Archive for May, 2009

The Supreme Court Needs Diversity

President Obama’s historic nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the supreme court is a positive step for our country. From what I have read, Sotomayor’s life plays as one of the most inspiring Latino success stories; and her accomplishments exemplify what the American dream is all about. However, despite our country’s foundation on diversity, opinions against diversity continue to rule the land. A heated debate is expected to ensue over how her gender and Hispanic heritage could affect her role as a Supreme Court Justice. Critics worry that her background will influence her interpretation of the law. Of course it will. Just as the upbringing of the other Justices shape their own interpretation of the law. How can it not? Am I the only one who finds this whole line of reasoning absurd?

Any person by human nature bases any decision in life on what they know; and what they know comes from their personal education, background, and experiences. This is why very often there are ethnic clashes. Groups of people who share a similar background and upbringing tend to also share a similar point of view on social interactions and behavior. And ethnic groups will be at conflict when they find that what they understand to be true does not correspond with what people in other ethnic segments think and believe. Diversity is key in understanding one another because it brings to light another person’s point of view. We are more likely to educate one another in the presence of diversity and it allows us to place ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. Does it matter when we are talking about a judge who is supposed to only go by the letter of the law? Of course it does!

Judges are constantly called to make interpretations of the law. What is written is not always clear; and sometimes it is not even written at all. A large part of our “laws” are created through the decisions of judges in our rich history of cases. The system works; and case law is proven effective as more and more judges agree in the interpretation an decisions of similar cases. The ultimate court that is called to interpret the law is, of course, the United States Supreme Court. A case does not make it to the supreme court when the law is clear. The Supreme Court is always called to render an interpretation- an opinion. How can a Justice of the Supreme Court render an Opinion without using their cognitive thinking? And how does anyone do that without relying on what they know? They do; of course, and their background and upbringing is always there backing up every opinion.

When I hear that people do not want a Latino Justice because she may be biased by her gender and background, what I hear is that they do not want opinions rendered by Justices who have experienced something other than an Anglo White American upbringing. They are looking for an assimilated background to shape all interpretations. Why are we so afraid of having a perspective that represents so many other Americans in our country? How many Justices grew up in poor neighborhoods? How many had to find a scholarship to make it to law school? How many experienced the struggles that females face in this country to be at an equal stance with males? How many grew up with the difficulties poised by Hispanic discrimination and managed to rise above it all? The Supreme Court, more than any other court in our nation, must benefit from the understanding and clarity that diversity brings!

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Latinos Communicate at a Spiritual Level

 There is something peculiar about Latino interactions. Our communication goes much further than what is simply verbalized by the spoken words. We prefer to connect at an emotional, or at what I prefer to call a spiritual level. In my work interviewing Latinos I have witnessed this peculiarity in a consistent basis. Latinos generally feel more comfortable dealing with people when there is an established emotional bond among them. Yes, I know, almost everyone does; but Latinos are different in that they seek this emotional connection in almost every daily interaction. The connection with the person is almost more crucial that the verbal communication itself.

Perhaps my point is best described through examples. Have you ever been to a Latino supermarket or neighborhood store? A large supermarket chain in the northeast hired me once to understand why Latinos shop at what they considered to be low quality stores. “We do not get it,” my client said; “we are loosing customers to a store that is not very clean, is totally disorganized, carries very little variety of merchandise, and is more expensive than ours on almost everything!” I visited the Latino store in question and interviewed many of its customer. Their loyalty to the store had little to do with the merchandise they carried or the price point of the products offered; they shopped there because they felt at ease interacting with the employees. Here is a typical customer comment.

“I like coming here because I can talk to the butcher about his family; and the cashier knows who I am. The employees care about me and I care about them. In other places they try to rush you through the check out and do not care to chit-chat. If I am dealing with people, I like to feel like I know them.”

On another project a large insurance company wanted to understand the importance of having Latino sales representatives. They were of the opinion that the most important aspect in selling their services were the details of the plan and their pricing structure. They had translated their brochure into Spanish and were disappointed in the Hispanic receptivity. In talking to their customers and agents over several focus group interviews I, once again, came across the importance of connecting at an emotional level.

“I do not care to read the details of the plan or for the salesperson to give me a dissertation about the benefits. I prefer to deal with a Latino agent because they are more likely to understand what I want. My current agent knows me and my family well and he cares to ask how we are doing. I trust him personally, so I trust that what he recommends is good for me. A friend at work once convinced me to meet with an agent who had a very structured sales presentation; I did not trust him at all.”

A good friend of mine who is not Latino once told me the story of how his company, a liquor company, went about securing a merger with a Mexican brandy manufacturer. A team from the American company was sent to Mexico to finalize the details of the deal with the owner of the Mexican company. Their task was to convince the Mexican owner of the viability of the deal. They were prepared with all their financial backup, analytical charts, reports, and their laptop computers. They were picked up at the airport by an employee of the Mexican company who took them, to their surprise, to the private residence of the company owner. The were greeted there by the owner, a few employees, and the owner’s family. They ate, drank and shared stories with the Mexican family until someone from the American team asked when they were scheduled to discuss business. At that point the owner of the Mexican company said, “I just needed to know you better, they deal is sealed. You can work out the details with my people in the morning.”

All of these examples point out the importance that Latinos place on communicating using something that goes beyond words and facts. In Latino interactions we pay a lot of attention to how we feel about the person we are communicating with and rely heavily on visual, tactual, and other non-verbal cues. Touching, kissing, hugging, storytelling, tangents, and verbalizing feelings are all important components in Latino interactions. Through our unstructured style of telling stories and going on tangents we get to learn about each other. We seem to unconsciously monitor how the other person reacts and pay close attention to how we feel about those reactions. We use exaggerated non-verbal and verbal expressions to communicate feelings because we know how crucial it is to connect at the emotional level. I find that Hispanics do this even if they are not consciously aware of doing it.

In researching Latinos one has to be keenly aware of how Latinos interact and how they prefer to communicate. Not surprisingly, qualitative research works very well with Latinos because it lends itself to our peculiar communication style. Online research, however, is often problematic- not necessarily because Latinos are not online; but rather because the methodology currently relies on very structured text questionnaires and ignores the other important communication components. In a future posting I’ll touch on how Latinos are bringing their unique communication style to the online world and how it is indeed possible to build online spiritual interactions.

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We are not paying enough attention to Latino education!

EducationAll Latino children have a right to be educated. It is the law. Many Americans have argued otherwise because they feel that the children of undocumented [illegal] immigrants should not have the same rights as the children of legal residents and citizens. This line of thinking, however, does not match what our society dictates. If the children of undocumented Latino immigrants were born in the U.S., they are citizens by birth according to the U.S. constitution and entitled to the same educational opportunities given to any other U.S. citizen. If they were born outside of the U.S., they are also entitled to the same education rights according to the U.S. Supreme Court. [In Payler v. Doe it was determined that children of immigrants cannot bear the responsibility for their parents decision to come to the U.S. because they had no control over that decision.] Let us then agree that, according to our social system, all Hispanic children have a right to be educated- regardless of their immigration status. I’ll take that one step further and say that it is not only a matter of legality, it is a matter of necessity. Latino children are an increasingly large percentage of the U.S. children population and their educational attainment will undoubtedly affect the future of our country. I hope you will agree that it is important to pay attention to Latino education; now the question is, are we succeeding in educating Latino children? Many experts feel that we are failing miserably.

Latinos are not at fault. A combination of factors place Latino children are a significant disadvantage compared to other ethnic groups when it comes to education.

  • The statistics show that Hispanic adults have very low levels of education compared to other ethnic groups. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 60% of Hispanics age 25+ were high school graduates in 2004, compared to 89% of non-Hispanic Whites. The parents’ lack of education places the Latino children at a disadvantage. The U.S. Department of education says that the parent’s level of education directly affects their children’s academic performance.
  • Hispanics are poor. According to the U.S. census, the poverty rate of non-Hispanic White children in 2005 was 14%. In contrast, the figure was twice as high for Latino kids- 28%. Poverty means that Latinos have limited resources. What happens if a child cannot see the board in class but does not have a way to obtain eyeglasses? How does coming to school hungry affect their education? How about not having access to healthcare and coming to school with ear infections that go untreated? From lack of prenatal care to growing up in a home without educational toys and books; poverty greatly affects the children’s academic performance.
  • While Hispanics care very much about giving their children the opportunity to succeed, most new immigrants lack a very basic knowledge of what it takes to become successful. I grew up in a household where I was expected to go to college and was constantly reminded that succeeding in life was a very attainable goal. I had good role models. My father grew up poor in a small town in Cuba but managed against all odds to study at the University of Havana and to start his own business when he was still in college. Most Latino children are not that fortunate. Many Hispanic immigrants struggle to make ends meet and do not understand how the American system works or how to guide their children to succeed.
  • Latino children also lack role models in their community. They often live in poor neighborhoods that do not offer the opportunity to relate to successful individuals that can encourage and support their educational achievement. Even sports coaches and other leaders that work with Latino children often lack the ability to guide them appropriately.
  • Hispanic parents do not understand the importance of parental involvement. They do not know that in this country everyone has the ability to get involved and even battle the public education system. My daughter, who is turning four next month, has speech delays. My wife and I had her tested at an early age and she was receiving publicly funded speech therapy since she was two years old. When she turned three we enrolled her in the public school preschool for special needs. This year we noticed that she was not progressing adequately with the speech teacher that was giving her therapy twice a week. My wife argued about her lack of progress and backed everything up with copies of all communication with the teacher. After meeting with the school principal and the case manager we succeeded in getting her assigned to the best speech therapist in the building. Latino parents do not know that they have the ability and the right to advocate for their children that strongly. They often see the school as a distant and powerful institution that “knows” what is best for their children. They are also intimidated by their own lack of education and many who are undocumented do not feel they have a right to get involved.
  • The lack of Hispanic parental involvement is evident in many public schools. Teachers often complain about not being able to communicate with Latino parents and about their lack of participation in school activities, not providing student homework support, and not attending parent-teacher conferences. Parent associations like the PTA also have a hard time recruiting Latino volunteers. The problem is that many Hispanics lack very basic information regarding how the American public schools work. They do not think that it is right to participate because by doing so they feel they would be perceived as going against the school system. I am often told by Hispanics that I interview that they feel inadequate questioning the school on matters regarding education and believe that the school would think negatively of them (and their children) if they do so.
  • Latinos often live in neighborhoods that are dangerous. Safety concerns results in Latino children not participating in extracurricular activities that would necessitate coming home late from school. Drugs and gangs create negative social pressures that drive underachievement. It is a documented fact that children who succeed in school often hang out with other children who are also high achievers. Latinos do not have the opportunity to relate to high achievers in their poor neighborhoods.
  • Sending children to preschool is not the norm in the Latino community; yet many experts have argued that a preschool education is crucial in a child’s academic success. This is especially true if at this early age the children do not have good educational opportunities in their home environment.
  • Hispanic immigrants tend to be very hard workers. They often work hard with the hope of being able to provide a better future for their children. Unfortunately, Latinos often work long hours or at more than one job. Many mothers are single mothers who cannot afford not to work outside of the home. The children find themselves at a disadvantage because they do not have the ideal level of parental support.
  • There is a high correlation between student school performance and their participation in extra-curricular activities. Unfortunately, Latinos students tend not to participate in extracurricular activities because of safety concerns (as mentioned earlier), lack of transportation, and lack of parental support. Those who try to join find that most clubs and sport activities are made up mostly of non-Hispanic Whites and feel out of place being there.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of Latino educational disadvantages. There are many other issues that affect Latino education. If you are interested in this important subject I highly recommend the book The Latino Education Crisis, by Patricia Gándara and Frances Contreras. It is an extremely well written and researched call for action on what they identify as a national crisis. I would like to close this post by quoting a paragraph from this book.

As a group, Latino students today perform academically at levels that will consign them to live as members of a permanent underclass in American society. Moreover, their situation is projected to worsen over time. But as alarming as this is for Latinos, it is equally so for the U.S. population as a whole; neither the economy nor the social fabric can afford to relegate so many young people to the margins of society.

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