by Carmen Prieto, Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 1997

Editor’s Note: This issue of the IDRA Newsletter, focusing on parent, family and community involvement, is dedicated to the memory of Carmen Prieto Cortez. Carmen was vice president and chief operating officer of AVANCE, a parent education program based in San Antonio. She died in an auto accident on June 30,1997. Her leadership helped make the AVANCE program become a national model for low-income communities that has spread to Houston, the Rio Grande Valley, including border cities, and the colonias, Austin, Dallas, Corpus Christi, El Paso and Puerto Rico. It has impacted more than 60,000 families. Carmen’s husband is Dr. Albert Cortez, director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. In her honor, the article below is an excerpt from a speech she presented on the occasion of Hispanic Heritage Month.

During our lifetime, our Hispanic heritage was suppressed and at times denied and rejected. It was allowed to be cultivated only by the hidden presence of our family. Today, times have changed. Having a Hispanic heritage is something positive we should acknowledge and appreciate. In doing so, we celebrate differences among the ethnic groups that comprise American society. We also recognize that we are a country of cultural pluralism from which strength and greatness is derived.

The majority of Hispanics in the United States today are a suffering people. A select few of us comprise a minority within a minority, a group called the “exceptions.” We are the exceptions because we supposedly have “made it.” We were able to overcome the effects of subliminal and occasional outright prejudice and discrimination. Many of us rose from poverty.

All of this did not happen by chance but only by design. There were events and experiences occurring constantly, along with significant people present throughout our lives, who channeled our restless energy into positive directions. These people unobtrusively guided and advised us, deliberately opened doors for us and enlightened us. They instilled in us values and attitudes that have helped us maneuver ourselves in and out of different cultural contexts. This programming could have come from a mother, father, sibling, relative, teacher, friend or stranger. He or she may have been brown-skinned, black-skinned or white-skinned. More than likely, it was a combination of all of these types of human beings. The bottom line is that there have been individuals throughout your lifetime who have said and done things that have changed the course of events for you.

It is up to those of us who are somewhat healthy – socially, educationally, economically and politically – to spend time in healing our children, our families, our institutions, our government and our country. But what is it we have to heal? What wounds do we have to close? What do we want to nurture back to health? There are many issues that need our attention in our ethnic group such as substance and chemical abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse and neglect, unemployment, housing, runaways, domestic violence and AIDS. I can only briefly highlight the area of education, today.

The greatest, single negative that is impacting our people’s educational status is their economic well-being. The poverty rate of Hispanic families with 6- to 17-year-old children is 35.2 percent compared with 41.9 percent among Blacks and 13.5 percent among Whites. In San Antonio, the average household income of an AVANCE participant in 1988 was $6,812. We know that this translates into one in three Hispanic children being poor in this country. How is poverty impacting our children’s success in school? These are the facts:

Fact number one: Poor teens fall behind their peers. Hispanic youths hampered by poverty and language barriers are almost three times as likely to have repeated a grade. Hispanic 12- to 15-year-olds are about two and a half times as likely as Whites to be two or more grades behind in school. By age 17, one in six Hispanics has fallen at least two years behind their expected grade level and nearly two in five have fallen one year behind.

Fact number two: Poverty often spells poor skills. Poor teenagers are four times more likely than non-poor teenagers to have below-average basic academic skills. According to the National Assessment for Education Progress Testing results, Hispanic and Black 17-year-olds have reading, math and science skills comparable to the skills of White 13-year-olds. Hispanic high school graduates are only half as likely as White graduates to have taken advanced math and science courses. Hispanics are also more likely to be placed in watered-down general or vocational classes. Of those Hispanics who have managed to graduate, rarely have they taken the full academic program that would prepare them for higher education or future employment.

Fact number three: Poor teens are more likely to drop out. Regardless of race, poor youths are almost three times more likely than their well-off peers to drop out. In 1986, more than one in four poor 18- to 20-year-olds had dropped out of high school compared to one in 10 of their non-poor peers. In 1988, there were six dropouts for every 10 graduates among Hispanics.

Fact number four: Poor children often get a weak start in life. Poor parents are less likely to afford pre-natal care, which increases their baby’s risk of being born at low birth weight, a condition that can lead to learning disabilities. As they grow older, poor children are less likely to receive the key building blocks of early development, such as adequate nutrition, decent medical care, and a safe and secure environment. Children who are poorly nourished and ill are less alert, less curious and interact less effectively with their environment than healthy children, making them generally less prepared to start school than the more affluent youngsters.

Fact number five: Poor children are more likely to attend schools with poor resources. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds often need an enriched educational experience to overcome limited access to early learning experiences and the special problems that stem from persistent poverty. They need the highest quality teachers, the most advanced classroom equipment, a low student-teacher ratio and educational programs that supplement classroom training. On the contrary, these are the realities: In 1986, more than 70 percent of Hispanic students compared with 63 percent of Blacks were enrolled in predominantly minority schools. That means that 50 percent or more of the student body was minority. Almost one-third of Hispanic students are enrolled in intensely segregated schools. That means that 90 percent or more are minority. Segregated schools generally lack the resources needed to provide students with a competitive education. There is blatant disparity in the funding levels between many predominantly minority and non-minority schools.

Fact number six: Young people in poor communities receive few opportunities to grow outside the classroom. The lessons learned in school are reinforced and applied at home and in the community. Too often, however, the weak learning experiences that many disadvantaged youth have at school are mirrored in their homes and community. Their parents often lack the credentials and skills they are hoping their children will acquire. Poor youths are more likely than their non-poor peers to have parents who have not completed high school. Research has shown us that parent’s education level remains one of the strongest predictors of their children’s success in school. Poverty breeds poverty. School achievement breeds school achievement.

What do we have to do to eliminate this vicious cycle? If many of us were raised in poverty by parents who did not even make it into high school, then there is hope for those who are caught in a social, educational and economic treadmill. What happened to those of us who are the exceptions? The minority within the minority? I would like to offer some ideas for better understanding our plight – what needs to be set in place or repaired within a cultural context.

When I was first approached about the topic of Hispanics and educational applications for the 90s, I immediately thought of my mother, who constantly reminded me as I was growing up what it meant to be a persona educada, an educated person. When she would refer to an educated person, she was talking about a person of character, of integrity – a person who upheld high standards for himself or herself and for others. An educated person was not necessarily one who had many years of formal schooling; he or she was an individual who knew how to behave properly. In retrospect, I realize my mother was instilling in me the blueprint for how I should perceive myself and how I should act toward others. Now as I read the state-of-the-art literature on Hispanics, there appears this concept of persona educada. So this didn’t just happen to me. It probably happened to all other Hispanics who have “made it.”

Even though my family met the poverty guidelines – my parents were migrants as children, my father only went to the fourth grade and my mother to the sixth – my family life experience has taught me to strive to be una persona educada. In order for that message to be internalized and actualized, it had to have been accompanied by some very basic values. Now I realize what those values are and how I must constantly maintain them in order to function well. Working at AVANCE in the public school systems enabled me to see that when this concept is not allowed to take root fully and the basic values for healthy living are not instilled early on, the consequences result in a dysfunctional individual.

I believe that the many social and educational problems facing Hispanic families today stem from external conditions not allowing their culturally based values to help them develop and grow to be happy and healthy individuals. The premise or principles for living that I am referring to have been coined by a good friend and colleague of mine. He calls it cara y corazón – face and heart.

To understand this, we must understand that life moves in a circle and in order for true integrated growth to take place, it must be based on the balanced principles of dignidad – dignity, respeto – respect, confianza – trust in the form of true interdependent bonding and cariño – love. In many poor Hispanic families, these four values are traumatized and in need of healing. This healing needs to take place through the help, encouragement and support from those families who are balanced and healthy.

The first of these, dignity, proposes that the ancestral wisdom of Hispanic people carries the teachings and makes them necessary for growth and healing to take place. We have acknowledged that these abstract resources are present today, as they have been throughout time. These resources are available within the circle of life. The motivation for family growth and dignity must come from within the family and its desire or need to change, if and when it becomes necessary.

The second value that must be present is based on respect. This vision for oneself based on respect carries with it knowledge and acceptance of one’s historical past ethnic history. Knowing where you came from is a prerequisite for knowing where you are going. Many of our Hispanic children today do not know who they are, why they are and where they came from. They are lacking the experiences such as family traditions, rituals and ceremonies that tell them these pieces of information.

The third of these, trust, is critical to healthy relationships. The ability to have trust develops where there is a resource of strength, a source of healing, as well as a ritual. From this element comes interdependence, a healthy giving and taking, reciprocal and mutual support always available, always taking place. Confianza, or trust, leads to a feeling of being accepted and belonging. When this value is not nurtured in healthy ways, children act out. And children grow up to be adults who do not trust anybody but themselves and do not care about anybody but themselves.

The fourth of the basic values needed for balanced living is love. Love is essential in order to participate in a circular learning process. This feeling of receiving love first appears from within the family. If and when that happens properly, it can be received and given beyond the boundaries of the family. It extends to other individuals, families, communities and institutions. For if one loves oneself, he or she is totally accepting of that self. And this in turn allows one to be totally accepting of others. When the self-love is not present, one’s self-concept and self-esteem are very poor. Where this condition exists, children cannot perform because they do not believe they are capable of doing anything good or right. Among many of our poor Hispanic children, there is always a lingering doubt about being able to achieve. And often they just give up because they do not believe that what they will do will make a difference to anyone.

These four principles for living provide the indicators of an educated person. Una persona educada, an educated person, has cara y corazón. The cara, face, reflects the?values of dignidad, dignity and respeto, respect. The corazón reflects the values of confianza, trust and cariño, love.

Cara y corazón comes from our parents. The cara from which dignity and respect come is given to us by our father or a significant male figure. The corazón from which trust and love come is given to us by our mother or a significant female caregiver. When cara y corazón are not fully present and the four basic premises for living are not able to be utilized for growth and development, there is an individual who is not able to function as a persona educada. And where this underlying foundation is missing or weak, there exists an incomplete person who oftentimes is dysfunctional and does not possess the inner strength to overcome obstacles.

We possess cara y corazón today because it was made possible by our families and others along our life’s path. Unfortunately, too many of our Hispanic families do not. I propose to you that if you now know that these four essential elements for living – dignity, respect, trust and love – are lacking among the majority of your brown-skinned brothers and sisters, then you have an obligation to make possible the experiences that will bring these elements out. It is up to you to accept the fact that you can make a difference somewhere and then act upon that decision in the arena where you feel most comfortable.

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]