Latino under-representation lends to misunderstanding about education

Dr. Pedro Talavera-Ibarra - Foreign Language Department Head

Dr. Pedro Talavera-Ibarra – Foreign Language Department Head

Dr. Pedro Talavera-Ibarra

Once, a long time ago, at a different institution, a student of mine was having a difficult time understanding the peculiarities of Spanish. This student was a dedicated individual used to making good grades in all his classes. After having done well in the first semester, he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to make the cut for an ‘A’ in the class. The problem was the subjunctive mood, a special tense to express doubt, denial or emotions. He was so frustrated by not being able to grasp the concept and master the material he decided to ask me an unusual question, “Do poor people in Mexico really know how and when to use the subjunctive?” The only reply I could give to him was, of course, poor people in Mexico don’t have any idea about the subjunctive, the same as poor people in the United States cannot afford to use the future tense.

For me, the story illustrates the point many students, including some of our best, think poverty equates lack of education or culture. To a certain degree that might be true, for instance, in the case of the under-representation of the poor in higher education, and Latinos in the United States make a good example. Latinos make up 12.5 percent of the population, and they are now the largest, fastest-growing minority group in the United States. (They have surpassed African-Americans, who make up 12.3 percent.) But Latinos in higher education account for just more than 7 percent of undergraduate students, according to 2002 data. And they represent less than 3 percent among graduate students. As a consequence, Latinos make up less than 3 percent among U.S. professors in higher education.

However, for the purposes of the Census Bureau, there is not such a thing as a Latino, and I have to tell you I prefer the term Latino over all other terms. Since the 1970s, Latinos have been classified as the Hispanic racial or ethnic group, but nobody is sure whom we should call “Hispanic.” There is no such thing as a Hispanic race. Hispanics can be black people, brown people, Indian people or white people. It is also difficult to assert there is a Hispanic ethnic group, since there is little in common between, let’s say, the Italian-Argentinean from Buenos Aires and the Mixteca Indian from Oaxaca, who doesn’t even speak Spanish.

So, what makes Latinos, not Hispanics, a distinctive group? I would say it is a historical experience: the experience of having been colonized by either the Spaniards or the Portuguese. But it is not only colonization that makes us different. It is also the assimilation of the culture brought to us with the language and the conquest and the synthesis that came out of the mixing of races and the encounter of cultures. However, in spite of the many similarities each nation in Latin America came out of the experience shaped differently, even though you can still see the same historical process of cultural assimilation at work.

A case in point might be a famous celebration in Mexico known as the Day of the Dead. In Mexico, every year for two days, Nov. 1-2, people celebrate death and honor the dead. During these two days, Mexican people visit cemeteries and decorate the graves of their loved ones with marigold flowers and candles. They bring their dead relatives’ favorite things: tequila for the grown ups and toys for the children. They also organize a picnic right on the grave eating the favored meals of the deceased. They might even bring music and sing some songs they knew their dead relatives liked. A special type of sweet bread is baked throughout the country – a bread known as pan de muerto, or bread of the dead. The bread is made to look like a skull or a skeleton. And many different types of sweets are also made for this special day, the most common being sugar skulls or skeletons.

The celebration of Día de los Muertos, goes back to ancient indigenous traditions before the Spaniards conquered Mexico. In Aztec civilization, an entire month was dedicated to the festivities. The Day of the Dead is one more example of the religious syncretism, the combination of diverse beliefs, which characterizes Mexican culture. Churches, for example, always include an enormous plaza in front of the main entrance, because in the 16th century, people would refuse to enter the building for ceremonies.

To understand why people in Mexico would go to church but not enter the building; to understand a rich culture that integrates indigenous rituals, Catholic tradition and the use of the subjunctive in Spanish, is a first step to better understanding the cultural and historical heritage of the Latinos in the United States. Next semester, the Mexico Semester, will give us an opportunity to reach this understanding.