Poverty is not Destiny

Academically Successful Latinas

by | Dec 17, 2004

Despite poverty and cultural differences, many Latinas thrive academically. Photo by Gloria Cecilia Bulla

A recent study by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation (2001) made national headlines as it documented that Hispanic women had the highest dropout rate from high school (30 percent) in comparison to Blacks (11.1 percent for males and 12.9 percent for females) and whites (9.0 percent for males and 8.2 percent for females). The following article from The Monitor, a South Texas newspaper, was not unusual in attributing the high dropout rates of Latinas to “cultural values.”

Schools must do more to recognize cultural values that saddle Hispanic girls with family responsibilities, such as caring for younger siblings after school, that take away from educational endeavors . . . .

“Many Latinas face pressure about going to college from boyfriends and fiancés who expect their girlfriends or future wives not to be ‘too educated’ and from peers who accuse them of ‘acting white’ when they attempt to become better educated or spend time on academics,” the study said.

The reports of this study failed to mention or recognize in their analysis of Latinas’ “school failure” the poverty of many families, inferior schools with overcrowded classrooms, poor teaching and the constant threat of violence many poor students have to negotiate on a daily basis. By relying on a cultural explanation for the school failure of Latinas, the reports appearing in newspapers fell prey to what the anthropologist Virginia Domínguez calls “culturalism,” that is, over relying on “cultural” factors in attributing causation and ignoring other equally powerful structural influences like poverty on Latinas’ behavior.

This report also inadvertently blames Latino parents for their children’s school failure and fails to distinguish different parenting styles within poor, Latino communities. In rushing to judgment and blaming Latino culture as transmitted by parents, it does not allow for the examination of educational success even among the poorest Latino residents in this country.

Let me tell you two stories taken from my book Voicing Chicana Feminisms: Young Women Speak out on Sexuality and Identity (New York University Press, 2003) that refutes these views of Latino families and give us a powerful portrayal of what social psychologists call “resilience” in children. That is, that in spite of considerable barriers like poverty and cultural differences between home and school, many children thrive and are able to perform academically and succeed in life.



Alicia Granillo was born in Los Angeles, California, to Mexican immigrant parents. Her parents were so poor that when Alicia was born, her mother took her home from the hospital to their home in East Los Angeles on the bus. Alicia’s mother immigrated to Los Angeles from Durango, Mexico, in 1970 with four children; she eventually became pregnant with Alicia. Alicia’s father was a farmworker. Her parents separated later and Alicia and her mother moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, when Alicia was fifteen. Alicia’s siblings were already grown. At the time I interviewed Alicia, she was 26 years old and had received her bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Alicia’s mother, who was sixty-five years old, was a dishwasher in one of the casinos in Las Vegas. Alicia was in graduate school and she saw the contradiction between her class background and her classmates who when talking about their parents would say “’My mom’s a professor or teacher,’ even a teacher’s assistant or truck driver. It’s like, ‘Oh, my mom’s a dishwasher,’ because she doesn’t have the language skills.”



Ruth was 24 years old when I interviewed her and had received her bachelor’s degree in sociology and Spanish from Stanford University. She had grown up in Laredo, Texas, a border town in the southern part of the state. Ruth’s mother had been orphaned as a child and homeless in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Laredo and Nuevo Laredo (the city on the Mexican side) are connected by a bridge, which Ruth’s mother simply crossed one day and found herself being picked up by the authorities in the United States and placed in an orphanage in this country. Her mother eventually left the orphanage and married Ruth’s father. Neither of Ruth’s parents had very much education but Ruth excelled in high school and ended up being admitted to Stanford.

Aside from similar cultural, language, and social class backgrounds, what do these two Latinas have in common? They were both graduate students at Harvard University. They had overcome enormous hurdles to enter and complete their graduate training. Alicia Granillo (a pseudonym picked by her) obtained a master’s in education and Ruth López Turley a doctorate in sociology. Both attributed their educational success to a combination of factors: their mother’s encouragement and sacrifices (both came from single-head of households), educational programs designed for students of Color (Ruth had attended a summer program at Harvard University during high school), mentorship by teachers and peers who knew more about college than they did, and most importantly, financial assistance directed at students of Color and poor income students. In other words, academic success is dependent on a variety of factors, including parents, but not entirely so. Their stories of success also indicate that institutions of higher education can have a proactive role in attracting talented students of Color and can help them overcome structural barriers such as poverty and geographic isolation.

Many Latino parents want what is best for their children, including education. However, many of Latino students are the first in their families to attend college, and many times, the only ones to finish high school, so parents are at a loss of how exactly to enforce their commitment to educational achievement. Alicia and Ruth’s stories show that poverty is not destiny and even though “querer es poder” (where there is a will is a way), such values have to be undergirded by special programs and by proactive institutions of higher education.


For more examples of the different educational trajectories of Latinas, see Voicing Chicana Feminisms: Young Women Speak Out on Identity and Sexuality (New York University Press, 2003) based on interviews with a national sample of 101 Mexican descent Latinas attending institutions of higher education.

Winter 2004, Volume III, Number 2

Aída Hurtado, a native of South Texas and the first in her family to attend college, is a Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of The Color of Privilege: Three Blasphemies on Race and Feminism (University of Michigan Press, 1996) and co-editor of Chicana Feminisms: A Critical Reader (Duke University Press, 2003). Her next book ¿Quien Soy? (Who am I?) ¿Quiénes Somos? (Who are we?): Chicana/o Identity in a Changing U.S. Society will be published by University of Arizona Press, April 2004.

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