Hispanic Heritage in higher-education

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Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16, has long been a day filled with celebration of the culture and history of Mexico. This day represents Mexico’s liberation from Spain in 1810, and is celebrated nationwide in a variety of ways.

“I was born in Mexico, but I’ve lived here most of my life,” said Jorge Garcia, a sophomore studying biology. When asked whether his family still celebrates Mexico’s Independence Day in the US, he said, “Yes, they celebrate it more in Mexico than here … All of my extended family is still in Mexico. We’ll usually call each other and watch what’s called ‘El Grito,’ which translates to ‘the yell’ or ‘the call’ of independence.”

“It’s an event that they broadcast on TV. Every place in the country has a common area where they congregate, or they stream it. The president has the Mexican flag, and he rings a bell,” said Garcia, giving further insight into the event. “They list off a lot of Mexican values that we hold near to our heart, like patriotism, brotherly love and service. At the end, that’s when everyone claps and they have fireworks … It’s almost like a new-year celebration for us.”

Expanding on the symbolism of the tradition, Garcia mentioned, “The president waves the flag back and forth to symbolize [Mexico] breaking away from Spain and other colonizers and becoming a new country.” He expanded on the significance of these details saying, “We’re Mexican, and no one can tell us otherwise and we’re going to keep holding those values dear to our heart … We don’t want people to take that away from us again, so we try to be really independent wherever we stand.”

Garcia noted that celebrating this holiday can be difficult for many Mexicans in the US for several reasons. “It’s this in-between space where we want to do it, but we only celebrate inside our house, quietly and intimately, rather than with a community … It can be intimidating just because of past events that have occurred with race here in America,” he laments. “It’s kind of different when you can congregate as a community … and celebrate those things you hold dear to your heart.” 

Mexico has played a unique and significant role globally, including major economic, cultural and political contributions. The Observatory of Economic Complexity lists Mexico as “the number 15 economy in the world in terms of GDP … the number 9 in total exports, [and] the number 13 in total imports,” in 2019. Their main exports include machinery, food products and petroleum, exporting mostly to the United States, Canada and China. 

As the southern neighbor of the United States, Mexico has a particularly notable impact on US culture. For example, immigration to the US from Mexico and other Latin American countries provides the local economy with labor, crucial imports, from bananas to precious metals, and crucial political alliances. 

“In fact, immigrants contribute to the U.S. economy in many ways. They work at high rates and make up more than a third of the workforce in some industries. Their geographic mobility helps local economies respond to worker shortages, smoothing out bumps that could otherwise weaken the economy,” states the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities. “Immigrant workers help support the aging native-born population, increasing the number of workers as compared to retirees and bolstering the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. And children born to immigrant families are upwardly mobile, promising future benefits not only to their families, but to the U.S. economy overall.”

Garcia shared some of the struggles of being an immigrant in the US and Utah specifically. He spoke about the culture-contrast between Mexico and Utah saying, “It’s definitely been this culture-clash that has led to an identity exploration because I’ve lived here for a decent amount of my life, but yet I’m still not considered American–especially in Utah. Then I go back to Mexico, and I’m also not considered Mexican there because I don’t dress the same or don’t act as manly as they expect me to.” 

“It’s easy for Mexican people to get burnt out very fast and very quickly; we have to speak twice as loud, work twice as hard and study twice as hard to earn money for our families,” Garcia went on to say; his candid frustration was apparent. “At the core of it, people in Utah will never understand. On our end, we have to become more compassionate because we need these things as humans that aren’t being provided to us as people of color.”

This fall semester, 3,857 Hispanic students are enrolled at UVU and account for 11% of the student population, according to Institutional Research. In the most recent fall semester, the top three colleges that Hispanic students are enrolled in include the College of Health & Public Service, the College of Humanities & Social Sciences and University College. They made up 14.15%, 13.05% and 12.88% of those college enrollments, respectively. 

Hispanic enrollment rates vary by college and major. In biology, for example, Hispanics make up 14.7% of the cohort this semester–Garcia being one of those students. Garcia plans to use his education in biology “to be a doctor … I want to go into being an OB-GYN and help marginalized populations that can’t afford health care. I’d like to help women, specifically.”

According to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, “Although Hispanic students have been shown to be equally as likely as White students to major in STEM subjects, they are significantly less likely to earn a degree or certificate in a STEM field.” The need to provide support for these students is imperative because, “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) skills are necessary now more than ever in order to compete in a global economy.”

In 2017, Pew research found that 33% of US-born Hispanics go on to college while only 20% graduate with a Bachelor’s degree or more. For the same year, the average for all Americans that went on to college was only 29% with 32% graduating from a four-year institution. 

“The institution of education has always favored white people,” says Garcia. “It’s hard in that way to change customs and culture; when something has been done for a long time, it’s difficult to change.”

As for graduation rates at UVU, Hispanic students have been gradually increasing the number of degrees and certificates they’ve earned annually over the past four years. UVU recognizes the many values contributed by the Hispanic and Latino communities, and seeks to support them in higher education through programs like the Latino Initiative

As stated on their website, “Since its inception, the Latino Initiative has increased UVU’s Latino student enrollment by 361% and Latino graduation headcount by 372%. UVU has the largest Latina/o student enrollment in the State of Utah as a four-year university (4,911 Latino students). Most of the students that we serve are low-income, and about 80% of these students will be the first in their families to graduate from college.”

“I think UVU tries to do what it can with the knowledge they have,” said Garcia when asked about the support he’s received from the university. “UVU is still trying to figure out how to adapt, and to support, and to provide resources. They’re doing what they can and are also hiring faculty and staff that are willing to provide those communities and safe spaces for Latin Americans and Mexicans.”

“I’ve realized that I have to live by hope rather than living by actions or results,” said Garcia. “That can be really demanding, and tiring and taxing.”