Mexican American Women: Schooling, Work, and Family.
by Ortiz, Flora Ida
The Bureau of Census (1994) reports there are approximately 13 million
U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. Over 30 percent reside in the South and
over 45 percent in the West. The lives of Mexican American women, wherever
they reside, are affected profoundly by schooling, work, and family. This
report shows the interdependence of these factors; changes in one affect
To begin our discussion, we examine two aspects of the schooling of
Mexican American women: (1) persistent conditions affecting the quality
of education they receive, and (2) evidence of improving achievement despite
Mexican Americans are the least well educated group among Hispanics
and the total U.S. population (Bureau of the Census, 1994). Comparisons
of Mexican American males and females show slight recent increases in the
educational achievement of females and a consistent trend of females doing
better than the males. Carter and Wilson (1993) report high school completion
rates of 47.8 percent for males and 57 percent for females during the 1990-91
school year, which is a decline for males and a slight increase for females.
However, the quality of education for Mexican American women nationally
lags behind other groups. Meier and Stewart (1991) claim that the low quality
of education for Mexican Americans is due to second-generation discrimination.
They report that in "virtually all cases, Hispanics were overrepresented
in situations with negative connotations and underrepresented in situations
with positive connotations" (p. 162). These authors examined the relationship
of minority representation on school boards to representation on administrative
staffs and school faculties. Further, they examined the impact of these
relationships on Hispanic student success. They found that Hispanics were
more likely to be placed in classes for educable mentally retarded (EMR),
limited-English proficient, and bilingual education than in classes for
the gifted. The rate of Hispanic students assigned to trainable mentally
retarded classes dropped as the enrollment of black students increased
in the school. Likewise, rates of suspension and expulsion were related
to the proportions of middle class Hispanic, black, and white students.
As the proportion of low socioeconomic status (SES) black and/or white
students increased and the proportion of middle-class Hispanic students
increased, positive placement in classes, lower discipline rates, and greater
high school completion rates were recorded for Hispanic students. The relationship
between the SES of Hispanic students and representation among school board
members, administrators, and teachers was also demonstrated. The higher
the Hispanic SES and school board and staff representation rates, the more
positive the Hispanic students' school experiences. Thus, because most
Mexican American women are located in low-SES communities, their school
experiences are likely to be negative.
The inadequate delivery of educational services throughout the K-12
period not only affects the academic preparation of Mexican American women,
but, according to Reyes, Gillock and Kabus (1994, pp. 362-363), "by the
end of their first year in high school, students' perceptions of caring
and emotional support from both their families and schools" and social
support from peers deteriorate significantly.
The data reflecting the improvement of Mexican American women's educational
achievement are difficult to access because: (1) the data are collapsed
under the rubric of Hispanic, and (2) the data are not presented uniformly
in any one report. Carter and Wilson (1993) present data that show some
improvement in higher education for Mexican American women. In 1991, among
high school graduates, 39.1 percent of Hispanic women ages 18 to 24 enrolled
in college, up nearly 10 percent from 1990. The rate for associate's and
bachelor's degrees conferred improved 5.5 percent and 11.6 percent respectively
for Hispanic women and 4.1 percent and 6.6 percent respectively for men.
For Hispanics, the number of women earning master's degrees rose by 9.7
percent, compared with 7.2 percent for men. The number of Hispanic women
receiving doctorates increased by at least 70 percent between 1978 and
1988 (Nieves-Squires, 1991, p. 5). Since 71 percent of the Mexican American
population is under 35, compared to 54 percent of the U.S. population as
a whole (del Pinal & DeNavas, 1990), these improved percentages are
In examining how Mexican American women fare in higher education, Nieves-Squires
(1991, p. 6) wrote, "The isolation of Hispanic women [in graduate school]
is compounded by the relatively small number of Hispanic persons of either
sex, students, faculty members or administrators, who can serve as role
models, mentors, colleagues and peers." Hispanic men represent 2.3 percent
of students and women represent 2.7 percent. Hispanic women hold 1.2 percent
of full-time faculty positions and 0.7 percent of administrative positions,
while men hold 1.7 and 1.3 percent respectively.
Lango (1995) reports that only 1 percent of Mexican American women enroll
in graduate programs, and these women tend to be assimilated into the mainstream
dominant society. The factors affecting success appear to be Chicanas'
perceptions of racism, sexism, economics, family responsibilities, support
networks, role models, and mentors. Flores (1988) reported that single
women are more likely to complete graduate programs than married women.
In 1990, Hispanic females were employed in technical, sales, and administrative
support positions in a major way (about 39 percent). Service occupations
provided employment for about 24 percent of Hispanic females compared to
17 percent of non-Hispanic females (Bureau of the Census, 1993).
The median family income for Hispanics was $25,064, compared to the
median income of $35,225 for all Americans. The Mexican American female's
median family income with female householder and no husband present is
$12,714 (Bureau of the Census, 1993). In 1993, 51.9 percent of Mexican
American females were in the labor force, while 11.4 percent were unemployed
(Bureau of the Census, 1994). Tienda, Donato, and Cordero-Guzman (1992)
describe how recessions have a greater impact on women of color and how
education influences the effects of race and Hispanic origin. Due to lower
educational attainment and limited skills, women of color tend to be located
in low-level, more vulnerable work positions. Those positions cannot offer
protection during a period of layoffs nor do they offer advancement.
Many Mexican American women bring to the work force skills they have
gained through their experiences as wives, mothers, and community workers.
Their skills include fund-raising, organizing neighborhood groups, and
negotiating with authority figures, such as priests and city officials
(Prado, 1991). These special skills, because they are unacknowledged and
unapplied by employers, cannot improve the inadequate working conditions
of Mexican American women: segregation by sex and ethnicity; impediments
to the development of a work culture including harsh competition, high
turnover rates, unfavorable immigration laws, labor restrictions, and protective
legislation; and unions that have not accommodated Mexican American women
in leadership positions (Soldatendo, 1991).
A woman's work identity pertains to the importance of paid labor in
formulation of her sense of self. Mexican American culture does not place
a high premium on using women's success in the labor market as a gauge
for determining their worth as individuals. Pesquera (1991, p. 116) concludes
that among females of working class origins, "family socialization serves
to shape work attitudes and their behavior, whereas professional workers
acknowledge the centrality of work identity and ideologically reject, in
a somewhat ambivalent fashion, cultural expectations" (p. 116). Why working
class individuals face barriers to establishing a work identity and shedding
cultural expectations to a greater degree than professionals is an intriguing
Many Mexican American wives and mothers work in the paid labor force.
In those cases, wives highly valued the roles of wife and mother but leaned
toward nontraditional sex-role attitudes, expecting their husbands to be
flexible and assume some responsibility for housework and child care (Herrera
& Del Campo, 1995).
About 70 percent of Hispanic families are maintained by married couples,
about 9 percent by a male with no wife present, and 22 percent by a female
with no husband present. It is reported that 23.4 percent of Mexican American
families live in poverty.
Chicanas continue to describe high levels of ambivalence concerning
the interplay between motherhood and employment (Segura, 1991). This may
be because, as Flores-Ortiz (1991) reports, "blue collar workers' marital
distress increased as they shifted away from a traditional value orientation
with regard to gender roles" (p. 172). That is, these women struggled with
the dilemmas that arose from trying to meet expectations of their families
and their employers. For many women, there are two primary contributing
factors to this tension: the work is similar in both settings (such as
housework and other service jobs), and they occupy subordinate positions
both at work and at home. Even those women who described "egalitarian relationships
in their marriages" did not think their influence was equal to their husband's
(p. 173). The gap between financial obligations and inadequate income is
a major factor in the stress levels experienced by these women and their
families (Romero, Castro, & Cervantes, 1988). Additionally, the cycles
of unemployment--common in their types of jobs--sever social networks and
decrease psychological well-being.
Mexican American women's schooling, work, and family are so highly interdependent
that any changes in one affect the others. The importance of schooling
includes providing the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for success
in work; providing the social context in which Mexican American women can
learn to relate socially and personally to Anglo Americans; and improving
the social position of the Mexican American woman.
However, as reported by Meier and Stewart (1991), the socioeconomic
status of the Hispanic community has a strong bearing on political action
to increase Hispanic representation at all school organization levels,
thereby improving conditions for Hispanic students.
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