Latina Educators Are Systematically Excluded from Academia

For many Latinas, graduation from higher education is a special accomplishment and a point of pride for our families and communities

Latina professors 2023

Photos courtesy of Erika L. Sanchez; Cecilia Caballero; Jennine Capó Crucet

For many Latinas, graduation from higher education is a special accomplishment and a point of pride for our families and communities. From high school to a Ph.D., we are often the first ones in our family to gain a diploma from a college/university. The numbers don’t lie: Over 70 percent of Latinas earned an associate’s  or a bachelor’s degree,  8 percent earned a master’s degree and 1 percent earned a doctoral degree, all at Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI). There are 569 HSIs across 28 states including California, New York, and Texas, as well as Puerto Rico, according to Degree Choices. Nearly 70 percent of all Latinx students in higher education in the U.S. attend an HSI, which, in order to be designated as such, needs to have 25 percent Latinx enrollment and requires that a minimum of 50 percent of a school’s Latinx students are eligible for need-based aid. The number of Latinas in higher education is only climbing but what isn’t changing is the number of Latinas actually teaching in academic institutions, with a mere 4.7 percent of 700,000 full-time faculty employed by higher education institutions in fall 2016 being Latino/a. The numbers tell one story but it’s a layered reality that the few Latinas who’ve become professors  can agree is complicated and not often as fulfilling as it’s often thought to be.

A lot of it has to do with outside societal factors like language barriers, low socio-economic status, and lack of access to resources. But, having experienced all the dark sides of academia from microaggressions to misogyny to outright racism, Latina writers and professors Erika L. Sánchez, Cecilia Caballero, and Jennine Capó Crucet talked to HipLatina about how they have learned that the bigger problem is actually with the institution of academia itself.

When academic institutions were established with white supremacist values in mind, it should come as no surprise that Latinas rarely feel welcome, included, or accepted in these spaces. Afro-Chicana writer and self-employed teaching artist Cecilia Caballero is living proof of the inequities that exist even before Latinas have the chance to become professors despite being on the path toward being able to do so. After transferring from community college to UC Berkeley in Northern California for undergrad, she pursued a double major in English and Chicano studies. However, right before her final year, she found out she was pregnant and would be raising the child as a single mom. While it was unplanned, she was excited about the new chapter of her life— until she told her support system at school.

“The judgment and shaming wasn’t just coming from my family. It was the larger societal messages about young, unmarried women of color who become mothers and have children. When I shared the news of my pregnancy with one faculty member, who was also a woman of color, her exact words were, ‘I didn’t want this for you,'” she shares. “I started to question and doubt myself. The implication was that I did something wrong, that I messed up by being a mother.”

It only got worse when she started pursuing her Ph.D. in Chicana, Latina, and Women of Color Activist Mothering in Literature at USC, a private university in Southern California. Suddenly, she was in a new city, away from her home and family, and lacking the resources to thrive as a student and parent.

“The faculty and other students were sympathetic and tried to be understanding. But it was more that I couldn’t afford childcare and couldn’t attend networking events and meetings because they happened in the evenings,” she says. “I had a lack of support as a single mom, my family didn’t live close by, and I had fewer institutional resources, which led me to feel isolated. It’s less about one person and more so the academic culture that in many ways forces mothers and parents of color out.”

At other times, institutions will purposefully seek out Latinas to increase the diversity at their schools, only for them to become disposable the moment money becomes an issue. Erika L. Sánchez,  poet and author of renowned books including I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter and Crying in the Bathroom, was hired at DePaul University, a private Catholic research university in Chicago, as a Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz chair in the Latin American and Latino Studies Department in 2019. Being a brown Mexican American woman who grew up in Chicago and attended college as a first-gen student, the position couldn’t have been a better fit or more exciting for her to attain. And the moment she started teaching, it became clear that it was what she felt that she was meant to do.

“For me, teaching was a very healing experience because I was able to teach in the way that I needed to be taught at that age,” she explains. “I wanted to make the students feel seen and safe, to give them space to be who they are and express who they are in the context of history and literature. Especially because a lot of them were Mexican, I connected with them on a deeper level and they would tell me that they had never had a professor like me. So I found it to be a great vocation in addition to my writing.”

Yet, the job is so much more than an extension of writing and even teaching, Capó Crucet, who worked as a professor of Ethnic Studies and of Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska and Florida State University, explains.

“I wish I’d known how much of the job had nothing to do with teaching and writing,” she says. “I wish I’d better understood how lonely the job would often feel, how so much of the mentorship and guidance promised by these positions—at least at the places I’ve worked—was more performative than genuine. I also wish I’d known how the job would try to force its way into every aspect of my life, which is unlike any other job I’ve held prior to becoming a tenured professor.”

Capó Crucet, who is a Florida native of Cuban descent, has written novels including My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education and Make Your Home Among Strangers which centered around her experiences outside her community in predominantly white spaces. Despite the harsh reality of academia, she echos the sentiments Sánchez shares regarding the students making the job worthwhile.

“I love seeing a student discover the power of their voice,” she says. “I love introducing students to creative writing as a practice, to seeing them respond to established writers whose work speaks to them deeply. I love making my students laugh and I love using humor to disarm and engage them, probably because I got my start as a writer by writing sketch comedy. I love seeing students find each other through workshops and exercises, love seeing them go on to be readers for each other long after they’ve left my classroom.”

But what also became clear for both women was how their Latina identity would be used as a tool for the institution. For Sánchez, it was being asked by the administration to recruit more Latinx students for DePaul, not only so that it would “become intrinsically tied to my identity,” but also so that they could become an HSI and receive more money.

But because of how much Sánchez valued her teaching, no matter what problematic behaviors she may have faced, it was a total blow when she was told in April 2023, almost three years into her position, that her contract that would not be renewed for another year. The communication was sent over email, which claimed that her termination was due to low funds and low enrollment leading to an increase in campus layoffs. But when she regularly had amazing student evaluations, genuine connections with students, and many professional accomplishments under her belt, she felt everything she had learned, done, and should’ve mattered and counted for more.

“I didn’t see it coming because I had been treated well for this whole time. I felt comfortable because there were other people who looked like me. I’ve accomplished amazing things while I’ve been there and they know that. So it was surprising and it sucked. I would’ve insisted that they try to endow my chair, which they told me they were looking into but it never came to be. It was just a manifestation of white supremacy. I’m not safe because I’m a professional and know how to navigate those spaces. I’m never safe.”

For Capó Crucet, it became racial and ethnic discrimination from her very own students. This discriminatory   treatment from students made headlines in 2019 when she was invited to speak about her book at Georgia Southern University, a predominantly white school, and some students asked about the “generalizations” she made about white people in her novel and later burned and destroyed the book. While she wasn’t a professor there,  she faced hostile behavior from her own students as well.

“Each semester, it was always clear on the very first day which student or students in the classroom had a problem being taught by a [Latina] who they didn’t think deserved the job,” she says. “I wish there were a way to convince that student that their time would be better spent elsewhere rather than spending their semester sitting in my class, scowling at me, and disrupting everyone else’s learning via intimidation tactics and aggressive, disrespectful behaviors that I’d have to maneuver around to restore a sense of community and trust. I wish there were a way to teach that student that didn’t come at the expense of everyone else’s experience of the class or my own sense of safety.”

Capó Crucet’s own relationship with academia came to a head when it was time for her to apply for a tenured professor position, which, as she says, “is seemingly designed to wear you down.” In her experience, the process was exhausting and long, lasting over several months, where she and other candidates would receive votes that determined whether or not they received tenure. While it was a positive experience for her to put together her tenure file — a record of her teaching history and course — it was overall a “draining” experience.

“You’re reminded over and over again how not official anything is until some politically-appointed board of whatever signs a paper about eleven months after you turn everything in, and then you get an email from someone who still manages to spell your name wrong, congratulating you on surviving an intentionally demoralizing year of scrutiny. The only thing the tenure process broke was my heart, and the only thing I felt was relief that it was over,” she says.

On a systemic level, Latinas are being simultaneously welcomed in and pushed out, included and excluded based on the whims of institutional rules, mandates, and changes. We are used to increased diversity quotas but are never given the support or tools we need to succeed beyond education, even if we are financially and societally vulnerable. Sometimes, like Caballero, we are never offered the opportunities we have been training for our whole life.

“I didn’t even know that people of color could be professors and write research and teach on topics like Chicana feminism or BIPOC comparative literature. I thought it was only a career path for privileged or white people,” she explains. “When I realized that, it motivated and inspired me. But then I began to question the roles BIPOC students are expected to perform in Ph.D. programs. Like, ‘Am I the only one that feels unhappy? Am I the only one that feels like ‘ungrateful’? Am I the only one that wants some kind of accountability for the toxic academics in our fields?”

“We’re expected to conform to academia and perform gratitude to show that we’re just so happy to be here when really, it’s costing us our mental health and compromising our values,” she adds. “I take that very seriously.”

She even goes so far as to not recommend Ph.D. programs for BIPOC, first-gen, and low-income students at all because of how much likelier they are to experience depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. “It’s complex because I am happy for first-gen students if they’re the first ones to graduate with degrees from higher education. We’re worthy of celebration and at the same time, I have learned to define my value and my worth apart from my educational achievements.”

However, because of her training in her Ph.D. program, she almost felt like she had no choice but to apply to tenure-track jobs, post-doctorate jobs, and visiting assistant professor (VAP) jobs after graduation. But just the application process for her was “complicated and convoluted” enough, especially for positions like a VAP that are full-time but temporary and non-tenure track, guaranteeing little to no job security. She began feeling lots of shame and self-doubt, not to mention uncertainty about her future. And as much as she tried to apply to positions and “fulfill” the lessons she was taught as a student, she was rejected from each institution she reached out to. It was crushing and frustrating. But, she notes, such a deliberate exclusion from academia only made her stronger.

“It did take me all of these years, including all of the declines, to be in a space where I can say from a place of empowerment that I want to create the life of my own choosing,  Nothing is more fulfilling to me than doing that.”

Today, Caballero continues to work as a self-employed teaching artist, offer writing workshops to BIPOC writers on a range of topics, like how to channel rage in writing as a person of color, and work with institutions and organizations to bring writing to the people that need it. Capó Crucet has no plans in the foreseeable future to return to academia, instead she’s focusing her time on writing, but for Sánchez, teaching is something she hopes to return to someday.

“It’ll be a while. I have a lot of things that I want to do and I’m really enjoying just writing at the moment. I would only like to go back to teaching if it’s at an institution that I feel understands me and wants me there. We’ll see what that looks like.”

If Latinas or anyone in the Latinx community is to succeed in academia whether as a student or professor, it’s clear that it’s the institution itself that has to change. It’s administrations who must do the work to make sure students from marginalized backgrounds not only have what they need but also feel safe, included, and welcomed. It means providing support and resources and funds, not taking advantage of new standards of diversity and inclusion and treating Latinxs as temporary tokens. And as far as students go, Caballero says there is often nothing more powerful than just letting it all go. She notes:

“Because of the culture of silence and internalized shame in academia, sometimes it can be hard to open up to someone else to say, ‘Am I the only one?’ And no, you’re not the only one. You’re not alone. It’s okay to walk away. There’s no shame in taking care of yourself. It’s so complex to navigate and it’s different for every person. But if there is a point where you leave, that’s courageous too.”

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