Navigating the Highs & Lows as One of the Few Latinas in Grad School

There aren't a lot of Latinas in grad school so it's up to me to show up in the classroom

Latina grad school

Photo: Pexels/Andrea Piacquadio

Being a Latina in school at any point in the education system can be difficult. In elementary and middle school, there weren’t a lot of kids who looked like me, which made me embarrassed of everything about myself from my Spanish-sounding last name to the bean burritos and tostadas my mom would pack me for lunch – everything made me feel othered. In high school, I was lucky enough to be classmates with a majority population of kids of color. But I still had to hold onto my identity as a first-gen Chicana, as if it was something I had to earn, because suddenly I felt I had to prove that I was Latina when other kids were fluent in Spanish and I wasn’t, or knew more about our history and culture than I did. In undergrad, it was like I had taken several steps back again when I found myself rubbing shoulders with rich, white students, and the only way I could survive was by holding on tight to my culture with full force including becoming a chair for the Latinx student union. Over the past 20 years of my life, I’ve been a ping-pong ball going constantly between two vastly different experiences that has made it difficult for me to embrace who I am regardless of the type of room I’m in.

Three years after graduating from undergrad, I decided it was the perfect time to start pursuing my master’s, which has been a long-time dream of mine. So over the summer, I applied to a few schools. By November, I was accepted into a Library and Information Science program, which is the degree you need to become a librarian, becoming the second person in my family to pursue a master’s degree and the first to ever pursue this kind of degree. I decided to attend an online version of the program for several reasons. One: because the school is on the East Coast and I had no intention of moving across the country and away from my family. Two: because I could keep working and go to school at the same time, allowing my classes to fit into my schedule rather than the other way around. And finally, I had this hope that because the classes were remote, they would be more accessible to students from anywhere in the world and offer a more diverse population of students across state and even national borders.

But when I attended my first class, I realized I could not have been more wrong, seeing that the majority of my classmates were white or white-passing, with very few Black and Latinx students, and no Asian or Indigenous students, in the room. Suddenly, I felt an overwhelming sense of frustration at the idea that it’d been 20 years since I entered preschool, and yet I felt exactly the same as I did back then—lonely, uncertain, and othered.

Now, I like my classmates, they bring crucial insight into group discussions and breakout rooms on Zoom, and react to every piece of material that our professors bring to class with consideration, care, and importance. They’re fun to talk to and work with. I especially appreciate one of my few Latinx classmates who is from Puerto Rico and who brings unique insight into all of our discussions about diversity and equity as the only person in the class who was born and raised in a literal U.S. colony.

But the reality is that librarianship is one of the least racially and ethnically diverse fields in the country. In a 2023 survey, 88 percent of librarians identified as white, which is expected to decrease only by 5 percent over the decade. Within that pool, Latinxs make up 7.7 percent of librarians in the U.S., while Black and Asian librarians make up 6.4 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively. Interestingly enough, librarianship is one of the few fields dominated by women, 68.7 percent versus 31.3 percent men. But I’ll be honest—that statistic doesn’t make me feel that much better when I can see that my class, at least, isn’t going to play a big role in bringing more diversity to the field.

Outside of librarianship, this is also a problem on a larger scale across our community and in universities all over the U.S. too. While the percentage of Latinas earning degrees of any kind has doubled by 52 percent from 2015 to 2020, the number of Latines earning master’s degrees specifically was just 8 percent in 2021, even though we make up well over 20 percent of the national population.

While it already makes me mad enough to see these statistics and surveys online. It’s another thing to see the numbers reflected in real-time and know that despite the library field’s constant promises to do better and increase diversity, we’re not seeing it in the next generation of library school students. We’re not seeing it in the recruiting process, the outreach, or the professional development opportunities. I’m not seeing it in my classroom, where the thing making me feel lonely and isolated isn’t the fact that it’s virtual or online but that I’m not seeing enough diversity amongst my classmates.

That’s deeply frustrating to me because I grew up never seeing a librarian of color in my library, let alone a teacher or any other authority figure in an educational setting. I didn’t even know I could be a librarian until I found out about the small but mighty number of Latina librarians there have been throughout history like Pura Belpré and Lillian Lopez, neither of which I learned about in school. That’s the true power of representation, that it doesn’t just allow us to be seen but also to imagine a different future than the one we might’ve settled ourselves to, not knowing we could aspire for more.

But at the same time, I’m also really lucky. Unlike how I did when I was young, I’m old enough now not to be too controlled by the feeling of not fitting in with other people. Instead, because I’m at home and attending online class, I’m still surrounded by my loud Mexican family, ever connected to our food, culture, and customs. I can exit the Zoom meeting and have a warm homemade meal that my cousin made. I can listen to my tía playing her Luis Miguel music in the kitchen or speaking Spanish at full volume while on the phone with a family member. I can leave class and still embrace who I am and where I come from.

Maybe that’s why in the classroom itself, I always make it a point to show up unapologetically as myself because my environment has given me the strength to not pretend to be someone I’m not. When I introduce myself, I say it in the right accent, rolled r’s and all. I bring up issues pertaining to the Latinx community, like why we need to have a variety of Spanish-language materials in the library, without worrying if my classmates will care or even know what I’m talking about. Because how can I claim to champion diversity and inclusion if I myself am not willing to be proud of the diversity I bring to the table?

Above all, the idea that a young girl will one day walk into the library and see someone who looks like her behind the reference desk is one of the biggest things that fuels and encourages me to keep going with my studies. To just work a little longer on that class assignment and make sure every part is perfect. To go to class with my head held high. I do it for my younger self and for all the Black and brown girls who deserve to imagine a different future for themselves. It’s a difficult road ahead but I know it’ll be worth it in the end.

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