Mentoring Latinas: A School-University Collaborative Project on the Impact of Gender and Culture in the Lives of Hispanic American Girls

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 19–20, 2010

Howard University
Washington, D.C.

“Hispanic girls are a quiet problem,” said the superintendent of schools in a Westchester community in 2003. “Too many of them,” he continued, “quietly drop out of school due to a growing sense that they can’t make it, and to a lack of strong encouragement from home to stay in school.”

In August of 2009, the National Women’s Law Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund published a report telling us that:

  • 41% of Latina students do not graduate high school in 4 years.
  • one third of girls surveyed do not expect to achieve their educational goals.
  • 53% of Latinas give birth at least once before the age of 20–almost twice the national average
  • only 1 in 10 Latino children have parents who attended college, thus the desperate need to connect Latinas with positive role models and engage them in goal setting.
  • At 17 percent, Latina girls’ attempted suicide rate in 2007 was 150% higher than that for any other ethnic or racial group of teenagers (Congressional Briefing).

One reason for these problems is the high rate of stress newly arrived Latinas undergo in adapting to American culture. In the literature on immigration, the adolescent girl is described as experiencing a particularly difficult adjustment, due to issues of gender and sexuality. More liberally defined gender roles for girls and young women in the United States may cause serious conflicts between girls and their parents who defend the traditional roles of women that prevail in their home culture. Oliva Espin in Women Crossing Boundaries(1999) writes:

Since American society at large encourages immigrants to deny their cultural heritages, the adolescent finds ample support from adults in positions of authority to challenge her parents’ values. Conflicts over parental authority often are played out around issues of appropriate sexual behavior. Dating and other behaviors related to sexuality become the focus of conflict between parents and daughters.

There are pressures on Latinas to assimilate-to lose “all values, customs and behaviors originating in the home culture” (Espin 1999)–to simply adopt American values and culture wholesale. Schools may deny the worth of Latinas’ native language and cultural values. Recent studies, however, have shown that for immigrant youth today, particularly those of color, who try to assimilate, the predicted result is “increased risk for substance abuse, psychological distress, psychiatric illness and delinquent behavior” (Martinez et al. 2004). Researchers have found that immigrant and minority students do better in school when they embrace their native communities and, at the same time, incorporate selected aspects of the new culture into their self-concept (Qin 2006). The Lumina Foundation’s research finds that English-only Latino students are not the highest achievers. The students with the best attendance and the highest academic achievement and commitment are those who are fully bilingual (Padilla 2007).

A Latina’s identity development in the United States is complicated by the reality of her dwelling in two cultures represented by her family and community, on the one hand, and American society represented importantly by the school. A Latina might find the ethos of her school in conflict with certain aspects of life within her family and ethnic community. Latina parents’ expectations that daughters remain at home after high school conflict with the norms of middle class students who desire to go to a college away from home. The imperative for a young woman to marry early and start a family, a cultural presumption for many Latino families, makes it difficult for a Latina to be educated and start on a career path (Ginori and Huston 2001).

Latinas’ healthy identity development is particularly complex when girls find themselves in the presence of the racism and ethnocentrism that characterize the dominant culture. The formation of a self that incorporates ethnic identity is challenged by experiences in school where students’ families and other ethnic resources are not valued (Ginori and Huston 2001).

For example, one girl interviewed for the National Women’s Law Center report said, “At one point when I told a teacher I was heading away to college, he said he gave me two years before I was married and pregnant.” A Latina guidance counselor in a New York suburban middle school told me that a teacher responsible for proposing students for the honors program declined to recommend two Latino students who had excellent grades, because, she said, “they just didn’t work hard.”

Responding to the denigration of both femaleness and colored skin, Robinson and Ward write about the need for resistance in black female teenagers. Their words, I believe, are applicable to Latina teens as well. They distinguish between dysfunctional adaptations to an oppressive reality [that] tend only to provide short-term relief, teenage pregnancy for example, [and on the other hand] efforts of resistance taken up to promote the liberation of one’s self and one’s community. [Such attempts] require and sustain a self-conscious process of seeking to identify and transcend imposed systemic barriers by drawing upon the strength of one’s history and cultural connections (Robinson and Ward 1991). Thus the importance of powerful role models and education about one’s native culture. For Black girls it is often their mothers and other women in the community.

When a Latina teen confronts images of Latinas as low-achievers, school dropouts, girls in gangs, sex objects and teenage mothers, she may take primary responsibility for her limited options. She might become convinced that the route to success lies in denying her culture and becoming fully “American.” Or in response to hopelessness and despair, she might see becoming a mother as one of the few ways to give purpose to her life.

What educators must do, according to Robinson and Ward, is to prepare her for the “socio-political environment in which she will live by fostering the development of a resistance that will provide her with the necessary tools to think critically about herself, the world and her place in it.” Part of this appraisal of her situation will necessarily involve a critical assessment of the traditional roles of women that might be espoused by her family and ethnic community (1991).

Mentoring Latinas

Mentoring Latinas-named Club Amigas by its participants–is a program that introduces college Latinas as role models and mentors to middle and high school Latinas.

The program has four goals:

  • to have mentees identify with their mentors;
  • to increase mentees’ identification with and pride in their Hispanic culture;
  • to increase mentees’ sense of empowerment;
  • to increase mentees’ educational aspirations.

College students meet weekly with 1 or 2 teenage Latinas on the mentor’s college campus. For the past 3 years, our mentors have been undergraduates at Fordham College at Rose Hill in the Bronx. Mentors fill out a lengthy application, provide two references and come to a half hour interview with Mentoring Latinas staff. They must speak Spanish fluently. Mentors help with homework, answer questions about college and talk about important issues in girls’ lives, including those related to living in the United States as Latinas. Our goal is that they become friends.

Latina college students are familiar with mentees’ backgrounds and the barriers they face. Mentors model a Latina identity that integrates love of family and respect for tradition with personal agency and educational achievement, a positive sense of self to counter the negative stereotypes Latina teens must deal with.

In building a relationship of trust with her mentees, the mentor becomes an important role model for Latino parents as well as their daughters. She represents a possible self for her mentees, like them but also different, a Latina who has achieved against the odds.

It is worthy of note that many of the outstanding Latina mentors at Fordham say part of their motivation to succeed in going to college was to prove wrong all those who said they couldn’t make it.

Latina teens have spoken up about Mentoring Latinas in focus groups. One said, ” I didn’t think of college before my mentor got me thinking about it.” Another said something I cannot forget:

I really do my reading now. I’m reading a book about Germany and the Jews, and it reminded me that I’m afraid my mom will be deported. I want to continue my education so I can help my mom. She doesn’t speak English.

College mentors, too, bear witness to their own gains from the mentoring experience. They mention learning about how people grow up, acquiring a better understanding of social problems and experiencing a forecast of what it will be like to have daughters. They have also alluded to gaining a greater sense of their own identity.

Mentoring Latinas goes beyond other mentoring programs in matching mentors and mentees of similar cultural backgrounds who are near enough in age to make identification and closeness relatively easy. Using college students exclusively as mentors is a program innovation as is bringing students onto college campuses for most weekly mentoring sessions. Adolescent Latinas thus get a real look at what college is like, an important factor in their imagining themselves as college students.

The gender-specific programming of Mentoring Latinas represents an effort to assist adolescent Latinas in positive female development. It provides opportunities for young Latinas to develop relationships of trust with Latina college mentors, outstanding young Latina women who exemplify growth and achievement. Mentors become their role models.

We sponsor programs that tap into girls cultural strengths-a trip to see In the Heights, a Broadway musical about a Dominican neighborhood in New York City; a lecture by Dr. Norma Fuentes-Mayorga, a Fordham professor of sociology and Latino studies, in which she told mentees and mentors about her early life, coming here at the age of 14 as a member of a poor family and how she succeeded in becoming an educator. She also spoke of groups of Latinas from different cultures and how they interrelate-not always peacefully–in their adopted country.

Mentoring Latinas will publish a comprehensive handbook to help others replicate its program. It will be ready early in 2011 and available to those colleges who wish to partner with nearby schools in an effort to promote academic achievement and social growth for adolescent Latinas in their communities.


Espin, O. (1999) Women Crossing Boundaries. Routledge, New York.

Ginorio, A. & Huston, M. (2001) Si, Se Puede! Yes, We Can. AAUW Education Foundation,Washington, D.C.

Martinez, C. Jr., DeGarmo, D. & Eddy, J. (2004) Promoting academic success among Latino Youths. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 26, 128-151.

National Women’s Law Center & Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund(2009) Listening to Latinas: Barriers to High School Graduation. National Women’s Law Center web site. Available at: August 2009).

Padilla, R. (2007) The Road to College. Camino a la Universidad, Lumina Foundation, Indianpolis, IN.

Qin, B. (2006) The role of gender in immigrant child’s educational adaptation. Current Issues in Comparative Education, 9. 8-19.

Robinson T. & Ward J. W. (1991) “A belief in self far greater than anyone’s disbelief”: Cultivating resistance among African American female adolescents. In Women, Girls & Psychotherapy: Reframing Resistance(eds. C. Gilligan, A.G. Rogers, D.L. Tolman), Haworth Press, Binghamton, NY.

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Spring 2011: Engaging Students in the Community and the World