playfulness, “‘World’-travelling, and loving perception,” 1987.

[10] Valenzuela, Subtractive schooling, 1999.

[11] Whiteford, “‘Just no comparison’ for Pandemic’s Financial Shock,” 2020.

[12] Flores, Chicana and Chicano mental health, 2013.

Works Cited

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Berchick, Edward R., Barnett, Jessica C., and Upton, Rachel D. “Health insurance coverage in the United States: 2018,” United States Census Bureau, last modified November 8, 2019, https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2019/demo/p60-267.html

Carrasquillo, Adrian, “Nearly two-thirds of Latinos have lost jobs or face economic hardship due to Coronavirus outbreak, poll finds,” last modified April 17, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/nearly-two-thirds-latinos-have-lost-jobs-face-economic-hardship-due-coronavirus-outbreak-poll-1498417

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Krogstad, Jens Manuel, Gonzalez-Barrera, Ana, and Noe-Bustamante, Luis, “U.S. Latinos among the hardest hit by the pay cuts, job losses due to coronavirus,” Pew Research Center, last modified April 3, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/04/03/u-s-latinos-among-hardest-hit-by-pay-cuts-job-losses-due-to-coronavirus/

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Morales, Ed, “Understanding why Latinos are so hard hit by Covid-19,” CNN, last modified May 18, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/18/opinions/latinos-covid-19-impact-morales/index.html

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Left to Right: Marie Sarita Gaytán, Leticia Alvarez Gutiérrez, Annie Isabel Fukushima

Author Bios:

  • Dr. Leticia Alvarez Gutiérrez is an Associate Professor in Education, Culture & Society at the University of Utah. She is a Purépecha Xicana scholar and educator whose research draws from critical social theory, ecological systems theory, a sociocultural view of development, migration scholarship, cultural assets frameworks, Chicana feminist theory, ethnographic and participatory action research (PAR) approaches.
  • Dr. Annie Isabel Fukushima is an Assistant Professor in Ethnic Studies in the School for Cultural & Social Transformation at University of Utah. She is a KoreXicana scholar activist and author of the award winning book Migrant Crossings: Witnessing Human Trafficking in the United States (Stanford University Press 2019) which examines witnessing Asian and Latinx migrants trafficked in the United States.
  • Dr. Marie Sarita Gaytán is an Associate Professor in Sociology and Gender at the University of Utah. She is a Latina/Chilean/Irish professor and the author of ¡Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico (Stanford University Press, 2014) which offers a rich and complex transnational, sociological, and cultural analysis of the symbolism, production and consumption of tequila.

Banner Photo: “Welcome to the Machine” by courosa is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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