Serving ALL Latinxs: Recognizing Racial and Ethnic Heterogeneity at HSIs

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Audrey D. Paredes

In late October 2018, a caravan of an estimated 4,000 asylum seekers began their journeys from Honduras to the United States. These migrants, like many other Central Americans who have sought asylum in the U.S., seek to escape extreme poverty, violence, and political repression. As I write this piece, they continue their thousands of miles long journey, mostly by foot, through Central America and Mexico while facing discrimination, extreme violence, and some even death. As the daughter of immigrants from Guatemala, I too am familiar with the intergenerational stories of displacement, trauma, and survival that exists within the Central American immigrant community that now resides in the U.S.

In recent years the field of higher education has witnessed an increase in research and advocacy that focuses on the experiences of Latinx students and recommendations for institutions to improve access, retention, and campus climate. However, through my literature searches, I have found that most of the research in the field focuses only on the umbrella group of “Latinx” or “Chicanx” students. While the focus on Latinx or Chicanx students is reasonable and understood, I argue that higher education scholars and practitioners invested in creating equity for Latinxs must be intentional in who and how they are defining as “Latinx” students in their data collection, assessment, programming, and student support. Scholar, Vasti Torres, argued this as well in her 2004 article in which she urged scholars to pay close attention to the “diversity among us”[1]. The push to recognize racial and ethnic heterogeneity is not new to the field of higher education. Scholars, such as Robert Teranishi[2] (focusing on Asian American and Pacific Islander students) and Chrystal A. George Mwangi[3] (focusing on Black immigrant students) have long been advocates for data disaggregation and specificity in educational research so that we may push the needle and have a clearer understanding of the nuances that make up historically marginalized students’ identities, realities, and relations to systems of power.

The short anecdote that I began this piece with is just one of the unique contemporary and historical phenomena that Central Americans have encountered in their transnational experiences. Although there is limited literature on Central Americans in the field of education, scholars in other fields and disciplines have found that Central Americans often feel invisible and misrepresented because of the lack of knowledge that exists about their communities, identities, and experiences[4]. It is also important to note that a significant number of Central Americans embody characteristics of refugees, more so than economic migrants (as they are typically considered or referred to)[5]. These few examples should be relevant to us in higher education because it highlights the unique nuances of the experiences of Central American students and their families as they navigate higher education and society. Although I offer Central Americans as an example because of my own personal experience as a Guatemalan first-generation student, recognizing racial and ethnic heterogeneity is important for all groups that identify with the larger “Latinx” categorization that is typically used by institutions of higher education to identify students.

As the number of Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) continues to grow, HSIs have the potential to become leaders across all institutions (HSI or not) in recognizing Latinx racial and ethnic heterogeneity amongst its student populations. Similarly, scholars who are invested in interrogating what it means to truly “serve” at HSIs can dramatically shape the field of higher education by being intentional on who makes up these specific student populations and urging other scholars to do so as well. It is important to note that Latinxs are ethnically AND racially heterogeneous. For example, it is problematic to treat students as Black or Latinx or having students only select one-checkbox when providing demographic data, ignoring the fact they may embody both (or more) identities and realities at the same time. Relatedly, as is the case for some members of the Central American community living in the U.S., some students and their families are members of indigenous communities in Central America and therefore might not speak English nor Spanish and have an entirely different experience than non-indigenous Central Americans. Latinx students differ in language, socio-economic status, immigrant and citizenship status, familial educational backgrounds, racial backgrounds, and many other characteristics. Therefore, we must be careful in not applying a one-size-fits-all “culture” to Latinx students in hopes of supporting them but ultimately falling short.

HSIs can be leaders by highlighting racial and ethnic heterogeneity by urging their offices to collect and utilize data in a disaggregated manner (if not done so already) by country of origin, language, and immigrant and citizenship status. Collecting data in a disaggregated manner allows us to have a refined picture of who our students are to avoid harmful misunderstandings of student needs.  HSIs can also be mindful in how they approach cultural programming such as events and festivities that take place on campus. As a report by The Racial Heterogeneity Project states, “the assumption that the Mexican American experience is the definitive Latino experience is inaccurate”[6]; therefore, when institutions only use uniquely Mexican cultural markers for campus celebrations, non-Mexican identifying students feel left out or unseen by their institution. A method of serving for an HSI can be in making sure their Latinx students, all Latinx students, feel seen and represented.

As a graduate of an HSI, I have a first-hand understanding of the potential and promise that many HSIs are able to fulfill for its Latinx students and its overall student body. I believe that through highlighting and embracing the “diversity among us”[7] to best understand student needs, successes, and experiences of Latinx students, HSIs can become stronger in serving and become institutional leaders as we aim to build racial equity for historically marginalized student groups.

Audrey D. Paredes is a Ph.D. student in the Social Science and Comparative Education Division specializing in Race and Ethnic Studies in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She is a research associate for the Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education and the Center for Critical Race Studies in Education. Her research interests include racial stratification and equity in higher education and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs). Audrey earned a B.A. in Gender, Ethnicity, and Multicultural Studies from Cal Poly Pomona and an M.A. from UCLA. 


[1] Torres, V. (2004). The diversity among us: Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, Caribbean Americans, and Central and South Americans. New Directions for Student Services, (105), 5-16.

[2]Teranishi, R., Lok, L., & Nguyen, B.D. (2013). iCount: A Data Quality Movement for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Higher Education. New York, NY: CARE Project.

[3] George Mwangi, C.A. (2014). Complicating Blackness: Black immigrants & racial positioning in US higher education. Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis3(2), 3.

[4] Yarbrough, R. A. (2010). Becoming “Hispanic” in the “new South”: Central American immigrants’ racialization experiences in Atlanta, GA, USA. GeoJournal, 75(3), 249-260.; Lavadenz, M. (2005). Como hablar en silencio (like speaking in silence): issues for language, culture, and identity of central americans in los angeles. In Zentella, A. C. (Ed.). (2005). Building on strength: Language and literacy in Latino families and communities. Teachers College Press.

[5] Menjivar, C. (2006). Liminal legality: Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants’ lives in the United States. American Journal of Sociology, 111(4), 999-1037.

[6] Nguyen, B. M. D., Alcantar, C. M., Curammeng, E., Hernandez, E., Kim, V., Paredes, A., Nguyen, M., & Teranishi, R. T. (2017). The Racial Heterogeneity Project: Implications for Higher Education Research, Practice, and Policy. Los Angeles, CA: The Institute for Immigration, Globalization, & Education.

[7] Torres, V. (2004). The diversity among us: Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, Caribbean Americans, and Central and South Americans. New Directions for Student Services, (105), 5-16.