The following is a speech I gave at the Hispanic Youth Leadership Academy's 2018 Encuentro. It holds some of the lessons I've gained during my time in higher education. I share this in hopes that someone might find validation for their experience, and empowerment through this lucha.
Six Theses on Latinxs in Higher Education
As opposed to a long speech with one sustained message about Latinxs in higher education, I want to offer 6 theses or thoughts on things I’ve learned in my journey. Thoughts that I will share with accompanying memes—because memes are the single greatest cultural contribution of my generation.
Just a quick note about who I am to help couch my comments. My name is Jorge, I grew up in affordable housing in Manchester, Connecticut right outside of Hartford. My parents migrated from Puerto Rico a year before I was born and I grew up with my mom, Rosa, dad, Jorge, abuela, Maminai, and uncle, Tio Chegui. I went to undergrad in the North Shore of Boston at a school called Gordon College—that’s where I met my partner, Ashlie—and where I worked in admissions and for the Provost and got a Bachelors in Biblical Studies and Social Theory. From there I attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City where I got a Masters in Liberation Theologies, worked for admissions, and started working for this organization called the Hispanic Summer Program that leads intensive summer courses geared towards Latinx graduate students of religion. Then I was accepted into the PhD program at Union to study History of Religion and that’s what I do now while still working for HSP.
These are some of the experiences that I will reflect on as I offer my theses and thoughts. So here we go.
1. The Latinx community is super diverse, but the Academy hasn’t figured that out yet somehow. Sometimes we haven’t either…
Alternative Thesis: No, a lot of Puerto Ricans don’t like spicy food..... **eye-roll**
In my junior year of undergrad I was invited to speak at Fresno Pacific University on the experiences of first-generation Latinx college students. I had been doing work around diversity initiatives and best practices and I had this whole little presentation prepared—I thought I was super cool. Like, I real talk thought I was dope. So, feeling super cool I walk into the classroom where I’m going to give my presentation, set up my things, and wait for people to walk in. Folks walk in, I’m introducing myself, feeling real confident. The presentation starts, I start speaking, saying cool stuff about data and trends and my own experience and I look and see that this group of first-generation Latinx college students is confused as hell about my presentation on first-generation Latinx college students. So I ask them what they were thinking, and one person bravely said I was the first Puerto Rican they have ever met in their life. Then everyone in the room unanimously agreed. They continued that a lot of things I was reflecting on just weren’t their experience, at all. So I stopped my presentation and we just talked, and realized that though we all fell into this marker of Latinx, even first-generation Latinx college students, we lived in different worlds. And we had to stop assuming our experiences were the same, amidst having similarities, in order to at least begin learning about one another.
The reality is that the Latinx community is extremely diverse. There are men, women, trans, intersex, gender-non-conforming folk, conservatives, liberals, leftists, Christians, Atheists, Buddhists, “nones,” disabled folk, able-bodied folk, undocumented folk, documented folk, let alone Mexicans, Salvadorans, Puerto Ricans, and every other country in Latin America that got eliminated from the World Cup that y’all are still sad about. But often in institutions of higher education Latinxs make up an overwhelming minority of student, faculty, and administrative population and a majority of the facilities staff. This means that in our classrooms we are often asked to speak for the entire Latinx community or, if we aren’t, our single stories become normative examples of Latinidad. Then, and here’s the twist, we enter spaces that are majority Latinx and sometimes struggle with the diversity and difference within those environments because we come in with assumptions of how they should be. This has been a hard lesson for me, but I think an important one, that has aided me in my work. I’ve tried to walk into spaces, majority-Latinx or not, with few assumptions. Tried to hear people’s stories and draw connections. Failed at doing this a lot. And tried again next time.
2. Have clear expectations of institutions of higher education. These institutions weren’t built for us.
Alternative Thesis: I think Cardi’s got this one…
At one of my institutions I undertook a huge project on Racial and Ethnic Diversity. For a whole year I brought in experts on race and ethnicity in Higher Education, led a longitudinal study of the institution, compiled primary sources relative to diversity initiatives, analyzed every single syllabi of all courses offered at the institution to compile data on inclusion of minoritized authors, and submitted a report on my findings and best practices for the institution to improve curricularly, administratively, pedagogically, and representationally on issues of racial and ethnic diversity.
Years later I’m still not sure if the institution made any substantive changes based on my work.
During my entire time working in higher education I have had experiences like these. Hours upon hours of research and organizing around issues of inclusion and, amidst a handful of victories, change has been slow, hard, and sometimes not possible. Reflecting once on this with my advisor and mentor, historian Dr. Daisy Machado, she looked at me and merely said, “Well these institutions weren’t built for us.” What she meant was that institutions of higher education up until extremely recently—the last 40 years in some cases—never envisioned people of color, Latinxs, women, queer folk, disabled folk, being in their halls as anything more than janitors, if that. In fact, for some of us it was our literal ancestors whose blood and sweat and even lives were forcefully taken to construct these institutions for someone else. This reality, for me, doesn’t mean that we don’t engage with these institutions—indeed I think these institutions have the potential for creativity and productivity if we wield them strategically—but it does mean we shouldn’t be surprised when injustices happen, things don’t change, or change is slow. Because ultimately, these institutions weren’t built for us. That has meant, first, that I have realistic expectations of what institutions can and cannot do of their own accord. But, second, these institutions never envisioned me in them so that means if I am in them I can push, and mold, and even leave if I need to because I wasn’t supposed to be here anyways. And there is a creative freedom that comes with that.
3. Ni de aquí, ni de allá…It’s possible to feel like an imposter in the Academy…and in your community.
Alternative Thesis: I told Mami I wanted to go to a coffee shop with college friends and she said no, disque “porque tenemos café en casa.”
There is a thing in psychology called “Imposter Syndrome,” maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s the idea that sometimes people of color or women or queer folk or other minoritized folks feel like “imposters” within institutions. So even if you’re the most qualified person for your job, or the best writer in your class, you might feel like you’re not good enough or like you don’t belong. In higher education, many Latinxs say they feel this way because of racial hierarchies within our institutions.
I think as a Latinx community we have good conversations about this. What we don’t talk about as much—maybe because we don’t want to admit it—is when we go into higher education we often slowly start feeling like imposters within the Latinx community that raised us.
Part of navigating higher education for me has been navigating my relationship with my family. None of them have a college degree—my grandma didn’t even complete the 8th grade—and even if they had had the opportunity to attend college the educational system in Puerto Rico is different than the US. When I started college, I had no clue how to talk to my family about what I studied, what I was learning, what I was experiencing. Add to this that at times things I was learning went directly against things they had taught me. To use the same phrase, I started feeling like an imposter within my Latinx family, and Latinx community.
Over time the feeling of being an imposter in both the academy and Latinx community has gotten better because I’ve found colleagues and mentors that have had similar experiences, I have started working through it in therapy, and I have become more confident in myself. But it’s something that I think we need to talk about as Latinx peoples in higher education. Whether we like it or not, the academy shapes us, and that has implications for our relationship with our communities.
4. Close friends, colleagues, and mentors are key to thriving.
Alternative Thesis: Be everyone else’s squad goals.
After I was accepted to the PhD program at Union I got a direct message on twitter from a brother named James Howard Hill, Jr. He wrote to me because he got accepted to Union Theological Seminary and Northwestern University’s PhD Programs and wanted to talk to someone who knows Union before making a decision. As we messaged back and forth we realized that we actually had a lot in common. He’s an African American brother from Texas who used to be connected to evangelicalism, is a first-generation college student who has been in primarily white institutions, and was trying to navigate the academy, cultivating his relationship with his partner, and making enough money to survive in big cities. Though James ended up going to Northwestern he and I stayed in touch.
Two years later, every single week, James and I still talk via text or on the phone. When either of us is working on a project or conference presentation we edit for each other. If we’re going through some tough times in school or with our families we link up. And every time Drake drops a new album we make sure to discuss how this brother continues to be so productive. (We also discuss whether or not Keke still loves Drake).
The farther you go in the academy, the more challenging it is academically and emotionally. Indeed, preparing coursework and teaching and exams and a dissertation requires an immense degree of concentration and grit. As people of color, generally, and Latinxs, specifically, add to this encountering an academy that wasn’t built for you, dealing with racism, and the familial realities that often occur in our communities—sending money home, needing to care for abuela or your siblings, etc. In that pressure cooker having close people you trust and who want the best for you is a lifeline that will enable you to achieve your goals. These people include colleagues, they include friends, they include family, and they include mentors. This community will push you through, they will help you survive, and more importantly, they will help you thrive.
5. Mental health is just as important as physical health.
Alternative Thesis: Maybe that paper I wrote that one time on that community that left a place and then didn’t fit into the new place but didn’t fit into the old place anymore was actually about me…or whatever…
A year ago, I started going to therapy. It was the second year of my PhD program, my first year teaching, I was stressed, family situations were complicated, and I realized I needed to work through some shit. So, every Thursday morning from 9:45am to 10:30am I took the subway (realistically I took a taxi because I’m low key bougie) and I talked with a paid, trained professional therapist. Over time my therapist helped me identify patterns of hurt and trauma that I reproduced with myself and projected on others, and gave me strategies for how to work through those. What I found was that I started becoming calmer, more balanced, and more open in my relationships. I also realized that my academic work improved because I was able to cope with stress more effectively, have clearer expectations of myself and others, and make a distinction between things I was academically writing because they interested me, and the things I was academically writing as a way to emotionally cope.
I consider therapy crucial for Latinx folk and people of color in higher education. Recent studies have indicated that upwards of 50% of graduate students suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental health related issues. And the reality is that for us Latinxs (and I think especially cis-straight men like myself that are supposed to be macho and shit) we often don’t talk about mental health because of social stigmas or just benign ignorance. I remember when I told a close family member I was going to therapy they freaked the hell out, asked me if I was depressed, started praying over me and we had to have conversations about what therapy meant, and how caring for my mental health was just as important as caring for my physical health. To make it through higher education, especially as Latinxs, your mental health is important.
6. Your value and worth don’t come from the academy’s standards.
Alternative Thesis: The empowering blood of your ancestors flows through your veins.
I’m going to close here because I think it’s important for people at various stages of their higher education journey. When I was discerning doctoral work in my Master’s program I remember sitting with a friend at Union who knew me and knew my story. I told my friend that I was considering taking a few years off between my Master’s and PhD because I wasn’t sure if I had enough life experience to go into a doctoral program. My friend, who happens to be a queer, woman of color of South Asian descent, told me something I’ll never forget. She looked at me and said (paraphrased):
“Shut the hell up Jorge. You don’t get to do that. Our people have had to figure out how to navigate this system, work through it, find their voice in the midst of racism and sexism and queerphobia, all while caring for our families. We have all these experiences through struggle and yet we still ask ourselves if we have enough experience. Meanwhile, some white men who have never been through half the shit you’ve been through never-ever wonder if they’re even qualified. So no, Jorge, you don’t get to ask if you have enough experience.”
This story has always stuck with me, not because my friend told me to shut the hell up, though she did, and I still feel a little salted, but because of the layers upon layers of what she told me. She was not telling me I should not discern whether or not to continue in higher education—indeed, discernment is super important, it’s a process that occurs in community with friends, and colleagues, and mentors you trust who love you, people like my friend. What she was telling me though, or perhaps what she was reminding me, is that my validation, my worth, my empowerment comes from the stories and experience of my and our people. And at that moment, I was not finding the validation of my experience within my people but within “the academy”—an institution that until recently never even had us in mind and thus makes us feel like imposters.
Intentionally or not, due to its complicated history higher education often disempowers Latinx folk, and women, and queer folk, and disabled folk, and other minoritized folk by making us second guess our worth, our qualifications, our life experiences and their validity. Some of us have crossed the Rio Grande as children, enter the academy, and then suddenly question whether or not we have the stamina to make it through a program. Some of us have translated legal documents for our parents as children, enter the academy, and then suddenly question whether or not we know how to analyze primary sources. Some of us have navigated gang violence and police violence as teens, enter the academy and then suddenly question whether or not we can navigate the politics of a college or university. Some of us have seen things that people have only read about, have survived, have persevered, have persisted, enter the academy, and then suddenly question whether or not we can attain a Bachelors, a Masters, a Ph.D.
We have skills and gifts and experiences that have shaped us into the people we are. We have a community and ancestors who dreamed us into existence before we were even born, and this community and these ancestors continuously sustain us in our journey. We carry in our blood the stories of people who walked through the literal valley of death, some of whom survived, some of whom didn’t, but all of whom made sure you could be here today. That is the source of our value and worth and it is from those stories and experiences that we are empowered.
La lucha sigue, but our people know how fight—in the streets, in our communities, in empires, and in the academy.
For me, that’s where I find my power.