When we look at the Latino experience in the States, we see so much diversity that it can be hard not to get lost or confused. Who are we, really?
Depending on one’s physical appearance, it may be easier to identify with other groups who may or may not share a similar history of marginalization or discrimination. Other Latinos fall victim to comparing themselves to the images depicted in the media. The resulting feeling of otherness that comes from measuring oneself against the “mainstream, all- American” prototype or over identifying with non-Latino groups can be isolating, especially now when we experience the daily barrage of news centered on identity politics.
Is it possible for Latinos who have such different backgrounds and experiences to come together under one collective voice? This question is critical if we want to rally behind what is important, like fighting for good schools for our children.
In my recent Real World online dialogue, titled “The Outsiders: Latino Perspectives on Voice, Agency and Leadership,” I was able to ask two very interesting people to share their thoughts on the topic. I invited Dr. Xaé Alicia Reyes, professor of Education and Puerto Rican & Latino Studies at the University of Connecticut, and Hector Luis Alamo, Jr., writer and associate editor at Being Latino, to comment on the persistent portrayal of Latinos in media as cleaning ladies, gardeners or as overly sexualized personalities.
I wanted them to think about how media images influence the development of Latino identity, and even more important, how might these images impact our expectations of Latino youth in schools.
As a Latino educator, I am concerned with the alarming high school drop-out rates, which for Latinos and African Americans hover around 60 percent in some areas. What can we do with our collective voices to challenge mainstream media? How can we get past our internal differences so that we can focus on building the kinds of schools we want for our children?
One of the important outcomes of the dialogue was that in spite of the gender difference, age difference and level of education, both Dr. Xae Alicia Reyes and Hector Luis Alamo, Jr. were clear about the need for better understanding of the diversity within the Latino community.
In order for us to consider a collective voice, we need to pay attention to how we disassociate ourselves with one another. Often we attach status to language, skin color or hair type, creating barriers to communication. We need to own up to our feelings about class and poverty. These are socially-constructed barriers, according to Dr. Reyes, that can prevent us from galvanizing around important issues that affect all of us – like what we want from our schools.
It is no surprise that both Hector and Dr. Reyes stressed the importance of education. Not only for Latino parents who need to have important conversations with their children about the impact of media, but for teachers who need to understand the context of the Latino experience. What strategies can teachers use in the classrooms that help develop Latino voice and agency?
School leaders need to prioritize the arts and other programs that foster healthy social development, which is crucial to academic success. If schools connect what is going on in the classroom to the real world, they will understand the purpose behind education.
Regardless of our internal differences, the Latino community can and should rally around schools that can really make a difference.
Raquel Ríos, PhD is an educator, critical theorist, philosopher, artist and writer. She has traveled extensively in the United States and internationally as a professional development specialist for learning organizations on change leadership, inter-cultural competence, language acquisition, critical literacy and social justice. Raquel writes novels for the young adult audience with publication pending. She currently lives in New York.