Why High School Graduation Remains an Important Achievement for Chicanos/Latinos

By Irene Sanchez

Xicana Ph.D.

For Chicano/Latino Students High School Graduation is An Important Achievement, Let’s Treat it as Such. 

Ever since the start of 2020, I remind my students graduation time is coming soon. In less than six months, the class of 2020 will be walking across many stages across the U.S. While some may dismiss this event as *just* high school graduation, for many marginalized students in education (and our larger society), particularly Students of Color and especially Boys of Color, our young people continue to be tracked and pushed out in disproportionate numbers. For many Chicano/Latino students the fact also remains that many are the first in their family to graduate from high school as I have previously wrote on in my 2015 dissertation on the experiences of Chicano/Latino community college students. Therefore High school graduation represents an achievement not just for the students themselves, but an achievement for their parents, family, and our community as a whole. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the highest pushout rates can be seen with American Indian/Alaska Natives (10.1 percent) this number includes Latino youth (8.2 percent).This should come at little shock when knowing how Latino students are impacted by zero tolerance policies that keep the school to prison pipeline thriving. In a report from the NCLR (now Unidos US) it states that every seven seconds a Latino student is suspended in the United States. Furthermore Latino students are 1.5 times more likely to be expelled than white students. 

Chicano/Latino students are likely to face disproportionate opportunities. They graduate high school at a lower rate than other groups and are more likely to be in schools where they lack college prep curriculum and are under-resourced in many other ways according to this Campaign for College Opportunity report

It takes a pueblo to support the varying needs of Chicano/Latino students. I know this because I am a high school teacher who teaches our district’s only Ethnic Studies (Chicano/Latino Studies) course that meets the “G” elective requirement for the University of California at three high schools everyday including our continuation school.

Not only am I a high school teacher. I am also a mother of a second grade boy who at his entrance into the public education system starting in kindergarten was tracked and labeled. Assumptions were made about me (as a Xicana single parent) by his teachers at his previous school in a previous district before I moved him to the one I teach in which consists of a 92 percent Chicano/Latino student population districtwide. The same year my son began kindergarten was the same year I started teaching high school. After completing a Ph.D. in Education in 2015, instead of working in higher education as I anticipated, I was called to teach Ethnic Studies in high school classrooms to be in schools that sometimes feel like the “Mexican Schools” I teach about from the 1940s. As Teaching Tolerance has documented in these Mexican Schools, 

Many Anglo educators did not expect, or encourage, Chicano students to advance beyond the eighth grade. Instead, the curriculum at the Mexican schools was designed, as one district superintendent put it, “to help these children take their place in society.”

Schools still exist to help socialize students as to their “place” in our society whether we talk about it as educators or not. As I wrote in the poem “Canyon City” for my students following my first year teaching:

“No more go back to Mexico
No more go back to where you came from
No more stay where you’re supposed to be
Here, right here where they tell you you’re supposed to be

Tell them where you’re from” 

Where we are supposed to be and especially where our students are supposed to be continues to be dictated by our marginalized place in society. When I ask my students about what they want to do after high school, every year the vast majority of them still say they don’t know, very few are on track to apply straight to a four-year university, many do not know of options in a community college, undocumented students are not receiving information that would help support their future and many times students are discouraged and sometimes put down from possibities by various adults they encounter in the education system.

Although my research to complete my Ph.D. was based on redefining achievement and success for Latina/o Community College Students, I am constantly reminded teaching high school it is important to celebrate every achievement along the way in a young person’s life as this gives them the motivation to continue pushing towards a goal or towards making a goal for themselves that they previously thought impossible or never even imagined. One of my findings was just that, high school graduation is important as some students continue to be the first in their families to graduate high school. This fact was why last year I organized for my students to wear sashes that are often found at so many College/University Chicano/Latino or Raza graduation celebrations. This decision was also made following the signing of AB 1248 which states that, 

A pupil may wear traditional tribal regalia or recognized objects of religious or cultural significance as an adornment at school graduation ceremonies. Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit a local educational agency’s discretion and authority to prohibit an item that is likely to cause a substantial disruption of, or material interference with, the ceremony.” 

Although this bill was signed into law earlier last year, unfortunately not all schools got the memo. Thankfully the students in my class were well versed in the law before the ceremonies took place at one event when rumors that they wouldn’t be allowed to wear them after many of their parents and myself and other community members contributed to purchase them. Some student sashes were confiscated on the day of the ceremony and they were told they could be pulled out of the ceremony should they wear them, but after my students showed them the law, their sashes were returned soon after. To my students these sashes are more than just a colorful piece of cloth to adorn their graduation robes, they recognize an achievement that many should realize-there is a lot of things we don’t see or know a student goes through to get to the moment when they can walk across that stage to hear their name called for all of their family and community to hear. Whether a student has a 4.5 or a 2.4 (like I graduated high school with) or whether students graduate from comprehensive high schools or continuation high schools or adult education, high school graduation remains an achievement we shouldn’t take lightly or dismiss as unimportant for our communities. Let’s remember to celebrate it to the fullest extent.

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My former Upward Bound student Andrea at her high school graduation hugging her mama (2010)

Me and Andrea (2010)

Photos below of my students from the class of 2019 proudly representing with their sashes.

One thought on “Why High School Graduation Remains an Important Achievement for Chicanos/Latinos

  1. This was a very inspiring article! I will never go to another high school graduation at a Latino majority high school thinking that it’s just high school graduation. Thank you for this. I direct TRIO programs at Hartnell College in Salinas. This will motivate me more than ever to assist the high school seniors to find their path in life.


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