Barriers to Success: A Narrative of One Latina Student's Struggles

Winter 2009

Source: Harvard Educational Review. Vol. 79, Iss. 4; pg. 745-755. (Winter 2009).
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this essay, the author explores and discusses some common themes found in her experiences as a Latina undergraduate student. During the summer of 2008, the author conducted fieldwork in a rural town in Mexico. The author’s experiences as the only Latina student on this trip were similar to her experiences at her university and those discussed by Latina scholars.

The author considers the pros and cons of being an insider and an outsider to a rural town in Mexico, the use of Latinos as cultural brokers while denying their contributions as social scientists, and the blame she experienced for her lack of adjustment.

No Soy Gringa: Negotiating Insider and Outsider Status in Mexico

The author’s insider/outsider status at this field site in Mexico caused her peers, and in some instances the local community members, to question the degree of her insider perspective.
As a result, the author felt liminal. On the one hand, the author considered herself an insider because the author is a Mexican American (born in Houston, Texas) . On the other hand, the author also considered herself an outsider because the author didn't grow up in Mexico and her family wasn't from this region. The other students and the author were introduced as gringas to the local people, but the author considered herself Mexicana. The author had a hard time dealing with this at the beginning.

Latinas as Cultural Brokers

Outside of Mexico, there have also been instances in which her Latina perspective has caused some to question her objectivity as a researcher and her legitimacy as a young social scientist.
Despite others' dismissal of her academic contributions, like many Latinos in the academy, the author has often been used as a cultural broker. The author was invited to Mexico to provide research assistance. However, the author felt as if her peers saw her as a cultural broker rather than as a fellow scholar. Her peers expected her to translate words or phrases for them.
The author also used the findings of a survey carried out by the American Anthropological Association in 1973. According to this survey, more than half of the minority anthropologists agreed that minority scholars had been utilized chiefly as field-workers, interviewers, liaisons to an ethnic group, cultural broker-interpreter and informants (Chapter III, para. 28).

Lack of Adjustment

In addition to serving in a secondary capacity, the author is blamed for not being well-adjusted as an undergraduate student and as a student researcher abroad. The author has a general awareness of her own conflicting cultural values. Some of these conflicts have to do with separation from family, the questioning of her dedication, internal contradictions, hostilities in academia, and the perceived lack of her preparedness. Educators and scholars sometimes blame Latino/a students for their failures - suggesting that something is somehow wrong with Latino/a students, their personality, their mentality, their way of thinking, or their attitudes.

Personal Survival Strategies

The author also discusses the ways she resists these obstacles through survival strategies.

In order to survive the contradictions of college, the author relies on a Latina epistemology - sobrevivencia - the ability to survive, resist, and be resilient (Villenas, 2005). In the field, the author learned to set boundaries. The author sometimes chose to ignore the other students when they called her name or asked her to translate because the author thought that some of the things they were saying didn't make sense or weren't relevant to the people with whom they were speaking. The author also chose not to walk around town with the other students.

On campus, the author has gained strength from other people. Her mentors have empowered her and given her confidence when the author wanted to give up. The author has also gained strength from the programs in which the author participates, the community projects and student organization in which the author is involved, and the constant apoyo given to her by her parents.

American Anthropological Association. (1973). Minority report. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from

Villenas, S. (2005). Commentary: Latina literacies in convivencia: Communal spaces of teaching and learning. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 36(3), 273-277.

Updated: Mar. 02, 2010