By Michelle Gomez Parra and Dr. Lorena Garcia
Many of us in higher education have taken notice of the shifts in student demographics, including the rising number of Latinas enrolled in 4-year institutions. For students from poor and working-class backgrounds, college is a vital route to obtain socio-economical mobility. In addition to that central reason why Latinas attend college, other social forces also shape their desire to do this—and, more particularly, their decision to move outside of their families’ homes to pursue higher education.
We explore this in our recent article in Gender & Society. Our research indicates that while economically marginalized Latinas perceive college as an opportunity to achieve upward mobility, they also see it as a way to secure gender and sexual freedom. For example, many of the Latinas we interviewed listed various household responsibilities assigned to them, such as cooking, cleaning, and helping take care of younger siblings when they are at home. They viewed going away to college as an opportunity to free themselves of the responsibility expected of them for this kind of labor in their family households.
The Latinas we spoke with also reported having little discretion over their social lives and spatial mobility when living at home. Their parents often limited where they could go outside the home and who they could socialize with. Our respondents were frustrated with what they saw as unfair treatment because of their gender. They approached moving out of their parents’ home to attend college as a strategy to gain discretion over their social lives and to have freedom over their whereabouts. They talked in depth about the new pleasures they experienced as college students living away from their parents’ home, such as having an opportunity to move beyond the gendered parental rules as well having less gendered family responsibilities. Our research, thus, shows that Latinas’ desire for gender and sexual freedom are factors motivating Latinas’ desire to move away from their parents’ homes to attend college.
Latinas were also well aware of the “teen mom” stereotype which frames Latinas as highly susceptible to becoming young mothers. This stereotype also portrays early motherhood as detrimental to Latinas’ ability to obtain upward mobility. Therefore, the women in our research viewed going to college and obtaining their degrees as a way to refute negative stereotypes about Latinas’ sexualities.
In addition to having discretion over their time and social lives, including where they went, we find that college facilitated gender and sexual freedom for Latinas in another important way. Once in college, Latinas encountered sex-positive discourses that challenged their previously held ideas of sex as dangerous and always leading to unplanned teenage pregnancy. Moreover, they also deepened their understanding of gender inequality and how this impacted their lives as girls and young women. Their exposure to new ideas about gender and sexuality, often through coursework, informed their life choices around gender and sexuality. They desired not only to end their socioeconomic marginalization but also to have autonomy over their social activities and spatial mobility and be free from inegalitarian gender and sexual ideologies.
Overall, our research shows that constraints based on gender and sexuality lead Latinas to seek both upward and spatial mobility via college. Once in college, they are exposed to new ideas that continue to shape their gender and sexual choices. Our study encourages researchers and educators to consider how the intersections of gender, sexual, and racial inequalities shape the educational aspirations of girls and women. Our work also encourages educators to consider how educational curricula have implications for students’ gender and sexual ideologies. We show that access to sex-positive discourses and feminist critiques of gender inequality is liberating for Latinas, as they use this information to advocate for their gender and sexual pleasures, and overall livelihoods.
Michelle Gomez Parra is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at UC Santa Cruz with a designated emphasis in Latin American and Latinx Studies. She utilizes feminist theories of color, such as intersectionality and transnational feminism, to examine how mobility experiences of higher education and migration intersect with heteronormativity to impact Latinas’ negotiations of gender and sexuality.
Lorena Garcia is an associate professor of sociology and Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she also has a courtesy appointment in gender and women’s studies. Her research interests include the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and class, U.S. Latinas, and youth. She is currently working on her second book project which focuses on newly middle-class Latina/x/os’ parenting perspectives and practices.