Latinx Heritage Month: Examining Latinx identity & future success in education

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“Until your board room looks like your mail room, you have not achieved diversity.”

Louis R. Hernandez, Partner at Kirkland & Ellis

The Latinx community is uniquely comprised of many different cultural influences and languages spoken around the world, and terms like Hispanic and Latinx play a crucial role in how individual and communities understand their heritage.

As part of the Thomson Reuters Institute’s four-part series honoring Latinx Heritage Month, the first of two recent panels, El Aislamiento de la Solidaridad (The Isolation of Solidarity): Assimilation and Acceptance within the Latinx Community, featured speakers from legal, tax, and corporate employers to discuss the impact of the Latinx identity on individuals, the community, and the education challenges they face.

Evolution of LatinX identity

Pan-ethnic terms, such as Latinx and Hispanic, are unique to the U.S. and not used commonly throughout the rest of the world. Hispanic is the oldest pan-ethic term, with Latinx coming into fashion in the 1990s and becoming more popular within pop culture outside of the community. In fact, only 23% community members have heard of the term, according to panelist Mark Hugo Lopez, Global Director of Global Migration and Demography Research at the Pew Research Center.


Eugenia Hernandez of Sodexo, Inc.

Largely, many members don’t identify as Hispanic, but instead communicate their identity of national origin. “When I travel, I identify as Puerto Rican to recognize my national origin,” said panelist Eugenia Hernandez, Assistant General Counsel for Compliance, Ethics and Privacy at Sodexo, Inc. “When I speak to people from the U.S. who are outside of my community, I identify myself as Latina, but ultimately it is about respecting how people want to self-identify.”

Indeed, at least 30% of the population identify as Afro Latino, noted another panelist, Guesnerth Josué Perea, Director of Programs and Communications for the afrolatin@ forum, adding that even more come from mestizo (mixed ancestry of European and Native American) and those with indigenous roots to the Americas. This reiterates the importance to recognize the communities and their additional identities to ensure they feel seen and appreciated, he said.

The Latinx term comes from an “English language dominant” paradigm. Because of anti-Spanish language bias in the U.S., tension between being forced to assimilate into U.S. culture and losing the identity of national origin was pervasive in Latinx households in the past. For example, Kirkland & Ellis’s Louis Hernandez recalled how the dual-language ability within his family was lost because his father was forbidden to speak Spanish growing up. Now, Hernandez said he is determined for his children to retain his family’s Hispanic identity by paying for his children to attend a dual-language school. Indeed, within the Latinx community, there is a stigma for those who are not bilingual, despite language discrimination in the broader U.S. society.

Education challenges

In the second panel, Un Futuro Más Brillante (Un Futuro Melhor/A Brighter Future): Increasing Access to Education for the Latinx Community, panelists discussed some of the biggest challenges facing the community in the area of education.

For example, one-in-four students in the U.S. identifies as Latinx, and this number will increase to one-in-three by 2025, according to panelist Amanda Fernandez, CEO and Co-Founder of Latinos for Education. More specifically, the move to remote learning during the current pandemic is exacerbating the “COVID slide” — a term that describes the worsening disparities. The digital divide between those families of privilege that have access to computers and the Internet and can afford multiple devices (computers, smart phones, etc.) and those families that lack money to pay is widening the gap in negative education results.

Further, the lack of face-to-face access to schools, which often serve as a community hub for other services like social workers and subsidized meals, is also putting additional economic pressure on low-income families within the community, said panelist Candace Gomez, a Partner at the law firm Bond, Schoeneck & King.


The Honorable Peter Reyes

Over the long term, the smaller representation of Latinx educators and role models prevents students from seeing someone who they can identify with culturally in a position of authority. Diversity of educators and having those with a Latinx identity does matter, and it impacts how students are treated and viewed, the panel observed.

Finally, English language learning students are also at greater risk because remote learning does not offer them the same access to helpful resources to work through reading comprehension, writing, and math. This could be a big factor in the future as demand for bilingual professionals increases. Indeed, another panelist, The Honorable Peter Reyes, a judge on the Minnesota Court of Appeals, described how during his youth there was a stigma associated with speaking Spanish in public, yet later, as an in-house lawyer, he was rewarded for his dual-language abilities.

Optimistic about the future

Despite these challenges, panelists from both sessions said they are confident about the benefits of the Latinx identity and the community’s future success. More than 500 higher education institutions have the designation of Hispanic-serving institutions, which means that they are committed to the education of the Hispanic community, the largest minority population in the U.S., as well as preparing members to be a part of the workforce of tomorrow.

Moreover, future opportunities in business for Hispanic individuals were positive, panelists observed. It’s important for corporations to reflect and embrace the diversity of the Latinx community because the Latinx community has substantial buying power as consumers and as corporations’ customer base representing multiple identities, Perea pointed out.

In fact, about 61 million citizens trace their roots to Latin America or Spain, and half of the current U.S. population growth comes from Latinx origins over the last decade, according to Pew Research’s Hugo Lopez.

Driving inclusion for members of the Latinx communities means valuing each micro-identity, including those of African and indigenous descent; and each language, including Spanglish, and encouraging bilingualism, Perea emphasized. “Uniformity does not equal unity.”

Eugenia Hernandez urged those with a Latinx identity to leverage it to their advantage, describing how her personal connection to others was deepened by food and music. And this allowed her to fortify her career success and feel fully comfortable embracing her “Latina-ness.” “I want to hug, be loud and outgoing, and it is much more accepted today than what it was 15 years ago,” she added.