By Zola Cervantes
In the 2002 film, “Real Women Have Curves,” a family shuns a young Latina after she decides to leave her East Los Angeles neighborhood and attend college in New York.
The protagonist, played by America Ferrera, is a first generation Mexican-American student who is accepted into Columbia University. Her parents, especially her mother, don’t approve of the college and don’t understand why she wants to attend a university so far away.
The film, written by Josefina Lopez, a Boyle Heights native and playwright, addresses a common experience for many Latino youth. Many parents are still hesitant to let their children go away to study. Among their reasons are lack of understanding about the opportunity and fears about their child’s or the family’s well-being.
And the issue is becoming more relevant today with the number of Latinos graduating from high school and attending college at an all-time high. In the 2014-2015 school year, the graduation rate of Latino students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) was 76.4 percent, up 10.8 percentage points from 2009-2010. According to the National Student Clearing House, 63 percent of Latino students from LAUSD in the class of 2014 enrolled in college during the first year after graduation. Nationwide, there were 2.3 million Hispanic college students in 2014, up from 1.8 million five years before, according to the Pew Research Center.
Factors: fear and need
The decision about where to attend college involves many considerations, but some local Latino students say they choose schools close to home because of pressure from their parents. “They want me to get a higher level education, but they don’t really know how college works, and they don’t really know what that entails,” Amy Rodriguez, a senior at Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez High School, says of her parents.
Jaime Carias, co-author of the book “Buscando vida, encontrando éxito: La fuerza de la cultura latina en la educación,” says it’s not unusual for Latino families to fail to understand why their sons or daughters might want to go away to school. “Buscando Vida”–“Searching for Life, Finding Success: the Power of Latino Culture in Education”–is a practical guide meant to help parents understand how to support the education of their children.
Carias wrote the book because there weren’t a lot of Spanish-language college preparation materials for parents. He also leads workshops for families to help them understand the process.
Carias believes the influence of family in college decisions is huge. “Sometimes the parents aren’t involved, and the student is left on his or her own to make that decision,” he says. “Sometimes parents really don’t understand the nature of leaving to [go to] school, for moving out, for moving into the dorms and going far away.”
This is especially common when a student is the first in the family to go to college, or from a family in which students are expected to help out their parents or siblings.
Luz Borjón, a counselor who helps low-income students at Cal State University Los Angeles, says she sees a lot of students who feel they can’t leave their families behind.
“I have a student who is a Roosevelt graduate who got into Berkeley, but she ended up here at Cal State LA because her mom’s a single mom in the housing projects, and there was no way she was going to go to Berkeley and leave her mom alone,” says Borjon.
Carlos Jiménez, a U.S. history and Chicano studies teacher at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet and the author of the textbook, “The Mexican American Heritage,” says a family’s feelings about college depends upon parents’ own experiences.
“Some of the immigrant parents were college graduates back in their home country, so they know it’s a necessity,” says Jiménez. “On the other hand, some are immigrant parents from a different culture, and they have no experience with college themselves.”
In many families, girls feel even stronger pressure to stay at home and care for younger siblings or help out their mothers.
One family’s belief: girls “more fragile”
Lisette Castro, a senior at Bravo Medical Magnet, says, “My parents believe that because I’m a female, I’m more ‘fragile’ and should therefore stay close to home.”
While her brother attends the University of California at Davis, she says, “My parents don’t want me to leave the state or city. I feel like if I live far away it’ll create tension in our family.” Castro has applied to schools both in California and out of state.
Some parents say the reason they object to their children leaving is to keep the family together, but Jimenez, the Francisco Bravo teacher, says it sometimes has more to do with fear of the unknown. “The parents didn’t go to college themselves, so they’re afraid of what’s going to happen to the kid in a different school in a different city,” says Jiménez.
In his workshops, Carias says he tries to show parents that their children’s college experience away from home would not be that different than their own as immigrants. “The ones that migrated here from Mexico or Central America or another country embarked on a journey on their own,” he says. “Some of them had to go through fences, borders and by themselves and landed here not knowing the language.”
Sometimes it’s the student who doesn’t want to leave home. Daisy Calvary, 19, who attends Cal State Fullerton, says fear influenced her decision.
“I feel that staying closer to home meant being closer to family,” says Calvary. “Family is everything. I was scared to live far from my parents and sister and brother. It was between Davis and Fullerton. I felt safer with Fullerton.”
Carias agrees that staying closer to home might be the right option for some. Those who want to go away should start the conversation with parents early on.
“You have to prepare them, because it’s something new culturally,” he says. “It’s something new especially if the student is going to be the first in their family to go to college and especially if they’re going to be moving into dorms.”
Zola Cervantes is a senior at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School in Boyle Heights.