As September near, so does Hispanic Heritage Month and I can't help but reflect on our culture and the pressures it sometimes puts on us as complex human beings. It's one thing to be a Latina in a Latin country... it's a whole different thing to be a Latina in a country where there isn't many of you and nobody quite understands certain things about you.
When we moved to the USA, my parents decided to talk to us in English (whether it was to help rid us of our accents or strengthen our vocabulary, I don't know) and help us blend in as much as four Mexicans in the middle of New Jersey could. There were certain things my mother made me shy from - big hoop earrings, the "wet hair" look, tight clothing - that my fellow Latinas in Florida wore that affirmed them as "Hispanic" but mother said was pretty much trashy. It wasn't until I moved to a part of the world where I come across few Latinxs that I started to truly embrace my roots (including the food, music, wet hair look, and big hoop earrings).
Yet it isn't easy to overcome the overwhelming cultural and societal norms our culture places on us.
I was talking to a fellow immigrant student about how there seemed to be a divide between those students who were born in the country we currently went to school in, and those who were 'outsiders.' I doubt it's out of malice, but we felt it and discussed how while we all share common struggles, there are unique cultural expectations associated with certain racial/ethnic and gender identities that conflict with "traditional" values in some western regions.
"It's probably a contributing factor to our significant underrepresentation in higher education degrees," they said and I couldn't help but nod, thinking to my own experiences of defining and negotiating a balance between my ethnic and academic identities. As we chatted over coffe, they brought up how institutional norms and policies can often contribute to racial, ethnic, and gender oppression... something I hadn't thought about before.
"Think about it. You're a Latina and you must have some intrinsic principles that contribute to your ethnic identity that are incompatible with those deemed necessary to assume an academic or scholar identity, yes?" they asked after taking a swig of their mocha.
I thought about it as I sipped on my lukewarm chai latte and they went on, pointing out that of course a mismatch between cultural identity and academic identity wasn't the only reason minorities dropped out of higher education degrees - it was due to a number of factors (such as a mismatch between student expectations and a career in academia, lack of financial aid, lack of mentoring, feelings of isolation, and a lack of meaningful connections in their department).
"But it doesn't help, if that makes sense?" It did.
Under traditional gender roles, Latinas are expected to act as primary caregivers for parents and elders until they were married. Then they were expected to take care of their husband as the doting wife and provide their families with little ones - quickly. While my mother and father didn't expect me to follow this socially constructed gender role "path" as a Latina, many did. I remember in high school talking to a guy in my class who said he wanted to marry a Latina because "they're good in bed, passive everywhere else." Yikes.
I am convinced the cultural conceptions of masculinity (the machismo culture) is one reason why we see such male dominance, female submissiveness, and passivity in the Latino/a culture. And that may be one reason why Latina students struggle- how are you expected to go your whole life being told to be submissive to transitioning into the academic culture that requires individualism (up to a point)? I've talked to other Latina PhD candidates who say the whole process is “lonely,” “isolating,” and “alienating.”
I know we aren't alone in thinking this.
So, what can be done?
I talked about this idea for Parley in regards to attaining an equitable future for girls and women in science, but I think it applies for adults who are struggling at the nexus of their academic and cultural/societal identities: it comes down to “lending an EAR”--
Empowerment. Assistance. Representation.
Although universities often actively recruit culturally diverse students and value diversity, they often face difficulty in cultivating an environment that ensures culturally diverse students are not only fully integrated into the classroom but also succeed in their academic journeys (e.g. assisting them to have the same privileges/opportunities as dominant-culture students). The proportion of ethnic minority students in western universities is increasing (yay representation), and the experience of being a culturally diverse student within this type of classroom can be difficult, confusing, and culturally isolating.
How can we help? Those from the dominant culture (such as teachers/professors, provosts, PI's, fellow students, etc.) should acknowledge the rich cultural knowledge and experiences a person has and try to tailor expectations to their culturally influenced learning needs. What do I mean by this? Let's use me as an example: I have an inability to be assertive. I'm getting better at it, but my passivity and deference to authority are typical of my culture (and household), so criticizing me for it didn't help. In fact, it often made me feel discouraged and like I was doing something "wrong" even though that passivity was ingrained in me. Many continued to encourage me to essentially behave like other White students. But that wasn't helping me- until I found an influential mentor who helps me understand situations from "that side" and who I help understand things from "my side." We both become more bicultural and walk away with a better understanding of our cultural differences.
These are just some ways we can help each other - especially those from different cultures to ours - not feel so isolated in an environment that is already tough.
What are your tips on OVERCOMING OVERWHELMING CULTURAL AND SOCIETAL NORMS?
Hi! I'm Melissa, an Australian-based Latina science educator, podcaster, and freelance writer. I spend a lot more time on Instagram and Twitter, but blogging is my first love. Thanks for stopping by — I hope you stay a while.
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