Monday, January 29, 2024

"Mirror's Reflection: My People and Me," by Rebecca Hart Benitez Hernandez

[Sense of community is] a spirit of belonging together, a feeling that there is an authority structure that can be trusted, an awareness that trade and mutual benefit come from being together, and a spirit that comes from shared experiences that are preserved as art.” Dr. David McMillan

 I often struggle to explain to white people the sense of community and connection I feel within my race and culture and how that sense and connection is different from theirs. I currently live with my husband and in-laws, who are white, and from living with them I can see that the relationships, connections, and loyalties they have within themselves as a family and within their cultural community are different from that of people of color and immigrant families in America. 

As a Mexican-American, I immediately feel connection, understanding, respect, and love toward any Latinx person I meet. I see my parents in the faces of the elders in my community. I see their struggles, and I see their pain. I think about how, like my mother, maybe they haven’t held their mothers and fathers in over 30 years. Maybe they, too, came to this country young, and now many years later, with adult children of their own, cry out in their rooms for their parents and family as my parents do. I wonder if like my parents they left a peaceful life on a village farm, where life is slow and full of love and laughter, for uncertainty. I can look at any old Latina woman and know she hugs her children tight every chance she gets. I know she prays for them constantly, I know she makes all their meals with love and care. I know if she doesn’t have documentation she probably babysat kids in the neighborhood for money like my mother. Or sold things she made like the many years my mom would make hundreds of tamales every weekend, drive an hour to a Latinx-dense neighborhood, and stay out until she sold every last one. Or maybe, like my mother, she sold AVON or winter blankets or pots and pans. I see my father in every Latino man I see who is tired after a long day of labor. I know that after a hard day at work, that old man still makes time for his kids. No matter how tired my pops was or how late it was, he was there for me, eye bags and all with a smile on his face. If I ever come across a younger Latinx person, I know that like me, they have a soft spot for their mamá. Maybe their mom also stays up at night with them, telling them stories of their village life, and maybe they too, laugh together like I do with my mom when I ask her about how the boys were in her village. Maybe when they complain about being tired, their dad too, starts telling stories about how back in his day everyone had two full time jobs and that we young folk have it easy. 

I am constantly trying to explain the logic behind the trust I have in Latinos who are complete strangers. It is hard to put into words that I simply trust them because they are like me. They too love their Mexico as I do, their first and biggest love is their mother, and like me they will work themselves to death before seeing anyone in their family suffer. They will sacrifice everything good to make sure those they love are okay. Their father is the protector and head of the family, like mine. They have a blinding trust in God and in his word like me. They have a mother who poured all the love in the world towards raising them like mine. They eat what I eat, they love what I love and love as I love, they respect as I do, and they were raised with Latin-specific rules, beliefs and morals like me. I find myself getting comfortable quickly around Latinos because I am able to see myself in them, I am able to see similarities in how we process and respond to information, on how we act and what we care about.. Their mother is a mirror to mine, their pain is the same, their struggles and their love are the same. They are responsible to their families, they take accountability, and they love like no other. I feel safe around them because I have faith in the strength of our culture and that our values align. I find that that mentality isn’t the case for white communities. Thus, what takes me one meeting to read, open up to, and decide if I can trust or feel safe around a fellow Latino, takes more with a white person, because I am unable to trust that the morals, values, rules, beliefs, family roles and structure for their community as a whole will be consistent with all members of their community. It is a very individualistic culture whereas Latino culture is heavily community and family based. 

“Collectivism stresses the importance of the community, while individualism is focused on the rights and concerns of each person. Where unity and selflessness or altruism are valued traits in collectivist cultures, independence and personal identity are promoted in individualistic cultures.” 

Kendra Cherry, MSEd

For us, family is everything, and my people are very important to me. Immigrant communities also take those bonds very seriously. They are what make us who we are. We are truly never alone. I experience my people’s love in all aspects of my life. I can go up to any Latinx people and strike up a conversation. A simple hello followed by where are you guys from. "De que parte son?" And the possibilities are endless for where that conversation will lead. A new friend? A new family member? Food advice/ a recipe to try? Talking about what we know and love about each other's regions? Telling every older Latina woman she reminds me of my beautiful mom because they all do in some way. I see mi gente everywhere and it brings me great pride. And with that community growing so does our connection. It will never falter, we will always be there for each other, helping our raza continue on one step at a time.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Beyond the Numbers Podcast: Freshman Inquiry Students Reflect on Their Lives

Many of the smart, determined, and funny students who make Portland State such a delightful place to work and be find their way into the Freshman Inquiry classes--Immigration, Migration, and Belonging--that I'm honored to teach.

Last Spring a half dozen or so students in both classes collaborated with Joe Rivera Soto, a wonderful student advocate at Portland State, to create a podcast about, well, whatever they wanted to talk about. The sound quality of one of the podcasts was strong enough to distribute, so here it is. The peer mentors and I invited the students to research some topic that meant a lot to them, so they are discussing both that subject (imposter syndrome and racism in Portland, for example) and how it has shaped their lives.

The students decided on the format and what their roles in the podcast would be.

The title reflects the complex, particular, challenging, and wonderful personal stories behind the growing numbers of students from under-served communities who are enriching Portland State. I used to think that my primary role as a scholar who was interested in making the world a better and more humane place was to research and publish. Listening to students such as the ones speaking her helped me to realize that my time is much better spent doing what I can to smooth the paths of people such as Abigail, Adilene, Fatima, Joel, Liza, Nicolas, and Stacy to positions of power and influence. 


 La Casa Latina (Numbers Speak Podcast).mp3

Thursday, July 27, 2023

A Student Bill of Rights by PSU Freshman Inquiry Students Just Published in Amplify

About a year and a half ago, the seventy or so students in the Freshman Inquiry classes that I'm honored to teach at Portland State University--Immigration, Migration, and Belonging--collaborated to create a Student Bill of Rights. The great majority of these students are people of color, from immigrant families, and first-generation college students, and the great majority are excited and proud to be at university. But many of them soon feel out of place and discouraged.

Here are their conclusions on what colleges should do to help them to feel at home and to succeed, just published in Amplify: A Journal of Writing-As-Activism: 

Sunday, April 24, 2022


The Journal of Transformative Learning just published a piece that nine Freshman Inquiry students (Raya, Arina, Kenyn, Daira, Jennifer, Estefani, Han, Brianna, and Tony) and our Peer Mentor (Laihha) and I co-wrote based on our class!

It is a very short piece but one we all enjoyed working on very much. "'Like a Family'" describes how we strove to create an environment where people from very diverse backgrounds, in a class in which nearly everyone was from an immigrant family, eventually felt seen and welcome and at home. Many of the students felt much like Jennifer at the beginning of our first class that fall day in 2019: "I was so nervous that I wanted to leave." But as we sat and listened to and got to know each other, magical things happened.

Here is the link:

Monday, November 15, 2021

"Barriers and Passion," by Aline Alvarez

I never really imagined I would be where I am today. I grew up in a home where right off the bat I was destined to be a statistic. Single-parent household, father in prison, immigrant family, Latina, first-generation American, English language learner, the list could go on. This is very common in my culture as many Latinx youth carry the weight of so many circumstances, many of which they cannot avoid or control. It's frustrating to think that because we grow up like this, the world already uses these circumstances as barriers towards our success. Because of this, we grow up with the mindset that we have to work ten times harder than our peers who don't share the same circumstances. Who don't share the same “barriers.” Very early on, I knew I wanted to show that my culture is more than just a statistic and we are capable of accomplishing pretty much anything despite what we go through at home.

Throughout high school, I was a very introverted person. You wouldn't catch me at any homecoming games or dances, you would probably find me at home watching reruns of CSI: New York or working. I kept to myself and had a close knit group of friends. I got great grades. Not because I wanted to, but more because my Mom refused to let me or my sister fall into this pot of statistics. And also because my Mom truly scared me at the time and I knew if I had a failing grade, I would come home to the infamous chancla and the very common Mexican mom lecture where she would explain all of the sacrifices she has made for me and my sister. At 14, I was expected to work and contribute what I could at home. Growing up in a single-parent household, my mom alone could not provide for us on her own so both my sister and I had to take on the role of provider alongside my mom. I had to grow up fast, again not because I wanted to, but because I had to survive and support my family. From fast food jobs, retail, babysitting, and even selling tamales as a side hustle, whatever income I could bring into the household was crucial to whether we would have enough money to keep the heat and lights on. Like many Latinx youth in the same position, we dream of one day earning enough money to move our families out of the struggle and poverty we so commonly face. We dream about taking care of our parents so that they don't have to wake up at the crack of dawn to work a crappy minimum wage job where they work away the rest of their lives. Not the American dream but the Latinx dream.

I took advantage of the fact that I was already busy working by also piling up volunteer hours. I figured by doing this, I could network and in my high school mind, these programs would all of a sudden hire a little 16-year-old as their CEO (I know, I had big dreams). I knew realistically that wasn't going to happen, so I had to keep doing what I was doing to eventually get there. Over time, I lost track of everything I was involved in. It became apparent that it wasn't about my dream any more and more about my passion. I loved working with people and helping people. This has been a huge reason why I have always been involved in service work or more specifically service work in our educational system. Student life and environment is crucial to a person's development, career, and overall future. With programs such as SUN, Latino Network, and IRCO, they are able to target school environments and provide extended services for students with backgrounds similar to mine. I think that's why I kind of felt at home when I would volunteer with them because they understood the eager goals of a Latinx teen just trying to survive. 

This brings me to where I am today and what I do. My senior year of high school, I applied to many universities. A majority of them accepted me without hesitation, which was great until you saw the cost of tuition, fees, books, all that “fun” stuff. I decided Portland State University was what would work best for me and it was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made. Being a first-generation student, I went into college pretty clueless and scared. I didn't have anyone to help or guide me so I am appreciative that I was able to find my niche at the Multicultural Center and my FRINQ class with professor David Peterson Del Mar. While in college, I started to take the risk of actually applying for these student-life careers. Of course, rejection was common. I was still pretty young to be in this type of field as many districts and programs wanted paid experience, a master’s or bachelor's degree, certifications, etc. I still took the risk and rejection and kept applying. Eventually, I ended up getting hired with Volunteers of America as an after-school program coordinator. This job gave me the experience I needed to then move on to my next career which was with Portland Public Schools. I was a Family Service Worker with the Head Start program which focused a lot on aspects of social work and family and student resources. This journey of course wasn't easy. I wouldn't say I was the best employee and I did perfect in my field because I didn't. It was a very big trial and error process for me as I was still learning so much and was also juggling my last two years of college. What kept me going was the people I was helping in the process. The passion.

With both of these experiences I learned a lot about myself and what my purpose was. I was nearing my last year at PSU so I really had to reflect on what I wanted to do after I am done. I received a BA in Criminology and Criminal Justice and knew I wanted to continue working with youth. My end goal is to work with youth who have been put in a system already set up to fail them. Youth that could not overcome their “barriers.” By starting in the school system, we are able to help these youth before they are put into the correctional system. By being that mentor, role model, or friend, it can come a long way and make just enough impact in their lives and futures. I now work with David Douglas High School as a Bilingual after-school coordinator where I focus on the Latinx student population. A lot of the Latinx student population is very underrepresented and underestimated. I run an after-school club Monday-Thursday where Latinx students can come in to do homework, connect with other Latinx peers, and learn about the overall Latinx culture.

I didn't really know what direction I wanted to go with when it came to writing this blog post, I just wanted to assure readers that regardless of your background, anything is possible if you take the risk of doing it. I am the product of that as well as the many students I have worked with. The strength and resilience this new generation has had is incredible and I am thankful to be working with them as they teach me new things every day. I didn't let these so-called barriers in my life stop me and I encourage you to do the same. Some days might be good and some days might be bad, no like, really bad, but trust me, it will get better and you will succeed.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

"Who We Are" Published in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning


I never listened very closely to my students at PSU until I started teaching Freshman Inquiry courses four years ago. What those students had to say startled and moved me. I quickly decided that teaching them was far more important than researching and writing another book and that listening to them should become a central feature of my teaching.

Neera and Vicki are two friends and colleagues in University Studies who have modeled that way of teaching to me, and two years ago we started listening together with three students, Yarina, Ceci, and Jasmine (a pseudonym) about their journeys to and at Portland State and exploring how we might amplify their voices.

I'm delighted to report that Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning just published the stories of Yarina, Ceci, and Jasmine.

Their stories are compelling. At the age of six Ceci demanded that her father 'buy me a small chalkboard because I wanted to become his English teacher." Now, a junior at PSU, she is determined "to be that lawyer my brother did not have." Yarina's path to and through PSU was especially difficult: "I'm the first in my family to attend college, a brown, gang-affiliated youth who found her way here, alone." She graduated a year ago and is preparing to apply to law school.

If you would like to read their stories, please access the current issue of Change through your library if it subscribes to the periodical, or go here, to my (limited number) of free downloads.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

"Not Your Model Minority," By Andrea Luong


When Professor David asked me to write a blog post about a lesson I have learned about life, I truly asked myself what does a 20-year-old has to offer to others around me? Let me tell you a little about myself. My name is Andrea and I come from a Vietnamese family. I am a recent graduate of Portland State University Class of 2021 from OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. I graduated high school early and now I graduated college in 3 years. My future career goal is to become a Physician Assistant with the ultimate goal of traveling and providing healthcare to rural areas around the world. These are the lines I often used to introduce myself to others. Countless times in my life have I had people assume or make little comments about me. Such as, “Oh, because you are Asian, you want to go into medicine” or “Because you are Asian and graduated early, you must be really smart and school comes easy for you.” I can tell you both of these assumptions are false.

I can say that I have been independent all of my life. My parents got divorced when I was seven years old, which pushed me into the role of taking care of my younger brother. When I was growing up, I was constantly surrounded by the Vietnamese language, which made learning English in school a little harder. When I reached high school, I constantly felt that every year was a struggle, both academically and socially. I was working as a waitress at the age of 15. I always felt more mature than my high school peers. Knowing that I was graduating early, this helped me thrive in my third year of high school. I was part of my high school first Girl’s Wrestling team. I started my own small business making earrings after discovering an interest from my advanced 3-D art class portfolio. I also have to give credit to my Art teacher who believed in me and supported me my last year in a way I never knew I needed. 

Then, it was time for college to begin. Coming into college at 17 was pretty scary. I had anxiety about my classes, the school work, and finding my way around PSU. Now looking back at my 3 years at PSU, I found what type of classes worked best for me. I began to take risks to apply for programs and jobs. I started to understand that some professors are there to support you and others may seem less supportive. I gained experiences working in healthcare, research, getting mentored support, mentoring others, and getting my Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification while still taking college classes. Having these experiences during college made me realize that I wanted to be out in the real world gaining more experiences, hence why I was motivated to graduate college in 3 years. Even though I have around 50 cousins, 5 aunts, 10 uncles, and both of my parents with college degrees, no one in my family is in healthcare and finding people who were able to support me through my journey was so important. Through my journey, I had many people tell me that I should be enjoying my high school and college experiences and question why I am going so quickly. Let me tell you, I am the happiest I have ever been right now. I am currently in my gap year working as an EMT for a mobile urgent care company and making an impact in the lives I get to see and help. I also get to learn about each and every one of my patients' struggles and stories. I continue to learn and grow as a person. 

Looking back at my journey, I am proud of myself, even with all of their assumptions and my struggles. This is my journey. My biggest advice for others is to make your own journey and be proud of it. Never compare yourself to others because everyone has their own unique stories. No one can ever tell you who you should be or what your journey should look like. Along your journey, you will have people who will try to put you down, others who will support you, and you will be someone who inspires others. 

Follow your heart. Find your passions. Take risks. And accomplish your goals. You won't believe where it can take you and how it makes you feel.