Over the past decade, both the Hispanic population in the U.S. and college enrollment increased dramatically. With more Latina women attending college than ever before, popular media depictions of Hispanic young adults seem to lag behind the complex reality of their often unique experiences in higher education.
Writer Jennifer De Leon, who teaches in the Boston Public Schools and at the Grub Street Creative Writing Center, joined Boston Public Radio to discuss her recently published anthology, Wise Latinas. The book features essays written by several prominent Latina women about their college experiences.
De Leon, who is Guatemalan and holds degrees from Connecticut College, the University of San Francisco and the University of Massachusetts-Boston, said she views this anthology as less a creative project and more of a form of activism to dispel the predominant stereotypes of Latin American women.
"There are all kinds of barriers that Latinas face. People assume they speak Spanish and that they are first generation [Americans]...there's a lot of debunking myths on campus," De Leon said.
College is a transformative experience for any young adult, but it carries a special resonance for Latina women. Those hailing from more traditional backgrounds arrive on campus knowing that for years marriage was the first time that a young woman would leave behind her home and family. Encountering that kind of independence on a college campus — where in most cases women of color are already seriously underrepresented — is a narrative that is often left out in popular culture.
As author Sandra Cisneros puts it in her essay, "Only Daughter," "After four years of college and two more in graduate school, and still no husband, my father still shakes his head and even now and says I wasted all that education."
Last year, a survey conducted by the National Hispanic Media Coalition found that at least 30 percent of non-Hispanic Americans mistakenly believed that half or more of the nation's 50 million Hispanics were illegal immigrants with large families and little education. Negative stereotypes can exacerbate what is already an intimidating environment for new students, De Leon said.
The title of the book is a reference to a speech that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor gave in 2001 to a class at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Sotomayor, who is originally from the Bronx, attended Princeton University where she has said she often felt alienated from her peers, who were predominantly wealthy and white. Last October, Sotomayor described candidly in front of about 1,400 students at Arcadia University what she took away from her own college experience as a Latina woman: "That is probably one of the hardest things ... you will experience in college," she said. "Finding a way to stay true to your sense of value ... and having to look at others and say, 'OK, you may be academically smarter, but I bring a new perspective and a different way of looking at the world.'"
One of the most pervasive themes in the anthology is the notion of feeling like an outsider in an environment where most students were white and of a different socioeconomic class. Sotomayor experienced this in the 1970s, but even in the early 2000s — when De Leon was an undergraduate student at Connecticut College — things had scarcely changed. "I remember there being one Latina professor, and she was only visiting. She taught a class on whiteness."
To hear the full interview with Jennifer De Leon on Boston Public Radio, listen below: