By Glenda M. Flores, Guest DIVERSITY in Ed Contributor

Latinas are the fastest-growing nonwhite group entering the teaching occupation in the United States, far outnumbering African American and Asian American women. Today, women of Latino origin comprise near­ly 18% of the teachers in California compared to approximately only 8% in 1997. Moreover, Latino children comprise one out of every five public school students in K-12 schools nation­wide and over 50% of California’s student pop­ulation, signaling a “Latinization” of schools and the teaching profession.

In my new book, Latina Teachers: Creating Ca­reers and Guarding Culture, I show the impact of the growing numbers of Latinas who are becom­ing teachers in two Southern California multira­cial schools in Los Angeles. I show how they are reshaping the ways our schools are run and our children are taught. Latina teachers often work in schools embedded in neighborhoods with large immigrant populations and racial/ethnic minority families. My research investigates how and why Latinas — many of whom hail from im­migrant families and are the first in their families to attain a college degree — are entering the teaching profession and how they help students navigate educational institutions in two major­ity-minority elementary schools. Latinos’ dom­inance in education is especially pronounced in Los Angeles, where Latinas/os constitute al­most 30% of teachers and Latino students now make up nearly two-thirds of the K-12 popula­tion. Many of these students are disadvantaged, and 58% of Latino youth in Los Angeles have at least one undocumented parent.

How can we explain the startling discovery that teaching has now emerged as the top oc­cupation drawing Latina college graduates? As I discovered when I began interviewing these women, the majority said they had not specifi­cally planned on a career in teaching. Rather, a series of social factors constrained and enabled Latinas into the teaching occupation. Family fi­nancial constraints, as well as the burgeoning demand for bilingual, bicultural teachers, espe­cially in the 1990s, combined with the financial feasibility of the shorter educational prepara­tion for the teaching career, and recruiting ef­forts served as magnets drawing Latinas of di­verse backgrounds into the job. In many cases, Latinas indicated they were the preferred labor pool in immigrant and racial/ethnic minority communities because employers deemed Span­ish bilingualism and bicultural abilities an asset.

Fitting this narrative is Mrs. Bianca Franco, a 30-year-old Mexican-American woman who has been working as a fourth-grade teacher in Cali­fornia for nine years. Her mother was an undoc­umented immigrant from Guadalajara but was eventually able to secure a job as a teacher’s aid in an elementary school. Her father, on the other hand, was born to Mexican immigrants in California and worked as a plumber. While her parents placed great value on education — as many Latino families do — neither had navi­gated the rigors of college life or knew how to guide their daughter through college and into a white-collar job. When she was about to embark on her collegiate studies, her parents were un­able to fund any part of her schooling. Although Mrs. Franco “fell into” teaching, she developed a passion for the job once she saw what a valu­able resource she was for Latino families (both undocumented and U.S. born) who were having trouble navigating institutional bureaucracies and finding support for their children, whom they wanted to succeed in America. With Mrs. Franco’s narrative, we begin to see how other occupational aspirations held by Latina college graduates were thwarted by family financial constraints and their lack of understanding of the higher educational system. We also begin to see the seeds of what I call “cultural guardians” being planted once in the profession because Latina teachers often overextend themselves, providing services that go beyond what is re­quired of them by schools and their jobs be­cause they themselves experienced social ex­clusion and want to shield Latino students from similar experiences. The situation is especially racialized for Latina educators because they or their extended families are of the same or sim­ilar communities, and they have lived, shared and witnessed the issues firsthand.

Like Mrs. Franco, in many cases Latina teach­ers are first-generation college students who “made it.” They are the success stories in their communities and are highly aware of institution­alized roadblocks in schools because they lived them themselves. In their students, they see mirror images of their younger selves. I find that they creatively use Latina/o cultural elements in their jobs as a means to guard and protect Latino students from a system that is built up to divest them of their cultural resources. One example is by incorporating important communication codes in the Spanish language such as using ust­ed instead of tu (both are forms of the English you) to demonstrate respect and bridge the so­cial distance with Spanish-speaking immigrant parents from rural areas during parent-teacher conferences. Another example is allowing al­ternative forms of mathematical problem solv­ing in long division and multiplication, as math problems are solved differently in Mexico. Many Latina teachers have the background knowledge that allows them to discern and modify their in­teractions with distinct Latino families.

Educational policymakers argue that the way to change the educational attainment of racial/ethnic minority students is by hir­ing more teachers of color. It is important for school districts that want to recruit more Lati­na teachers to be aware that there is internal diversity within the Latina/o population. This means that not only do they hail from differ­ent Latin American countries, but they are also internally divided by socioeconomic status, generation level in the United States, Span­ish-speaking abilities and immigration status. While the Spanish language binds this group together, Latino culture is not experienced as a monolith because it varies by region. These issues will become more pronounced as Lati­no families enroll their children in American schools in new immigrant gateways.