As a child growing up in a poor immigrant community, my dreams were limited by what I saw around me. We were survivors, but we often struggled. It was a constant battle as we tried our best to make ends meet, yet never really seemed to make it. Education was the ultimate ticket out of the poverty cycle, but no one in my family had even finished high school.
When my mother realized I had an aptitude and thirst for reading, she went to a private school and convinced them to take me as a student. How she persuaded them remains a mystery to this day, but she got it done.
We walked many miles to get to school everyday. My mother worked odd jobs to pay for uniforms and shoes. I got straight A's, but it was my persistent, tenacious mother who kept me in school. She kept dreaming big on my behalf—even though the odds were stacked against my success. I was bullied in school, and it wasn’t safe to be smart in my community. I was discouraged from talking about any honors I received in school, even to family members.
My mother and siblings were the only family members who came to my high school graduation. After I finished high school, I went on to college and then seminary. You could say I beat some of the odds or at least defied society’s expectations and limitations for women of color. But the lack of support and affirmation for me—a high-achieving, successful Latina girl and then woman—was often extremely heartbreaking.
Bias against Latinas in Education
The education gap for Latinas, and immigrant women in particular, begins early. According to the Pew Research Center, "Hispanics still have the highest dropout rate among all major racial and ethnic groups, it reached a record-low of 14% in 2013, compared with 32% of Hispanic 18- to 24-year-olds who were dropouts in 2000."
It goes on to say that, "young Hispanics still lag behind in earning four-year college degrees. Hispanic students account for just 9% of young adults (ages 25 to 29) with a bachelor’s degree. By comparison, whites account for about 58% of students ages 18 to 24 enrolled in college and 69% of young adults with a bachelor’s degree" (emphasis mine).
Unfortunately, even Latinas that do finish high school and enter higher education bring home the lowest paycheck of all ethnic groups. Racial discrimination and gender bias are often stumbling blocks that produce and compound overwhelming obstacles, especially within the church.
Women of color often face gender bias in our own communities and academic spaces, where men are seen as having more potential and being more worthy of investment. But Latina women face even more obstacles in their pursuit of success in majority white academia, organizations, and churches. In these spaces, white men especially (and white women to a lesser but still significant degree) are given more space and financial and institutional support than women of color. This must change.
Bias against Latinas at Work
Racial bias works in conjunction with prejudice against women to limit women of color’s earning potential and inhibit their professional success. According to an article in Newsweek last year:
"Latina women face some of the steepest obstacles to closing the gender wage gap. They earn roughly 54 cents for every dollar a white man makes, according to recent data from the National Partnership, a bipartisan nonprofit advocating for women and families. Black women make about 63 cents to the white man's dollar, while white women come closest to closing the gender wage gap, earning 79 cents to their male counterparts."
Objectification of Latinas
The objectification and fetishization of Latina women is also a painful reality in our society. Women of color, and specifically Latina women, are seen as exotic and sexual, a stereotype that’s both sexist and racist. Racial and gender bias make it easier to see women of color as less human, making them more vulnerable to sexual violence and leaving them without the power to hold perpetrators accountable.
Pressure on Latina Women to Not Report Abuse
As we saw with #MeToo and #ChurchToo, women of color typically don’t report abuse, sexual harassment, and predatory behavior. There are many possible reasons for this, but one factor is that some women of color are members of communities that value submissiveness in females. Women are taught to be silent and not report men who behave badly or exhibit criminal behavior. Breaking the culture of silence can come at a very high social price for these women. Women are groomed to keep silent about misconduct and their communities mind their own business.
Unfortunately, many women never come forward about what has happened to them. They fear being ostracized not only by broader society, but within their own culture and ethnic and racial group. There are many obstacles to speaking up, including social, professional, and financial repercussions.
What the Church Can Do
1. Do more than sympathize with women of color.
As we see abuse survivors of color coming forward and women of color exposing racial and gender bias in our society and institutions, we should feel sympathetic towards them. Sympathy is good, but it does nothing to advance the movement of #metoo and #churchtoo or move the needle forward for Latina women seeking justice and equality.
Silence is not an option. We’re at a pivotal and defining moment—who will we be as a church and what are we as a people going to do about these injustices? Those who aren’t women of color should work hard to become humble, teachable allies. We must move beyond sympathy to speak and take action against the double injustice of sexism and racism.
2. Make a point to pray for and celebrate Latina women.
I urge women of all colors to unite in prayerful support of Latina women and other women of color, who often receive less emotional and financial support. Our journey through the maze of education and church is filled with overwhelming stumbling blocks, but we persevere. That resilience deserves to be honored.
Celebrate your Latina sisters, las hermanas Latinas. Celebrate las pastoras y la poeta. Honor the activist, the writer, the reformer, the musician, and the artist. Yield time, space, and platform to the women of color who emerge from the ashes and deepen and widen our understanding of the world. Appreciate the beautiful mosaic of women of color; we are so much more than black and white.
3. Women of color in the church, continue to rise up.
Adelante, women of color who have been in the shadows of the church. It’s time we are also heard. Our voices matter. Our struggles are real. Our stories are relevant and insightful.
Where there is institutional bias, organize against it. Where there is apathy, call it out. Where there is bias, expose it. And when rest and self-care is needed, protect and honor yourselves. Continue to rise up, as we have always done.
A Vision for the Church
Donde quiera que estén—wherever you find yourself—and whatever your color, speak courageously. Women in this world are finding their voices and owning their stories. We must open our hearts to the stories that are different than ours.
Whether we realize it or not, a paradigm shift is happening. The voices of Latina women, of immigrant women, of women of color, and of all women are emerging. Together, we’re telling a fuller story and illustrating a profound truth: we're always better and stronger together.