On Latinos in Education and America

Jose Vilson Jose

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of attending Soledad O’Brien’s I Am Latino in America event, a tour featuring some of the most prominent Latino leaders in entertainment, politics, and yes, education. None of O’Brien’s features, from the seminal Black in America to the series of other CNN programming aimed at specific groups, present anything new per se, but they do feature different facets of what it means to be [insert given identity]. So, as a Black Latino (Afro-Latino, if you must), I was struck by hearing the younger folks like poet Denice Frohman and comedian Vladimir Caamaño to the established figures like actor Rosie Perez and musician Willie Colon giving their honest visions for the work they’re doing.

Of course, NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña and National Education Association (NEA) president Lily Eskelsen Garcia were there, too, thus my interest in this event.

As Ms. O’Brien highlighted, education is the #1 issue among those who identify as Latino, not immigration, according to a recent poll. Yet, the only issue most major news networks have hung like a carrot on a stick for Latinos is immigration. Shorter version of this election with respect to Latinos:

Trump: “We’ll kick you out of here and build a wall behind you.”
The Democrats: “We’ll keep you and … we’re still trying to figure out the rest.”

The back and forth between Sanders supporter Rosario Dawson and Hillary Clinton endorser Dolores Huerta stands to accentuate a generational divide. But, even though both exclude Donald trump from their framework for Latino empowerment, it also illustrates the majority of Latinos who have disparate views on every major political issue. If one listens to the talk out there, you don’t get the richness of the conversations happening online, at dinner tables, and, yes, in our schools.

We’ve seen the uproar when the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the NEA backed Clinton early, and we’ve seen conservative edu-think tanks groan about their pitiful selection on the Republican end. Yet, when it comes to Latinos, we haven’t seen people take a stronghold on moving a solid education agenda. Instead, everyone hints at whether the other candidate “gets it” or not. How do we not have a comprehensive vision for our education system, both in pedagogy and policy, that specifically addresses the needs of a rising set of people of color? As a matter of fact, how do we not see a comprehensive plan for any group? Using the same code words over and over ain’t comprehensive.

I’m not interested in who each candidate stands next to, even if I got love for them. I’m interested in knowing whether policymakers will move us closer to true equity, and how.

The real work for any group in this election (or any day, really) is in organizing, mobilizing, and transforming language. Social mobility and opportunity are among the reasons why Latinos in general prioritize education. As many reports point out, Latinos have made great strides in terms of college drop out rates and college enrollment, but Latinos still have a long way to go.

The question that keeps coming up for me whenever we have panels like the one at I Am Latino in America is: what will it take for America as a whole to assume everyone wants a good education as a key to democracy and citizenship, and not as a form of a handout or a dream away from their home countries (when applicable)? Too often, the spirit of the immigration debate centers around opportunity, but opportunity is so much larger than getting a golden ticket. Opportunity means working on infrastructure, creating jobs, stopping mass deportations, and allowing for true agency for parents, students, and teachers across the country. Opportunity also means equitable access to the same resources as the country says it promises to its own citizens.

Maybe the problem is that this country has fallen way short on this promise. Maybe that’s our education for right now.