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

Vilma Luz

Education as a Social Justice Tool

Adelante—The Latina Perspective

My story begins in a tiny New York City studio apartment in the poverty stricken neighborhood of “Alphabet City”, also known to the wave of Puerto Rican immigrants as “Loisaida” ergo…the lower east side (Miyares & Airriess, 2007).  La Calle 6, Avenida B was the place this Latina called home.

Avenue B 6th StreetBorn the illegitimate love child of a married Puerto Rican radio announcer and an immigrant Puerto Rican “campesina” (country girl), this feisty niña, Vilma Luz,  let out the hunger cry that reverberated in an empty apartment. My first home was a tiny space which only housed a mattress that rested on a bare floor, and a small black transistor radio—my mother’s sole companion.

After sharing the news that Maria was pregnant, “papá” was nowhere to be found. However, for many lonely days my mother eagerly tuned into the AM radio station in the hopes of capturing her first love’s voice. As my heartbroken mother sat on her mattress, cradling her little miracle, Maria would rock her angel to sleep.  Maria would get emotionally lost… in the far away… smooth radio voice… of her heartless and absent lover. The “campesina” desperately worried about how she was going to manage raising her daughter Vilma Luz “solita”.

transistor radio 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 hot crowded garment factory. “Mami” knew the moment she would bring her precious and hungry “Hija” to her altruistic “vecina” (neighbor), that this kind soul would have a warm bottle of milk waiting for her hungry child. As she rocked her “nena” Vilma Luz to sleep, praying that sunlight would soon come, Maria painfully thought about her reality… “Aye Dios mio. ¿Que voy hacer?”.
The Trinity
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 fearless desire for educational social justice. Little did my mother know that my birth place “Loisada” or the Lower East Side played a central role in the development of the Puerto Rican Movement or better known as the “Nuyorican Movement” (Laó-Montes & Dávila, 2001) .
Lower East Side Protests
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.
Ave B, East 6th Street
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.
Consequently, tapping into the power of my mother’s narrative is an essential strategy that I have personally used as I walk towards my dream. The common thread that is woven, throughout my mother’s story and my personal resilience story, had the strong likelihood of ending because regrettably I do not have a daughter. However, I have chosen to continue the legacy of passing my mother’s narrative with not only my beloved son Christopher, and my beloved nieces Carolyn & Lola Marie, but also with the beautiful circle of beloved Latina sisters that I encountered throughout my life’s journey.
Latinas who have the most self-confidence have a well-informed view of a strong “intergenerational self.” They know that they belong to something bigger than themselves (Duke, 2006). These women are aware of the pivotal struggles that their mothers and grandmothers faced in their lifetimes. Ultimately, these Latinas can fully appreciate the multifaceted nature of their struggles and they truly embrace it as a part of their strong legacy.  The key to fostering and mentoring the next generation of Latinas is to encourage them to see that they are a part of a strong circle of Latinas that overcame obstacles and stood boldly to face and conquer great challenges. As a Latina scholar, humanitarian, mother, sister, and friend I strive to share my mother’s legacy so that it can inspire the next generation of Latinas.  It is a great honor for me to mentor two Columbia University human rights students that proudly identify with their Latino heritage and seek to make a difference in the global community.  I consider them my new daughters and I hold their dreams close to my heart.  I will continue to share my narrative and highlight the pearls of wisdom that I uncovered in reflecting on my humble beginnings. Most recently I was able to exchange not only pearls of wisdom but a symbolic gift of pearls with these angels.  A pearl symbolizes so much.
Ultimately, the Latinas that struggled before me, and those that have been brought into my life, are precious pearls that I will cradle.  My Columbia University mentees came from a life of struggle. However, they are precious pearls paving the way for the next generation of Latina Scholars.
Human Rights Columbia University Interns
I invite you to think of the pearls in your life?  The life-changing narratives that speak of hope and life.  When you do, please read the following informational excerpt below.  It will touch your heart and you will never look at a pearl in the same way.


The birth of a pearl is truly a miraculous event. Unlike gemstones or precious metals that must be mined from the earth, pearls are grown by live oysters far below the surface of the sea. Gemstones must be cut and polished to bring out their beauty. But pearls need no such treatment to reveal their loveliness. They are born from oysters complete — with a shimmering iridescence, lustre and soft inner glow unlike any other gem on earth.

A natural pearl begins its life as a foreign object, such as a parasite or piece of shell that accidentally lodges itself in an oyster’s soft inner body where it cannot be expelled. To ease this irritant, the oyster’s body takes defensive action. The oyster begins to secrete a smooth, hard crystalline substance around the irritant in order to protect itself. This substance is called “nacre.” As long as the irritant remains within its body, the oyster will continue to secrete nacre around it, layer upon layer. Over time, the irritant will be completely encased by the silky crystalline coatings. And the result, ultimately, is the lovely and lustrous gem called a pearl.

How something so wondrous emerges from an oyster’s way of protecting itself is one of nature’s loveliest surprises. For the nacre is not just a soothing substance. It is composed of microscopic crystals of calcium carbonate, aligned perfectly with one another, so that light passing along the axis of one crystal is reflected and refracted by another to produce a rainbow of light and color.

*Pearl Formation Excerpt:

 Autoethnography by Dr. Vazquez
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.
Duke, Marshall. (2006). An intergenerational sense of self is the source of strength for kids and family members. Emory Newsletter, Spring. Retrieved from
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.

4 responses »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s