Published on September 15th, 2013 | by Apuntes LJ0
On Growing Up Latina and Researching the “Hispanic” Label
An Interview with Sociologist Cristina Mora
Apuntes: Tells us about growing up, your early school years, any events or experiences that stayed with you.
CM: I am originally from Pacoima, California, which is on the east side of the San Fernando Valley, near Los Angeles. The neighborhood was 100 percent Latino: probably 97 percent Mexican and about 3 percent Guatemalan. Growing up in a real Mexican barrio, I think, is the aspect of my childhood that most marked me. And I say that because, growing up in that situation, I never felt that I was a minority. Diversity was having a parent who was born in Michoacan who married someone from Durango. It was really diverse if there was a Guatemalan-Mexican pairing. For a long time, everything around me, all the stores we went to, were Latino. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized there was this whole other world: when I stepped onto the UC Berkeley campus I realized there were trees and squirrels.
Apuntes: Let us stay with your early years; we’ll cover the college years soon.
CM: So my world when I was growing up was completely Latino. The idea of diversity did not go farther than an inter-Latino marriage. Now that I think back on it, I am amazed at the barriers we imposed on ourselves. Los Angeles is a big city, and there are many Latinos in other parts of Los Angeles, but when you grow up behind the poverty line in a Latino neighborhood, your world is really insular. I think that I knew there were bigger stores, better parks, and better neighborhoods just a few miles down the road. But my world did not extend past Van Nuys Boulevard, or the train tracks on San Fernando Road.
On weekends, we’d go to family parties within the neighborhood. We would stay within our own part of the neighborhood. School, everything, was within the neighborhood. Most of the people in the neighborhood lived the same types of lives. We lived in one of the hottest parts of the San Fernando Valley and got to the beach perhaps three or four times in all the years I lived there. And the beach was about 10 or 15 miles from my home but in an entirely different world.
Apuntes: I also grew up in Los Angeles, and I remember that my high school guidance counselor wanted me to go to a trade school and was surprised when I expressed a desire to go to a four-year college. I imagine you might have faced something similar, even if 40 years later.
CM: I went to San Fernando High, which was one of the most impacted high schools in Los Angeles, and one of the first to have its own police station on campus.
Apuntes: My high school, Belmont High, might have been the first, many years earlier.
CM: So you are probably familiar with how in sixth period, for example, you had the option of getting credit in either of two ways: one was essentially being a prison guard; you could go into the police station and be the person that checks students into the holding cells. Or you could be a baby sitter at the early-teen pregnancy center on campus. It was fantastic to have such a center, so girls with babies could go to school. But it is probably not great for your schooling to get credit for spending an hour as a sitter instead of going to science class.
I am the first one of my family to have gone to college. I’d thought I’d go to a community college or the local college down the street. My high school had around five thousand students; if we assume 10 percent were college-bound, that is still 500 students for one guidance counselor. So I was lucky if I saw him once a year.
It was just so institutionalized, going to community college; there wasn’t information available to tell you otherwise. If it hadn’t been for a few teachers who actively intervened on my behalf, which I think is the story for most people, really intervened on my behalf, it would have been down that road. I don’t know if you know the statistics, but I constantly get upset when people misrepresent the information on Latino college education. They often say Latinos have high rates of college entrance, or high rates of college study, but a lot of that is Latinos going to community colleges. And they stay there for six, seven, or eight years in what is supposed to be a two-year program.
Apuntes: You went to the University of California at Berkeley, then to Princeton, then the University of Chicago. What were your experiences at each of those schools?
CM: I ended up coming to Berkeley because I had an English teacher who had attended UC Berkeley and started to talk to me early on in my senior year about coming to the Bay Area. San Fernando High was a year-round school, which is perhaps the most terrible school format you could have. Essentially, I went for two months and was off for two months. But one of the advantages is that I started my senior year in July, well before the college application deadlines, while most people start their senior years in September. My English teacher knew I had really good grades throughout. She told me that Berkeley could really change my life and that she thought I would do well there. So I applied, and got in.
I got a real eye opener when I stepped onto campus. I almost flunked out my first semester. I might have been the best student at San Fernando High School, but I was a failing student at the college level.
Apuntes: Do you have siblings, by the way?
CM: Yes, I have two brothers. One is older; he is a security guard for the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles. The younger one works in retail. I am the only one who has gone to college. Sometimes I joke and say I overcompensated way too much; we needed to spread it out.
Apuntes: You being the only female, was your mother okay with you leaving?
CM: It was very sad. I think she would have, emotionally, preferred that I stayed. But she never said “Stay.” She said, “I’m going to be sad when you leave.” She never said “stay,” and I think that has been a continuing theme in our lives. Because I feel that once I left, I haven’t gone back. I left when I was 17; next year I will be 17 years outside of Los Angeles. Next year will be half my life outside of LA.
Apuntes: Not even for Christmas, birthday parties?
CM: Oh yeah, certainly, we are always going back for those. Part of the reason I took the job here [at Berkeley] is so that I could go home a little bit more often. But I have never gone back to live in Pacoima, never gone back to steep myself in the everydayness of that life, you know, for better or worse. That’s just not me right now.
Apuntes: Did you interact with Latinos as a student at Berkeley?
CM: Yes, and that was great. When I got here I realized I was the best student of a failed school, but as soon as I stepped on campus I went automatically from being an A student to a C- or D student. I had this big epiphany halfway through my freshman year that I could actually fail at this. I just didn’t know what to do. Luckily, there were other students in exactly the same situation. Berkeley tends to pick out Latinos who come from the same Southern California pool. So there were other Latino students who were struggling as well, and we sort of found each other. Back then, there was a place called Chicano Corner, where the students of color would hang out. We found each other there, and commiserated, and we also gave each other moral support and the expertise that we needed. Some of them were a little bit farther along. Some of my best friends were juniors and seniors when I was a freshman. They would tell me “Take this class, not that class; make sure you go to the Cesar Chavez Writing Center, make sure you get tutoring here; make sure you do this and that.”
I’d come from an entirely Mexican existence, an entirely Latino environment, and was thrust onto this campus, and I felt I was failing. I reached out to other Latinos who were feeling the same thing, but the resources among us were limited. Even if we had upperclassmen trying to guide us, the resources were limited. We didn’t know, for example, that networking skills were important. When I took an economics class, the Asian and white students got together right away and formed study groups. Nobody invited me. Maybe for them it was easier to leave me out. Nobody invited me, but also I didn’t know how to insert myself into that circle to reap the benefits of working in a group. I just didn’t. I would go with my Latino friends and we’d all struggle together for eight hours to do the same homework that would take the other students just minutes. That is a problem that persists to this day. We have to think of more institutionalized solutions.
I remember thinking that I was a minority in the Berkeley campus, but there were still many of us. The school has 30 to 35 thousand students. Even if Latinos are only 5 percent of the student population, that is still a big number.
The other thing I remember from my undergraduate days at Berkeley is that it was a highly politicized time. The year I entered was the first year affirmative action was stripped away from admissions in California. There were only half as many Latinos entering with me, compared with previous years. I believe the percentage dropped from 13 to 7 percent. Talk about race was everywhere. I remember hearing students from other ethnicities or races say “Well, you really got in. It’s not that you fake got in, but you really got in.” And I thought, what does that mean? What does “really got in” versus “fake got in” mean? There was a highly racialized climate, and I think that factored into who was invited to study in groups versus who was not.
The Latinos who got in were highly scrutinized, and we turned insular, towards each other. That did not solve the problem of lacking the proper tools to make it in college. So one of the things I started doing right away, and maybe a lot of other students in the same situation did too, was to turn outwards and start organizing. Berkeley has this fantastic ethos of student activism, of participation in organizations that help the community. I remember using my Saturdays to teach SAT classes at Oakland Tech, things like that. This “social education” helped me get through the loneliness and also helped me with the feelings that one of my friends expressed beautifully, saying: “We live our lives thinking we are clerical errors,” thinking that we got in only because someone made a clerical error. I think a lot of Latino students, especially first-generation college students, have to learn to manage these feelings of being a clerical error, these feelings of unworthiness.
“We live our lives thinking we are clerical errors”
Apuntes: What about Princeton?
CM: Okay. I wasn’t doing so well in Berkeley until I started taking Sociology classes. Sociology sort of opened my world. It is a very nerdy thing to say, but I fell in love with social theory and with this new way of looking at the world. It explained to me my existence. It explained the sense of why I felt like a clerical error, why social inequality was being reproduced, why I never went past the train tracks. It explained all these things to me. I took classes on inequality, urban poverty, race and ethnicity, and racial politics, and I really started to love this field.
In my junior year, I had another epiphany. I was transitioning into my junior year, it was the fall of my junior semester, and I was taking a class called the Sociology of Gender, which explained gender inequality, not just in the US but also in Latin America. I remember getting the sense then that I couldn’t stop at college. I had to do something else. There are so many problems in the world, but to tackle them, I needed to get a Law Degree, or a PhD. There had to be another step, I couldn’t stop there. So I started thinking: how do people get there, and I realized I was going to need a letter of recommendation.
Up to that point, like a lot of other underrepresented students, I had just sat quietly in every class. If you think you are a clerical error, what do you do? You hide. You don’t speak, and you sit in the back and take notes, quietly. I had never gone to office hours. I had never once raised my hand in class. I took these huge classes, where I just sat “calladita” in the corner. “Maybe if I just do well and not raise a ruckus to expose myself, I’ll do fine.” But now, I remember thinking, I need to get a letter of recommendation. I need some sort of relationship: I need to go to office hours.
You don’t understand the level of terror that infused in me. It’s funny, because I speak to students now, and they still convey the same sort of quiet terror. I remember sitting (I lived in the Chicano co-op) with my friend Alex the day I was getting ready to go to office hours and he said, “What are you doing today?” I said, “I am going to office hours.” This guy was a senior, and he said “Why?” “Because I think we need letters of recommendation to get into graduate school.” He said “Don’t do it.” And I said “I know, my stomach hurts. I don’t want to do this. I want to throw up.” He said, “Well, I will walk you over there, but man, you are brave.”
He walked me over, and I felt as if I was going to throw up. I thought: she is going to think that I am stupid, she is not going to understand what I am saying. Alex told me, “Okay, if you don’t want to go, I will be at the coffee shop. We will have some coffee together.” I responded, “No, I think I have to go and you have to do it too.” And he said, “Well, we will see how it happens with you.”
I went, and it was fantastic. We spent an hour speaking. I think I was probably one of the first students of color that had come into her office hours, and later on, she told me that she would have this endless parade of very self-entitled white male and female students come in. She told me that I was one of the first students that had come in with this whole other background. We had about an hour long conversation about theories and the readings. And after that and subsequent meetings she would say “When are you coming back?” or “Can I see you in a couple of weeks?” After I finished her class, she said “Okay, when should we have lunch?” I wasn’t even taking her class and I had lunch with her. We’d talk about a PhD in Sociology. I mean, I am a professor now, and I am at the same capacity that she was when I met her, and I am so busy. I’m thinking: “Wow, this woman took her time to talk to me.”
Apuntes: What is her name?
CM: Her name is Raka Ray. She is the Chair of my department right now. I ended up applying to five schools: Princeton, Harvard, University of Chicago, UCLA, and Berkeley, and I got into all of them. I decided to go to Princeton. Even though I loathed the idea of spending my twenties in central New Jersey, it seemed that they had a lot of funding for students. And although it did not look diverse at all, which it wasn’t, it seemed that there would be a lot of institutional support in terms of funding for graduate work. I remember Raka telling me there was not going to be the diversity element, but you are strong and you have done this before and you will do it again. ”You can do this. Other students perhaps not, but you can do this.” It was perhaps the best decision I could have made. The level of support I got and the intellectual community was fantastic. I learned just as much from my peers as I learned from my professors. Princeton attracts some of the best students from all over the world.
Apuntes: What about the country club atmosphere?
CM: Oh my God. (Laughs) I could not stand it. One of the differences . . . you were not an undergrad there? Were you?
Apuntes: I was a visiting student [undergraduate].
CM: Oh, visiting student. There is a huge divide between graduate life and undergraduate life. They say that Princeton is all about undergraduate life, and the graduate students are set to the side. But it doesn’t mean we don’t get a world-class education. We live a life apart from the undergrads. One funny story I have is that I was a teacher’s assistant, a TA, for a class on social psychology, and my class had about 12 students. We were talking about race and the OJ Simpson trial, and I had the students get into small groups to discuss a question I had posed for the class. I was going around, and usually you’d like to see your students engaged in conversation. However, in the back of the room, there was a group of four students, and there was a woman on her cell phone and I thought, “Well, that’s not supposed to happen.” Right? You’re supposed to put your cell phones away. So I got up and she obviously saw me, but she continued talking on the phone. So I turned to one of her classmates and asked, “Who is she talking to? Why is she on the phone?” And she says, “Oh, she’s talking to her mother, who worked for the District Attorney in Los Angeles.” I realized that was the kind of environment we lived in. Sons and daughters of district attorneys, sons and daughters of senators, corporate CEO’s and things like that.
I think I just knew that the country club life was the way Princeton operated at the undergraduate level. At the graduate level, I knew I was there just for my degree, and I needed to just focus on that. It didn’t mean that I didn’t try to make changes at the graduate level. I did. With some other students, I helped to start the Latino Graduate Student Association, which is still there. I realized it was important to start that organization when I learned that within the graduate school there were more foreign students from Turkey than there were Latinos. When I learned that I said “There just needs to be a Latino association, even if it is just a social club that got together for happy hour drinks.” it ended up being a networking social, but we also did academic study. We were a place for resources. There needed to be a presence, an organization, something, so that we wouldn’t get lost as a pinpoint. We ended up meeting with the university president a few times. We helped a lot with recruitment. I’m glad it is still going, and I think it helps. Having an institutional presence is incredibly important, especially if you are trying to increase your numbers. Students won’t want to go to your place if they think they are not represented at all.
I did spend my twenties in Central New Jersey, which is worlds away from Los Angeles, but it was perhaps the best thing that happened to me, because it was there that I started to develop my academic interest in Latino politics and the processes of categorizing Latinos, sorting Latinos. How do you make Mexicans, Cubans and Puerto Ricans think they are part of the same group? I was only able to really think about that because I moved to the East Coast. When I would walk down the street – I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Union City or Hoboken in New Jersey – walked through Queens, Washington Heights. There was a totally different experience of Latinidad that had not been available to me in the east San Fernando Valley. It was completely different from what I could have gotten in California. I needed to go and think about what being Latino meant in another part of the country where the groups were different, the accents were different, and the food was different. And it was there that I really got the sense of the incredible diversity of the Latino community and of the incredible amount of politics and cultural maneuvering it takes to bring the community together.
Apuntes: Why Chicago?
CM: When I was at Princeton, it was 2008, and the economic meltdown was happening. Several jobs that had been posted at top-ranking schools across the country were suddenly pulled. There were no jobs, and it was one of the worst job markets in years. I knew that I wanted to come back to California as soon as possible, to be closer to my family and to think, and actually it was true, to think about Latinos and Latinidad and identity politics on the East Coast. Now that I had formed myself, I wanted to go back to the West Coast to sort of finish the thought process. But there were no jobs. The University of California had not one hire that year, across all the nine campuses, not just Berkeley. So I applied for these things called post-docs, which are two-year opportunities for one to continue writing her dissertation or convert her dissertation into a book manuscript. I applied for eight different post-docs. The University of Chicago was one of the first ones that got back to me. They had a really high stipend, and I thought Chicago would be pretty interesting. Historically, it is one of the only cities in America that had almost an equal pairing of different Latino groups, Mexican and Puerto Rican. So it is not overwhelmingly Mexican or overwhelmingly Puerto Rican, as we tend to find in different cities. I went there, and it was a wonderful experience, a fantastic place to be. Fantastic. It was there that I went on the job market, so it was in my second year that I had to apply to get a job. I applied to several schools and I ended up getting 10 job offers. Two of them were at the University of Chicago. One was in the Sociology Department and the other was in the Political Science Department; the others were at Berkeley, UCLA, and other schools.
Apuntes: At what point did you get married? I asked Tomás Jiménez the same question. It doesn’t have anything to do with gender.
CM: No, no, no. Wow, that is backtracking. Backtracking to one part. I was in Berkeley and I was finishing my senior thesis, and Raka and other people said “you are going to apply to graduate school now.” “Well, I kind of want to finish my senior thesis.” And they said, “Go work for a year; go do something else for a year.” And I am not sure why, but for as long as I had been studying social theory, inequality, and politics, I had thought “wow, I’d really like to go visit Cuba. Cuba is a place I would really love to go see.”
My senior year, one of my professors suggested I study abroad in Cuba: “Go find a Cuban program, and it will do wonders for the way you think about inequality.” I found one small program that was doing study abroad in Cuba. I applied for it and got in. So I took a year off, and in that year I was in Cuba. I think it was one week, and I met my husband there. I was studying at the University of Havana, and he was working and studying there. Within the first week, we met each other and we stayed together throughout my entire time in Cuba. I came back in the winter of that year to do my applications for graduate school, got into Princeton, and he said, okay we will see if it works out. We will apply for the visa. We didn’t think it would work out; we thought it was a long shot. I was young. He was young as well. But it worked. And he came to Princeton, and he spent his late twenties in Princeton with me. So that’s when I married.
We got married in Princeton, and he stuck by all of the pains and frustrations involved in writing a dissertation. He was involved in all my struggles with self-worth. I don’t know how one overcomes this: I think it always follows us. I don’t know, I think it’s the mark of the Latina, the underrepresented student. When can your work be yours, and not the institution’s? I remember going to Princeton and seeing undergraduate students with this amazing sense of self-entitlement, as if it was owed to them. They deserved to be there. This is theirs. This is part of their story, versus myself and others thinking, oh my God, how did I get this? When are they going to take it away? Let me hide, let me go into the corner. When does that go away? I am not sure. I can tell you that after receiving all kinds of accolades, I still kind of feel, todavía se tiene un poquito de miedo [there is still a little bit of fear]. There is still that sense of “let me hide a bit.” When can I really truly shine through my own work? I don’t know. But perhaps that is the source of our strength.
Apuntes: Tell us about your dissertation: “De Muchos, Uno.”
CM: The dissertation came about as I was living on the East Coast and thinking about this whole experience of being a Latina. I mean, I would walk through Washington Heights, and there was no question everyone thought I was Puerto Rican or Dominican. That had never happened to me. With my husband being Cuban, we found a big circle of Cuban friends, and my Spanish became different. Their ideas about immigration, Latino politics, and race in America tended to be different from what I had grown up with in Los Angeles. My husband is Afro-Cuban, for example, so his experience of being Latino is much different from mine. I really got to thinking about this, and while I was in graduate school I read up on theories of classification politics. How do states that have such a diverse array of people classify them? And there were a lot of theories of the state just sort of creating categories and imposing them onto people, and it seemed that if you think of how diverse the Hispanic or Latino community is, one would think they have absolutely nothing in common. How could they ever be unified?
Then I found a particular historical twist. If you look at America in the late 1960s, you will see that there was not one Spanish-language television program or channel that brought Latinos together. Mexicans created Mexican programming in Los Angeles. Cubans rented studios and made their own programming in Miami. Puerto Rican entrepreneurs would travel to San Juan to bring back soap operas and stuff for their own communities. There was an attempt in the late 1960s to bring Puerto Ricans and Mexicans together, and it was a disaster. They ended up shouting at each other, accusing one another of trying to co-opt their agendas.
If you look at the Census, the Census folk had this measure called Spanish surname, but that was only based in five Southwestern States. It never covered Puerto Ricans, and it never covered Cubans. So I started to think: if you look at the America we live in now, and you look at the America as early as the late 1980s, you have totally different stories. Univision brings all these groups together, and so do magazines and radio, right? They are now called Radio Latino, not Radio Boricua, or something like that. You know we have this category. So I started asking how this happened. How did we have this monumental shift from the late 1960s to what looks totally different by the 1990s. So I thought, wow, that’s a big question, I don’t think I can answer it. But I got a lot of support and guidance from my advisors out in Princeton, and we started simply with sort of a history project that looked at the history of the Census. And as I started digging into Census archives and speaking to former Census directors, I learned that there had been a lot of cooperation, and a lot of help, when the Census director decided that we were going to have a Hispanic category. He picked up two phones. With one, he called Latino activists and asked “Can you help us do this? Can you create town halls?” And with the other, he called the media and asked the same thing.
I wrote most of the dissertation at Princeton and finished writing it in Chicago. But it was fantastic to see what a town looks like when it is both Puerto Rican and Mexican. It was great, because I met a lot of Puerto Rican-Mexican couples and learned about the rich history of Puerto Rican and Mexican activism. That was fantastic. The dissertation is now a book. It’s called Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats and Media Constructed the New America.
Apuntes: Are there any negatives to this collectivization?
CM: Of course! There are positives and there are negatives. Why? Because identity is complex. What happens when you bring all these groups together and you emphasize unity and the image of one community? Well, what happens is that the minority within that one community is not necessarily represented. Its views can be hidden underneath this homogenizing process. One clear example is the number of Afro-Latinos, who are not historically represented on television, right? Their experiences of being Latino are not necessarily represented politically, either. You don’t see many Afro-Latinos at the helm of . .
“What happens when you bring all these groups together and you emphasize unity and the image of one community? Well, what happens is that the minority within that one community is not necessarily represented.”
Apuntes: But most Latinos are guilty of that. You look at a Mexican soap opera, and most of the characters are European-looking people.
CM: Yes, a lot of it is an American process, but much of it has its Latin American roots. When you see Afro-Latinos on novelas [soap operas], they play the santera, la bruja, the maid, the servant, the driver, if you see them at all. So that’s certainly one of the cons. Another con is that, even outside of race, some national interests aren’t represented. I point out in my book that one of the ways you can create national Hispanic or Latino politics in the country is by overlooking the claims of Chicano nationalists, or Boricua [Puerto Rican] nationalists. You have to push aside what might be thought of as the radical fringes. Talk about Aztlan or a new order, talk about Boricua identity, have to be pushed aside in favor of a much more calmer, tamer, Hispanic identity acceptable to the American political landscape.
Apuntes: You write quite a bit about religion. I remember one article that was titled “Jesus Was Also an Immigrant.” Tell us about the role of religion in your life.
CM: I’ve had an up and down relationship with religion. I consider myself more a faithful and spiritual person than a religious person. I feel that what got me through college and graduate school, amidst all the competition and the insecurities, and being far away from home, is that I have always had La Virgen de Guadalupe by my side. La Virgen de Guadalupe generally comes from a Mexican Catholic faith, but I’m not necessarily enthralled with the Roman Catholic Church and its teachings. There were times in Princeton that I was so overwhelmed by the amount of work I had to do, and the amount of competition, and the amount of insecurity, that I kept thinking, “Will I finish the dissertation? Will it be good? Will I get a job?” The only place I would find solace was the local Catholic Church. They had recently put up a big picture of La Virgen de Guadalupe because there was a growing Mexican community in the area. I remember I’d just walk there, spend some time with La Virgen, and leave with a sense that things would work out, that La Virgen watches over us. That always gave me a deep sense of comfort, throughout my life. Here at Berkeley, at the Catholic Church, they also have a shrine to La Virgen of Guadalupe. I have visited with her at different times.
But I have “differences” with the Catholic Church, especially in questions of gay marriage and things of that sort. My younger brother is gay, and my mother is quite religious. For a long time that created a deep strain in my family. My brother and my mother have not had the best of relationships. It was hard for me to comprehend how one could hold so fast to a doctrine over the feelings of a family member.
The way my mother interacted with the church, however, is what got me to thinking about the role of the church in the acculturation and assimilation processes. My mother relied on her church for all kinds of things: job referral services, baby sitting, how to get a mortgage, how to buy a house, how to get your papers in order.
I saw the immense role the church played in our community back in 2003 and 2006, leading to the immigrant marches and strikes across California in 2006. I don’t know if you remember that millions of immigrants marched across the nation. And many of the marches were organized by the Catholic Church. The church was an instrument for civic and political empowerment among people who had no other recourse, no other institution that would fight for them. It was during those times that I heard a woman speaker say “Yes, we are immigrants, and we are worthy of having rights in this country. Jesus was also an immigrant.” And that really captured me.
Apuntes: In closing, how do you feel about affirmative action? Any feelings about the recent Supreme Court decision?
“Let’s start with where we started: unless you have equal opportunity at the elementary and high school level, unless we are truly a land of equal opportunity, we will not have a situation where people have a realistic chance to get ahead.”
CM: Well, all the recent Supreme Court decision did was send the case back to the lower courts. Let’s start with where we started: unless you have equal opportunity at the elementary and high school level, unless we are truly a land of equal opportunity, we will not have a situation where people have a realistic chance to get ahead. We see this now in California: since affirmative action was repealed, the numbers of Latinos in higher education has dropped precipitously. Latinos comprise over 51 percent of the K-12 population in California. However, at UC Berkeley, which is the flagship school for the state, there are at most 14 percent Latinos. How do you go from 51 percent to 14 percent and still call yourself the land of equal opportunity? It is not possible to increase our representation without these programs. Without affirmative action, you wouldn’t have people like Sonia Sotomayor, and you or I might not have gone to college. I think these programs are incredibly necessary if we are really going to embrace diversity and the immigrant history of this nation. We need programs that help to overcome the vast obstacles that exist for immigrants, especially for Latino immigrants today.
Apuntes: One last question: as an expert on issues of ethnic identity, how do you feel about bilingual education?
CM: Bilingual education? I’m trying to find a good program for my daughter. I feel that bilingual education works on all different counts. If you look at studies of child psychology, learning two languages is certainly better cognitively for kids than just speaking one. At the cultural level, knowledge of Spanish is imperative for my daughter to help maintain the traditions and customs of her family, both on her mother’s and her father’s side. The problem with bilingual education is the funding and the lack of institutional support that we have given to it. The easiest way to make a fantastic idea go wrong is to underfund it, cut its legs out from under it. I think that’s what happened. The good bilingual education programs cost $20,000 to $30,000 a year. And who is trying to get their kids into them? The affluent people who want their kids to speak Spanish and English, or Mandarin and English. I think it is incredibly important to make such programs more accessible.