La Familia and Other Secret Ingredients to Latinx Student Success

by Jennifer M. Matos (Author)
Textbook XVIII, 152 Pages

Table Of Content

Jennifer M. Matos

La Familia and
Other Secret Ingredients
to Latinx Student Success

About the author

Jennifer M. Matos is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. She teaches courses on racism, oppression and education, self-awareness, and teacher preparation. She is a graduate of the UMASS Amherst Social Justice Education program.

About the book

Almost like a well-kept family recipe, there exists in education secret ingredients into what makes Latinx students successful. La Familia and Other Secret Ingredients to Latinx Student Success demonstrates how Latinx parents, a well-kept secret ingredient, assist with the academic success of Latinx students at all educational levels. Understanding the power of this secret ingredient—and how to use it—can have a profound impact on success for Latinxs students and can be used as a model for how to work with and support students from all marginalized groups. La Familia and Other Secret Ingredients to Latinx Student Success is suitable for educators at all levels. This book can be used in general education and teacher preparation courses, ethnic studies courses, training for individuals in helping professions, or to launch exciting new dialogue.

This eBook can be cited

This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.


This book was being written decades ago in the family kitchen of our shared Jersey City, New Jersey home. I would like to thank my family of origin, Jessie, Annie, and Rosemarie “Gokie” Flores, and although I never got to meet my brother David, as he died before I was born, he is my family, too. My Mother, through all of the obstacles presented by poverty and urban living, managed to raise all of us. Jessie, thank you for being my big brother, calling to check on me, always ready to tell jokes and laugh heartily with me. I am so proud of the man you are, and proud that you are my brother. Annie, you literally saved my life diagnosing me with lupus when you were only fourteen years old! Even though you are my “little” sister, you have been my fiercely loyal protector, and remind me with your playful teasing, not to take myself so seriously. Thank you for always showing up for me. And Gokie. What would I ever have done without you? Your delicious Puerto Rican meals with recipes passed down in our family as well as your strong hugs have always nourished me. When Mom had to be away at work to keep a roof over our heads, you took us to Saturday matinee movies, played with us, and helped with homework. I don’t know anyone else as lucky as me to have a cousin, big sister, second mom, and friend.←xi | xii→

There are other blessings in our family such as my brother’s wife, Marisol (who is always so loving, supportive, and willing to talk) and their daughters Tiffany, and Melissa; Jim, you are a Superman, and I’m so grateful to have someone to giggle and share stories with. Sarah, you were the first one to teach me what it meant to be a parent. Even though I am not your parent, I loved you since the moment I laid eyes on you. I also want to thank the children that came from our small family: Maliya and Anna. I was able to know my maternal grandmother, my abuela Maria Garay, who loved me deeply and who, for me, was Puerto Rico. When I deplane and land at the Luis Muñoz Marin airport in San Juan, I feel as if my face is pressed against my abuela’s housecoat like when I would embrace her, and smell the mountains, plantains, and warm Caribbean air. It was a scent I equated with great love. Although I got to meet, but don’t remember my paternal grandmother, Ana Ruiz, I carry her in my heart. I feel close to her whenever I say my daughter’s name, who was named to honor my grandmother. And I have only met my maternal great-grandmother, my bisabuela Hipolita Montañez Flores, in dreams. I can see her still, with a beautiful dress adorned with brightly colored flowers, and although she never had the chance to tell me so, I know she loved me before I was born, and that loved travelled time and distance to the blood that ran through my Mother’s veins, and by inheritance, flows through my veins and pumps my heart. I am honored to have chosen her last name as part of my own.

Growing up, my Mom believed that there were no such things as friends, and that one only had family to rely on. I made it my mission to prove her wrong and hit the jackpot in doing so. I have chosen family in the form of friends and I would like to thank Joy-marie for teaching me how to write a strong resume and for all you taught me about love and acceptance when I needed it most. Samantha, “Miss Wings” and my soul sister, you, Dan, and Bodhi Becker, have welcomed me into your family in such a way that I feel I was born into it. Your friendship and loyalty to me and my success are unprecedented. I love you more than I can say. Jenny, thank you for your unflapping honesty, acceptance of me, and delicious sense of humor. Wayne Schweitzer, you are not only the world’s best lupus doctor, you are my dear friend. Franki Nieves, you don’t just cut hair, you’ve seen me through my life’s highest highs and lowest lows. Thank you for always listening. Bee Buehring, and Mike Collins, you are walking proof that blood doesn’t make a family, love does.

I would also like to thank my “work family” at Mount Holyoke College in the Department of Psychology and Education, with special thanks to Janet←xii | xiii→ Crosby whose open office door and bright smile are always welcoming, Cheryl McGraw for being a wealth of information and who read my draft, Sandy Lawrence who hired me and was my first guide on this amazing journey at Mount Holyoke, and Kathy Binder. Kathy, you are a tremendous mentor and friend, you have been my champion, and I thank you for “getting me.” To my “work brother,” Jared Schwartzer, the work I write about that we did in Playita could not have happened without your loyalty, your willingness to dream, and your generous heart. Special thanks to Mari, Avi, and Leora Schwartzer for sharing your Dad with the children of Playita, and for being an important part of this work! Thanks as well to KC Haydon, Mara Breen, and Jennifer Jacoby for your good humor and mentorship, and Sarah Frenette for your decades of friendship and leadership in the education division. And I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the rest of my work family: Corey Flanders, John Tawa, Dr. Janelle Gagnon, Nicole Gilbert-Cote, Cheryl Lavigne, Sruti Kanthan, Kelley O’Carroll, Kat Tremblay, Eloise Nimocks, Allegra Corwin-Renner, Katie Byrne, Jamie Church, John Roche, Danielle Godon-Decoteau, Jenessa Seymour, Ahren Fitzroy, Becky Packard, Amber Douglas, Catherine Swift, Ruth Hornsby, Megan Allen, Mike Flynn, Nestor Restrepo, Brian Gadziala, and retired faculty Fran Deutsch, Karen Hollis, Gail Hornstein, Will Millard, and Patty Ramsey. It is truly a gift not only to love the job I have, but to love and admire the people that I work with. Thank you for your endless good humor and support. I owe thanks for the support of Dorothy Mosby and Gary Gillis. I would like to express my gratitude for the collegiality of Liz Markovitz and the apoyo of Vanessa Rosa, David Hernandez, and the NECLS community, as well as the support of NCFDD and Jonnie Orozco and Virajita Singh. Thank you Latrina Denson, Marcella Runell Hall, Annette McDermott and Karen Jacobus. Thanks are extended as well to my Mount Holyoke College students, who are among the best and brightest the world has seen. I would especially like to acknowledge Daisy Reyes, Mari Santiago, Diana Jaramillo, Lessly Portillo, Estefhani Tavarez, Maria Maria Castillo, Emely Minino Soto, Ragini Ghose, and Nicole Granados. Thanks are extended to the Harap family without whom my research in Holyoke could not have been done.

Thank you to Miriam Quiñones, without whom my initial research would not have been possible. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Sonya Stephens, Lenore Reilley, my Irish sister Amy Martin, Jon Western, the whole-hearted parents and community members of the Playita community in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Yulín Cruz, Nilsa Medina, teachers at la Escuela Especializada en Matemáticas, Ciencias y Tecnología (EMCT), Liza and Edgardo Negron,←xiii | xiv→ families of Holyoke, Massachusetts, and to my participants—whose important, impactful, and poignant stories I promised to tell. I hope you know how much you shine.

My own teachers provided a wonderful springboard into my future, and to that end, I would like to thank JoAnn Degnan, Mary Lou Lauterhahn, Mary Beth Landis, Debra Canady, and my dear friend, Odalys Diaz. I give thanks for the friendship and mentorship of Catherine Grimes. Catherine, although you are gone, your lessons of compassion and social justice will remain with me, always. My first grade and fourth-grade teachers fostered a love of learning in me and for that, I would like to thank my first-grade teacher, Robin Weaver and my fourth grade teacher, Juliann James.

Thank you to my UMASS Amherst family in the Social Justice Education program who are too many to list here, but who have all been tremendous peers, mentors, and students. Thank you to Sally Campbell Galman. You will always be my chapter three, and I thank you for your constructive feedback and steadfast friendship. Bev Bell, you inspire me and I am so fortunate to be your friend and colleague. Thank you to Mari Casteneda, Laura Valdiviezo, Bailey Jackson, Maurianne Adams, Ximena Zúñiga, Molly Keehn, and Sonia Nieto.

Balance is important in the work of education and social change, and I would like to thank Ashley Kohl, Loryn Englebrecht, and my Thursday night tap dance class at Ohana.

To Ita Ford, M.M., Maura Clarke, M.M., Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U., and Jean Donovan, your courage, love, and ultimate sacrifice for the marginalized has been a call to me to work for social justice and to serve as a voice for the voiceless.

Thank you to Janell Harris, Patty Mulrane, Monica Baum, and the team at Peter Lang Publishing for all of your support and enthusiasm from the moment I submitted my proposal. Thank you for recognizing the importance of Latinx voices.

Tash, you are everything. Thank you for not giving up on me, for your kindness and generosity, for deep conversations and endless fits of laughter, for the gifts of Quincy and Emmylou, and for the brilliant future that awaits us! I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I’ll work hard to be worthy of you.

Anna, you are an amazing daughter, and I loved you since before you were born. It is my privilege and greatest joy to be your parent. You teach me so much about love and life every day and you are my buddy. I hope that this←xiv | xv→ book gives you insight into why I parent you around education in the way that I do.

Finally, I would like to thank my Mother for the many sacrifices she made for the sake of my education. While Mom did not get to see me become an author of a book, she got to see me become “Dr. Matos” and this is a distinction from which she derived great pride. Mom, having you as my parent is something from which I consistently derive great pride. I am proud to be your child, and I hope you are as proud of me as I am of you.←xv | xvi→ ←xvi | xvii→


DOE Department of Education

EMCT Escuela Especializada en Matemáticas, Ciencias y Tecnología

ESEA Elementary and Secondary Education Act

FAFSA Free Application for Federal Student Aid

FP Frances Perkins Scholars

FTM Female to male

GED General Education Diploma

GRE Graduate Record Examinations

GNC Gender Non-Conforming

HCC Holyoke Community College

IEP Individualized Education Plan

MAT Miller Analogies Test

MHC Mount Holyoke College

M.P.F. Maestre Pie Filippini

NCES National Center for Education Statistics

NCLB No Child Left Behind

PTA Parent Teacher Association

PWI Predominantly White Institution

SASS School and Staffing Survey←xvii | xviii→

SAT Scholastic Aptitude Test

SSSP Smith Summer Science Program

STEM Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

UMASS University of Massachusetts←xviii | 1→



My educational trajectory started, as many of life’s beginnings do, with a Mother. In this case, my life-long career in education started with my Mother. A native of Caguas, Puerto Rico, Mom wasn’t able to complete her education when she came to the mainland United States in the 1950’s. The story of my family is the typical immigrant story with the exception that legally, Puerto Ricans are also United States citizens. However, when a Puerto Rican moves to the mainland U.S., it’s not the same as when someone on the mainland moves from Pennsylvania to Florida. Having the greatest grasp of the English language, my ten-year-old Mother had to accompany my grandmother from apartment building to apartment building in search of affordable housing for four people. As my Mom was the one doing the translating, she was also the one bearing the brunt of racist epithets that potential landlords lobbed at her as they slammed the door in her face. She learned quickly that she and her family weren’t ever to receive a warm welcome in this country and as she fumed, my grandmother urged her to calm down, not understanding what her young daughter was learning. While she completed a GED, she always seemed to live vicariously through my education. When I was a small child, she would say “Jennifer, you’re going to go to school until you have gray hair!” I remember thinking I would be very old by the time I finished school. This di←1 | 2→rective was later replaced by “You’re going to college—I can’t pay for it—but you’re going.” As a single parent, she worked two, sometimes three jobs as a certified nursing assistant in hospitals and nursing homes to fund my sister’s and my Catholic school education. She thought we would be safer and receive a better education in a Catholic school and sent us despite my father’s unwillingness to pay for any of it. I was forced to go to my high school senior prom because she never had the opportunity to attend high school and go to her own prom. Understanding what my attendance would mean to her, I agreed to get my hair and nails done, have my cousin apply makeup to my face, and wear a gown. Looking back, I could have done without all the fuss, but it meant the world to my Mom to witness me having the full high school experience. She endured relentless criticism by extended family who claimed she was being “stuck up” and “acting white” by sending us to private schools. She persisted. Throughout her life, even though she didn’t have a “formal” education, she believed that it offered a magical key to a door that blocked entrances and opportunities for her. Having identified what she believed to be the key to success, she desperately wanted to place it in our hands.

Being raised poor, and having little resources, we worked at the kitchen table, not a desk; we had pencils Mom sharpened with a knife, making our Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils look like tiny trees, as a pencil sharpener would make an appearance later in our lives. Since she could not afford the entire Grolier’s Encyclopedia set all at once, my sister and I would have to painfully pore over one volume at a time until she could afford the next installment. One year for Christmas, she gifted us with blue and white typewriters because she knew we loved to write. I remember using both sides of every piece of paper I could get my hands on to write stories and poems. The last day of school was the worst day for me as while other children were chanting “no more pencils…!” I could be found sobbing inconsolably in the school’s parking lot. I would rummage through the school trash for unfinished workbooks and half used notebooks that had been tossed away by carefree students. I loved school, and it was all my Mother’s fault, really because education was the only world I ever knew, and it was what my Mother revealed to me. Mom would work late night shifts and arrive back home while my sister and I carefully slipped the Catholic school uniforms over our heads. There were only two uniforms for each of us as the cost was exorbitant, so we had to be very careful not to soil what we had. This type of “secret survival” is what so many first-generation students of color I’ve interviewed and worked with, have experienced. The last thing I needed was for someone to fabricate a prediction of my worth that←2 | 3→ did not match my potential, and my Mother knew that, so she anticipated obstacles and prepared us for them.

I remember walking down the stairs in the direction of my breakfast cereal to find my math workbook in its company, conveniently opened to the page with an unfinished math problem. I could feel the burning in my cheeks as I anticipated the inevitable lecture and Spanish inquisition that would follow. “Why isn’t this done?! You have to finish what you started!” and “Your book cover is dirty! Your name is on that—if your name is on something, it has to be clean!” Not only did my work have to be impeccable, my work had to be immaculate. My name on inferior or unclear work was a statement of collusion, and my Mother would have none of it. It was more than protection of my reputation. My Mother understood that as someone who inhabited a female body, and a body of color, that I had several strikes against me, and she knew as she would warn us “do you know what they think about Puerto Ricans?!, that we would always have to work twice as hard and be twice as good than our white peers. She pushed us in school, and she pushed hard.

“Report card” day was a dreaded day for me, as I would hand my report card to my Mother who would look over every grade and whether or not it had risen or fallen. Occasionally, she’d peer over the card to look at me, and I endured the inquisition again. “This was a B+, why is it a B?” These weren’t questions she actually expected me to answer as I had no defense. In the last quarter of the eighth grade, I handed her a report card with something she had not seen in the eight years prior—it was a report card bursting at the crease with A’s and A+’s. I remember puffing my chest out a little as I handed it to her and remember thinking “She can’t say anything about this one.” She took the card and peered over it occasionally, before saying “Why aren’t these all A+s?” I’d like to think she was kidding, but I know better.

Despite wanting to run away from home and join a circus for academic underachievers, I did very well in high school and gained admission to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. I didn’t know Smith College had existed before Sr. Margaret, my English teacher approached the boys in my class to see if they wanted to attend the Smith Summer Science Program. Sr. Margaret’s nephew was a professor at Smith, and he had sent her a flyer that she was now circulating to my male peers. I remember glowering at the boys and wishing that I could have a summer in Massachusetts, studying science at a college. When she realized that Smith was a women’s college,1 she approached the girls. The program was in its pilot year, and I immediately started filling out the forms and completing the essay. I would later be shown←3 | 4→ the essay I had written in 1990, and I could not believe my eyes. I had written about how I eventually wanted to be a Flight Surgeon for the United States Navy, and how I intended on being the best one. Not knowing my audience, I was totally speaking to the Smith College mission for women’s education and excellence. I never told my Mom that I was applying to the program. In my teenage brain, I decided that I didn’t need to tell her I was applying, I only needed to tell her if I got in. That spring, a large white envelope addressed to me was mailed to my home. I got in. Then my teenage brain rationalized that I only needed to tell her I got in if I won the scholarship I applied for. When I received word that I had secured a full scholarship to the month-long program, it was time to fess up. I had momentarily considered not telling her at all, demurring and writing back to the SSSP to say “thanks, but no thanks” and keeping the secret of what I had attempted to do. But I knew that attending the Smith Summer Science Program was something I had to do. Not only did I get a full scholarship, I was also placed in my top-pick of classes, a biology course where I would study newts, and a psychology course where I would learn about the theories of racism. So, I swallowed hard, and marched up to my unsuspecting Mother. I had to listen to the rapid-fire Spanish she spoke when she was really angry, but it subsided once I explained that I was going to a college, and that it was all “girls,” and that it could help me when it was time to apply to colleges. None of us had any idea what Smith College actually was. How could we?

On the first day of the program, my family drove me to Northampton, and my Mom wore a pink dress and heels while other parents were casually dressed in shorts, t-shirts, and tennis shoes. After all, this was a summer camp, but it was still a college and no one in my family had ever gone away to a camp or to a college. This would be one of the earlier lessons about being first-generation. I immediately fell in love with the campus with its gardens, ponds, and Gothic-style buildings. I was in awe of the fact that I would spend the month with a house full of girls, who like me, were good students and loved to learn. The resources available at the College were unlike anything I had ever seen. Summer participants would be working with multi-million-dollar equipment and when we were asked to provide a list of materials we needed to conduct our experiments, we got everything on our list. This was a stark contrast to what I was used to in my own education. Earlier that year in my biology class, Mr. McDonough had wanted to have us perform dissections on frogs. The problem was that we didn’t have any frogs to dissect, and purchasing such items was not in our school budget. One afternoon while cleaning, Mr. Mc←4 | 5→Donough found a bucket of frogs deep within the biology supply closet. The bucket was from the 1960s, but since they were in formaldehyde, Mr. McDonough said they could be used. I still remember the smell as I walked into the cafeteria to identify the internal parts of a frog for our exam. Since there weren’t enough frogs for all sections of biology to dissect, and since there was a steep economic price for any errors, Mr. McDonough had dissected the few frogs himself. At Smith, the leaders were all college-aged women who would be mentors and like big sisters. I was in love with the campus, but I also had to adjust to the culture shock. Compared to the residents of Jersey City, the residents of Northampton were extremely friendly, with their good morning greetings and wishes for me to have a nice day. Falling asleep on the quiet campus, and without the background sounds of garbage trucks, speeding cars and city busses, was a challenge that would take quite some time to overcome. I was homesick for about the first half of the program, and then it would be time for me to recreate the scene from the last day of school, inconsolable and in tears. After completing the program, I decided not only that I wanted to go to Smith College, I needed to go.

I was the first person to go to college, and again, my Mother had to endure the criticism of her family “only white people kick their kids out of the house.” As my extended family would try to dress me down by charging me with the offense of “acting white” for reading and loving school, they were also penalizing my Mother for the audacity to support my admission to college. As a first-generation student of color at a highly selective college, everything was a challenge for me from reading the menus (“what’s gnocchi?”) to buying books and watching parents write $10,000 checks for their daughters to give them “pocket change” while I earned $60 a week from my work-study job. When I feared the price of books or the meeting I would have with the bursar, I would call Mom for a pep talk. Those talks spurred me on and reminded me of the finish line. My family had never attended a college graduation, and they experienced a bit of culture shock as we walked past college houses toward the Quad with parking lots adorned with brand new cars awaiting their new owners. My Mother apologized for not being in the financial position to purchase a brand-new car for me. She sat with my family as she watched the procession of faculty and dignitaries invited to participate in the ceremony, and later had questions about the colorful robes and the “funny hats.” I was absolutely in love with being a college student, so I had studied academic regalia and informed my Mother that the color of the robes signified where the professor had attended college, and the color of their hoods was indicative of their field←5 | 6→ of study. As for the “funny hats,” I explained that they were called “tams” and part of doctoral academic regalia. Her next fixation was on when I would get one of the “funny hats.”

As family members took their daughters to lunch after Commencement, my Mother offered to buy me a sandwich from Subway. Through lunch, she seemed to be absorbing the enormity of not only what she had just witnessed, but hopefully, what she had also made possible. When I graduated from Smith College (again) with my Master of Arts in Teaching, my family was ready, throwing a graduation party with a traditional Puerto Rican meal. While the graduation menu had changed, my Mother’s continued interrogation about the schedule for the “funny hat” did not. Three years after graduating from my master’s program, I gained admission to the Social Justice Education doctoral program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Students aren’t the only ones in education who experience being first-generation; families have a parallel experience and also have to learn new vocabulary and ways of being. Unfortunately, sometimes education creates a chasm when it should create a bridge, and families can get lost in that terrain. I knew that all I had to tell Mom about my doctoral application process was that I was going after the “funny hat,” and I also added that I would be “done with school after this!” The fact that her child would attain the highest educational degree possible, that I would be “Dr. Matos” was something that made Mom puff out her chest as I had done when I handed her my eighth grade report card. During the five years it took me to complete my degree, Mom would call to make sure that I had eaten breakfast before classes “you know you can’t learn on an empty stomach,” she would advise. When I questioned my pluck to be able to become a Doctor of Education, her “¡si se puede!” attitude kept me going. The graduation party outdid the master’s degree party, and I wore my rented regalia for her for the duration. At the end of the day, I took the funny hat off of my head, and tenderly placed it in her hands.

“This is yours. You earned it.” I said.

My story of having a single parent Latina Mother who was invested in and dedicated to my education is not unique. I learned this as I was conducting a pilot study with Latina students. Story after story, I heard about a mother or a father who gave up a professional career in another country, so their daughter could have an education in the United States. I heard about dreaded report card days where mothers scrutinized every letter and every point. I heard about students being cheered on in their educational careers by blood and extended families. I heard about families who could not get their children←6 | 7→ to school but utilized the Latinx2 social network to make magic happen. I heard about education creating an abyss and sat with participants as we both tried to figure out how to traverse that landscape. The question that arose in my researcher’s mind was “why?” Why was it that my story from 40 years ago in New Jersey and emerging stories from students from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, Boston, Texas, California and beyond, were not being told?

Despite the booming Latinx population in the United States, as I will describe further in this chapter, there exists a master narrative fabricated from fear and disseminated through stereotypes that Latinxs are responsible for their own social ills. These falsehoods suggest that they possess deficits in their desire to strive for upward mobility and are deficient in their family values, and lacking in social capital. Additionally, this story excuses the system of oppression in creating inequality and scapegoats Latinx families. I have seen this in the literature on Latinx parents, and I have witnessed it first-hand as a high school teacher. Colleagues would bemoan low attendance rates at open houses and would be unabashed in claiming “those parents just don’t care” and then stare wide-eyed at my classroom, all abuzz with Latinx parents and caregivers, grandparents, and siblings. “Those parents,” you see, had been called at home, with news of praise I shared over their child’s accomplishments. The good grade, the improved grade, the helpfulness, the leadership, was all described to them, without a subscription to the belief that there were “those” kids and “good” kids. All parents and caregivers were members of my community. All students were my students.

Research Studies

As you will see in the pages that follow in this book, there is not one way to be a student, nor is there one way to be a parent. This book provides background on the notion of parental engagement, as well as the how and why of how Latinx parental engagement is viewed and valued differently when compared to white parental engagement. More than anything, this book is a collection of stories in two-parts with narratives from Latinx college students and narratives from Latinx parents.←7 | 8→

Dissertation Research

My dissertation research was collected in two steps. First, I conducted a pilot study at a private women’s college in the Northeast. I wanted to understand what Latinx parental engagement looked like for other Latinx academics. I had believed that my Mother’s parenting strategies of book bag searches and obsession over education was unique to her. As I conducted semi-structured interviews with members of the Latina organization on campus, I soon realized that I was learning not of exclusive parenting styles, but of a phenomenon in Latinx parental engagement in education. One participant shared that her parents drugged her and her sister, hid them in the spare tire compartment of the family car and crossed the border. When I asked what would have possessed her parents to go to such extremes, she told me that her parents knew they could get a better education in the United States. Another shared how her parents held advanced degrees and were professionals in their country of origin, making good money and enjoying the status and privileges that come with professional careers, and abandoning that so that she could have a better education in the United States. As I listened to each story, I wondered how it was possible that women from Texas, Illinois, Massachusetts, California, New York, and New Jersey shared stories similar to mine. My curiosity begged me to further understand how these narratives were not a part of the national dialogue on parental engagement. This led me to my dissertation research.

For the pilot study, I used a private women’s college as the research site, and I went in merely wanting to know what their parents taught them about education. After reading “Whose Culture has Capital?” by Tara Yosso, I learned about six forms of capital transmitted by Latinx parents to their children.

1. Aspirational capital is described as a form of capital that encourages children to hold on to their hopes and dreams despite obstacles, and is expressed in its “¡Si se puede” attitude.

2. Familial capital is manifested in connections with family and extended family.

3. Linguistic capital is sometimes viewed as a deficit in schools, bit is actually an asset as students employ storytelling and utilization of memorization, attention to detail, dramatic pauses, comedic timing, facial affect, vocal tone, volume, rhythm and rhyme.

4. Navigational capital pertains to fortifying children with inner resources and resilience that empower their children to endure stressful events and hostile environments.←8 | 9→

5. Resistance capital is explained as lessons that teach children the skills of oppositional behavior to challenge inequality.

6. Social capital utilizes social networks to obtain resources needed for their children to experience positive educational outcomes.

Armed with this new knowledge, I was curious to see what forms of capital (if any) Latinx students decided to bring with them. In my years of wearing different hats in student affairs positions, I knew that some students took their presence at a college as an opportunity to shed what they had learned at home to reinvent themselves. I remember when I returned home from college for the first big holiday break, my announcement that I now liked tofu and was trying to be a vegetarian created quite the scandal. A refusal to eat meat—especially during a family holiday—was as close to treason as I dared to get.

In my capacities as an Area Coordinator, Associate Director of Residence Life, Director of Multicultural Affairs, Assistant Dean of Students, Advisor to Latinx Students, and college course instructor, I worked with college students in many different capacities and had a front-row seat to how they changed from timid first years to bold seniors and became their own people in the process. If Latinx parents transmitted capital as Yosso suggested, how much did that capital “stick” once the children left home?

I wanted my dissertation research to be as comprehensive as possible, and so I decided to examine this question at different educational sites. Data were collected from three educational institutions in the Northeast: a selective all-women’s college, a community college, and a large university. I recruited participants for this study by reaching out to personal contacts at the three institutions and recruited college students who were at least second semester first year students and older, who identified as Latinx, and who were raised by a Latinx parent or caretaker. I held three focus groups (one at each institution) and conducted over 30 individual interviews across all three sites. Individual interviews were 90-minute semi-structured interviews. Each research site and subsequent findings from those sites are further described in chapters five, six, and seven.

The whole process was emotional and deeply personal to me as much of what participants shared with me resonated with my own experience as a lifelong learner and as a Latinx-identified person. Participants laughed through interviews, some cried and had to pause to collect themselves. The interviews also exhausted me as story after story I had to bear witness to hope in the face of a dire and relentless system of oppression, while recalling my own story. I←9 | 10→ remember sitting straight up in bed one night, frustrated with the dissertation and data collection process, feeling like I didn’t need to subject myself to this academic hazing, that I was smart enough to just find a job that I didn’t have to take home, and that would pay me well. I asked my spouse at the time, to help me understand why I had chosen to torture myself. She reminded me that I had wanted to get a doctorate, and that it had been a long-standing dream of mine to secure the highest educational degree possible. I replied that those reasons were not enough for me to go to sleep at 10 pm and wake up at 3 am every day, to write, to teach, to collect data, and repeat. After thinking for a moment, I turned to her and said, “No, that’s not it. I promised them all that I would tell their stories. I promised.” With that, I shoved the covers off of my body, pulled on a sweatshirt and went to my study to keep my promise.

The stories that emerge from this first data set that I have collected come from college student participants who shared the social capital they learned from their parents, and how those lessons manifest in college. Within these narratives, students shared two additional forms of capital (replication of familial capital and “finishing”) that provide depth to the paths their parents’ sacrifices started them on and show just how powerful Latinx stories are. They shared stories about their afterschool routines and the messages received and lessons learned from their parents regarding education. What I found to be particularly fascinating was that since my dissertation was published in August of 2011, it has been downloaded almost 800 times from places like Amsterdam, Turkey, Greece, Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa, Pakistan, Moscow, the Philippines, China, the United Kingdom, Germany, Ethiopia, the Netherlands, and Australia to Texas, Colorado, California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and beyond, and it has been downloaded by governmental, educational, health, and commercial organizations in the U.S.. Upon seeing the readership that my published dissertation had, I wanted to put this information in the hands of more people to be more accessible, and the information contained within to be as helpful as possible, to as many as possible. With this goal in mind, I approached Peter Lang Publishing with my book proposal.

Post-Doctoral Research

The dissertation research process fully immersed me in the narratives of Latinx college students and cultural capital. Now, as researchers are apt to do, I have a new research question. If Latinx parents from different Latinx ethnicities share similar parenting strategies regarding education, is it possible that←10 | 11→ the Latinx value for education is an inherent trait? Initial findings on that topic will be discussed later in this book. Having updated my doctoral research since 2011, I worked with Mount Holyoke College students Mari Santiago, Daisy Reyes, Emely Minino Soto, Nicole Lara Granados, Maria Maria Castillo, Estefhani Tavarez, and Julia Montiel on collecting data from Puerto Rican parents in Holyoke, Massachusetts and a barrio called Playita in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The data collection process for the new research sites is reviewed again in chapter eight. I would also like to add that data collection from my doctoral research as well as the Massachusetts and Puerto Rico sites disproportionately represents cisgender Latina women. While I employed various recruitment tactics, time and again, women were the ones responding to the calls for participants. I do not largely refer to this group as Latinas, but instead use Latinx a controversial and relatively new term that is gender inclusive and does not conform to the notion of a gender binary. I realize that not all readers might be comfortable or supportive of the inclusion of this designation, however, in the interest of gender inclusivity, I have chosen this option.

To recruit participants in Holyoke, Mari and Daisy used their personal networks and connections within the Holyoke Public School system to advertise the study and gain access to participants. Through the generosity of the Harap Family and Harap fund available to student researchers at Mount Holyoke College (MHC) and recognizing that Latinx narratives have traditionally been exploited and appropriated, we were able to compensate each participant with a small amount of cash, and food and transportation to the focus group event. Mari recruited and interviewed parents who had children in high school, and Daisy recruited and interviewed parents who had children in elementary and middle schools. The individual interviews were 90-minute semi-structured interviews that took place in locations familiar and accessible to parents in Holyoke. Both Mari and Daisy facilitated the focus group.

Emely and Nicole called parents in Playita, who were listed as primary contacts for student participants in a Mount Holyoke College sponsored Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) program in the summer of 2018.3 They acquired verbal consent for participation over the phone and conducted semi-structured interviews. Questions covered messages that parents had received about education from their own parents, their post-school routines, and expectations regarding homework and school performance. Parents were also asked about the messages they impart to their children, what they believe to be the role of the classroom teacher, and how they feel that they support the teacher while the student is at home. Parents in Holy←11 | 12→oke were also asked these questions, however, the questions that the Playita parents were asked differed in that they were first asked about their general impressions of the summer program. Unfortunately, I was not able to secure funding nor was there a reasonable way to compensate Playita parents. Data will also be collected in person in Playita in the summer of 2019, at which time I hope to be able to offer participants monetary compensation for their time. Interview questions were asked by Emely, and Nicole transcribed the responses. Coordinating interviews off site and at such a distance served as a disadvantage. Under other circumstances, I would have requested a virtual conference call, however, many of the families we worked with in Playita do not have access to home computing systems, and some do not have internet access or support with operating web conferencing systems.

This book does not claim that all Latinx families are involved or invested in education, just as not all white parents are involved or invested in education. Merely, it establishes a pattern and way of being that is a common thread in the literature and my research. Additionally, this book is not intended to be a quick remedy for educators and administrators who might feel that in reading this, they can check off the “diversity” box. This book is intended to begin a dialogue and does not tell you about all Latinx families. I have done my best to make this book accessible, and not filled with terminology that perpetuates an academic divide. I struggled between using jargon and furthering a stereotype that Latinx people don’t possess the intellectual curiosity to deepen their own learning. My own Mother carried a pocketbook-sized dictionary with her until the day she died, and I know that the Latinx desire to learn doesn’t end with her.

The discovery of the strengths, brilliance, and warmth of Latinx students and the people who love and care for them, is a life-long discovery and I welcome you in this journey.

Latinxs in U.S. Education

For the first four years of my life, I thought that I was Italian. We lived on the corner of Fourth and Monmouth Streets in Jersey City, New Jersey, which was an Italian neighborhood. My Spanish-speaking Mother would speak to Victoria Romaniello in Spanish, and she’d respond in Italian, and they understood each other. I thought they were speaking the same language. In school, I would learn to dance the tarantella, and I knew all of the words to “Tu Scendi←12 | 13→ Dalle Stelle,” and I would sing to the Italian women on our block, one hand on my chest and the other arm outstretched, with my eyes always closed because I was feeling it. The Italian women would give me crisp one-dollar bills and pinch my fluffy cheeks. Hard. I was taught my ABCs by Theresa Sutter, the paraplegic woman we lived with. Taking care of her daily needs served as rent paid by my Mother and cousin, “Gokie.” I called Theresa “Tessie” and she would allow me to sit with her in her room while “All My Children” was on in the background. I was only allowed to speak during commercials. In between the trials and tribulations of the people of “Pine Valley” and the romantic escapades of Erica Kane, she taught me the alphabet. My Mother was a seamstress and would sew for a man named Lenny who owned a factory in Hoboken. If my education was volleyball, Tessie served the ball and Mom hit it over the net. I remember my Mother fussing over me one sunny morning because we had to meet Sr. Irma Papaleo, M.P.F., the Principal of the Holy Rosary School, which was only a few blocks away. “The nun is going to give you a test,” Mom said as she fixed my collar. “And if you pass the test, you can start kindergarten this year.”

I remember how the foyer of the school smelled like it had been freshly mopped. My Mother held my hand as we climbed the shiny staircase that led to the third floor. After announcing ourselves to Ann Piazza, the secretary, I was led—alone—to the office of Sr. Irma. I don’t remember her being particularly warm, but I do remember that this test seemed like a big deal.

“Which way is up?” I lifted my chubby cheeks to the sky as she gave the next set of instructions. “Which way is down?” I dropped my head down and stared at a sunny spot on the floor. “Show me your right hand.” I raised my right hand. “Show me your left hand.” I lifted my left hand. “Mmm hmm” she said cryptically while she wrote something down in her notebook, closed it, and opened the door to the room where my Mother had been waiting. Mom seemed relieved when Sr. Irma announced that I could start kindergarten in the fall. I was four years old.

In the present-day, children have technology and apps and they seem to know their ABCs, but in the days before the Internet and before televisions had remote controls, it seemed that the alphabet was something you learned in school. My kindergarten teacher was Sr. Grace De Mundo, M.P.F., a round woman with thick eyeglass lenses. As she used her pointer to direct our attention to each letter of the alphabet, my hand shot up like a rocket. After all, the alphabet was already an old friend. I was told to stop raising my hand because it would make the other kids feel bad. Eight years later, I was told that←13 | 14→ the school had decided that I would share the scholarship I had won with the smartest white boy in class so he wouldn’t “feel bad.” Now I find myself wondering what it would have been like if the school allowed the smartest student to be Puerto Rican.

Latinxs and Institutional Discrimination

The first lessons I learned about racism I learned forty years ago, at the age of four. Girls I considered to be friends would tell me “I’m not allowed to have Puerto Ricans at my house. But my mom says it’s ok for you to come over because you’re not like those Puerto Ricans.” If parents were harboring racist sentiments, I shudder to think what the teachers thought of me. Teachers are human beings, and human beings are socialized by the people who care for us, and for better or worse, they teach us what they know. Anti-Latinx sentiments scar the history of this Country with stories of colonization, violence, and segregation with stereotypes used as systemic justification for racial oppression. Just as Irish immigrants were met with “no Irish need apply” signs, Mexicans faced signs that read “no dogs or Mexicans allowed in this restaurant.” Puerto Ricans also faced sentiments that furthered racial animus with signs that read “no blacks, no dogs, no Puerto Ricans” (Mitchell, 2014). Between 1930–1960, the United States government addressed the issue of “overpopulation” of Puerto Ricans by sterilizing Puerto Rican women without their knowledge or consent in what Puerto Rican women referred to as “la operación” (Acosta-Belén & Santiago, 2018). In 1931, during the period of the Great Depression, immigration agents accosted Mexican-Americans—regardless of citizenship status—and deported them to Mexico. People with Mexican heritage were seen as stealing jobs from Americans, and 2 million Mexican-Americans were deported at the end of 1936 (Blakemore, 2017). Mexican-Americans were barred from sitting in a movie theater anywhere except the balcony and were prohibited from using public swimming pools on weekends when they were being used by white people. They were allowed access to public swimming facilities on Mondays, after which time pools were drained and refilled for white patrons. (Echavarri & Bishop, 2016). Schools were also segregated, and before the infamous Brown v. The Board of Education case that ruled school segregation based on race was unconstitutional, there was Mendez v. Westminster. During the two-week-long Mendez case, school officials attempted to provide a rationale for racial segregation in Orange County Schools by saying “Latino students were dirty and infected←14 | 15→ with diseases that put students at risk.” One school official said that “Mexicans are inferior in personal hygiene, ability, and in their economic outlook” (Blakemore, 2017). The Mendez v. Westminster class action lawsuit ended de jure segregation in California in 1947 and paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 as some of the arguments used to win Brown were used in the Mendez case.

While landmark cases have ended segregation in schools, U.S. public schools are still segregated, and racist sentiments, policies, and practices, have profound effects on Latinx students. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, approximately 56.6% of Latinxs were reported living in the U.S. (Pew Research Center, 2016), and half of second generation Latinxs are bilingual (Pew Research Center, 2015). In 2016, 52% of Latinxs surveyed by the Pew Research Center reported that they had experienced racial discrimination (Pew Research Center, 2016).

Current Statistics on Latinxs in the United States

According to U.S. Census Data, as of July 1, 2017, 58.9 million Latinxs resided in the United States, making them 18.1% of the nation’s total population. The U.S. Census reported that as of July 1, 2016, 57.5 million Latinxs resided in the U.S. creating a 2% increase between 2015 and 2016. In this time frame, 1,131,766 million Latinxs were added to the U.S. population that accounted for more than half of the country’s 2.2 million people added during this time frame. By the year 2060, at 119 million people projected, Latinxs will make up 28.6% of the nation’s population. In 2016, the U.S. Census reported that 40 million U.S. residents aged 5 years and older spoke Spanish at home, which is a 133.4% increase since 1990. Latinx students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade made up 24.7% of the population, and 17.4% of Latinxs accounted for both undergraduate and graduate level enrollment. According to the National Center for Education Statistics 2017 Report, “between fall 2003 and fall 2013, the percentage of students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools decreased for students who were white (from 59% to 50%) and Black (from 17% to 16%). In contrast, the percentage increased for students who were Hispanic (from 19% to 25%) and Asian/Pacific Islander (from 4% to 5%) during the same time period.” By 2025, Latinx students will account for 29% of students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade (NCES, 2017).

The fact that the Latinx population in the U.S. continues to boom is unrefuted, but what has to be addressed is how to adequately care for, edu←15 | 16→cate, and support this rising population. The Latinx student population is still grossly disproportionate to the resources they have to succeed. Over time, Latinx students are making progress in mathematics and literacy, but so are white students, meaning that the “achievement gap” isn’t narrowing. In 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the Latinx student dropout rate was 9.1% compared to an overall dropout rate of 5.8% (NCES, 2016). Possible reasons for Latinx dropout rates are the hostile environments that Latinx students inhabit while in educational settings. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of California at Los Angeles wanted to examine how discrimination affected school performance, particularly school attendance and grades. In 2011 they published a study in Child Development. This published work, “Latino Adolescents’ Experiences of Discrimination Across the First Two Years of High School: Correlates and Influences on Educational Outcomes” utilized collected data from 668 Latinx student questionnaires. Student participants were in the ninth and tenth grades. One of the findings of the study found that “greater levels of discrimination and sharper increases in discrimination were associated with poorer perceptions of school climate at the end of 10th grade; this perception of school climate was found to be a predictor of students’ grade point averages and total absences at the end of 10th grade.” Researchers also stated that “experiences with discrimination are recognized as a major stressor that can take their toll on physical and mental health of ethnic minority youth as well as adults” (Benner & Graham, 2011).

Research on teacher perceptions of Latinx students is also deeply troubling. Teachers given the kindergarten Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) were asked to assess the proficiency and readiness of their students in math and literacy. According to Reardon and Galindo (2003), regardless of student academic aptitude, teachers rated Latinx students lower than white students. Research by Finn (1989) shows a connection between students’ sense of belonging and connection within their schools. Students who experienced an internal sense of belonging were more likely to participate in school. Payne (1994) and Valenzuela (1999) found that negative teacher perceptions and stereotypes had an adverse effect on a student’s capacity for learning. They found that respect and a demonstration for student learning was related to student academic success. Mexican American students felt relief when they were not with their teachers who they believed harbored disparaging sentiments about them (Martinez, 2003). Teacher bias is a contributing factor to Latinx student detachment, and when a Latinx student feels that their teach←16 | 17→er, the person primarily responsible for assessing their work and determining their value, neither respects nor cares for them, student ability to realize the importance of their academic work is impacted (Schneider, Martinez, & Owens, 2006). Additionally, Latinx public school teachers are grossly underrepresented in the teaching profession. The 2007–2008 Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) reports that Latinx teachers make up only 7% of the teaching workforce in public schools and 6% of the teaching force in private schools (NCES, 2007).

If hostile environments and teacher bias are some of the contributing factors for Latinx dropout rates and student disengagement, what can be done to keep Latinx students in school? I argue that there exists an underutilized resource in Latinx student academic achievement. In the pages of this book, I assert that la familia—the network of blood related and extended family—is the secret ingredient for Latinx student academic success. Current national discourse regarding Latinxs echoes Great Depression-era rhetoric of Latinxs as lazy and dangerous interlopers threatening to steal American jobs. Deportations and incarcerations of Latinx peoples are alive and well, as are crimes against Latinxs. According to an NPR story, hate crimes against Latinxs rose by more than 50% in the State of California alone in 2016 (Hinojosa, 2018). Disparaging and racist stereotypes regarding Latinxs abound in the current day and Latinxs are viewed and regarded from a deficit perspective. This book holds as its analytic framework, deficit theory, Critical Race Theory (CRT), Latino Critical Race Theory (LatCrit), and culture of wealth theory. To make the contents of this book accessible and useful to as large an audience as possible, I will explain these analytical frameworks in the following chapters. I will also explain the assets that Latinx students and families bring to educational spaces and why those contributions are invisible. As this book is about familia—the secret ingredient in Latinx academic resilience and success, I will begin by explaining parental engagement to provide a common understanding and vocabulary to facilitate a dialogue from this book. I will also explain how Latinx parents understand and manifest parental engagement and why those contributions are invisible. Data collected and analyzed from my research with Latinx college students will be discussed. Their voices illuminate the contributions and importance of familia in college academic success. I will also share new data from studies conducted with parents in Holyoke, Massachusetts and the barrio of Playita in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Finally, I will share suggestions for practical applications of concepts in this book to the areas of education and educational administration.←17 | 18→


1. Smith College is a gender inclusive college that also admits transgender men.

2. Author’s choice to use Latinx, a more gender inclusive version of Latina/o.

3. This program is described in further detail in Chapter 8.


Acosta-Belén, E., & Santiago, C. E. (2018). Puerto Ricans in the United States: A contemporary portrait. (2nd ed.). London: Lynne Rienner.

Benner, A. D., & Graham, S. (March-April 2011). Latino adolescents’ experiences of discrimination across the first two years of high school: Correlates and influences on educational outcomes. Child Development, 82(2), 508–519.

Blakemore, E. (2017, September 27). The brutal history of anti-Latino discrimination in America. History. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/the-brutal-history-of-anti-latino-discrimination-in-america

Echavarri, F., & Bishop, M. (Hosts). (2016, March 11). “No Mexicans Allowed”: School segregation in the Southwest [Radio broadcast episode]. https://www.npr.org/2016/03/11/

Finn, D. J. (1989). Withdrawing from school. Review of Educational Research, 59(2), 117–142.

Hinojosa, M. (Host). (2018, July 15). Hate crimes against Latinos increase in California [Radio broadcast episode]. https://www.npr.org/2018/07/15/629212976/hate-crimes-against-latinos-increase-in-california

Martinez, S. (2003). Explaining patterns of disengagement of Mexican Americans in high school. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Chicago, Chicago, IL.

Mitchell, P. R. (2014). History of Latinos: Exploring diverse roots. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC.

National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. (2007). Schools and staffing survey. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sass/tables/sass0708_029_t12n.asp

National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. (2016). Trends in dropout and completion rates in the United States: Indicator 3 status dropout rate. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/dropout/ind_03.asp

National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. (2017). Status and trends in the education of racial and ethnic groups: Indicator 6 elementary and secondary enrollment. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_rbb.asp

Payne, K. (1994). Influences on parental choice of children’s early educational experiences. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.

Pew Research Center. (2015). A majority of English-speaking Hispanics in the U.S. are bilingual. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/03/24/a-majority-of-english-speaking-hispanics-in-the-u-s-are-bilingual/←18 | 19→

Pew Research Center. (2016). Roughly half of Hispanics have experienced discrimination. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/29/roughly-half-of-hispanics-have-experienced-discrimination/

Reardon, S., & Galindo, C. (2003). Hispanic children and the initial transition to schooling: Evidence from the early childhood longitudinal study. Presentation to the National Academies/National Research Council, Panel on Hispanics in the United States.

Schneider, B., Martinez, S., & Owens, A. (2006). Barriers to educational opportunities for Hispanics in the U.S. In M. Tienda (Ed.), Hispanics and the future of America. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2016). Hispanic Heritage Month 2016. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2016/cb16-ff16.html

U.S. Census Bureau. (2018). Hispanic Heritage Month 2018. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2018/hispanic-heritage-month.html

Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S. Mexican youth and the politics of caring. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Yosso, T. J. (2006). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. In A. Dixson, C. Rousseau, & J. K. Donnor (Eds.), Critical race theory in education: All God’s children got a song (pp. 113–136). New York, NY: Routledge.←19 | 20→ ←20 | 21→


What Is Parental Engagement?

I have chosen to examine Latinx parental engagement in part due to my membership in the Latinx social identity group and also because of the statistics regarding the Latinx population, educational outcomes, and the implications of those outcomes. According to the United States Census, Latinxs will become the nation’s largest ethnic majority by the year 2060, or sooner. In 2017, 23 % of babies born in the United States were Latinx, for a total of 898,764 children (Center for Disease Control & Prevention, 2018). As described in chapter one, the 2016 U.S. Census data show the booming Latinx population matches the increasing number of Latinx students enrolled in kindergarten to grade 12. Despite the burgeoning number of the Latinx population and Latinx students in schools, American public-school systems are ill-equipped to educate this diversity of students.

Latinx students lag behind their Black, Asian, and White peers when it comes to high school graduation rates. Analyses pertaining to graduation rates for Latinx students compared to white students show that Latinx student high school graduation rates are still lower than their white counterparts (NCES, 2017).

The system of oppression holds Latinxs accountable for their dire statistics concerning education and other social issues they face. In so doing, the←21 | 22→ system of oppression excuses itself by blaming the victim, refusing to question the circumstances it [the system] creates which oppress Latinxs. Simultaneously, while Latinxs are being viewed as “deficient,” the assets we bring to common areas, like education, are overlooked. There is robust literature on how Latinx students give their parents, caregivers, and community credit for their academic success. What I strive to do in this book is to examine Latinx parental engagement and how that engagement is utilized when students go to college. One of the strongest assets that Latinx students pack in their backpacks or suitcases when they head off to college are the lessons that they learned from their parents, caregivers, and community about who they are and where they come from. In order to understand the impact Latinx parents have on the long-term academic and occupational trajectories of their students, we have to understand Latinx parenting and the origins of the concept of parental engagement itself.

Understanding Parental Engagement

I started my education in the late 70s at the Holy Rosary School, a Catholic school in Jersey City, New Jersey. The school’s population was predominantly white, with families having attended the school for almost a century, and students were primarily first-generation Italian-American. Students came from a “traditional” family that consisted of married heterosexual parents who bore children who attended the school. Monetary collections were taken at the affiliated Church on Sundays, and attendance to determine who went to church and offered a donation, was taken in the school on Mondays. To offset the cost of tuition, parents had the option of volunteering to work at the weekly Bingo nights held by the parish. My Mother, being a single parent and in need of subsidized tuition, worked at the Bingo hall on nights she wasn’t scheduled to work at her paid position. As this was something she participated in so that we could continue attending that school, this was not viewed as parental engagement.

I recall other mothers acting as “class mothers” who would sometimes volunteer in the classroom, initiate the inclement weather “phone tree” and help serve lunch. This kind of participation was not an option for my Mother as her two—sometimes three—jobs would not permit it. My sister and I performed at many school plays, Christmas pageants and other events with no one in our audience, not because of a lack of caring on the part of my Mother,←22 | 23→ but due to the fact that her attendance at our performances took a back seat to the need to keep the lights on at home and to keep us in our school desks at Holy Rosary School. She did prioritize attending parent/teacher conferences because that is where she could hear how her investment in our education was paying off. Additionally, any feedback she received from the teacher during those conferences, also provided her with supplementary information she could use to continue to support the classroom teacher. If my teacher said I needed improvement in math, then Mom would prioritize my completion of math homework. Her participation at parent/teacher conferences was less daunting than her review of my report cards. She always returned home from parent/teacher conferences satisfied, having heard that we were diligent students, respectful, and smart. On one occasion that she would recall until the day she died, one of the nuns said, “your girls are so clean, they shine like new pennies.” My Mother took great pride in the fact that cleanliness (something she instilled in us early and frequently) was part of our academic reputation. I can’t imagine my reaction if someone were to claim that my Mother was not involved in my education due to her failure to attend Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meetings.

From my vantage point, she was constantly buzzing about education. Our book covers had to be immaculate. In August of every year, while I could hear my cousins playing outside and my extended family enjoying the barbecue, my sister and I were bathed and in bed by 7:30 pm while the sun was still out because my Mother was training us for an early bedtime for school. During the school year, breakfast was not optional because she always maintained that we needed full bellies for our brains to work in school. She once heard that cod liver oil “makes you smarter,” and I vividly remember shutting my eyes tightly as she came at me with a spoonful of the putrid white liquid. Yet, her participation in teacher/parent conferences and her behind-the-scenes involvement in our education was not viewed as parental engagement. If her parenting style wasn’t viewed as engaged, what then, did it mean to be an “engaged parent,” and who was able to be seen as “engaged”? Further, where did the notion of engaged parenting even come from?

Origins of “Parental Involvement”

The term “parental involvement” was more widely used than “parental engagement.” To be involved is to participate in, and to be engaged signifies meaningful contact or connection. For the purpose of this book, I have de←23 | 24→cided to use “parental engagement” because the narratives illustrated here demonstrate nothing short of committed, meaningful and connected engagement. Wherever the term “parental involvement” is used in this chapter, it is either the language used by specific researchers and reports or it is in reference to how the term parental involvement was being discussed and utilized. No matter the terminology, a parent’s engagement and how it is viewed and valued by a school system has implications for the student and their families. Important in the understanding of parental engagement is how the concept originated.

According to Harro’s (2008) “Cycle of Socialization,” human beings are born, as scholars such as John Locke would agree, as “blank slates.” It is not until we interact with those who are initially responsible for our overall well-being that the “slate” begins to take shape and we are socialized to live and operate within the world that surrounds us. Notice when a small child takes a tumble, they look up at their parents. I have noticed, unless a child is seriously hurt, that they gauge the level of their injury based on the reactions of their parents. I have seen with my own child and in observing other children, that if the parents look startled, the child cries. If the parents remain calm and reassure the child that they are okay, the child gets up and continues on. Anna, my daughter, now jumps up and declares “I’m okay!” after taking a spill. In this case, parents are our first teachers. They are not only responsible for our physical safety and nurturance, but they are also entrusted with the very earliest phases of our education, and in this respect, they teach us to have early interactions with the world around us. This view of the parent as having a critical impact on their children was echoed in the writings of theorists like Rosseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel. It was Pestalozzi, who in 1951, wrote that the mother is, “the first to nourish her child’s body, so should she, by God’s order, be the first to nourish his mind” (Berger, 1991, p. 26).

Given the influence parents had over the education of their children, three theories emerged in the United States that spoke to parental involvement. They were theories that were influenced by European views on education and child rearing and the inherent nature of children. The first theory addressed the Calvinist belief that children were willful, and that willfulness was influenced by an evil from within. Breaking children of this “infant depravity” required that parents used discipline and that children needed to be broken from their willfulness (Berger, 1991, p. 211). The second theory was informed by the beliefs and writings of the likes of Rosseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel, that supported the viewpoint that children were inherently good. Rosseau’s←24 | 25→ work had influenced Pestalozzi’s and this further informed Pestalozzi’s student, Froebel. Frobel, like his teacher before him, held a particular belief in the influence on the mother and wrote, “Thus maternal instinct and love gradually introduce the child to his little outside world, proceeding from the whole to the part, from the near, to the remote” (Froebel cited in Berger, 1991, p. 211). Froebel believed in the goodness of children and the importance that care derived from the family played. In U.S. education, the period from 1870–1890 brought with it an increase in kindergartens and an increase in parental involvement in education, and parental education.

It was Froebel’s kindergartens that would be brought to the United States by a “prominent German immigrant, Margarethe Schurz, and by Elizabeth Peabody and Henry Barnard. Barnard, secretary of the Connecticut Board of Education, and later, U.S. commissioner of education, and Peabody, a kindergarten advocate and a sister-in-law of Horace Mann, promoted the Froebelian kindergarten movement throughout the United States.” (p. 211)

The third theory was influenced by John Locke who believed that children were influenced by their environments, and he believed since children were influenced by their environment, intervention was therefore necessary (p. 212).

While the interests in kindergarten, childhood, and parental education programs were driven mainly from middle-class parents who were in line with the Rosseau, Pestalozzi and Froebelian views that children are inherently good; these programs were also a tool used for assimilation by “acculturating lower-class immigrant families into the mainstream culture” (p. 212). When immigrants arrived in the United States during the 1800s, kindergartens and programs like them were designed to ease the hardships of new Americans, to teach the newcomers of the “dominant culture’s ways,” and to indoctrinate immigrant parents with Americanized “moral and child rearing beliefs” (p. 212).

In the late 1800s, children’s education and parental education programs saw the emergence of organizations dedicated to the study and support of both children and parents in education. They were: The Child Study Association of America in 1888, which “committed itself solely to the study of children and the spreading of good parenting practices” (p. 212); the Congress of Parents and Teachers in 1897, now recognized as the PTA; and the National Association of Colored Women in 1897. By 1897, almost 100 years after the new immigrants arrived in the United States, there were over 400 Free Kindergarten Association Programs in the U.S. (p. 212).←25 | 26→

It was not long before the explosion of growth of these educational programs would be noticed by other professional organizations, researchers, public schools, and the U.S. government. With the national and governmental attention, the interest in children and children’s education was met with rapid legislation and action. In 1909, the federal government held the first White House conference on the Care of Dependent Children; in 1912, the Children’s Bureau was created; in 1914, the government published Infant Care. Infant Care was a pamphlet created to address the infant mortality rates. With mothers as its intended audience, from 1914 to its last issue in 1989 when it became Bright Futures the pamphlet provided information on everything from “cradle cap” to how to pass on cultural traditions. Also in 1914, the government passed the Smith-Lever Act, which provided 2,000 agents to inform individuals about home economics, agriculture and more; in 1917, they passed the Smith-Hughes Act, which supported child care and nutrition programs (Berger, 1991, p. 213).

By the 1920s, there were 26 major parent programs (p. 213). The decreased number of immigrants being allowed into the U.S. also decreased the need to mainstream immigrants. The parent programs in place “were not established for new arrivals. They met the needs of middle-class parents who formed study groups for their own enlightenment, or, in some cases, there were developed in response to a need for health information about tuberculosis or nutrition” (p. 213). In addition to the parental education program boom, the 1920s also saw a rapid increase of the numbers of parents in the PTA; new curricula for parental education groups; guides that covered mental health issues, nutrition, behavior, childhood development, discipline, and adolescent development (Berger, 1991); in 1925, the National Council of Parent Education; and the National Society for the Study of Education. As parent education became more professionalized, the roles of parents began to be defined as described by Zellman & Waterman (1988, p. 370):

[T]he parents’ role was dictated by the schools; ideally, parents would be helpers and supporters of what teachers and schools were doing. In particular, parents were encouraged to help with homework, join the PTA, provide merchandise for the bake sale and show up at times specified by the school, such as back to school night.

It is in the 1920s, with the professionalization of child and parent education programs and associations, that we see how parental involvement would be defined and manifested in schools.←26 | 27→

Parental involvement wasn’t merely professionalized, it was nationalized. With “buy in” from the national government, it seemed as U.S. support for children’s and parental education was unstoppable. With its ability to decide which groups to include and which groups to omit, and its publication and dissemination of parenting guides to mothers, established by theorists as a child’s first teacher, the government had the ability to shape what parenting looked like and defined what it was. The government now played a role in shaping how children would be raised and could tailor those practices. The paternalistic view of the government that they knew best how to rear children and could “teach” women and marginalized groups how to take care of their own babies is not new territory. The U.S. government has had a hand in the forced assimilation of Native Americans and African Americans, and the kidnapping of Native American children from their mothers to assimilate to U.S. culture (Rury, 2005). While funding was reduced to governmental programs with the stock market crash of 1929, parenting programs still received federal funding through the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II of the 1940s. In 1954, although Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, KS was upheld and presented an “opening” for statistical minorities, these marginalized parents would not have an opportunity to have an impact on child development and parental involvement until 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 would grant equal rights—according to the law—to statistical racial minorities, and 1965 would introduce the Head Start Program. This program took the needs of parents into consideration and “empowered parents to make decisions” (Berger, 1991, p. 215). One of the most influential pieces of legislation passed in 1965 would be one that would reach far into the future of children and U.S. education. That Act was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. The ESEA of 1965 was enacted on April 11, 1965 and originally authorized through 1970. It is reauthorized every five years, and the most recent iteration of the Act is what we know today as the “No Child Left Behind Act.” In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) reauthorized the ESEA, which authorizes funding for professional development, educational materials, funding for educational programs and initiatives such as programs that encourage parental involvement. In the NCLB Act, as with the ESEA, parental involvement is a required component that affects various state and federal education programs. In 2004, the Department of Education (DOE) produced a document from the NCLB defining parameters for educational funding titled: “Parental Involvement: Title I, Part A.” In this document, the←27 | 28→ DOE incorporated the National Parent Teacher Association’s (PTA) definition to define parental involvement on a federal level as:

A-1. What is parental involvement under No Child Left Behind?

Parental involvement always has been a centerpiece of Title I. However, for the first time in the history of the ESEA, it has a specific statutory definition. The statute defines parental involvement as the participation of parents in regular, two-way, and meaningful communication involving student academic learning and other school activities, including ensuring—that parents play an integral role in assisting their child’s learning; that parents are encouraged to be actively involved in their child’s education at school; that parents are full partners in their child’s education and are included, as appropriate, in decision-making and on advisory committees to assist in the education of their child; and that other activities are carried out, such as those described in section 1118 of the ESEA (Parental Involvement). [Section 9101(32), ESEA.]

According to this document:

[T]he new Title I, Part A is designed not only to help close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and minority students and their peers, but also to change the culture of America’s schools so that success is defined in terms of student achievement and schools invest in every child. As indicated by the parental involvement provisions in Title I, Part A, the involvement of parents in their children’s education and schools is critical to that process.

Under section A-1, parental involvement activities are further expounded and defined in section A-7 as:

A-7. What are the parental involvement provisions in section 1118 of the ESEA?


XVIII, 152
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2019 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XVIII, 152 pp., 6 tables

Biographical notes

Jennifer M. Matos (Author)

Jennifer M. Matos is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. She teaches courses on racism, oppression and education, self-awareness, and teacher preparation. She is a graduate of the UMASS Amherst Social Justice Education program.


Title: La Familia and Other Secret Ingredients to Latinx Student Success