Monday, March 15, 2010

Yet Another Reason for Poor Performance among Latino Students (Like You Haven’t Heard it All Already)

Guest essay by Kathleen de Azevedo

I work at Skyline Community College. The eve before the March 4 Day of Action, when teachers and students were to take to the streets to protest the massive cuts facing the public schools in California, a group of colleagues and I were talking about the challenges Latino students face in school. And we should be concerned. White students are twice as likely to graduate from a community college as Latino students. Between Latino and white students who enter colleges and universities at the top of their class, the stats are only slightly better: 81 percent of white students get their bachelor’s degree compared to 57 percent of Latinos (Fry).

We didn’t even go into the reasons for the dismal success rates among Latino students, because we’ve heard them all: poverty, poor English language skills, immigration hardships, overriding family pressures. Certainly as a Latina, I want strong Latino leadership and I am continually puzzled at how the fastest growing population can have such little voice in our society. Then I came to this conclusion: The United States just doesn’t like Latin America.

Our country’s ambivalence toward Latin America is well documented. The U.S. has always had the attitude that Our Southern Neighbors are not quite up to par to be taken seriously. When I was researching the Good Neighbor Policy propaganda of the 1940's, for my Brazilian-American novel Samba Dreamers, I was saturated with political cartoons of sombrero-ed babies in diapers sucking pacifiers and throwing tantrums, all misbehaving under Uncle Sam’s admonishing gaze. We were supposedly establishing stronger diplomatic ties to Latin America to fight the Axis powers, yet we thought of Latin Americans as no more than naughty children and we treated them as such. This attitude was reflected in the U.S. support of Latin American military coups that took place from the 1960s to the 1980s under the pretense that Latino leaders just couldn’t govern their own countries. No matter that our involvement killed thousands of people and sent several economies into a tail spin, the U.S. government thought they knew best.

Of course today, we wouldn’t dream of thinking along such “stereotypical” lines in our politically correct consciousness. We acknowledge at least, that Latin American governments (with the exception of Cuba) are democratically elected. Instead, in keeping with its usual paternalistic nature, the U.S. does what parents do when they are tired of reprimanding their children: they ignore them. Perhaps I react too strongly at my newest addition of American Writing Programs Chronicle or my Poets & Writers magazine as I find little to no Latino writers hired in MFA programs, or receiving awards, or getting their stories recognized in anthologies such as Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Prize Stories. But I don’t see a lot of Latino involvement in other fields either. Sure, a few Latinos are let into the exalted world of recognition, but the U.S. culture is very careful of whom it lets in, lest too many Latinos make a mess of things.

Latino kids feel this national lack of respect. They can sense that the U.S. considers Latin culture as no more than a bothersome bird. As a kid, I could sense this nationwide disrespect in history class where we learned about the Spanish Armada’s battle against the English navy. As constructed in the textbook, the English were clever, modern, technologically adept whereas the Spanish were arrogant, behind-the-times buffoons. Nowadays we could liken this battle to the Norteños and the Sureños where, in the case of the Armada, the Norteños won, even though both sides acted like punks.

Many schools do what they can to encourage Latino students. Today, Spanish language immersion programs have blossomed. Educational institutions are incorporating a lot more ethnic studies into their curriculum and there are special programs specifically for Latino youth. But this kind of attention to the culture cannot just exist in the schools. If we are to address the issues facing Latino education in particular, our entire culture has to care about Latin America, and not just superficially. We have to open our minds and recognize the talent in those countries as well as Latino talent here in the U.S. We as a country have to know and respect Latin American countries the way we know and respect France, China and India. Yet, we have a ways to go. Years ago, I attended a National Council of Teachers of English conference in San Francisco. The presenter, a college professor, projected onto a screen an outline of a map of North and South America with a few major cities indicated. In place of Santiago, Chile was the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo.

Yes, we still have a long way to go.

[Reference: Fry, Rick. Latino Youth Finishing College; The Role of Selective Pathways. Pew Hispanic Center. 23 June 2004. Web. 4 March 2010.]

Kathleen de Azevedo’s fiction has appeared in many publications including Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, and anthologies Best of the Southwest and Latinos in Lotusland. Her novel about Brazilians in Hollywood, Samba Dreamers, won the 2006 Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Award. She was born in Rio de Janeiro and lives in San Francisco. She currently teaches English at Skyline College.


Mario Acevedo said...

Great essay.

Anonymous said...

I also like your essay.But, concerning your topic and from my point of view(being a Latino who is interested in Libeal Arts, MFA, etc.)How are we to overcome the new challenges like "TV stereotypes" where it is "kool" nowadays to be stupid and talk with broken English? It is what the media portray's us Latinos thanks to people(actors) like George Lopez , Carlos Mencia, and Gabriel Iglesias dude... Isn't there a happy median where we can stand as a Latino society and not selling out [and] or forgetting where [we] come from? I know I can.

Kathleen de Azevedo said...

I hear you, Anonymous. The key word here is "choice." I mean it's not like Latinos can't be funny (or play a gangster, or whatever), it's just that there's not much else there. Perhaps since you are in the arts, one answer is for more Latinos to be in creative management/decision making positions. I was hoping with more media expansion there would be more opportunities for Latinos, but it's not like you'd think. At any rate, keep up what you are doing. We need a lot of you guys.
Kathleen (de Azevedo)