Do Latinas have to assimilate to succeed?
Dr. Mari Fuentes-Martin, Associate Vice President and Dean of Students, University of Texas – Pan American, shares her personal journey in higher ed as it relates to her ethnicity and sense of self. How does it compare to your journey?
The simple answer to this is yes and no. But what makes a Latina successful? I believe that we have to find a balance in our identity and in our skills where both are celebrated or appreciated. Throughout my career I have had mentors who guided and encouraged me in my personal, professional, and academic decisions. My personal journey has been a relatively positive one blending my personal ambitions, my Mexican-American upbringing and my chosen field in higher education and student affairs. I hope that by sharing this with you, it may help find the balance to be successful.
When students and colleagues ask me about my leadership identity and how I came to reach the level of success in my career, I will share with them that my strongest leadership characteristic is my ethnocentric philosophy. This viewpoint was seeded within me by my parents as a young, Catholic girl growing up in South Texas. My parents regularly shared stories of the prejudice they experienced as migrant workers as well as the oppression from Anglos (the South Texas term for Whites) in school, sports and other social settings. From their experiences, they decided to give their four children a strong foundation of values and confidence as well as an understanding that Mexican-Americans were not less than Anglos.
As an academically strong student, I had the privilege, when I was 15 years old, of participating in a Hispanic leadership program which solidified my chosen label of “Chicana” as I made a commitment to be proud of my ethnic identity and make a difference for Latinos. At this conference, I met the recruiter for the University of Notre Dame and this person made a lasting impression on me. Two years later, I was accepted to Notre Dame and my pledge to becoming a Latina leader was launched and challenged.
When I chose Notre Dame, I did not consider the cultural shock I would experience. Moving from a bilingual and bicultural community to a predominantly white college setting was challenging at first. I felt like a novelty as almost no one could pronounce my nickname nor did they perceive me as a real Hispanic. I spent all four years teaching everyone I met how to pronounce Mari (mah-dee) and not “Maury or Mary or Maddie” or all kinds of atrocious sounds that were not my name. My name is part of my ethnocentric self who refused to have her name changed because others couldn’t pronounce it. I was also considered a little weird because I pronounced Spanish words in Spanish, so people would often clarify what I was saying. But my new friends struggled to see me as Hispanic because I didn’t have an accent and because I wasn’t poor. Often, I knew what they meant to say is that they regarded me as their equal academically and socially, which I valued, but what I often shared with my Notre Dame friends was that I didn’t want to be an Anglo. I wanted them to recognize me as Latina and to affect their stereotypes of Latinos.
In the end, I feel that I had the ideal collegiate experience, but I also believe I impacted my fellow students by offering them a broader perspective of understanding the diversity of people who are Latinos or Hispanic. The next challenge for me on my journey was to determine how do I celebrate my ethnic identity and leadership and succeed in my chosen career?
A year after graduating from Notre Dame, I was asked to consider a position with the Notre Dame Alumni Association, which I happily accepted, and this decision transformed both me, and my career. One of my first professional mentors was the Director of the Alumni Association, Chuck Lennon. His vision of the Alumni Association was that this large and influential body should have active involvement and representation of its diverse alumni, specifically minority alumni. Being a Latina alumna was an advantage for me and for the Alumni Association. I gladly joined his team and observed his leadership style and interpersonal skills, listened to his motivational and inspirational speeches, and witnessed the epitome of transformational and servant leadership in everything that Chuck did. After one whirlwind year with the Alumni Association, I was asked to serve as the first Assistant Director of Multicultural Affairs at Notre Dame.
The decision to accept the position in Multicultural Affairs opened the doors for my career in student affairs that began over 24 years ago. My daily interactions with students of color satisfied my personal goals of guiding them through their collegiate experiences and on to graduation. What I later realized was that I had a limited number of colleagues from diverse backgrounds and there was not another Latino on campus. The next significant mentor I had at Notre Dame was Dr. Roland Smith who served as Executive Assistant to the President at Notre Dame. Roland and I had met when I was an undergraduate because he supported many diversity initiatives and I was often involved in multicultural events. While I was working in Multicultural Affairs, he invited me to breakfast and shared with me his observations and assessment of my work. He concluded by saying he believed I had a lot to offer higher education as a Latina and as a professional, but to move ahead I would need a master’s and a doctorate degree. He supported me both in my application to a master’s program and, by introducing me to colleagues in higher education at professional conferences.
At one of these conferences, I met Dr. Tito Guerrero who was Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC). Tito recruited me to a doctoral program and to a position as an Assistant Dean of Students. My interest in moving to TAMU-CC was its designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), which meant that at least 25 percent of the students enrolled were of Hispanic descent. Working at TAMU-CC for the next six years gave me the experience with a vastly different student population as well as opportunities for professional growth in other areas of student affairs. This also broadened my experience in supervising various departments, staff members, overseeing budgets, and building new programs from the ground up. These experiences led my next positions of Associate Vice President and Dean of Students at The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) for twelve years and presently, I serve with the same title at The University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA).
In retrospect, I think it would have been easy to assimilate during my studies and career at Notre Dame, but that’s not who I am. Working at an HSI highlights my Latina identity as an asset, so I don’t feel like assimilation is a consideration. My parents are proud of their four children and our achievements. I’m thankful for the mentors I have had who encouraged and guided me. As I mentor students and staff, my message is to celebrate their cultural background.