A Reflection on Latinos and Their Future in the U.S.

And if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still with us, I think he'd agree

By Velia La Garda, Contributing Writer
Published on LatinoLA: January 20, 2012

A Reflection on Latinos and Their Future in the U.S.

On Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, I could not help but reflect on how far Latinos have come in achieving equality in this country, particularly in receiving a good education. For as we know, education has been the defining factor in determining the health of our economy and the nation's future.

As an educated Latina with a graduate degree in Journalism, I looked back on my experience with immigrant parents who had only an elementary school education. Having produced a show on the Los Angeles Unified School District less than a year ago, I know what the future looks like for our youth locally.

The future is dismal with a high drop-out rate for many students who do not have the advantage of a private school education. Looking at states where the Latino population continues to grow like Arizona, the future looks worse.

Back in 1968, as a young girl growing up in San Francisco, my city was in turmoil with an unpopular war in Southeast Asia and internally with the Civil Rights movement. Yet the U.S. was still considered a super power worldwide and I knew these were painful growing periods from which we were going to experience and learn.

Now, as a country that has continued to lose ground economically, and in a serious educational crisis with a national 25 percent high school drop-out rate, I wonder how far we, as Latinos, have come?

Comparing our position with the rest of the world, the following nations have a larger percent of college graduates than the U.S.: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

So I ask on this MLK holiday: What is the future of our children? Thinking globally and preparing our children to compete on that level, what are we NOT doing right?

In an article posted by The Atlantic entitled "What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success," it is clear that one of the main objectives the last several decades for the Finnish has been to provide every child with an equitable opportunity to learn.

Finnish policymakers realized that in order for their country to be competitive, they could no longer rely on manufacturing or its natural resources, so they invested in their knowledge-based economy and educating their entire population.

To begin with, the article points out that Finland has no standardized tests. Teachers are given prestige and a lot of responsibility with principals having the power to keep them accountable for their student's performance. But the underlying factor in the Finnish approach to education of their children, is that "the main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation."

So how do we prepare a population as diverse as ours and not leave behind those who are not so economically fortunate like the majority of the growing Latino population? In a special research publication about "Investing in Our Next Generation," by Grantmakers for Education, the authors point out that "engaging families and bringing their culture into the learning environment can build on this potential for success."

Never clearer did this experience ring true for me than when I started my first year of college.

I will never forget how confident I was entering U.C. Berkeley as a freshman. Growing up in a diverse city like San Francisco, I thought I would have no problem assimilating to the university system. But I did.

At that time in the late 70's, the Berkeley campus was going through a very strong collegiate and conservative phase and I did not feel like I belonged or fit in any way, shape or form. In addition, the school was huge and I felt totally alienated from the dominant culture. There were very few Latinos attending the campus. The student population was mostly white and Asian and I felt alone.

At this time, I rushed to enroll in Chicano Studies classes and not just to learn my history, but to feel like there was a place for me in higher education. Those classes were instrumental in keeping me in school and later, provided me the necessary cultural confidence I needed to become an award-winning television producer. Ethnic Studies played a vital role in my education and self esteem which brings me to Arizona's new legislation banning the Mexican American studies program in the Tucson Unified School District.

Taking away the opportunity for Mexican American students to learn about their history is communicating that it is worthless and not worth studying while romanticizing and touting as superior white, European and Euro-American culture and history. It marginalizes their culture and contributions to society and gives them more reason to drop out or disconnect from the system. Particularly, in the state of Arizona where Mexican American history is indigenous to the area.

Furthermore, in a growing global economic world where diversity is the key to survival and success, why would a society and its school systems stop the education of learning about different languages and cultures?

Just read the want ads in our major cities. Many employers require that applicants have a second language and be fluent. Most employers require that employees be sensitive to a diverse working environment and hold them to a higher ethical conduct. Why would a society and its school systems not encourage a multicultural education so that everyone is prepared to work in it? It doesn't make sense and our global competitors must be taking note of our continued lowered educational status.

So I ask the question again, how are Latinos doing today after over four decades since Dr. King's death?

Latinos are now the largest minority population in the U.S. and although more are educated and in the middle class since 1968, today, the obstacles seem greater for those trying to reach the American dream. No longer are affirmative action programs available as in the years I was growing up. It's harder to get accepted into a four year university or get a full time job these days that offers any kind of security.

But the most frightening fact, I must repeat, is the increasing drop-out rate. The Pew Hispanic Center finds now that 41% of Hispanic adults age 20 and older in the United States do not have a regular high school diploma, compared with 23% of black adults and 14% of white adults.

So when a program that has worked to maintain and continue to educate Latinos is banned like the one in Arizona, it's just another step taken to prevent Latinos from reaching their full academic potential, becoming an educated and critical citizenry, and, ultimately positively impacting the US economy and democracy. It just doesn't make sense.

And if Dr. King was still with us, I think he'd agree.

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