Disappearing in the Houdini Education: The Experience OF RACE AND INVISIBILITY among Latina/o Students

By Cammarota, Julio | Multicultural Education, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview
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Disappearing in the Houdini Education: The Experience OF RACE AND INVISIBILITY among Latina/o Students


Cammarota, Julio, Multicultural Education


In urban schools across the country, the enrollment of Latina/o students is increasing rapidly. However, their academic presence-the recognition of their potential and opportunities for achievement-may diminish quickly in many of these schools. In worst-case scenarios, the evanescence of recognition and opportunity may lead to an increase in dropouts. That is, soon after entering high school, Latina/o students may struggle to succeed academically and before their junior year, disappear from the education system altogether. The simultaneous increase of Latina/o students alongside their persistently high dropout rate represents a significant paradox in urban schools.

Unfortunately, the high attrition of Latina/ o students is not a new phenomenon. Both the problem itself and its attributed explanations, ranging from segregation, poverty, resource deprivation, and cultural difference, have received considerable attention in education research (Ogbu, 1978, 1991; Orfield & Eaton, 1996; Perez & De La Rosa Salazar, 1993; Trueba, 1988, 1993, 1999; Valdés, 1996; Valencia, 1991; Valenzuela, 1999). Although the problem as well as its explanation may not be recent revelations, the paradox of a growing student population that demonstrates few improvements in academic success raises new questions. Why does a racial group that is quickly progressing from minority to majority status in certain districts, cities, and counties still manifest the typical and historical patterns of school failure associated with minority status? Meanwhile, these students' White peers who are now in the racial minority still achieve at significantly higher rates than what are typically attributed to minority students.

One might conclude that Latina/o immigration accounts for the increase of students who fail school; foreign-born Spanish speakers face the linguistic challenge of mastering an English-only curriculum. Although the linguistic dilemma may explain some student failure, research shows that first-generation Latinas/os often fare better than their second- and even third-generation-and more English proficient-counterparts (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 1995).

In my own study of Latina/o youth, students were either 1.5 generation or second generation, and all were proficient English speakers. Although many faced the daily threat of dropping out of school, linguistic factors did not weigh as heavily as one might suspect. According to statements made by the youth in my study, a racist ideology based on the assumption of their intellectual inferiority presented the most significant obstacle to their academic success.

Drawing from ethnographic research conducted in an urban school in the U.S., this article examines how the permeation of a racist ideology in the school context can render the academic potential of Latina/o students invisible to school personnel. The Latina/o students in this study indicated that teacher disinterest in their intellectual growth severely circumscribed their academic progress.

The discussion also briefly considers how the ethos of rugged individualism in the U.S. school system obscures the institutionalized ills of racism by suggesting that the only barrier to success is individual commitment. This culture of individualism allowed school personnel to place blame for the students' academic failure on the students themselves while completely exonerating the school system of neglecting their intellectual growth. Once the students' capacities for learning became invisible, the school system overlooked them as worthy of academic investment by treating them with apathy, withholding from them information necessary for achievement, and then blaming them for their failure.

This study's findings suggest that new pedagogical strategies for Latina/o students must take the three-pronged approach of caring for the students' personal life progress, demythologizing the value of individualism, and countering racist ideology.

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