Self-Reflection and Discovery: A Review of Mi Voz, Mi Vida: Latino College Students Tell Their Life Stories
Tony Jimenez is the award-winning President and CEO of MicroTech, the top Hispanic-owned IT integrator in the nation. A retired Army officer and service-disabled veteran, Jimenez founded MicroTech in 2004 and has grown the business into a profitable quarter-of-a-billion-dollar company. Hispanic Business Magazine named him one of the “Most Influential Hispanics in the Nation” and the Minority Enterprise Executive Council declared him one of the “Most Powerful Minority Men in Business.” Along with being on the Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy Executive Advisory Board, Jimenez also serves on several other boards, including the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Advisory Council on Minority Business Enterprise, the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce, the Latino Donor Collaborative, and George Mason University’s Board of Visitors. Jimenez has worked with several White House administrations, meeting with presidents and their senior advisors regarding small and medium-sized businesses and ways to create jobs, improve educational opportunities, and stimulate the economy.
In celebration of Mi Voz Mi Vida’s recent digital publication, a publication that signals a hunger to understand Latino students, and knowing that American education will soon hinge both on digital publications and Hispanic students, I dive into this touchstone for understanding the Latino college experience.
The editors of Mi Voz, Mi Vida: Latino College Students Tell Their Life Stories did an exceptional job of weaving fifteen disparate narratives into a coherent, comprehensive look at the struggles and triumphs of the student authors. The book is a collection of memoirs by student autobiographers between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two that attended Dartmouth College. Since these events took place at only one institution, one might question how generalizable or representative the students’ Latino college experiences are. However, this inspiring book of stories or “cuentos” is one that anyone who ever attended college or embarked on a serious journey of self-reflection and discovery can relate to regardless of ethnicity. As a Latino myself, I found many of the experiences described by the authors not only intriguing, revealing, and promising, but reflective of my upbringing and life events. In many instances, the stories capture the raw emotions of those who feel disenfranchised, yet through perseverance ultimately prevail; Joseph Rodriguez’s story of visiting his father in jail is a good example.
The essays represent only a select few completed as part of the requirements of a sociology course. The objective of the course was to increase the students’ understanding of Latino history, politics, and public policy. For many of the student authors, this would be their first serious foray into these areas. While the editors went to great lengths not to unduly influence the students’ stories, the authors were provided a number of “guiding questions” to help convey their personal stories; these questions undoubtedly served as a useful framework for promoting the reflective process for each student author. A representative sample of those questions is provided below.
- What gives purpose to your life?
- What relationships have been of major significance to you?
- When and how did you become aware of the concept of ethnicity?
- What have been some of the major struggles in your life?
- What roles does your “Latinoness” play in how you identify yourself?
To ensure the integrity of the stories, the editors followed a thorough review and vetting process for the essays. Independent reviews were employed by those not directly engaged in the story development process to ensure each essay received a more objective reading. Changes to the written texts by the editors were minimal. With a goal of facilitating each student to ultimately find “their voice” and tell their story in their own words, this approach helped ensure each author retained “ownership” of their story. The “sense making” aspects of their individual and very personal experiences were left to the author. After all, it is only through that sort of analytical and reflective process that individual meaning and “truth” could be derived. In the end, the story must be their story as they believe they lived it. Mi Voz, Mi Vida: Latino College Students Tell Their Life Stories effectively leverages this personalized perspective.
It was a good decision to package the essays and present them under the auspice of four major themes: resilience, biculturalism, mentoring, and identity. While on the surface the four themes appear to be discreet, independent topics, the reality is that the themes are present in the stories. Not surprisingly, the themes evident in each essay only help the reader gain an increased appreciation and understanding of the students’ collective experiences. The interesting question for readers to ponder as they make their way through the authors’ stories, which outline the firsthand experiences and challenges of growing up Latino is: “Can this work help combat the stereotypes of Latinos?”
As the stories of each individual unfolded, I found myself rooting for them to make good choices, find avenues of release for their pain, discover answers to their questions, and ultimately, achieve success. Growing up Latino, I found many points of connectedness; their stories were my story. I am sure many readers will have a similar reaction, which is always a telltale sign of a compelling narrative essay.
Although the editors do not suggest that any one of the four themes is more important than another, for me resilience stood out. The importance of resilience comes through in almost every story. As one might expect, all of the authors faced obstacles to some degree on their individual journeys, although some more than others (e.g., dysfunctional families, serious financial challenges, etc.). One especially interesting dimension to the stories is that in virtually every instance the authors recognized the possibilities that existed that could offer them an escape or enable them to transcend their circumstances. My sense is that most readers will agree with the editors who noted that perhaps there was no more vital factor for the students in terms of being able to endure, persist, survive, and succeed than resilience. In fact, I found myself easily relating to that aspect of the stories. As for myself, as an entrepreneur and CEO of a Top 5 Fastest-Growing Hispanic-Owned Business, I found these same factors (endurance, persistence, survival) critical to my success when starting up and growing my business over the past almost nine years.
The book is filled with touching and powerful personal stories. Many readers will find the essays quite emotional. A good example is the story of Eric Martinez. Eric experienced his parents’ physical abuse, their repeated drug use, and their alcohol addictions, which ultimately contributed to his mother‘s death when he was only thirteen. Eric and other student authors’ life circumstances underscore the conflicted feelings children may have growing up in dysfunctional households, and the fine line that can exist between feelings of intense love and hate.
The bicultural essays offer the reader interesting insights into the challenges the authors faced existing within two cultures and the struggles associated with adapting, existing and operating within those different worlds. As someone who lived through that experience–growing up, in the work place, serving in the military, and as a successful businessman–I empathized with the inherent conflict the bicultural experience presented the authors. No reader will be surprised to learn that bicultural issues can generate conflict. For the authors, this often meant examining those issuing through a polarizing prism: Latino versus white, rich versus poor, educated versus uneducated, industrious versus indolent, and legal versus illegal. Abiel Acosta’s story illustrates the conflict some students faced in terms of identity, having one school persona (uninhibited and freewheeling), yet exhibiting totally different behaviors among family (reserved, respectful, etc.). Almost every student struggled to embrace both identities. Their essays at times outline painful personal struggles of their cultural awakening as they navigate their way through various phases, phases that included awareness, education, learning, development, and ultimately acceptance. As someone who operates in both worlds on a daily basis, I can appreciate the struggles in the bicultural section of the book. As the students discovered, coming to grips with one’s Latino identity is a journey, not an event.
The value of education is one of the constant refrains of the mentoring portion of this book. This discussion reminded me of the emphasis and value my parents placed on education. Like many Latino parents in these stories, they believed getting an education was a critical stepping stone to a better life. Although neither of my parents were high school graduates, they served as inspiring role models, and both eventually attained their GED. In fact, my father, shortly before passing away, even obtained a college degree. My parents walked the talk and I listened, having earned three degrees and numerous certifications along the way. Interestingly, the stories presented in the book are largely at odds with some of the literature that claims Latino families do not value education. A number of students were keen to repay those who sacrificed so much to provide a path to success never available to them.
Mentoring is especially critical for “at risk” populations and clearly a number of the authors fell into that category. The significant impact mothers and grandmothers had on the student authors is especially noteworthy. Some were raised by single moms, many of which instilled a strong work ethic in their children. Likewise, matriarchs promoted Latino/Latina roots and the importance of family, faith, and cultural ties. As Eric Martinez noted, “. . .my grandmother’s love and faith she helped instill in me are two factors that saved me from ruin” (Garrod 2007). Readers will find the description of the family graduation celebration outlined in Angelita Urena’s essay underscores the pride her immediate and extended family felt from her educational achievement. As a successful entrepreneur, the mentoring essays reminded me, that I must remain cognizant of my roots and the need to serve as an example, to be a role model, and to mentor those looking for a helping hand, not a handout.
The final section of the book addresses the students’ efforts to answer the ever-present question of their self-identity and how to embrace and integrate their Latinoness into this identity. Virtually all attempted to reconcile who they were, with who they are, and ultimately who they hoped to become. Alejo Alvarez captured the internal conflict that the search for identity generates well, “My experience is often empty and detached, complimented by moments of fulfillment” (Garrod 2007). Like many others, he struggled with “a way to integrate being Latino into being me” (Garrod 2007). Norma Andrade’s story of identity struggle was representative of many of the others. She saw herself as fated to live in two worlds, the one her parents brought with them and the rest of society where she gained an awareness of, and appreciation for, her “Americanness.” The conundrum for the authors was balancing the old with the new, retaining important family values and traditions, while promoting cultural acceptance and advancement is captured in Andrade’s statement that, “Like myself, mi familia is forever changing and assimilating, but like me, they selectively assimilate in order to retain a rich culture” (Garrod 2007). The authors often concluded that they lived in a separate world from their family.
The editors suggest the book focuses on the students’ evolving lives and Latino identities; clearly this book does that, but I would argue that it does much more. It takes on the stereotypes of Latinos presented in the mainstream media as being poor, uneducated, and unassimilated to U.S. culture. The book is filled with stories of triumph and success as opposed to loss, sadness, and failure. In fact, the reader could certainly conclude that this book of essays outlines the consummate American success story: overcoming great odds to achieve success. While the book should have broad base appeal for anyone involved in student development, it will be of particular interest to Latino students, parents, along with educators that teach, advise, counsel, or otherwise engage Latino students.
I was left with two compelling questions at the conclusion of the book. The first has to do with the price the students paid in terms of graduating from a prestigious Ivy League school. Virtually every student and their family made enormous sacrifices to obtain a degree from Dartmouth. While some journeys were more difficult than others, all were forced to address incredibly challenging personal and family issues. Some of the experiences undoubtedly left emotional scars. Was the price too high? I am guessing, in some cases, the jury may still be out.
The second question is more personal for this reader. Would I have shown that kind of courage? As I reflect on my own personal journey, having grown up in a humble working class Latino family, I am inclined to believe that the core values instilled in me by my parents would have prepared me well to handle the pressures the student authors encountered. I easily related to and recognized myself in many of the stories. I am sure other readers will as well. Although the book was originally published in 2007, the recurring themes, challenges, and issues remain relevant and can be used to inform our understanding of Latino students today. To the extent this book inspires and motivates readers to understand the challenges Latinos face, and the contributions they make, it will continue to be a meaningful and informative gift to readers.