The Struggle of Representation: Reflecting on our Latinidad through the Walls of Acculturation and Self-Esteem
By: Antonelli Mejia
When I was a junior in high school, I was retained and placed in an English as a Second Language program that isolated me from the rest of my peers because of my low language skills. As a result, I did not have access to the same opportunities to learn outside of my small class cohort. While the retention had a lasting impact, a myriad of additional factors also impeded my education. As a Dominican who moved to the mainland, factors such as learning a new language and internalizing the different social indicators in a new environment played an important role in my academic performance and caused me to fall behind as I prepared to apply for college and follow the higher education pathway that was promised to me post-graduation.
I still remember taking standardized tests just two weeks after I started school. I passed the science and math exams because they were translated into Spanish but I failed the English exam a few times before scoring proficient at the end of my senior year.
During my last year in high school, I lived every day with the notion that I was incapable of going to a four-year college because of my language and academic skills. I struggled in most of my courses and I took SAT prep classes after school to prepare for the test. Sadly, this was not enough. Sometime before graduation, I learned I was not accepted into any of the schools where I applied.
That was one of the most devastating and confusing moments of my life.
The situation left me unable to make sense of what was now expected of me in this society, particularly because I understood the sacrifices and hard work it took for me to graduate. I had no other choice but to apply to a community college in Boston to continue learning English and developing my writing and reading skills.
As I look back, almost ten years later, I think about how hard it was to see beyond the struggle and dream of achieving more than just graduating from high school and college. As a young Latino male, very few teachers and staff members looked like me in school and there was little opportunity for me to engage in extracurricular activities outside my classroom.
MY STORY IS ALL TOO COMMON
Unfortunately, this is not a single story. The sound of this struggle is the vivid narrative of many young Latinos who just like me, dream every day of pursuing higher education and achieving success. The problem? The lack of understanding about how environmental factors in our Latinx community hinder our ability to achieve and obtain positions of influence where we can lead through our identity and gain political or social power. This is the struggle to represent.
The reality is financial conditions, social predicaments and the lack of supportive networks can create internalized narratives that make us believe we are incapable of being part of those spaces. Due to our different backgrounds, life stories and our history in this country, we have internalized a long term narrative that we are incapable of achieving success in this society. The truth is that we lack representation in spaces of power. We collectively struggle to fit in and constantly try to prove ourselves in order to be successful. Why?
When we think about the level of success and influence of the Latinx community in the United States, it is critical to consider the different factors of our lived experience and how our lives are impacted by our culture, family background, and educational journey. For example, many Latinos migrate and establish in communities that are underserved and, as a result, end up attending schools lacking the resources to provide them with the necessary tools and equitable education they need from elementary to middle school and then high school. As this pathway continues, the gap becomes larger especially when students already start further behind.
For instance, Latinx students may have to learn English, support their families, assist with house responsibilities at an early age, or work after school to cover their own expenses. In other words, the social experience takes precedence over the academic and educational experience. This creates a narrative that oppresses Latinos for not experiencing the same level of success as our white peers and other minority groups.
THE STRUGGLE TO FIT IN AND THRIVE
A report published by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce in 2017, indicates that while college enrollment of Latinos in the United States has increased, we are still falling farther behind in our college outcomes compared to white and Black students. In reality, the poor and unequal academic foundation sets major limits to many of our Latino students when they start college. Sadly, almost half of Latinos end up in overcrowded and underfunded community colleges in addition to having a low-income background where most are the first generation members in their families to attend college.
According to a recent article in the Boston Globe, the odds that Latino high school students will go to college, and then earn a degree, are alarmingly slim in Massachusetts. Only 44 percent of Latinos are able to earn a degree or certificate within six years of enrollment, compared to 69 percent of white high school students. More than half of Latino students in the state had to take a remedial course in their first semester of college, compared with 28 percent of their white peers. This has a long lasting consequence in the workplace given that only 23 percent of Latino adults in Massachusetts have an associate degree or higher.
Assuming the norms and expectations of a new culture and trying to adapt our behavior in a society that oppresses and limits our impact is extremely challenging. This concept is also known as acculturation.
According to Silvia Alvarez de Davila, an extension educator at the University of Minnesota, acculturation is the process of adopting the cultural traits or social patterns of another group. In the Latino immigrant community, this process occurs when facing new experiences and challenging events that require immediate attention, for example, learning how to navigate the school system, learning a new language and feeling comfortable when communicating with others, our ability to retain knowledge and participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.
The reality is this challenge has an impactful effect on the way that we believe in ourselves. When we think about our ability and self-confidence to achieve the success we know we are capable of, the lack of access to opportunities during high school and college and the low representation of leaders in our community are some of the disadvantages that make our education process more difficult.
We have to believe in the true potential of our community and with dedication and hard work, we are able to assume high levels of influence in education and across other sectors.
HOW CAN WE DO THIS?
- We need more than high college enrollment numbers. Gladly, with the increase in population, the college enrollment for Latinx is also increasing from 22% to 37%. However, this continues to be an obstacle and challenge during our educational path.
- Primary, secondary schools and colleges need to increase diversity in their staff body. To fight the lack of representation and improve the retention of our students in these schools, we need to address this representation matter as a first step to promote diversity and leadership through identity for our young people.
- We need more programs focused on Latinx identity and development. In high school and college, it is essential that we are exposed to what is happening in our communities and provided with the tools to advocate because change cannot wait. After college, organizations such as Latinos for Education and ALPFA work directly with Latino leaders and support their ongoing development.
According to the Census Bureau, Hispanic people are the largest minority in the United States and it is projected by 2060, that our community will comprise over 28% of the total population with 119 million residing in the United States. What does this mean? Given the current political climate, we need to leverage our leadership and step into our power as a collective. With more representation in social and political spaces and more thought-provoking arguments in the media, we, the Latinx community, can and will succeed.
About Antonelli Mejia:
During his career in education, Antonelli has focused on supporting students and families as a teacher, a student counselor and currently as one of the leaders of a public school in Boston. His focus has been working with students who are recent immigrants in the country and who need language support. In addition to his passion for working with the community, Antonelli is also the co-founder of Herramientas Del Saber, a non-profit organization that works to support the education of children and young adults in the Dominican Republic.