The Role of Women in the Lives of High Achieving Black and Latino Men

by Bianca N. Haro

Positionality: A Mujer among Men of Color

I am a light-skinned Mexicana/Latina first-generation mujer, and I identify as a Chicana born and raised in Southeast San Diego of immigrant parents from Guadalajara, Jalisco.1 I grew up in a neighborhood surrounded by beautiful and hard-working Black and Brown bodies and graduated from a high school that reflected my neighbors and predominantly served Students of Color. I am the first one out of my immediate family to graduate high school, earn a Bachelor’s degree, and pursue graduate school. While every family member supported and motivated me to continue my education, it was my mother who always inspired me. Her hard work, independence, and journey to the United States to give her children an opportunity for a better education always encouraged me to pursue higher education and make her sacrifice worthwhile.

Bianca and her mother, Matilde Haro, at UCLA’s inverted fountain. Bianca had just finished her second year of her PhD program and was showing her mother the UCLA campus and her favorite place on campus.

 As a first-year graduate student, I was invited to join a research project centered on understanding how high achieving Black and Latino male high school students in Los Angeles County define success. It was also our goal to identify male role models in the school, community, or homes of the young men who encouraged them to be successful. Our intentions for this project were clear—to create a counternarrative and challenge deficit notions of young Black and Latino men. I was particularly excited to be part of this study, as I saw it as an opportunity to understand why my brothers were pushed out of school and, to this day, do not have their high school diplomas. What were the resources these young men had that my brothers did not?

While I was excited to be part of this important study, I was also nervous. I was a first-year PhD student, with no graduate school experience since I had just recently graduated with my Bachelor’s, and, as I found out after the first research meeting, the only woman and the youngest member on the team. The research team included myself and six Men of Color (MoC); two Latino and four Black men, two of whom were tenure-track professors, while the rest were either advanced graduate students or were close to graduating. I was not sure how, but I knew that my identity would affect the dynamics within the team and my role as an interviewer. More than anything, I worried the men would not take me seriously or that they would dominate discussions surrounding the project, with little to no room for me to give advice. Yet I took the position and decided to take this opportunity to learn and grow.

Around the same time, I enrolled in a course that centered Chicana feminisms and the scholarship of Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherrie Moraga, Dolores Delgado Bernal and others. For the first time in higher education, I was reading work by women who looked like me, who understood my lived experiences, and who centered the voices of those who are the most marginalized – Women of Color (WoC). Above all, this class served as a stepping-stone to question my positionality within my research team and my interactions with the young men who would be part of the study. I started to ask myself questions: What did it mean to be in a room surrounded by MoC and interviewing young MoC? How would my positionality affect my data collection and analysis? Am I an outsider? An insider? Both? Do I belong on this research team?

The Chicana feminist course, my lived experiences, and reflecting on my positionality allowed me to realize that that I brought an intersectional lens to the work. I noticed different themes in the data, one of them being the role of women in the lives of the young men, despite the goal of the study to center male role models. I was keenly aware of gender and sensitive to participants who identified women, beyond their mothers, who encouraged their success. I realized my cultural intuition (see Delgado Bernal, 1998) pushed me to further investigate the role that women play within the larger study. I came to the conclusion that as the only Woman of Color on the team, this was my duty – not only because this was an emerging theme across the interviews, or because the words of the young men echoed my lived experiences, but also because I wanted to center the women who empower our communities of color, but are rendered less visible. It is my positionality within the larger study that drives the focus of my question: What role do women play in the lives of high achieving Black and Latino males?

Preliminary Findings

Familial Female Capital as Support

The 70 young men who were part of my sample data were academically and socially successful despite the numerous barriers they encountered on a daily basis (e.g., racism, low-resourced schools, deficit notions from school staff). While they had the individual agency to succeed, I found they continuously acknowledged women in their lives who supported and/or motivated them. When asked who supported them, more than half of the students mentioned a woman first, among them was Memo2, a self-identified Mexican American who said the following:

The most support I have would be my mother because when she was growing up in El Salvador she always wanted to become a nurse.  She studied. She read a lot of books because she couldn’t attend the school. Her highest education was elementary or middle school, but she read, she tried her best, but around [my] age, she had to take care of her sisters and couldn’t really continue her studies. But here in America she sees that the educational system is better and can help flourish young students.

Memo acknowledges his mother’s migration story as support, and it also helps him understand the importance of getting an education. Yosso (2005) states that integrated in familial capital are “lessons of caring, coping, and providing educación” (p. 79) which can then inform people’s everyday life, actions, and shape their education and life goals. Memo’s success was shaped by his mother’s story. He understands the responsibilities that she had as a young woman prevented her from going to school, and he chooses to pursue education because unlike his mother, he has the opportunity. Much like Memo, other students continuously emphasized the support and the life lessons that they received from women in their community. In particular, the stories of migration that their mothers and other women in their community shared served as support.

Carlos, a Latino with a GPA of 3.57 who lives with his mother and grandparents, stated the following after being asked who in his family has supported his success in high school:

Definitely my mom…. My mom has been a good role model… she has a rough story too. But she comes through… a generation of knowledge. She told me stories [of] how her parents and their parents… my grandparents were… teachers. They were teaching Latino kids… and my grandma, she took care of my mom and she influenced her to do good things. So… all that adapted to my mom and then she made me what I am.

Carlos’ home is a clear example of the generational familial female capital and community knowledge that helps him thrive in high school despite the educational and social inequities he faces. His home also challenges traditional constructions of mothering, support, and the family ideal, where the “family [is] a nuclear unit with a father-head, mother, and children, all held together trough primary emotional bonds of love and caring” (Collins, 1998, p. 30). However, Carlos consistently spoke about how his mother and grandmother provided him with life lessons and modeled values that helped him feel supported. His home was a women-headed household, where women fed, clothed, and supported him beyond traditional Western ways of thinking that fulfill a mother’s role. In addition to that traditional support and mothering, the stories of survival of his mother and grandmother supported and taught him how to become a successful young man. Carlos is thankful for the women who have raised him to be the young man he is today and the learning they have instilled on him through their storytelling. The lived experiences of his mother and grandmother, and “the generation of knowledge” support Carlos in school.

Motivating Black and Latino Men to Succeed through Femtoring

The familial female capital the young men benefit from represents what WoC feminists, community and university programs, and I are calling, femtoring, a term that refers to representations of women mentors that challenge the patriarchal society we live in (Brown, 2006; González-Cárdenas, 2015).3 This femtoring, whether in the form of stories of survival or the cultural knowledge that women pass down, continuously served as motivation for the young men in our study. It helped them to articulate their intentions and purpose in life, and to identify with family knowledge their mothers and other women passed down. For example, Darnell, a Senior with a GPA of 2.80, stated the following when asked who personally motivates him:

I am very independent on my own, thinking and acting. But someone who did motivate me was my grandma, but she passed away 5 years ago… she raised me a lot so she was there most of the time… my grandma would always push me… just her presence of being there and now that she passed I kind of use that as a crutch on my back or my shoulder. So… whenever… I am doing bad or something I’m like “oh my grandma wouldn’t want me doing this.” Then it puts me back on track. Or when I’m playing basketball and we lose or something, I’m like “my grandma died, I need to do this for my grandma.” So I try to do everything for my grandma.

Bianca’s 8th grade graduation. To the left is her mother, Matilde Haro, and to her right is her grandmother, Lidia Salazar.

As Darnell remembered the passing of his grandmother, he became deeply saddened. Darnell’s story was particularly touching for me, as I understood the pain of recently losing my beloved grandmother and how her memory and teachings continue to guide me. I empathized with Darnell and thanked him for sharing such a personal narrative. His story is a reminder of how the ancestral knowledge from women and their memory guides younger generations. His vulnerability also reinforces the impact mothers, grandmothers, and other women have in the lives of these young men—even after their passing.

Other students in this subsample experienced femtoring through women who continuously asked them about school, which reminded them of the opportunity they have to succeed, attend college, and find a profession they are truly passionate about. They connected the hard work, motivation, care, and support of the women in their lives to their success. The voices and narratives of the students interviewed highlight the strength that Black and Latino men seek from their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and other women in their lives. More importantly, it demonstrates the impact that familial female capital has on the lives of Black and Latino men as they search for support and strength to persevere despite the continuous deficit notions and educational inequity they face on a daily basis.

Conclusion & Implications

Through this study I found that the mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and other women in different contexts support, motivate, and femtor young men in a multitude of ways. Familial female capital challenges traditional notions of family, mothering, and what support looks like for Black and Latino men. Family extended to teachers, school counselors, principals, and other women in the community that mothered and supported the young men. This mothering and support took different forms, as mothering was not just feeding, clothing, and providing shelter for the young men, it was also sharing stories of survival, migration, and life lesson that motivated them to be successful. It was the continuous encouragement the women voiced to the young men despite the obstacles they faced, the lived experiences and continuous acts of resistance the women shared that provided lifelong lessons about caring for their community, and taught them how to read the world. The students admire the women in their lives and see them as strong and courageous. These cultivated relationships offer an alternative to the deficit thinking of single-mother households and of the idea that Black and Latina/o parents do not care about their children’s education because they cannot attend parent-teacher meetings or be involved in their child’s school. The young men define and portray the wealth they have in their home, the femtors they posses, and how these relationships have helped them succeed. A better understanding of how the lives of Black and Latino men are shaped by familial female capital can guide educators, educational researchers, and stakeholders to understand the importance of WoC in the lives of Black and Latino men and other Students of Color.

As a Chicana I would also argue that these findings also sheds light on the important role that WoC Scholars (and other women) have in research teams and institutions dominated by men. While some might question the role (if any) that women should have in conversations and interventions for MoC, the contributions that WoC can give to understand young MoC needs to be valued. My presence on a research team dominated by MoC and these findings is proof of the important role that different epistemological lenses can bring to academia to produce new knowledge.

Bianca N. Haro is a third-year doctoral student in the Education department, Urban Schooling Division. She received her Bachelor’s in Sociology and Spanish from the University of San Diego. Using Chicana Feminist frameworks, her current research analyzes the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon; specifically how Latina high school students are affected by policies and practices that push them out of school. She was awarded a CSW Travel Grant in Spring, 2017.

  1. I decide to acknowledge my skin color, as it is a privilege I hold and a trait that has helped me mask my “minority status” and navigate white spaces. Unlike the privilege I hold as a light-skinned Latina to navigate white spaces, my gender has been hyper-visible and further marginalizes my being, especially in a male-dominated space.
  2. Pseudonym used for anonymity
  3. JANRAH: Education, Entrepreneurship, and Empowerment for Girls of Color; Department of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University
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