Latinas Still Struggling to Manage Education and Family Demands

Howdo Latinas who grow up with a strong familismo cultural orientation balance their sense of family obligations with a desire for higher education, especially when they are facing the rigors of a doctoral program? “These women are caught between the demands of two cultures and have to deal with all of the conflict and tensions they experience from the pressure of fulfilling multiple and often competing roles,” writes Dr. Roberta Espinoza, assistant professor of sociology, California State University-Fullerton (CSUF), in her recent study, The Good Daughter Dilemma: Latinas Managing Family and School Demands.

Dr. Roberta Espinoza, Assistant Professor of Sociology, California State University-Fullerton

Dr. Roberta Espinoza, Assistant Professor of Sociology, California State University-Fullerton

Espinoza interviewed a cohort of Latina doctoral students to find out what strategies the women used to maintain family relationships and their status as a “good daughter” while handling the substantial workload of graduate school. The question intrigued Espinoza, who says there has been documentation about barriers Latinas face within the public education system, such as attending poor, overcrowded schools and not having access to advanced courses and good teachers, but not enough investigation into the influence of home and family experiences.
Although it has been shown that Latinas enroll in college at the same rates as their non-Latina counterparts (60 percent), they are less likely to earn college degrees and go on to graduate or professional school. As Espinoza points out, only a small number of Latinas finish at the very top level of the educational ladder, thus constituting a fraction of the percentage of Ph.D. degrees that are conferred annually by the nation’s universities. In 2006, only 5.4 percent of female doctoral recipients in the United States were earned by Latinas, up slightly from 4.1 per-cent a decade ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. With so few Latinas successfully navigating the educational pipeline into doctoral education, it is extremely important to understand their personal experiences and strategies for academic success, says Espinoza.
“We know that many Latinas in college mention their connections to family as a key component to their academic success, but those connections can conflict with school demands,” she said.
Her findings indicate that Latina doctoral students balance their school and family life in two different ways. On one hand, there are the integrators, those who manage family expectations and obligations by explicitly communicating with family members about their school responsibilities.
“The integrators blend family and school by first explaining the nature of their school demands, then enlisting their family’s support to enhance their academic success,” writes Espinoza. She offers the examples of Veronica, Dolores and Anna, who used the integrator strategy to manage family expectations concerning holiday and weekend visits or care of siblings. All three women chose to explain the nature of their school demands to their parents as a means of negotiating compromises and enlisting support for their educational endeavors.

The second group of doctoral students consists of the separators, who actively organize their daily lives to keep family and school separate in order to minimize tension and conflict.
“Although the separators prioritize family similar to their integrator counterparts, they often feel they have to keep their schooling experiences separate to protect their relationships with family members,” said Espinoza. As examples, the study describes Rosa, Celia and Luciana, who chose to maintain a divide between their academic and personal life. These women found ways to meet family obligations, such as being home for birthdays or helping siblings, by compartmentalizing and separating demands, thus minimizing or avoiding cultural conflicts.
Espinoza is one of several researchers to examine the clash between values and culture that Latina women experience as they forge their identities as women and scholars. In 1996, Rosa María Gill and Carmen Inoa Vázquez, two psychotherapists, published The Maria Paradox: How Latinas Can Merge Old World Traditions with New World Self-Esteem. They described how marianismo, modeled on the Catholic Virgin Mary and focusing on purity and passivity, defines the traditional roles of Hispanic women and often prevents them from seeking professional advancement through education and successful careers. The book contained practical suggestions to help Latinas build their self-esteem and redefine roles while integrating the positive aspects of Hispanic home culture with new and more modern beliefs.

Other experts describe how many Latinas become bicultural and modify their behaviors and actions in order to coexist in new and old cultures. By embracing elements of both cultures, Latinas are able to assert themselves in the world of higher education but also retain their interdependence and connections with family. Espinoza’s study draws on Chicana feminist theory regarding multiple identities that women assume over time. Essentially, scholars such as Gloria Anzaldúa have described the “new mestiza” model adopted by Chicanas who experience the process of conflicting and meshing with two cultures. Anzaldúa drew on her own experiences growing up in South Texas and working on a farm near the Mexico/Texas border.
It appears that the current generation of Latinas is benefiting from the voices of earlier scholars and researchers as younger Latinas modulate their roles in today’s society.
“My research illuminates that gender roles for Latinas are definitely changing and women are active agents in redefining those roles,” said Espinoza. “For women pursuing higher education, being a good daughter is constantly renegotiated with family as women make their way through the educational pipeline. The different strategies they employ demonstrate how they are choosing to balance family obligations with school in a way that is aligned with how they see their role as Latina daughters.”
Not only are Latinas finding new paths to empowerment, but they also are paving the way for their siblings by breaking new ground in their families. Espinoza says many of the women she interviewed acknowledged that part of being a good daughter was tied to being a role model for younger brothers, sisters, cousins and nieces/nephews.
“These women clearly are trailblazers in their families,” she said. “They expressed that their families counted on them to talk to younger family members about the importance of doing well in school and going to college. The fact that these women’s families expected them to excel in school contradicts the literature that often attributes Latinas low academic achievement to a culture that does not value school success.”
Although this study centered on female doctoral students, Espinoza’s previous research has focused on broader issues in which she examined the role of social and cultural capital in the educational advancement and success of first-generation college students. Before joining CSUF, she worked at various research institutes, including the University of California (UC)-Berkeley Center for Working Families; the University of California-Los Angeles Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST); the National Institute of Psychiatry (social sciences division) in Mexico City, Mexico; and the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute. Espinoza received a doctorate in sociology from UC-Berkeley in 2007. As might be expected, her own pathway to a Ph.D. echoes many of the experiences of her study participants.
“The good daughter dilemma of balancing family and school hits very close to home for me,” she said. “I grew up in a poor, single-parent family with my Mexican father. My family was on welfare most of my life, which was a very humbling experience. Although it was clear doing well in school was my first priority growing up, I still had many family responsibilities, such as cleaning the house, paying bills and filling out government paperwork.”
As the first generation in her family to attend college and earn a Ph.D., Espinoza knows how important parental support is in achieving educational goals.
“Although my dad only had a third-grade education, he always encouraged me and my sister to do well in school,” she said. “We grew up hearing that we need to earn a college degree because ‘no one can ever take away your education.’ My dad was very proud of our academic accomplishments and never failed to attend events where we received awards.”
Hispanic men can play a key role in helping young Latinas reach their goals. Fortunately, says Espinoza, the old machismo values are changing among fathers, brothers and husbands. She sees the changes in her classes at CSUF.
“I think the stereotypical ‘macho’ gender role that has been attributed to Latino men is a thing of the past,” said Espinoza. “Young Latino men today are more progressive and are less likely to subscribe to traditional gender roles.
“Many of the women I interviewed were encouraged and supported by fathers, brothers, uncles, boyfriends and domestic partners to excel in school. This finding shows that Latino men embrace the changing role of women as strong and educated. Latino men also seem to have a more egalitarian view of gender roles in both relationships and families. This is why we are seeing increasing numbers of Latinas in leadership positions and at the forefront of activism and social change in their communities.”
But colleges and universities also need to take steps to ensure that Latinas are getting the support they need to persist and succeed in getting advanced degrees. Research has shown that Latinas often are not prepared for the differences between undergraduate and graduate school, especially the increased amount of work and expectations of faculty. On the other hand, Latinas are disappointed when faculty members show no understanding of their history or culture.
Espinoza’s study contains two recommendations that could ease family-school dilemmas still faced by many Latinas. She calls for increased communication to Latina students and more formalized efforts to educate faculty and staff about these challenges. The final section of her study suggests that universities should improve their outreach efforts to inform Latina students of the various support services available to them even before they start graduate school.
“It is imperative that they [Latinas] are immediately connected with supportive organizations, educators and peers that can help them adjust to their new school environment,” she writes. “Institutions and departments need to be proactive in providing Latinas with information and experiences that make them feel a sense of belonging and connectedness to their new academic homes. These efforts will greatly diminish the balancing act that Latinas engage in, thus freeing them to better engage in school and their departments.”
In addition, Espinoza says faculty who work closely with Latina students should attend informational workshops that highlight the challenges Latinas face when entering the university. She believes that as educational agents, professors need to understand the positive impact they can have as academic role models by helping Latinas through the various hurdles of graduate school while simultaneously legitimating their familismo.
“Faculty members often overlook having a life outside of school, which alienates students who have other obligations and responsibilities outside the university,” she said.
These recommendations, plus those that have called for more mentoring of Latinas through what has been dubbed “the politics of graduate school,” could go a long way in helping Latinas through the personal and professional obstacles encountered in doctoral programs. Espinoza sees hopeful signs that institutions are starting to pay attention to the educational adjustment and overall well-being of Latinas in higher education.
“I think universities, especially Hispanic-Serving Institutions, are starting to create out-reach and support programs that meet the needs of Latina students,” said Espinoza. “Implementing these programs is of critical importance since Latinas are going to college at higher rates than their male counterparts.”