Education as a Social Justice Tool: Adelante —The Latina Perspective


Education as a Social Justice Tool: Adelante—The Latina Perspective

Vilma Caban-Vazquez, Ed.D

In order to understand the power of your tomorrow, you must go back and understand your humble beginnings.


It’s the summer of 1969. My story begins in a tiny New York City studio apartment in the poverty stricken neighborhood of “Alphabet City”, known to the wave of Puerto Rican immigrants as “Loisaida” otherwise known as the lower east side (Miyares & Airriess, 2007). Born the illegitimate love child of a married Puerto Rican radio announcer and an immigrant Puerto Rican “campesina” (country girl), this feisty niña let out the warrior hunger cry that reverberated in an empty apartment that only housed a mattress and a small transistor radio—my mother’s sole companion. After sharing the news that she was pregnant, “mi papá”  was nowhere to be found. However, for many lonely days my mother eagerly and fondly listened to her first love. Sitting on her mattress, cradling her little miracle, she would tune in on her little radio seeking the smooth radio voice of her heartless and absent lover. The “campesina” desperately worried about how she was going to raise her daughter alone.

Fast forward to a moment in time, around 3 O’Clock in the morning where this resourceful single mother frantically tried to figure out how to feed her daughter. Facing a bare refrigerator, and just some sugar and rice in her pantry, her solution was to warm up some water and place 3 teaspoons of sugar to hold this hungry child for the night. The number three was a significant number to my mother.  The Holy Trinity…in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Somehow, this divine trinity would intercede. Her options were limited as an uneducated woman with a second grade education, and a limited skill set. She braced herself to face another 12 hour workday in a crowded and hot garment factory. “Mami” knew the moment she would bring her precious and hungry “Hija” to her altruistic “vecina” (neighbor), that she would have a warm bottle of milk waiting for her hungry child. As she rocked her “nena” to sleep, praying that sunlight would soon come, she painfully thought about her reality… “Aye Dios mio. ¿Que voy hacer?”.

Mami vowed that her daughter’s future would be different, and it was…my mother’s vow for a better tomorrow runs in this Latina’s veins in the form of strength, perseverance, and a desire for educational social justice. Little did my mother know that my birth place “Loisada” played a central role in the development of the Puerto Rican Movement or better known as the “Nuyorican Movement” (Laó-Montes & Dávila, 2001) . On the same streets that my mother walked her infant and a dream, walked the likes of Puerto Rican poets, intellectuals, and artists. This Nuyorican intellectual, political, and social landscape included poverty programs spearheaded by groups such as the Young Lords and the Black Panthers…both seeking education as the equalizer in socio-economically deprived communities. As a young girl, I was the beneficiary of social poverty programs which included a call for head start, free lead testing, and free breakfast programs. In retrospect, the Latino voice of social change to help those less fortunate was mixed in with my young warrior cries hungry to fulfill my mother’s dream…a better life.


As a Latina researcher and advocate reflecting on how my education served as a tool for social justice, I immediately gravitated to my mother’s narrative. Segura (2007) asserts that motherhood is a political, economic, social, and cultural construct that shapes a daughter’s pathway. Numerous studies suggest that the mother/daughter relationship and their stories of personal struggle serve as an instrumental tool for daughters to fully interpret their identity and to help “…envision their possible future selves” (Gomez, 2009, p.84). With this in mind, one can examine the multiple factors that contribute to Latina achievement. Sy (2006) posits that one of these factors includes the level of support that the mother demonstrates in nurturing her daughter’s educational goals and her ambitions. Likewise, Gomez (2009) asserts that Latinas draw “metaphorical sustenance from their mothers, most often finding them strong, resilient, and nurturing of their hopes and dreams” (p.85). The key to addressing a Latina’s education as a social justice tool is to find ways to tap into the power of motherhood and the pivotal role that it plays in shaping a Latina’s dream.


More information about this type of autoethnographic writing:


Anderson, L. (2006). Analytic autoethnography. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(4), 373-395.

Bruner, J. (2004). Life as narrative. Social Research, 71(3), 691-710.

Ellis, C., & Bochner, A. P. (2000). Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity: Researcher as subject. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 733-768). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Etherington, K. (2004). Becoming a reflexive researcher: Using our selves in research. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Gomez, M.L. (2010). Talking about ourselves, talking about our mothers: Latina prospective teachers narrate their life experiences. Urban Review 42(8), 81-101.

Laó-Montes, A. & Dávila, A. (2001). Mambo Montage: The Latinization of New York. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

McIlveen, P. (2008). Autoethnography as a method for reflexive research and practice in vocational psychology. Australian Journal of Career Development, 17(2), 13-20.

Miyares, I.M. & Airriess, C.A. (2007). Contemporary ethnic geographies in America. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Reed-Danahay, D. E. (1997). Introduction. In D. E. Reed-Danahay (Ed.), Auto/Ethnography. Rewriting the self and the social (pp. 1-17). Oxford: Berg.

Segura, D. A. (2007). Working at motherhood: Chicana and Mexican immigrant mothers and employment. In D. A. Segura & P. Zavella (Eds.), Women and migration in the U.S.—Mexico borderlands (pp. 368–387). Durham: Duke University Press.

Sy, S. R. (2006). Family and work influences on the transition to college among Latina adolescents. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 28(3), 368–386.


3 responses »

  1. I am balling. This is so beautiful Vee. You have to write a book…hell no…BOOKS! Your voice is powerfully strong and I can see the images as I read the words. You are a natural. I never knew that about your father or about how you were born. You are amazing. Don’t let anyone or anything derail this endeavor. Pa’Lante! May I share this with my Dad? I adore you!

  2. Amigas…your words keep me going:) This excerpt is part of an autoethnography that requires a transparent narrative…a task that is not always easy to do. It is easier standing on the outside looking in…but introspection requires a different lens. My resolve is to walk boldly into 2012 so that I can encourage other women to do the same. Adelante Latinas Adelante! Jocelyn and Rachel you were part of my story from the days of Latinas Unidas…let’s continue to lock arm-in-arm encouraging the next generation. Blessings to my sister-friends. God Bless!

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