Latino Students on Campus

By Nilda Flores-Gonzalez

Learning to Be Latino: How Colleges Shape Identity Politics by Daisy Verduzco Reyes. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2018.

Cover of Learning to Be Latino by Daisy Verduzco ReyesIn Learning to Be Latino: How Colleges Shape Identity Politics, Daisy Verduzco Reyes examines the “hidden curricula” that shape the racial and political socialization of Latinos in college. Focusing on three higher education institutions in the same California region—a liberal arts college, a public research university, and a regional public university—Reyes weaves an intricate narrative that reveals the dynamics that Latino students face in different types of institutions and how they affect their understanding of themselves and their opportunities. The first part of the book consists of three chapters that provide the context for each of the institutions. The second part of the book contains three comparative chapters arranged thematically to address how institutional context shapes how students develop ethnic or racial identities, political identities, and understandings of inequality.

Reyes’s analysis is based on rich qualitative data collected over twenty months through an ethnographic study of six student organizations across the three institutions. At each, she selected one political Latino student organization and one nonpolitical Latino student organization. She conducted ethnographic observations of 150 meetings of these student organizations and interviews with sixty student members and twelve Latino faculty members and administrators. Demographically, the students were similar: the median family income ranged from $26,000 to $50,000, most were children of immigrants, and 80 percent were first-generation college students. While the students had similar backgrounds, the three academic settings were quite distinct. The liberal arts college was a small, highly selective, private institution with 1,500 mostly white and affluent students. Latinos made up 11 percent of the student population on this residential campus. The public research university was moderately selective and had a mixed residential campus and a large population of Asian American students. Latinos accounted for 11 percent of the 25,000 students at this university. With 20,000 students, the less selective regional public university had a predominantly Latino working-class and commuter student population.

Reyes found that despite their similar backgrounds, Latino students in the three settings have developed different understandings of racial identity and political outlooks. She argues that the racial climate and the institutional arrangements that students encountered in each university created particular experiences that influenced how they came to understand themselves and their roles as political actors. Factors such as school size; demographic characteristics of the student population; residential arrangements; relationships among students, faculty members, and administrators; and support programs for Latino students influenced how students defined being Latino, how they engaged politically, and whether they deployed narratives of meritocracy or oppression to explain inequality.

At the liberal arts college, Latino students faced a hostile racial climate characterized by microaggressions, but a close relationship with Latino faculty members and administrators, the close proximity to Latino peers on a small residential campus, and ample access to institutional resources fostered a spirit of cooperation among Latino student organizations. As a result, Latino students in both the political and nonpolitical organizations fashioned a definition of Latinidad that was expansive and inclusive of different national origins and led them to identify as Latinos, engage in conventional politics on campus, and develop a critical political stance that viewed explicit oppression as the cause of inequality.

Students at the public research university also faced a hostile racial climate, but the larger number of Latino students, the mixed residential pattern, the lack of close relationships with Latino faculty members and staff, and competition for funding that favored one organization over another led to conflictual intra-Latino dynamics that sent students down different ideological tracks. Members of the student organization with a long-standing presence, access to funds, and a political agenda developed a narrow definition of Latino authenticity marked by brown skin color, Spanish language proficiency, and Mexican national origin. Students in this group engaged in political discussions rather than actions and deployed narratives of oppression to explain inequality. Students in the nonpolitical organization embraced a more expansive and inclusive definition of Latinidad that welcomed students of diverse Latino backgrounds; these students avoided politics and viewed inequality through the lens of individual merit and effort.

In contrast to their counterparts at the liberal arts college and the public research university, Latino students at the regional public university were shielded from day-to-day encounters with racism by their majority status, but the commuter nature of the campus and the lack of funding for events led to weak and often pragmatic ties among students. At this university, Latino student organizations coexisted but did not interact with one another. Overall, the Latino students favored national origin identities, because on a majority Latino campus there was no need for panethnic identification. As at the public research university, belonging to a political or nonpolitical student organization influenced students’ political outlooks but not their political engagement. Members of both types of student organizations engaged in contentious politics outside the university, but they differed in their approaches toward inequality: members of the politically oriented organization viewed inequality as a consequence of oppression while members of the nonpolitical student organization tended to view the United States as a meritocracy.

Learning to Be Latino provides a comprehensive and in-depth examination of the institutional dynamics that shape Latino students’ political socialization. In addition to contributing to the growing scholarship on Latino identity and Latinos in higher education, Learning to Be Latino makes three distinct contributions to scholarship. First, it challenges the homogenizing of Latino students. Defying a cookie-cutter model of the “Latino elite in the making,” Reyes shows that Latino students with similar demographic backgrounds develop different ethnic and political identities and hold different views about mobility. Second, Reyes shows that attending college does not necessarily make students liberal or conservative. Students with similar backgrounds attending the same university can develop opposing outlooks, as her analysis of the public research university and the regional public university clearly shows. Third, Reyes demonstrates that universities teach more than academic knowledge and skills. They impart to students understandings of the world and their places in it. Reyes points to the hidden curricula—those lessons that are not part of the academic training of students—as the main factors having an effect on ethnic, racial, and political identities and notions about inequality. In all, Reyes provides a nuanced and compelling argument that disentangles the complex institutional dynamics faced by Latino students as they navigate higher education. With an engaging writing style, this well-researched book has a lot to offer a general audience and is a great addition to courses on the Latino experience, race and higher education, and political socialization.

Nilda Flores-González is professor and associate director of the sociology program at the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. Her most recent book, Citizens but Not Americans: Race and Belonging among Latino Millennials, examines the effects of racialization on how Latino youth understand national belonging. Her email address is [email protected].