(Sharline Dominguez) — Since my family and I arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic, my parents have always instilled the significance of obtaining an education in my siblings and I. I still remember hearing my father waking up at five in the morning to go to his prep cook job at Ruth Chris’ Steakhouse in Manhattan, the bed creaking and his heavy feet shuffling along the cold floor in the middle of December. After about 18 years working in the same place, my father has not yet received a raise or a promotion.
My mom worked at Cucina & Co., a posh Mediterranean cafe right in the middle of Rockefeller Center. I also remember seeing her curvy shape, barely visible in the dusk of the room, clad in green, purple or red collared shirts and black dress pants. I never bothered to ask her why she wore that uniform everyday. Until many years later, we sat down to eat and talk over pastries in Cucina and my mom explained to me how much she used to hate that job. The only positive experience she got out of working there was meeting Jimmy Fallon when he was on lunch break one afternoon.
I tell this story to underscore the daily hardships faced by immigrant workers in the U.S., especially in New York City where the clock never stops ticking and stop signs are literally and metaphorically overlooked. Without a high school or college education, many immigrants like my parents, albeit newly equipped with U.S. citizenship and conversational English, are forced into low-paying jobs and degrading treatment.
Until I became a student at an elite, New England college and was introduced into a world of countless opportunities, I did not fully grasp the message of educational success that my parents preached so incessantly to their children. I did not understand how difficult it must have been for my newly arrived, Dominican immigrant parents to raise a family on jobs that generated, cumulatively, less than 45,000 dollars yearly.
I have seen the long-lasting effects of a college education on the lives of my fellow peers and their families. As a result, I truly believe in the power of receiving quality K-12 education in order to create generations of college-ready, fully engaged and informed Latin@ citizens. But, there continues to be a lack of Latin@ representation in congressional offices on Capitol Hill, public policy debates and in courtrooms all over the U.S. and abroad.
In order for leadership to effectively develop long-term within the Latin@ community, immigrant and mixed-status families alike must have access to quality education for their children. This kind of proposal extends beyond alternative certification programs like Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows. The aforementioned programs serve as a Band-Aid on the larger issues that exist in the communities these young educators are entering.
Only 14 percent of the “Hispanic” population 25 and older held a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2013. Beyond vocational training and community college, young Latin@s must continue their education beyond the 12th grade and feel inspired by teachers and mentors that look like them and share similar experiences. In other words, leadership within our community looks like more Latin@ teachers in school classrooms all over the U.S. I do not deny that alternative certification education programs across the U.S. are increasing their diversity recruitment efforts. However, educational reform will require much more than creating a list of hopes and visions for the future. Sustainable reform requires more than opening doors for underrepresented groups to change the narrative of poverty. It requires creating and executing specific strategies to help keep these groups engaged and feeling like they actually have a stake in implementing real policy.
With greater representation in our classrooms, we will see greater representation in our congress and courtrooms. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor should be the example. How many more young and bright Latin@ minds will follow, alongside my friend and Amherst alum, Carlos Gonzalez, a proud dominicano representing his people and on his way to changing the world? Let’s start a conversation this coming election year about Latin@ representation in our schools, in our courts, and in our government. This is a proposal to my fellow young Latin@s to abstain from complacency and practice their right to civic engagement. A proposal to live and create a country we want to see whose founding will no longer be on our laboring backs and by our calloused hands, but on bright, innovative minds equipped with political and humanitarian prowess.
(Image courtesy of Sharline Dominguez, taken in Bluefields, Nicaragua)