Finding a Civic Voice: Latino Immigrant Youths' Experiences in High School Social Studies

Article excerpt

Socialization into the dominant civic and political discourse lies at the heart of social studies. As they become proficient in the discourse of home and school, Latino immigrant youth demonstrate the potential to uniquely benefit from this socialization. This qualitative study explores ten Latino immigrant young adults' perceptions of how their social studies experiences shaped their young adult civic selves. Participants internalized not only their parents' high expectations for them, but also those of their teachers, highlighting the potentially instrumental role of schools in the civic fabric of the nation. In addition, the Latino young adults felt empowered by their social studies teachers via civic expectations and academic encouragement and perceived this empowerment to have facilitated the skill development necessary for later civic leadership. In closing, we reflect on immigrant students' incorporation of the discourse of the dominant culture with that of the home to develop their own civic voices.


Latino immigrant youth comprise one of the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. population, yet we know relatively little about their induction into the dominant political and civic discourse. While formative educational experiences may shape their political and civic integration, stratification of Opportunities within the U.S. education system all but ensures unequal outcomes. Segmented assimilation theory highlights the unique interaction of individual background characteristics with those of the three modes of incorporation: global, societal, and communal in shaping patterns of immigrant integration (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Zhou, 1997). As a societal mode of incorporation, the high school, especially the academic coursework in which immigrant students participate, offers a rich contextual opportunity to explore immigrant youths' pathways to political and civic socialization.

For Latino immigrant adolescents, we argue that coursework embodies one mode of societal incorporation. The present study is designed to explore how Latino immigrant young adults perceive their high school social studies course experiences to have shaped their future political and civic development. As a societal mode of incorporation, high school social studies has the potential to offer not only modeling of traditional civic behavioral norms by the teacher but also the academic and social capital necessary to successfully navigate the dominant political discourse in young adulthood. The social studies classroom, and the social studies teacher in particular, may present a critical juncture for immigrant students incorporating the discourse of the dominant culture and the home as they develop their civic and political selves.

To translate theory into practice, the current study interrogates me civic potential of high school social studies among immigrant youth. Our work builds on results from prior quantitative research suggesting that social studies course-taking predicts immigrant adolescents' young adult voting behaviors in a way that it does not for children of U.S.-born parents (Callahan, Muller, & Schiller, 2008). Among others, this finding spurred the research question at the core of this study: How do Latino, immigrant young adults perceive their high school social studies experiences to have shaped their development as political and civic participants?

Designed to highlight Latino immigrant youths' voices, the present study targeted the former students of nationally board-certified (NBC) social studies teachers in high Latino service areas. Interviews were designed to explore the relationship between Latino youths' perceptions of high school social studies and their future political and civic selves. The recent unprecedented growth of the Latino population, especially Latino immigrant youth (Passel & Cohn, 2008; U.S. Census Bureau, 2006) highlights the critical importance to our democracy of equipping these citizens with the knowledge, skills and behaviors necessary to engage in their civic and political society. …


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