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Fighting for Respeto: Latinas’ Stories of Violence and Resistance Shaping Educational Opportunities

by Judy Marquez Kiyama, Donna Marie Harris & Amalia Dache-Gerbino - 2016

Background/Context: The experiences of Latina youth in the United States are embedded within a larger social context influenced by gender, ethnic/racial identity, socioeconomic status, language, and sociospatial and political characteristics that can negatively impact their daily lived experiences. Given the challenges that young Latinas encounter, it is necessary to understand the systemic barriers that complicate their educational progress as they confront dominant institutions and systems that marginalize them.

Purpose/Objective: This article is informed by intersecting forms of violence and the relationship between violence and systems experienced by adolescent Latinas. Its purpose is to explore the oppressive structures that influence Latinas’ educational opportunities and to illustrate how Latinas respond to these structures. This article is guided by the following research questions: How are Latina students’ schooling experiences influenced by acts of violence? How do Latina students respond to these acts of violence?

Participants: Analysis for this article was drawn from seven focus groups with 39 Latinas, ages 11–18. The majority (82%) of the Latinas identified as Puerto Rican, inclusive of biracial and multiracial identities.

Research Design: The data in this article originated from a larger mixed-methods study examining the barriers that prohibit Latina/o students from successfully progressing through K–12 schooling. We used focus groups to collect data from the participants and drew upon narrative analysis techniques to represent the stories of the young Latinas.

Findings: Findings highlight how systemic forces position and oppress Latinas, resulting in physical violence, stereotypes, and environmental violence, each of which intersect with Latinas’ gender, race, ethnicity, social class, and language. The authors present the findings by associating key themes of resistance, resiliency, and agency with Latina participant experiences with violence.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The authors argue that these forms of systemic violence must be interrogated further, as future educational opportunities for Latinas will continue to be impacted. Spaces must be created to recognize and further cultivate the resistance strategies that Latinas are developing, especially as they learn to critique and fight against the social systems in which they are embedded.

I don’t fight in school but they always wanted to, they always wanted to see me fight and they never ever got to see me fight, they saw me once but not in school. It was downtown. Girl, I feel better here because there’s no girls trying to fight me. I’m making more friends . . . but in the street, there ain’t no friends in the street.

—Katia, Puerto Rican, current GED student

The experiences of Latina youth in the United States are embedded within a larger social context influenced by gender, ethnic/racial identity, socioeconomic status, language, and sociospatial and political characteristics that influence their daily lived experiences. Given their social positioning, the educational realities of Latina youth are impacted by various oppressive structures that operate among social institutions, including neighborhoods and schools. Latinas endure an educational system that is laced with race- and gender-based stereotypes that misrepresent them and hinder their achievement and opportunities to matriculate into college (Cammarota, 2004, p. 55), including being retained in high school and being suspended (National Women’s Law Center & Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund [MALDEF], 2009). As the quote above exemplifies, the relationships that emerge between neighborhoods and schooling also contribute to the experiences of Latinas within broader systems like education. While we acknowledge that Latinas’ experiences intersect with various social indicators, it is necessary to also foreground their experiences within a gender socialization framework.

The identities of Latina youth are shaped by gender norms that intersect with socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity. These norms inform expectations regarding the characteristics and behaviors associated with being female and reinforce the subordinate status of girls and women within a gender hierarchy (Anyon, 1984; Borman, Mueninghoff, & Piazza, 1988; Weis, 1988). A common social discourse regarding femininity suggests that girls and women are passive and weak, making them vulnerable to violence. Associated with presumed passivity, females are assumed to be silent and not to have a voice (Denner & Dunbar, 2004; Fordham, 1993). Studies show that young women of color encounter gendered norms and expectations in their daily interactions in their homes, communities, and schools that often reinforce ethnoracial stereotypes about black and brown bodies, including sexual promiscuity (Garcia, 2009; Hyams, 2006; Taylor, Veloria, & Verba, 2007). Although gender-based norms exist, they are not blindly accepted by girls and women and are contested in a number of ways (Adams, 1999; Anyon, 1984; Cammarota, 2004; Denner & Dunbar, 2004; Fordham, 1993; Pastor, McCormick, & Fine, 2007). To contest these norms, young Latinas use strategies such as pursuing positive identities and defying these norms (Anyon, 1984), using their voices to address unequal treatment of others (Denner & Dunbar, 2004), fighting to gain respect (Adams, 1999; Ness, 2004), and pursuing education (Pastor et al., 2007). We further explore the systems perpetuating these norms, as well as the strategies enacted by young women, throughout this paper.

Given the challenges that young women, particularly Latinas, encounter, it is necessary to understand the systemic barriers that complicate their educational progress as they confront dominant institutions and systems that marginalize them. We examine these dominant institutions and systems through the lens of violence. Although we acknowledge the normative conceptualizations of violence that are often understood through physical pain, we draw from Hill Collins’s (2013) complicating of violence: “Viewing the very definition of violence as lying outside intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, and citizenship ignores how the power to define what counts as violence simultaneously constructs these systems of oppression and erases the importance of violence in maintaining them” (p. 189). Thus, informed by intersecting forms of violence and the relationship between violence and systems experienced by adolescent Latinas, the purpose of this article is to explore the oppressive structures that influence their educational opportunities and to illustrate how Latinas respond to these structures. This article is guided by the following research questions: How are Latina students’ schooling experiences influenced by acts of violence? How do Latina students respond to these acts of violence? We complicate notions of violence not only by presenting the behaviors that Latinas engage in, but also by exposing the violence that has been thrust upon them, both overtly and invisibly; in doing so, we consider the power relations and systems that shape such violence (Hill Collins, 2013). We reconceptualize violence by drawing upon the voices of Latina youth. Likewise, we draw upon Latinas’ voices to counter symbolic violence and to shape implications for research and practice.

This article is significant because of our focus on the systems influencing Latinas’ educational experiences, specifically their secondary-level educational experiences, and the implications for their post-secondary educational pathways. Additionally, the Latinas in this study primarily identify as Puerto Rican and reside within low-income neighborhoods. This is significant because, although “Puerto Rican youth have been attending U.S. schools for nearly a century” (Nieto, 1998, p. 133), studies on Latina/os tend to focus on either Mexican or Mexican American students. Likewise, Puerto Ricans remain one of the “most undereducated racial/ethnic groups in the United States” (Nieto, 2004, p. 388). Finally, this article highlights the depth of complexity surrounding the racialized, classed, and gendered systems of symbolic violence that Puerto Rican Latinas are navigating and the forms of resistance they employ to persevere and protect themselves from such violence. We use the framework of symbolic violence (Bourdieu, 2004) as an overarching notion of violence to understand the oppressive acts Latinas experience and the manifestation of these acts into other forms, such as physical violence, stereotypes as violence, and environmental violence. We draw on Chicana feminist epistemology (Delgado Bernal, 1998) as an analytical tool to understand how Latinas make sense of and resist such violence. Combining these theoretical tools into a complementary framework represents the first use of such an approach, which is appropriate for this study as it allows us to examine the complexities noted above. Our findings contribute to a body of literature that informs national policies and practices that work to create educational equity for Latina students while acknowledging the restrictive structural dynamics found in school environments.

Current literature highlights that although Latinas1 have high educational and professional aspirations, 16% of Latinas drop out of high school (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010). Cammarota (2004) suggests that despite their recent growth in academic success, this growth is slow-going, which works to place Latinas at continued “social and educational disadvantage” (p. 55). Additionally, many Latinas report their postsecondary expectations are lower than their aspirations, indicating a disconnect between goals and expectations (National Women’s Law Center & MALDEF, 2009). The proportion of Latinas transitioning into higher education has increased at a higher rate than that of Latinos, contributing to an emphasis in current research on the “vanishing Latino male in higher education” (Sáenz & Ponjuan,2009). While this crucial issue must be addressed, we suggest that attention must also focus on the realities of adolescent Latinas, because their untold stories illuminate the barriers they confront in society and schools that influence educational persistence and aspirations. Those Latinas who do matriculate into college remain “underrepresented in all levels of formal education attainment,” including professional and doctoral degrees (González, 2007, p. 291). This underrepresentation and the disconnect between postsecondary aspirations and expectations indicate that Latinas are experiencing disruptions in their educational pathways. We turn now to the conceptual framework guiding this study.


This study is informed by Bourdieu’s (2004) concept of symbolic violence as well as by Chicana feminist epistemology (Delgado Bernal, 1998). Bourdieu (2004) asserts that symbolic violence is a product of structures of domination, which leads to “systematic self-depreciation” (p. 339). Symbolic violence can be understood as resulting from systems of oppression. In this study, we extend the cultural understanding of manifestations of symbolic violence as both physical and non-physical. Symbolic violence does not negate the presence of physical violence (Bourdieu, 2004, p. 339) and may lead to physical violence. Hence, physical violence will not be contested as we acknowledge the impact it has on the lives of young Latinas. Symbolic violence relates to the gendering of males as perpetrators and its reciprocal, the female as victim, and results in female subjectivity in patriarchal societies . We further this argument and counter it by highlighting that Latinas are resisting subjectivity as emasculated females and are taking on traditional male traits of strength, courage, and honor through physical violence.

Symbolic violence is situated within the context of culture, society, and institutions. Bourdieu and Passeron (1990) argued that classrooms are socially constructed by the roles of teachers and students. Hence, the educational experience is a process that, based on social construction, can be misunderstood by participants from different cultural contexts. Symbolic relations are linked to power relations, where power relations impose symbolic relations in a hierarchal fashion. Structural components of the dominant culture, especially institutions of education, are warehouses of cultural reproduction and breed symbolic violence (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990).

Because of the focus on Puerto Ricans in this study, it is imperative to acknowledge that their history has been shaped by acts of colonialism that impact the lands, economy, and identities of Puerto Ricans (Nieto, 1998; Spring, 2013). This colonial status has furthermore shaped educational experiences and educational identities of Puerto Ricans—a colonial history that accompanies Puerto Rican students to the schoolhouse door (Nieto, 2004). Nieto (1998) noted that policies and practices have stripped Puerto Ricans of their language and identities, exposing a form of symbolic violence carried out by dominant forces. Specifically, schools in Puerto Rico represent sites of symbolic violence, where the United States has control over educational polices (Nieto, 1998; Spring, 2013). These acts of symbolic violence, shared through stories and memories, impact the lives of Puerto Rican students and families attending U.S. schools. It is also necessary to acknowledge that a theory of symbolic violence alone does not particularize gendered and raced Latina student experiences.

Chicana feminist epistemology (Delgado Bernal, 1998) further nuances symbolic violence among educational experiences of Latinas. Literature on less identified “invisible” structures of violence, such as classism, racism, mis-education, ascribed deviant behaviors,2 and overall social isolation, are lacking when drawing from Latina students as victims of symbolic violence (see Delgado Bernal, Elenes, Godinez, & Villenas, 2006). The residuals of symbolic violence trickle down into individual, familial, and community displays of physical violence, often leading the general public to assume that such behaviors originate at the individual, family, or community level (Bourdieu, 2004).

Elenes and Delgado Bernal (2010) noted the importance of Chicana feminist epistemology when understanding the “complexities of Latina/os’ positions in society and in systems of U.S. education” (p. 72). This is particularly important when understanding how the Latina narratives in this study challenge manifestations of symbolic violence, thus offering counter-narratives to the dominant discourse that has been perpetuated about young Latinas—such as violence originating in the home. This framework provides an opportunity for Latinas to tell and analyze their life stories about educational experiences and resistance. Chicana feminist epistemology specifically acknowledges participants’ realities as the “foundation of knowledge” (p. 558) and considers “how this knowledge is legitimized or not legitimized” (p. 560). Further, Chicana feminist epistemology helps researchers to understand how Latinas are situated within place (physical location) and space (the position groups occupy in society as a result of their identities) (Elenes & Delgado Bernal, 2010). This particular framework provides a “theory of agency” and helps researchers to understand how Latinas struggle against forms of oppression and, we argue, the symbolic violence constructed in such places and spaces (Elenes & Delgado Bernal, 2010). Although this theory suggests that it may be specific to Chicanas, we believe Chicana feminist epistemology can be applied to Latinas in general—and, in this study, Puerto Rican young women—based on Latina/os’ shared oppression. The experiences of the young women in this study exemplify the complexities and agency, particularly with respect to identity, ethnicity, and sexuality, noted within the principles of Chicana feminist epistemology.

Taken together, symbolic violence and Chicana feminist epistemology provide a complementary framework through which we study the formal and informal educational settings that Latinas are navigating, the individuals and social structures involved in their navigational processes, and the agency, resistance, and resiliency Latinas tap into when (re)constructing their educational experiences (Elenes & Delgado Bernal, 2010). We identify four specific areas in which these theories overlap. First, the theories provide a framework from which we highlight the intersections of gender, race/ethnicity, and urbanicity as the center of our analysis. Second, the theories point to resistance to the gendering of females as victims in patriarchal dominant societies. Third, the theories highlight connections between gender positions and power and how these relationships (re)construct different opportunity structures for individuals. Fourth, the theories center the context of the school as a socially constructed place functioning to isolate certain groups. Finally, as we draw upon the voices of Latinas, Chicana feminist epistemology stresses the exposure of local and experiential knowledge in the analysis of participant experiences. This complementary framework offers a lens through which to examine how violence operates as a “site of intersectionality” that enables oppression to function (Hill Collins, 2013, p. 190).



Violence and School Systems

Identity, space, and labor have been reconfigured over time and result in shifting forms of violence and vulnerability (Morgen & Maskovsky, 2003), including within educational spaces. Previous research has well documented the various forms of inequity experienced by Latina/os in elementary and secondary schools (Cammarota, 2006; Reyes, Gillock, Kobus, & Sanchez, 2000; Valenzuela, 1999). More specific literature has noted forms of violence as contributing factors to these educational inequities (Watts & Erevelles, 2004). For example, Moll (2004) suggested that a “pedagogy of control” exemplifies schools’ legacies of suffocating diversity (p. 126). This controlling function is a result of structural power. Others have drawn upon notions of violence when describing the educational conditions that African American, Latina/o, and low-income students face (Garcia-Reid, 2008; Watts & Erevelles, 2004). Garcia-Reid (2008) explained structural violence as “a constraint on human potential that is due to economic and political structures,” and which exposes the invisible “social formations” that affect the inequitable distribution of resources in schools attended by Latina/os (p. 236).

Likewise, Watts and Erevelles (2004) argued that school violence was influenced by the “structural violence of oppressive conditions” which influenced the “social construction of the ‘deviant’ student” (p. 273). The authors extended the discussion of school violence beyond individual student responsibility and examined how the social, cultural, political, and economic environments act as normative forms of social control with students. Ultimately, such forms of violence impact the academic success and identity development of Latina/os, particularly when their school environments hinder rather than nurture such educational opportunity and limit positive relationships with teachers and other school personnel (Flores-González, 2002).

Violence, Gender Roles, and Sexuality

The reactions that students of color, and Latina/o students in particular, demonstrate in response to larger forms of violence are inextricably linked to gender roles and sexuality. Standards for the expression of sexuality dictate the ways that young women should dress, including the avoidance of “provocative” clothes (Hyams, 2006). A number of studies showed that sexual activity and provocative dress were concerns encountered by adolescent Latinas (Denner & Dunbar, 2004; Pastor, McCormick & Fine, 2007; Hyams, 2006; Taylor et al., 2007). Hyams’s (2006) study about female Mexican students showed that messages regarding sex both reinforced community and religious expectations about respectability and communicated that academic success is put at risk if sexual activity is not controlled. In fact, Hyams reported that the school dress code policy was enacted at the study’s data collection site in order to protect young women. These gendered norms encountered by females conflict with the expectations often set for Latino males. Ethnic belonging is a unique predictor in the development of masculine gender roles. Specifically, within Latino culture, these roles are seen as vehicles to societal respect (Abreu, Goodyear, Campos, & Newcomb, 2000). Many within the Latino culture abide by machismo code (Lazur & Majors, 1995), a socialization process whereby a boy becomes an image of his fatherly influence (Diaz, 1966; Diaz-Guerrero, 1955; McGinn, 1966; Paz, 1961; Penalosa, 1968). Within this code, gender roles are strictly enforced, having profound influence on the development of masculinity in children (Casas, Wagenheim, Banchero, & Mendoza-Romero, 1994).

The norm that Latinas abstain from sexual activity conflicts with ideas of machismo associated with males in the Latina/o community. As gender roles and identity intersect with socioeconomic status, different sets of conflict and responses emerge by social class. Anyon (1984) stated:

A major contradiction faced by many of these working-class and lower-middle-class women is that the charge of femininity (to be submissive, subordinate to their men, dependent, and domestic) is in sharp disjunction with the imperatives of their daily lives (the need, for example, to aggressively struggle for actual survival). (p. 27)

The ways in which girls and young women pursue positive identities, given the prescribed ways to be a female, disrupt the status quo.

Thus, for girls, gender development will involve a series of attempts to cope with—and resolve—contradictory social messages regarding what they should do and be. Girls are presented not only with ideologies regarding what is appropriate behavior for themselves as females, but also with ideologies of what are appropriate means in U.S. society of achieving self-esteem (Anyon, 1984, p.26).

Likewise, studies of resistance to oppressive structures often focus on working-class males (Solorzano & Delgado Bernal, 2001), thereby excluding an understanding of how violence impacts females, particularly Latinas. Examples of this research include African and Latino male students who resist against their prison-like school environments and feel angry and vulnerable (Watts & Erevelles, 2004) and African American male students who engage in physical forms of violence to establish respect within such environments (Hemmings, 2003). Specifically, Hemmings (2003) found that male students were “fighting for respect” as an assertion of their manhood. In this study, the fighting that African American males engaged in was an effort to establish respect among other students; doing so led to positive images of self-identity. Ultimately, the focus of the experiences of these African American young men was not on the actual fighting, but on the maintenance of respect, a cultural value centered around interpersonal relationships (Hemmings, 2003). Fighting or resisting is not limited to interactions with peers. Cammarota’s (2004) ethnography documented young Latinos resisting the criminalizing they felt in schools by cutting classes. In doing so, they cultivated positive, respectful, and familiar relationships with peers who were experiencing the same criminalizing feelings. Cammarota’s findings suggest that when Latinos are treated in oppressive ways, fighting back (e.g., cutting class) becomes a form of survival, highlighting the fact that respect and resistance are cultivated in complex ways.

Fighting among girls is a strategy used to gain respect and assert power. Fighting occurs in schools and in the streets for a number of reasons, including survival in urban neighborhoods. Girls also fight to achieve status and respect among peers (Adams, 1999; Ness, 2004). Ness’s study of fighting among young African American women and their female family members reveals the stark reality that fighting is a necessity for survival in many urban neighborhoods. According to Adams (1999):

Individuals from lower socioeconomic status produce their own subjective experiences and conceptions of reality, shaped primarily by their low-socioeconomic status. Often such an ideology appears to resist or contest the norms and values deemed appropriate by the dominant culture (i.e. girls’ fighting disrupts dominant understandings of appropriate feminine behavior). (p. 120)

Thus, fighting becomes understood as survival in an “economically harsh world” (p. 120). Although studies focusing on girls fighting are largely missing from the literature, Brown and Tappan (2008) posited that when girls engage in physical fights like boys, it does not necessarily constitute a mimicking of male traits, but rather a form of resistance toward a patriarchal society. Brown and Tappan used gender as the dominant lens to interpret the experiences of girl fighting, though they acknowledged that race and class are intersectional categories that cannot be overlooked when considering gender. Therefore, fighting among females debunks the stereotype that girls are passive and pushes educators beyond the idea that fighting is a “male” characteristic.


There are important distinctions between the terms “respect” and respeto. Respeto is not just a literal translation of the word respect; it is culturally significant, and, when considering relationships, it connotes “knowing the level of courtesy and decorum required in a given situation in relation to other people of a particular age, sex and social status” (Harwood, Miller, & Irizarry 1995, p. 98). Ultimately, respeto is not only about mutually respecting one another, but also about maintaining harmony (Harwood et al., 1995). When individuals engage in behaviors meant to reestablish respeto, they are fighting for the courtesy and harmony expected in a given socio-cultural situation. For example, when considering a Latina mother-and-child relationship, demanding respeto may be synonymous with the cultural value of expecting obedience (Calzada, Fernandez, & Cortes, 2010). Such characteristics of respeto are relevant to how Latinas negotiate identity, peer relationships, and school experiences. How this plays out with young Latinas may suggest that it is not necessarily the case that Latinas are demanding that others obey them, but that they acknowledge Latinas’ worth and value. From this perspective, it is clear that respeto is not only a form of obedience, but a form of resistance for Latinas.


While Calzada et al. (2010) and Brown and Tappan (2008) moved the conversation in the direction of resistance, most literature on respeto lacks notions of resistance, familial capital, and traditions associated with adolescent Latinas. For that we turn to a brief review of the literature on resistance. It is helpful to understand that literature on resistance often describes students who resist by engaging in behaviors that may be considered disruptive without critiquing the social conditions that oppress them, or students who critique the social conditions but engage in self-defeating resistant behavior, thereby recreating such oppressive conditions (Solorzano & Delgado Bernal, 2001, p. 316).

Instead, Solorzano and Delgado Bernal (2001) pointed to transformational resistance, a type of resistance behavior in which students critique social systems and fight for social justice. Transformational resistance leads to a greater possibility of social change (Solorzano & Delgado Bernal, 2001). Yosso’s (2005) conceptualization of community cultural wealth helps to reframe deficit discussions around communities of color and centers various forms of capital, including resistant capital and navigational capital. Such forms of capital share many of the standards of transformational resistance. Specifically, resistant capital encompasses the “knowledge and skills fostered through oppositional behavior that challenges inequality” (Yosso, 2005, p. 80). Resistant capital displays as forms of assertion, intelligence, strength, self-reliance, and respect, particularly for women who are fighting within structures of inequality (Yosso, 2005). Furthermore, navigational capital refers to skills used when navigating through racially hostile institutions and systems. Resilience is a form of navigational capital (Yosso, 2005). Such literature on resistance is key to understanding how Latina/os enact agency, make meaning, and negotiate their experiences rather than being acted on by structures (Malagon & Alvarez, 2010; Solorzano & Delgado Bernal, 2001).

Resistance strategies shed light on how Latina/os are forced to negotiate their positioning in larger society or in educational institutions, as opposed to how they view themselves. Malagon and Alvarez (2010) presented five Chicana women who defied societal expectations regarding education and identity. Specifically, the authors pointed to how these young women were positioned in a “binary of student achievement” (p. 150), suggesting that society accepts certain behaviors as high-achieving and not others. The authors suggest that society cannot operate with a single definition of high achievement, as it further marginalizes “oppressed communities, those pushed into remedial spaces within already sub-standard schools” (p. 169).

In presenting forms of resistance exhibited by second-generation Puerto Rican girls, Rolón-Dow (2004) explored the intersections of race/ethnicity and gender in their schooling experiences. Findings from this study revealed that the culturally coded images of Latinas as sexualized beings seemingly concerned with appearance rather than academics influenced how teachers viewed them as students. Rolón-Dow (2004) highlighted how teachers’ perceptions of Latina students influenced their experiences in the classroom and school. Such findings complement earlier work on African American girls who negotiated and resisted racialized and gendered identities and had to navigate among stereotypes and norms of being female (Fordham, 1993). One girl in particular fought against these stereotypes by challenging teachers and school norms, while still abiding by school rules (Fordham, 1993). Likewise, Latina behaviors and forms of resistance do not have to be in opposition to schooling practices. Excelling in school can actually be a form of resistance, as Cammarota (2004) documented in his ethnography of Latina/o youth. The Latinas in Rolón-Dow’s (2004) study both contributed to and resisted the controlling images. The Latinas and their instances of resistance were embedded in social structures with various power differentials (p. 12); therefore, Rolón-Dow stressed that resistance must be enacted by students and teachers. Such examples demonstrate how identity constructs of young women of color are influenced by historical positions of race/ethnicity and gender, with contemporary gender relationships among racial/ethnic community norms (Fordham, 1993; Pillow, 2003).

Over the last few decades, the proportion of Latino males who transition from high school to college has not drastically changed, but because of the low base from which Latina young women started, their growth in high school graduation and transition to college appears to have increased disproportionately (Gándara & Contreras, 2009), potentially contributing to the assumption that the need for research on Latinas is not as urgent. What remains unclear and understudied is this question: When faced with multiple forms of violence, how are young Latinas’ educational pathways altered, especially when they attempt to transition into postsecondary education?


The data in this article originated from a larger mixed-methods study examining the barriers that prevent Latina/o students from successfully progressing through K–12 schooling. During the 2009–2010 academic year, we conducted 31 focus groups among parents/guardians and students, including 54 Latinas, at nine community locations. We drew upon narrative analysis techniques to represent the rich stories of the young Latinas. While the data collection and analysis are explained in detail below, we turn first to an overview of the schooling context.


Latina/os make up about 13% of the total population of the local city, with the predominant group being Puerto Rican (9.96%). The study drew specifically from Latina/o students in an urban school district, about 22% of the total district population. African Americans comprise 64% of students, and Asian American and White students comprise 13%. During the 2009–2010 academic year, this school district served over 30,000 students who experienced severe rates of poverty, with 85% identified as eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. In addition, 10% of students were identified as limited English proficient. At the secondary level there were 17 high schools, including several schools within schools and two special-admission high schools, at the time of our study. Although Latina/o students were represented in all the high schools, the student population at Mendez High School was over two-thirds Latina/o (State Department of Education, 2011a). The school district confronts significant educational challenges, because in 2009-2010 it did not meet the annual yearly progress (AYP) high school targets for English Language Arts, mathematics, and graduation. Within this school district, Latina/os have the lowest graduation rate at 42%, compared to the district average of 46%. The dropout rate of Latina/os in the district is equally troubling and was recently reported at 33% (State Department of Education Report Card, 2011b).
As in other urban schools, student fighting and concerns about safety were chronic issues addressed during data collection; they generated responses about the presence of local police officers assigned to high schools and the use of scanners to prevent weapons from entering the schools. The issue of physical violence figured prominently in the school experiences of Latina/o students in this urban school district. During the 2009–2010 academic year, as we collected data for this study, 2,066 students experienced one or more suspensions. There were 345 Latina/o students who were suspended one or more times. Among all students who had one or more suspensions that year, 17% were Latinas/os. Of Latina/o students who were suspended, Latinas represented 45% and Latinos 55% (Office of Civil Rights, 2009–2010). To address the negative consequences of fighting and general concerns about safety, the school district implemented in-school suspension to limit the loss of instructional time.

Unsafe schools and suspension were just two of the issues that contributed to a process of dropping out for Latina/o students in this urban school district (Kiyama & Harris, 2010). The persistently high drop-out rates prompted a community call to action in 2008, led by a local Latina/o community-based organization. This call to action thus began the larger study from which these data were generated.


Forty-five parents/guardians and 95 students participated in the larger set of focus groups. Of the 95 students, 65% (62) identified as Puerto Rican. The sample for this study included 54 Latina youths, ages 11–18, who participated in the focus groups. Of the 54 Latinas, 57% (31) identified as Puerto Rican. Preliminary analysis of the focus groups revealed that Latinas shared numerous examples of violence in their neighborhoods, homes, and schools. While focus groups conducted with Latino males did reveal various other factors leading to a process of dropping out, the central theme was not violence. Thus, a more in depth analysis was conducted on these specific focus groups. Six of the focus groups were made up solely of young women and one additional focus group included a student identifying as male;3 a total of 39 Latinas participated in the seven single-gender focus groups. The majority (82%) of the Latinas in these seven focus groups identified as Puerto Rican, inclusive of biracial and multiracial identities. Thus, Latinas in this analysis represent 41% of the larger student sample (39/95) and 72% of the larger sample of Latina students (39/54). Therefore, the themes presented in the following sections are representative of approximately three fourths of the entire female sample. Analyses on issues of violence were focused on the seven focus groups, each of which had an average of five participants. The Latinas included current secondary school students, recent high school graduates, college students, and those who have dropped out or been pushed out of the school system.

Table 1: Focus Group Participants





Family Origins


Walker HS





Mendez HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Mendez HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Mendez HS


Puerto Rican



Mendez HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Mendez HS



Puerto Rico


Mendez HS


Puerto Rican



Mendez HS



Puerto Rico


Mendez HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Mendez HS



Puerto Rico


Mendez HS



Puerto Rico


Mendez HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Mendez HS





Mendez HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Mendez HS


Did not identify

Did not Identify


Mendez HS


Did not identify

Did not identify


Mendez HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Mendez HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Mendez HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Mendez HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Mendez HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Mendez HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Mendez HS


Puerto Rican



Vocational Tech


Puerto Rican



Jackson HS


Puerto Rican/Caucasian



Wagner HS





Community College


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Walker HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Community College


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Elliot HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Elliot HS


Puerto Rican/Polish



Elliot HS


Puerto Rican



Elliot HS


Puerto Rican



Elliot HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Elliot HS


Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico


Elliot HS





GED program

not complete


did not identify


GED program

not complete


did not identify


GED program

not complete


did not identify


Collecting participant experiences in the form of focus groups allowed the research team to meet multiple objectives. First, focus groups provided a setting for students to encourage one another to make meaning of their school experiences (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007). Second, because Latina/o students are coming from a collectivist orientation that emphasizes familism, focus groups allowed for a process of collective sense-making, collective testimony, and community dialogue based on shared experiences (Madriz, 1998; Mertens, 1998). This method is a powerful tool; Madriz (1998) went on to note that “collective testimonies provide women with the possibility of breaking the wall of silence that has suppressed the expression of their ideas and their emotions” (p. 116). The collective testimony becomes a space to capture strategies of resistance (Madriz, 1998), as well as a counterspace in which oppression can be confronted (Rodriguez, 2010). Kamberelis and Dimitriadis (2005) noted that focus groups are “formations of collective inquiry where theory, research, pedagogy and politics converge” (p. 888). Focus groups served as a place for exploring theory and research (from the perspective of the researchers) and a place for exploring the politics of gender and schooling (from the perspective of the students). Similarly to the research of Madriz (1998), who utilized focus groups to explore fear of crime among Latinas of low socioeconomic status, we utilized the collective space of the focus group to foster consciousness-raising, commonality of experiences, self-disclosure, and self-validation.

Typically, each focus group contained three to seven students and was conducted by two members of the research team. Since focus group size was dependent upon the number of students that showed up at designated data collection times with returned parental consent slips, we held one focus group with only one student. Focus groups were facilitated by our female, multiracial and multilingual research team. The focus groups were conducted in Spanish and English, and often students would speak back and forth between the two languages. The focus group interviews that we draw from for this article were all facilitated by Latina members of our research team. When focus groups were conducted by Latina researchers, Latina students tended to share more about issues of violence. Madriz (1998) suggested that perhaps this narrowed the gap between the researchers and the young women, allowing for connection both with other student participants and with Latina researchers who shared similar cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. This match between researcher and participants limited the “reproduction of the Other” (Madriz, 1998, p. 115). Thus, in establishing a shared storytelling with participants, we aimed to create a space where participants could express themselves as racialized, classed, and gendered beings (Rodriguez, 2010).

The semi-structured focus group protocol included questions about students’ school experiences and transitions between grades and schools. Rather than use the term “dropout” when inquiring about the reasons why Latina/o students left school, we framed the questions around “movement” within and out of schools. Specifically, we asked the participants, “What types of issues are you experiencing during these movements from one grade or school to the next? What are some of the reasons that students do not move through school? (i.e., drop out)” (see Appendix A for the full focus group protocol). When we asked participants this question, the topics of fighting, stereotypes, and discrimination often came up and resulted in follow-up discussion (see Appendix B for two examples of such discussions). Thus, the focus of our analysis for this paper centers around these questions.


Data analysis for the focus groups began with an initial read of two transcripts by the entire research team. This helped to ensure inter-coder agreement and consistency in preliminary findings and provided an important element of trustworthiness (Creswell, 2007). After an extensive discussion, the team came to consensus about the preliminary coding structure. A list of pre-existing codes was developed based on our combined reading and further organized by drawing from relevant literature and our conceptual framework. Initial analysis began with two primary categories: factors influencing Latina/o drop-out and factors influencing Latina/o success. Categories were then organized into sub-categories of personal factors, environmental factors, and school factors. Four members of the research team used NVivo 8 to further analyze data, using in vivo coding that brought attention to specific words or phrases that included participants’ explanation of seemingly uncomplicated terms like respeto (Charmaz, 2006). Initial analysis of all focus group data led us to codes related to Latinas’ experience with violence and Latina fighting. During secondary analysis, we drew from the seven focus groups (all with female participants) in which violence was commonly referenced. We then directed further analysis of these focus groups at patterns and themes associated with expressions of violence found within Latina racial/ethnic contexts, which were found across all three sub-categories (personal, environmental, school). As illustrated in Figure 1, the coding map includes each of the seven focus groups (as data sources) and their analytical association with the NVivo nodes (codes) focused on violence. The mapping illustrates the thickness of the coding via associated lines. For example, Mendez High School, which had the largest concentration of Latina/o students in the school district and included 22 of the 39 Latinas in this sample, also had the most connections to violence nodes, with five. The violence node—the role of violence and hostile relations—had the most connections back to the data sources with seven, indicating that the role of violence appeared in each of the seven focus groups.

Figure 1: Violence map of codes


We then reorganized these violence codes into three larger themes: physical, neighborhood, and stereotypes. Physical violence that encompassed any form of fighting with or without weapons was discussed in all seven focus groups. Neighborhood violence that encompassed street fighting, gang violence, and/or drugs was discussed in all seven focus groups. Finally, stereotypes as violence that included negative messages or views about Latinas based on their cultural, home, or school identities were discussed in four of the seven focus groups. We then created a separate set of sub-categories around the two broader themes of resistance and respeto. Resistance, found across all seven focus groups, included combating stereotypes, resisting school and tracking, racial/ethnic tensions, and Latinas as “tough.” Respeto included maintaining an honor code and survival mechanisms. We used the process of creating data tables (Creswell, 2007) to work through each theme and sub-theme and, in doing so, connected with literature and implications. We utilized narrative analysis (Chase, 2005) as a tool to further analyze and present the data while drawing on our conceptual framework.

Narrative Research and Analysis Techniques

Our conceptual framework, particularly Chicana feminist epistemology, assisted us in placing the participants at the center of analysis (Delgado Bernal, 1998). By drawing upon Chicana feminist epistemology as an analytical framework, we were able to use stories and narratives as the focal point of our analysis and representation of findings. Narratives are often short stories about particular events or encounters; therefore, analyzing and representing focus group interviews as narratives was appropriate, as we were sharing a distinct form of discourse among the Latinas (Chase, 2005). Consistent with Chicana feminist epistemology, narrative analysis emphasizes the narrator or narrators’ voice(s) (Chase, 2005). The narratives challenge “the traditional representations of Latina women as passive and submissive beings” (Madriz, 1998, p. 117). Narrative research analysis proved to be quite useful for capturing Latinas’ forms of resistance (Rodriguez, 2010) within their educational experiences. As Olson and Craig (2009) pointed out, narrative knowing focuses on three areas: (a) incorporating a sense of past-present-future of events unfolding and influencing over time, (b) focusing on persons in a process of change, and (c) exploring the meaning behind actions embedded in a broader history (p. 550). These three areas capture the (re)telling of Latinas’ experiences with violence and schooling. Although we have highlighted one or two narratives for each main finding below, analysis has led us to consider the narratives as composite representations (see Quiñones & Kiyama, 2014, and Solórzano & Delgado Bernal, 2001, for more on composite representations) of the experiences of Latinas in this study.


Establishing the trustworthiness of a qualitative study requires a paradigmatic understanding of the nature of qualitative work. Qualitative research is not meant to be generalizable; it is meant to help understand the hows and whys of those participating in the study (Small, 2005). When attempting to establish the validity of a qualitative study, researchers ignore “the ways in which subjectivity, experience, and the meanings of actions and events are contradictorily constructed in ways often not accessible to researchers, or to participants themselves” (Talburt, 2004, p. 82). As the narratives that follow illustrate, the Latinas who participated in this study grappled with such contradictions, particularly as they made sense of how their educational realities intersected with issues of race, class, and gender. Thus, as we address our steps for developing trustworthiness, we embrace the tensions that accompany qualitative research.

Specifically, when considering the reliability of our coding process, the research team worked through a systematic coding of nodes with a minimum of two research team members reviewing and coding each transcript. This process is detailed above. While the initial coding process was conducted in NVivo, confirmation of the coding and establishment of reliability across data sources was determined and confirmed with external members of the project through a peer debriefing process.

We drew on characteristics of peer debriefing (Creswell, 2007) to reduce bias in the analysis and representation of the data. The researchers are members of an Education Task Force commissioned by the community-based organization with whom this larger research project was partnered. Preliminary findings from this study were presented to the Task Force in an effort to verify the existence of patterns and to obtain critical feedback on how the findings and implications were represented. We made subsequent presentations to multiple community stakeholders, organizations, schools, teachers, and parents in an effort to disseminate findings and receive feedback regarding the nature and implications of the findings.

We aimed to establish a sense of trust and rapport with participants, and we believe that sharing similar identities with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, and local community aided in this. Research team members were asked to write memos as part of the data collection process (Charmaz, 2006). In the memos we captured initial thoughts, concerns, biases, and questions about the focus groups and documented observations about the school and community contexts. We utilized the memos when explaining context in the findings that follow.


Engaging in community-based research can provide important contributions in advancing social change. It is not however, without its challenges. Research of this sort can yield slow results requiring the balancing of multiple stakeholder needs and is inherently political—requiring a knowledge of local histories and power (Maruilo et al., 2003). In this particular case, this also meant introducing outsiders into an already established Latina/o community. We are a multiracial/ethnic and multilingual research team made up of Puerto Ricans, an Afro-Cuban, African Americans, and a Mexican American. While one of the authors is local, an Afro-Latina (Cuban) who grew up in the local community and attended local schools, two of the authors are from outside the state and identify as African American and Mexican American. Balancing insider and outsider perspectives became a necessary undertaking, not only with the community-based organization with which we worked, but especially with the participants of the study as we worked to (re)establish trust and mutual respect.

As a research team and as individuals, we have worked to understand our role in this research and to make sense of why we have chosen to engage in this project. We draw upon our own researcher memos to illustrate the tensions. For example, in exploring why she is engaged in this project, one author wrote, “Since I am an African American, does this mean that I only research issues related to my community only? Am I a traitor to my community because I am not doing similar research among African Americans?” Upon reflecting on how Latina identities influence this work, another author shared, “Because we are studying a group that is predominantly Puerto Rican and Cuban, I feel an additional need to fit in and prove myself as a “real Latina.” . . . I know I am an outsider—because I am not originally from here, because I am Mexican American and because I don’t speak Spanish.” Exploring one’s identity and confronting potential biases can be problematic if not acknowledged and reflected upon. Likewise, common identities can also be an asset to the research team, as we found with one author who immediately shared a connection with the local community, having grown up there and shared schools, churches, and resources with the students and families with whom we worked. Milner’s (2007) posititionality suggestions were very useful when struggling through the tensions of the topic itself—how violence impacts young Latinas. Just as the young women were grappling with making sense of their experiences, we also grappled with authentically representing their stories while being careful not to place blame on them as individuals or their family members. What we attempt to accomplish is a careful glimpse of the complex realities that these young women face, realities that are often the result of long-term, oppressive systemic forces.


We present narratives of Latinas resisting multiple forms of symbolic violence, including but not limited to physical violence. In doing so, we are cognizant of the “ways through which different forms of violence are exercised in a given society, [and] the ways in which the body serves as a register for, or site of, struggle against different forms of domination” (Nguyen & Peschard, 2003, p. 467). Just as African American women created safe spaces to deal with the harsh realities of race and gender (see Hill Collins, 1990), our focus groups with Latinas provided a unique setting for these young women to discuss their experiences in schools and neighborhoods, illuminating their multiple struggles with symbolic violence. These adolescent Latinas revealed the contradictory messages they contended with as they negotiated among home, peer groups, and school. Thus, findings are presented by associating key themes of resistance, resiliency, and agency with Latina4 participants’ experiences with violence. The findings further describe how they negotiated gender stereotypes that emerged in schools and within their community and that intersected with race, ethnicity, social class, and language. We use Latinas’ own words to illustrate and complicate the various factors influencing their experiences in education.

The first narrative introduces physical violence and fighting for respeto, highlighting the complex ways in which Latinas assert resistance, influenced by the passing down of a father-daughter honor code. Although the term respeto is not used in the other two narratives, these narratives (negative stereotypes of Latinas and environmental violence) exemplify the “fight” in multiple ways. The Latinas demonstrated they were fighting against larger societal ideologies (Anyon, 1984) and demonstrating that violence, accommodation, and resistance (Hill Collins, 2013) were central to their narratives, thus highlighting the underlying notions of respeto throughout.


As previous research demonstrated, girls assume equally assertive roles as boys when using directive speech or confrontations to achieve social organization (Goodwin, 1990) or when enacting resistance toward patriarchy when fighting like boys (Brown & Tappan, 2008). Specifically, the young Latinas in the narrative that follows engage in physical forms of violence to confront situations in which their respeto has been threatened, suggesting that socially constructed notions of gender roles and behavior are actively blurred and resisted.

As we all gathered around the cramped table, two girls squeezed into a single chair, and a back-and-forth tug-of-war began. Even though we gave the two young women the option of getting another chair, they opted to share this minimal space. Sharing seemed to be a common practice among these six Latinas, as the two research team members noted. In the playful pushing with their hips, we could see the nature of their relationships.

At another round of focus groups at Mendez High School, whispers were passed as we started introductions. We could hear the Latinas quietly noting that they did not want to have to go first. Eventually, they went around and introduced themselves, some in low voices and others in energized, vocal sprints. The solidarity between the two playful Latinas, who introduced themselves as Selena and Liliana and who both identified as Puerto Ricans in 8th grade, became more evident when the dialogue turned to why students are fighting in schools.

Once Selena and Liliana began explaining their reasons for fighting, it became clear that something greater caused the altercations. We quickly learned that it was not simply a matter of immature students participating in physical violence. Selena, the less talkative of the duo, said:

Yo no peleo namá por los rumores porque a mi no me importa, las palabras se la lleva el viento. Pero algunas veces, es que, hay como te digo, es para que tenga tu respeto.

[I don’t really fight over rumors because I don’t care, the wind can take words. But it’s about, you know, how do you say, it’s about getting your respect.]

To which Liliana responded, “For your respect, that is what you are fighting for.” Selena agreed and shared, “I don’t fight over no man, or because people are talking about me. I don’t care if people are talking about me. I just want people to respect me. You understand me.” Nearly all of the fights that the Latinas discussed had occurred on school grounds. Although in some cases the Latinas named other girls they had fought with, it was unclear if they were fighting with girls from inside or outside their own racial/ethnic communities. Selena brought the conversation back to her experiences with fighting and distinguished between when it was appropriate or not appropriate to fight:

Eso corre en la familia, yo soy mas calma, yo cuando tengo que hacer calma, yo me calmo. Yo aprendí, mi mai me educado bien.5 Cuando tengo que actuar de una manera, actúo de esa manera. Cuando tengo que estar educada y callarme la boca me callo porque es para mi bien. Yo no voy estar peleando, que eso me va dañar mi futuro.

[That runs in the family, but I am more calm, when I have to be calm, I am calm. I was raised well. I learned, my mom raised/taught me well. When I have to act a certain way, I act in that certain way. So when I have to be well educated/mannered and shut my mouth, then I shut my mouth because it is for my own good. I am not going to fight, because it will ruin my future.]

Selena’s assertion that she is “bien educada” and knows when it is appropriate to act in a morally responsible way assumes that she understands the implications that physical fighting might have for formal schooling. It also assumes that she believes her Latina peers may not understand how and when to act bien educada. While switching from English to Spanish, Liliana explained that respeto was not as simple as self-defense:

No, not to protect themselves. No te deje(s) de dar tu respeto [doesn’t allow you to give your respect), every time you have to fight somebody, you don’t want to fight them because they are talking about you, you don’t want to fight them because they don’t like you, or because they call you a “B”, or if they talk about your mom. Because esas palabras se la lleva el viento [those words the wind takes away], that goes in one ear and out the other, eso no importa [it doesn’t matter). Si tu quieres que yo te respete, tu tienes que respetarme a mi. El mismo respeto que yo te voy a dar, tu me lo tienes que dar para atrás, si no me lo vas a dar a mi, no pienses que te lo voy a dar. [If you want me to respect you, you have to show me respect. The same respect that I’m going to give you, you have to give me back, if you aren’t going to give it to me, then don’t think I’m going to give it to you.]

In speaking further with the Latinas, it was evident that fighting for respeto was about more than gaining and maintaining respect with peers. These young women were maintaining and defending an honor code passed down through their fathers. Thus, we see these Latinas encouraged to take on masculine characteristics promoted by their fathers, which was necessary for survival within overlapping contexts. Liliana presented an elaborate dialogue of an intergenerational (father/daughter) passing of respeto. She did so by recounting the story of when her younger sister was shot.

Cuando salimos del hospital, mi pai me dijo, “No tenga miedo a nada ni nadie. Solamente si tu vas a pelear con una persona, darte a respetar, y no dejes de pelear hasta que vea sangre. Entonces le pregunto a mi pai,”¿porque es eso?” y dice “porque eso corre en la familia.” Y yo, “¿porque corre en la familia?” Y dice, “porque nuestra familia es callejera.” Y siempre me quede con eso en la mente, and everywhere I go I always carry something from my dad.

[Then I ran outside and my dad said, when we were leaving the hospital, “Never be afraid of nothing or nobody. Only if you are going to fight with another person, make sure you are respected, don’t stop fighting until you see blood.” Then I asked why he believes that, and he said, “Because it runs in our family.” Then I said, “Why does it run in our family?” And he said, “Because our family is from the street.” And that has always stayed in my head.]

Liliana was not the only Latina to share the expectation that in gaining respect, you fight until you see blood. Nor was Liliana the only Latina to share the expectation from parents (particularly fathers) that if someone hits you, you hit back, and if you do not hit back, you will be hit at home. This expectation was expressed in multiple ways:

Selena (mocking her father’s voice): “Let this be the first and last time that you let somebody hit you.”

Liliana (retelling her father’s words after getting into a fight when she was in first grade): “Let this be the last time you let a little girl hit you, because if you let her hit you, I am gonna whip your behind.”

Selena: “Some parents are like that. Like if you let people hit you . . .

Liliana: “They hit you in your face.”

Here fathers are vehicles that drive much of what these Latinas view as dándose a respetar [earning respect]. The findings suggest that Latino fathers have an impact on what Latinas use as defense or honor code systems in school settings. “Fighting until you see blood” is a violent statement that must be contextualized as a part of respeto and honoring a family code. Men and fathers are conditioned by patriarchy and hegemonic structures (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990). Yet in passing down forms of resistance to their daughters, their actions reveal that these Latino fathers are rejecting the dominant hegemony of females as weak and fragile. Thus, the passing down of this father-daughter honor code becomes a means of perseverance, self-protection, and survival within the Latinas’ immediate systems (neighborhoods and schools) and the larger, dominant system in which they are marginalized. In essence, they are encouraged to maintain their identity as strong Latinas capable of defending and asserting themselves. The complexity of maintaining respeto is one that must be negotiated for these Latinas at school and at home.

The work of Calzada, Fernandez, and Cortes (2010) offers an explanation of Selena and Liliana’s definition of respeto, and suggests that it is an expansion of ethnic socialization that encompasses Latino cultural values (p. 77). As noted in the review of the literature (Harwood et al., 1995), for young women, respeto is about fighting for courtesy, harmony, and personal worth within a given socio-cultural situation. With regard to Liliana and Selena’s socialization, we see that physical altercations become less about the act of fighting and more about creating spaces of survival in an effort to gain and maintain respeto at school and at home. While seemingly deviant in particular social settings, Selena and Liliana are active in shaping these social settings as a form of resistance. In doing so, they are able to maintain their school, home, and extracurricular identities. These young women are fighting to be “school kids” (Flores-González, 2002), yet struggle because their identities and worlds are often separate. While multiple identities appear to be maintained, if their identities come in conflict and physical fighting occurs within schools, then young women are at risk of not fulfilling their educational aspirations. Such aspirations could be thwarted by both symbolic violence and resistance to symbolic violence.


Race and ethnicity act as indicators of exposure to socio-environmental factors such as racism and stereotypes associated with the intersections of race/ethnicity and gender (Chapman & Berggren, 2005). Specifically, “assigned racial and ethnic labels are used to rationalize patterns of institutionalized social inequality, economic exploitation, and group oppression” (Chapman & Berggren, 2005, p. 147). What this suggests is that racialized and gendered labels, considered within this narrative as stereotypes, represent a form of violence further acting to oppress or exploit a given group. As young women fight against these contradictions regarding gender expectations, they are found to simultaneously defy and accommodate these norms (Anyon, 1984). As illustrated below, the process of fighting against gender stereotypes is complex, where these stereotypes may be perpetuated through public (societal ideologies) and private (internal beliefs) discrepancies (Anyon, 1984). It is with this in mind that we turn to the narrative of the “Baby Machine.”

Eight of us sat comfortably around a large, rectangular table in the school library. There were six Latinas, ranging from 10th–12th graders, and two members of the research team. We exchanged brief introductions over the noisy footsteps outside the library as the school’s track team practiced indoors. As the Latinas settled in, they shared their backgrounds, and many shared the different school organizations they were involved in. We began by asking the Latinas to share their experiences at Elliot High School. Elliot High School, like Mendez High School, was known for issues of school safety, criminalizing expectations of students of color, and heavy police presence (Kiyama & Harris, 2010). For example, entrance into school grounds was signaled with safety scanners and police cars; students were welcomed by police officers. More often than not, reports from these schools included negative aspects such as challenges around achievement for students of color and policies regarding safety and violence (Kiyama & Harris, 2010). Rarely were positive reports issues for these schools.

Within a few minutes we were discussing school (un)safety, skipping, and fighting. This particular conversation centered on gendered stereotypes assigned to young Latinas. Ana, a 10th-grade Puerto Rican, offered, “Yeah, we’re [Latinas] the baby machines. No really, we are.” When probed to identify where this stereotype came from, Ana responded, “[From] everybody.” Lupe confirmed, “It's just everybody.” Sofia, an 11th-grade Puerto Rican student, said, “Everybody thinks I’m weird because I don’t like Hispanics and I’m Hispanic. And everybody asks me why. It’s because with Hispanic girls, I feel like, there’s an automatic tension.”

In an effort to clarify, a member of the research team followed Sofia’s statement with, “Is it that you don’t like how people perceive you, or how we as Latinas act towards each other?” Sofia responded:

I have to get over this because, obviously, I live in a world full of Hispanics. But I don’t know, it’s changed a little bit. My perspective on Hispanic females is [that] they are full of shit or whatever, and they always have their nose up their ass is how I see it. We have a cousin that goes there, and we don't like her because she's a little talker.

Sofia’s sister, Norma (10th grade, Puerto Rican), also participated in this focus group and further expanded, “We don't like her because she's that typical Hispanic girl. She'll have a new boyfriend every other week. She changes them more than her panties, that's how I say it.”

At that point, Lupe jumped back into the conversation and said:

Everybody goes by that stereotype. In our class that's the first thing that we talked about in 9th-grade year, actually. This is the funniest thing that we did: We put papers on our wall, and we had the Arabs, we had the Hispanics, we had the Blacks, we had the Whites, and you had to put any name you ever thought or heard or anything that had to do with these people. And people put for Hispanics, "Compacting themselves into a Honda car, always eating rice and beans, always having a stank attitude, the baby makers, the ones who speak too fast," those stereotypes.

Upon further probing, the other Latinas followed with illustrative examples of how they were angry about the negative stereotypes (e.g., “Baby Machines,” that Hispanic girl) ascribed to Latinas. The Latinas provided examples of how individuals in their own families played into negative stereotypes, particularly those surrounding promiscuity and teen pregnancy.

Norma: “Instead of getting away from our stereotypes of what they say to us, they go towards them. I mean, girls who are only 14, Hispanic, who's had six kids.”

Sofia: “Yeah, but Black people have a lot of babies, White people do, too.”

To which Christina, an 8th-grade Puerto Rican, said, “Yeah, but we kind of follow—“ [Her voice trailed off.]

It was at this point that the Latinas shared examples of how such stereotypes became reality for some of their peers, highlighting stories of other Latinas who had dropped out of high school after getting pregnant. “They [other Latinas] just be dropping out like crazy because they had babies.” However, when describing other Latinas, these young women placed much of the responsibility of getting pregnant on their Latina peers.

This conversation among these Latinas brings up several issues related to the intersection of ethnic identity and gender stereotypes. The sentiments about the hypersexualization and promiscuity of Latinas that these young women expressed offer complex insight into the oppressive nature of racism and gendering. The Latinas are experiencing a level of symbolic violence and oppressive power shaped by environmental, school, and media discourses that construct Latinas as hypersexual. As such, some of the Latinas have internalized the “Baby Machine” stereotype—a form of internalized oppression, which is essentially internalized symbolic violence. Emphasis is placed on the teen mother or sexually promiscuous teen as the problem, while overlooking the systemic and structural inequities leading to teen pregnancies and constructing such behaviors as problematic (Pillow, 2003). Again, blame is put on individuals and families instead of on systems of oppression. This speaks to the conflicting identities and ideologies representing Latina/os in society and specifically in the media (Davila, 2008). Individual gain and responsibility are rewarded, while the collective experiences and oppression facing Latina/os are often ignored (Davila, 2008). On one hand, it appears that the Latinas have internalized the master narrative of individual responsibility and blame. Responses such as Sofia’s are not surprising because, as Watts and Erevelles (2004) suggested, the colonial education system experienced by these young Latinas may result in their struggling against oppressive norms that reinforce racialized and gendered stereotypes that are imposed on them. Our participant responses also demonstrate the ways in which the young women resist ascribed sexualized stereotypes.

The conversation took an interesting turn as the Latinas shared how they resisted stereotypes while negotiating family, school, and intimate relationships. Kelly, a 12th-grade student identifying as biracial Puerto Rican and Polish, shared that her boyfriend was kicked out of his house, and despite the traditional values of her home and concerns from her father, her family welcomed him:

From experience, I think that you could beat the odds. My father, being the old-fashioned type, was just like, "No, no, no, we're not gonna accept a boy in the house because the first thing that's gonna happen is sex and things that are not supposed to happen as a teenager, and you'll never grow up. You'll think that because you have a boyfriend in the house, that you're an adult.” They accepted him into the house, he moved in. I’ve been living with him for three years. I haven’t had any complications of being pregnant or anything [implying she has not been pregnant]. A lot of girls think that once you hit high school it’s all about intercourse, it’s all about being with a boy and having sex and making the wrong decisions, but it’s really not.

Upon hearing this, Sofia jumped back into the conversation: “To me it’s not that serious. I mean, OK, I’m still a virgin, but when I say it people act like it’s a disease. . . . I’m proud to say it.” Sofia’s words encouraged another student, Lupe, to quietly state, “I am too.” Lupe reinforced her desire to remain focused and graduate:

Six years6 in high school and I still am [a virgin], and everybody's like, "Oh, you still that?" and I'm like, "Yup, and I'm proud of it." My mind is not set to have sex right now, I just wanna graduate.

Sofia followed with:

It's not what I want, and hearing about all these things that's going around, I'm like, "Golly." It always seems like it could easily happen to anybody, easily, and your partner won't even tell you. They'll tell you afterwards, like it's not that serious or something.

A member of the research team summarized the Latinas’ comments and asked, “Do you think your aspirations to do well in school and to graduate, do you think that helps you stay away from all that drama that we were talking about earlier and having sex?”

At which point Lupe responded:

It does to me. I don't let boys or girls with drama interfere with my education. My mom always told me, "Your education comes first." If you wanna be riding in that nice Mercedes-Benz and all of that, live in a nice house, you have to finish your education. You're not gonna get it just working at Burger King or working as a machine operator.

The conversation at Elliot High School illustrates examples of Latinas negotiating multiple expectations and relationships. It is clear that symbolic violence manifests as hurtful stereotypes, reinforced by gendered notions of young Latinas. In some cases these stereotypes are lived (as with family members or peers) and internalized, and at other times they are resisted by (a) students’ frustration with their own Latina peers, (b) healthy intimate relationships, and (c) continuing to develop their academic identities in spite of these ascribed stereotypes. These narratives also demonstrate a contradiction that these young women are facing as we see them reinforcing (by blaming their Latina peers) and fighting against (by practicing healthy intimate relationships) the internalized racism around such stereotypes.

In sharing her honest tension with stereotypes assigned to Latinas, Sofia acknowledges the reasons that she is frustrated with her community. We see Sofia working through her multilayered identities (Rolón-Dow, 2004)—academic, gender, ethnic, and sexual. Her response to these stereotypes is to defy them by maintaining and declaring her virginity. Yet we see that resistance to stereotypes is not solely represented in the act of resisting physical intimacy. Kelly shared an example of balancing her familial expectations while her boyfriend lived with her family. Kelly demonstrates that one does not have to choose between pursuing education, meeting family and/or community expectations, and controlling intimate or sexual desires (see Hyams, 2006). Finally, Lupe shared with pride that despite working through academic challenges, she continues to put her academics first and, like Sofia, does so while remaining a virgin. At various points in the conversation, the Latinas also shared examples of their honor-roll grade point averages, college aspirations, high educational expectations expressed by parents, and educational lessons learned from family members. It was clear that maintaining strong academic identities was another way of negating negative stereotypes. These experiences of Latinas at Elliot High School reinforce what Rolón-Dow (2004) stressed in her own study of Puerto Rican girls, that when there are “dichotomized aspects of [their] identity” pitted against academic and schooling interests, it ignores the complexity of their identities and how those identities impact their education (p. 19). Such dichotomized identities result in the assumption that academic success is contingent on sexual behavior (or lack thereof), thereby reinforcing the stereotype that sexual behaviors and teen pregnancies are bad, and those who engage in them are also bad (Hyams, 2006; Pillow, 2003). Symbolic violence can, however, manifest in ways other than stereotypes, such as in environmental forms.


Neighborhood characteristics, community contexts, and resources play important roles in the success of students (Gándara & Contreras, 2009). Unsafe environments affect students’ overall welfare, including educational welfare. Thus, the safety of neighborhoods and the quality of local resources available to students and their families influence developmental outcomes (Gándara & Contreras, 2009). For example, “when coming and going to school is risky . . . or when staying after school for extracurricular activities is out of the question because traveling through the neighborhood after dark is not safe, children’s educational opportunities are limited” (Gándara & Contreras, 2009, p. 72). The following narrative follows two sets of Latinas as they describe the violence in their neighborhoods as well as the refuge found within the community and school-based resources present in those same environments.

Dark was setting in as we began one of our first focus group interviews. What was intended to be a group discussion turned into an individual interview with the sole student who showed up at the local community site. The building and youth programs the building housed were located in the center of a lower-income Latino neighborhood. The neighborhood is characterized by what many urban neighborhoods experience—it is racially segregated, with high crime and an overall lack of resources. Torres (2009) described this in her own narrative, indicating that such neighborhoods often represent hopelessness for students as they are situated in poverty, violence, and poor school systems. Irma, a senior at Walker High School, slowly began sharing her “back and forth” story. In describing her multiple paths between Puerto Rico, Massachusetts, Florida, and New York, Irma shared, “My mom's an immigrant. She doesn't stay in one spot too long.”

Irma began her educational story by describing the stress she was experiencing during her senior year, the academic pressures and deadlines she was trying to meet, and the personal responsibilities of caring for her diabetic mother and raising her five-year-old goddaughter, the child of a high school friend. Despite many outside responsibilities, Irma was on a college track:

Pretty much I'm taking mostly all AP classes. Like, I'm taking AP English. I was taking physics, but I took environmental science which is one of my majors I'm gonna go for [in college] since it's forensic science.

As our conversation progressed, we began talking about the strengths and concerns of the local Latina/o community. Irma shared:

I've seen people get shot. I've been around shootouts plenty of times. . . . I've seen plenty of guns pulled out of every ounce of their bodies. I've been in trap [crack] houses, which I never knew I was in that predicament until later on when I started to realize, OK, certain stuff isn't homelike. But mostly, I've seen people die before—one of my best friends was actually in a part of a shootout, and he got killed.

In the middle of one of her thoughts, Irma paused and said:

But you hear outside. Let's just say, I go to sleep listening to that noise every day. From what it was the first time I moved here, it was good. You could go out and have fun—go out and not worry about any drama or fighting. I don't go to clubs anymore because every time there's always a fight about something little. I'm the type of person, if I go out, I wanna be able to have fun and not worry about a bullet coming from each angle.

The noise that Irma was describing was sirens from police cars. That noise had become a common representation of the environment and community in which Irma, her family, and her peers were embedded. The sound of sirens came to represent the literal acts of violence Irma experienced—shootings, death, fighting, drugs—as well as the symbolic and structural violence in which she was forced to function—lack of opportunity and resources.

The neighborhood representation that Irma painted was not unique. Eight Latinas, all Puerto Rican, from Mendez High School echoed the sentiments Irma initially shared. What began as a lighthearted focus group, with telephone interruptions, laughter, and teasing over pizza, quickly turned serious as the conversation centered around the policing in neighborhoods in their local city versus in their hometowns in Puerto Rico.

Diana (11th grade): “Depends on when you call for it [the police] here, because sometimes you call for, "Oh, there's a fight outside." And they take an hour to come. They do that all the time on my street. And they're not even that far away from my street.”

Alma (8th grade): “Whoa.”

Marisol (7th grade): “Yeah.”


You call, "Oh, there's a fight outside." Two hours later, they come and there's nothing there. Then call, "They're shooting outside." Last time they [people fighting] had a gun and we told them there was a guy with a gun and there was little kids on the basketball court and everything. And they were like, "Oh, we'll send somebody out." And it was forever later. The guys had left and everything.

After letting the conversation proceed, the researcher then jumped in to ask, “Do you feel safe in your neighborhoods?” Although one Latina answered, “Yeah,” most of the young women responded negatively. Elisa, a 12th-grade student, went on to explain:

There's always like fights and stuff outside of my house. But they're not like kid fights, they're usually adult fights. Like a couple of years ago, this guy who was a truck driver— the people that lived across my street were having a party or something. And I guess they didn't like the guy who lived there, and they grabbed bats and stuff and started breaking his truck and stuff. And then they all ran away. It just happens all the time in front of my house. And then it's like arguments and stuff. Like just drug dealing and all that stuff.

With multiple factors influencing the unsafe neighborhood environments in which these Latinas lived, it is imperative to understand where and if these students found refuge from such violence. Upon asking if the young women felt that the school offered resources for them, the Latinas from Mendez High School named the Student Support Center, a center within the school that housed many school- and community-based programs. They described the Center in the following way:

Alma: “If you need a tutor, they [staff at the Center] look for a tutor.”

Diana: “Um-hum.”

Elisa: “If you need funding or medical stuff or other stuff. If you need to talk to somebody about something personal, they can find somebody for you. Most of them are trained in helping kids with problems. They can talk to your family and stuff if you need it.”

The researcher then asked for specific ways in which the Latinas used the Center, and the conversation turned to college preparation.

Diana: “When you're doing work or something, they [Center staff] will be like, ‘Oh, you've got to do work, go to college or you're not going to be able to have a good future,’ and stuff like that.”

Picking up on the college theme, the researcher then asked about each of their college aspirations and goals, and whether there was someone in the Center who helped cultivate those college goals.

Elisa: ”Yeah. There's a teacher in the basement [the Center]—remember last year? She's like, ‘I see you as a lawyer. I see you as a teacher.’"

Diana: “Oh, yeah.”

Elisa: “And everything that she said, that's what we all wanted to do.”

While in some instances schools are sources of symbolic violence, in this case the Latinas are describing the school serving as a source of safety (Harris & Kiyama, 2015). Specifically, the Center was generally described as a place to get tutoring and find multiple resources, and specifically as a site with supportive staff to cultivate college aspirations. This idea of programs or centers within schools serving as sites of resistance also came up with students who were participants in the federally funded outreach and student services program, TRiO. The Latina students in the TRiO program interview noted that they were perceived as “tough” because of the high school (Mendez High School) and neighborhoods they came from. Yet participating in the TRiO program in college allowed them space to cultivate their college goals. This is an important element to consider, as we see that schools as institutions are juxtaposed as both perpetuating violence and shielding students from violence. Irma also fights against such violence by finding opportunity in her academics. Irma describes how she used her academics as a strategy to say no to going out and partying, actions she equates with violence:

I always get calls, "You wanna go to a party?" I'm like, "No, the baby's [her goddaughter] here. I'm taking care of her this weekend." Even if she is with her family, that's my excuse all the time. I be like, "No, I just don't wanna go. I got work to do. I got this, or I have deadlines to do or something.” But I worry about even going up the street without looking back. And that is something I'm just learning to do. But my mentality is—it's crazy.

Her other strategy of resistance is the multiple school and community-based programs she is part of. Irma, among other students, noted the importance of these programs in creating a safe space for her. These programs, inclusive of academic, social, athletic, and support services, were described by Flores-González (2002) as the safe niche essential to helping students develop their school-kid identities. Being part of these programs provided Irma with the opportunity to attend a funded business summer program at Cornell University: “And I was the only Latina in years, I think—I met the mayor. We had like a little press conference, and I was like—it was me and another girl that was able to go.” She was also in the process of creating senior videos for younger students involved in a Latina/o-based program, and she recalled speaking to a group involved with teen suicide prevention. Although the neighborhoods where Irma and the Latinas from Mendez High School live are represented by multiple forms of violence, these community- and school-based programs provide critical counter-spaces as collective efforts supporting resiliency in response to forms of violence that otherwise dismiss Latino/a students as underachieving, dropouts, and various other ascribed deviant identities (Harris & Kiyama, 2015). Furthermore, such programs provide opportunities for students to succeed in and out of school and create close relationships with peers and caring adults (Flores-González, 2002). Irma feels a responsibility to resist her environment and do well academically because she sees it as a way to get her mother and sister out of the neighborhood. The Latinas from Mendez High School tap into the resources found in their Student Support Center to negotiate the violence in their neighborhoods and develop college goals. For some Latina/o and African American students, schools have been described as their sanctuaries, representing spaces that value students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds and encourage their academic identities (Antrop-González, 2003; Harris & Kiyama, 2015). In the case of these young women, the multiple school- and community-based programs they are involved in become their sanctuaries, places of safety away from the violence of their neighborhood environment.

Throughout our findings we see Latinas being confronted with multiple forms of symbolic violence manifesting in physical, stereotypical, and environmental violence. These multiple forms of violence are pervasive in Latinas’ lives because of the systemic and oppressive structural conditions that are present in and out of schools. Such forms of violence, marginalization, and “perpetual neglect” often originate from race-gendered perceptions (Malagon & Alvarez, 2010, p. 162) and in some cases result in internalization of such perceptions, representing an additional layer of violence and oppression. The narratives of these Latinas expose such violence and exemplify the agency enacted to resist such oppression.

We see them fighting for respeto in multiple ways: through negotiating physical violence, healthy sexual identities, and involvement in school- and community-based programs. Resisting, fighting for respeto, and creating harmony (Harwood et al., 1995) represent a middle space between multiple tumultuous environments, identities, and educational experiences. Within this space, the Latinas find safety and comfort that is not always present in their homes, neighborhoods, or schools. By fighting for respeto, these Latinas are able to resist the violence that causes other Latina/os to drop out, stop out, or be pushed out of their schools.

In each narrative, the concept of violence and the ways in which violence is too often understood through a masculine or machismo lens are further nuanced and reconceptualized. We see that Latina young women are strong. Yet their fighting and strength is not an attempt to mimic their Latino male peers. Societal constructs relay an unrealistic image of masculinity to male youth; thus, many young males resort to extreme behavior to adhere to gender norms. Hypermasculinity, defined as “an exaggerated exhibition of physical strength and personal aggression” (Harris, 2000, p. 785), is a form of such extreme behavior. Most often, hypermasculinity is expressed as a response to a threat to gender and manifests itself in the form of physical and sexual aggression. According to Rios (2006), “hypermasculinity serves both as resistance and as a resource for self-affirmation” (p. 161). While it is clear that the Latinas in this study demonstrate resistance and self-affirmation, they are not bound by gendered norms of femininity or (hyper)masculinity. In fact, what they demonstrate is a blurring of gendered expectations.

The (re)telling of each narrative is informed by Chicana feminist epistemology, not only because the violence embedded within originates from racialized, sexualized, and gendered experiences, but because of the resistance described within each of these experiences.

Two common threads are revealed when deconstructing the complexity within the Latina narratives. First, for these Latinas respeto equates to challenging the system and the multi-faceted violence embedded within it. They have learned to survive in a way that at minimum ensures their respeto. The second thread defies the “at minimum” that we just mentioned. The Latinas are not satisfied with the minimum. We see in all of the narratives a dedication to maintaining and developing their academic identities. Doing so becomes a powerful tool to combat the deficit expectations that are attached to their gender, social class, and ethnicity as young Puerto Rican women.


Our study pushes us to think of violence from a broader perspective. Fighting for respeto is found across all three narratives and is directly related to larger struggles for validity, survival, voice, self-esteem, and power. Fighting for respeto can be found when struggling against ethnoracial gender stereotypes regarding sexual activity and surviving in neighborhoods where safety is threatened, given the prevalence of violence (and drug activity) and police surveillance in the community.

In presenting the experiences of these Latinas we strive to avoid binaries. As illustrated, these young women do not simply represent good or bad, college-bound or drop-out, sexually promiscuous or academically talented (Knight, Dixon, Norton, & Bentley, 2006; Pillow, 2003). They represent the multiple identities, relationships, and environments that shape their educational realities. Most importantly, they powerfully describe mechanisms of resistance and survival that they draw upon when working to ensure future educational opportunities. In seeking to understand their multiple truths, we uncover the ways in which Latinas are stereotyped and positioned, often originating from systemic forces, sometimes perpetuated by those around them, other times internalized and perpetuated by students and families themselves. These Latinas teach us that behaviors labeled as deviant, such as fighting, skipping, or sexual promiscuity, do not just unexpectedly happen. These behaviors are the result of systems and acts of violence that shape their school, home, and community experiences. Likewise, we understand that acts of violence occur within and outside of school walls. For example, the neighborhood violence occurring in Latinas’ communities has an impact on the educational opportunities available to students. It can impact how students study at home, how late they can remain at school for workshops and tutoring (because a larger concern is arriving home at a safe hour), and the ease with which students walk to and from community-based programs like the ones described by Irma. The implications of the various forms of violence must be considered as Latinas engage in the process of transitioning out of high school and into post-secondary educational opportunities.

The Latinas in this study drew strength from their academic identities and, in doing so, worked to establish opportunities for college access. However, in school systems in which forms of symbolic violence are pervasive, the likelihood of pushing Latina/os away from post-secondary opportunities is high. The potential missed opportunities are disconcerting, as such barriers can inhibit successful transition from high school into higher education, thus blocking college opportunity. Yet we are hopeful, as the Latinas in this study showed great promise that they were developing awareness of their own agency and moving toward what Solorzano and Delgado Bernal (2001) conceptualized as transformational resistance. Therefore, it is imperative that caring adults both within schools and in community-based programs recognize and further cultivate the resistance strategies that Latinas are developing, especially as they learn to critique and fight against the social systems in which they are embedded.


Previous literature focusing on Chicana and Latina feminist writings laid the groundwork for exposing the violence perpetrated on the minds, bodies, and spirits of Latina/os within oppressive K–16 institutional structures (Knight et al., 2006, p. 39). Therefore, the findings of our article are validated by the important studies noting such violence that have come before ours. Likewise, symbolic violence (Bourdieu, 2004) exposes classrooms and schools as center-points of where violence is perpetuated on students, as is further confirmed by previous research framing violence as schools representing institutions of social control (Watts & Erevelles, 2004) and by the stories of the young Latinas in this study. We must further interrogate how school systems and the role of schooling promote the oppression, violence, and marginalization of Latinas. However, we argue that we must not only focus on the educational experiences of Latinas in middle and high school but also begin to understand how such experiences in secondary school influence future educational opportunities. Yosso (2006) argued that since schooling practices diminish Latina students’ cultural attributes, schools are negating a cultural dialogue that Latinas value and need to thrive in college-going spaces. Thus, future research must consider exploring the lasting impact of such acts of violence as Latinas transition into and through postsecondary education.

Furthermore, in making sense of Latinas’ school experiences, it is not enough to suggest that they are learning from and modeling the fighting behavior of their fathers. Bourdieu and Passeron (1990) and Delgado Bernal (1998) highlighted the patriarchal systems that subordinate females. These systems also reinforce forms of symbolic violence on Latino males, resulting in communities where Latinas are experiencing absent fathers, incarcerated fathers, and, in some cases, death of fathers as a result of systems of violence. Therefore, by taking on traditional male traits (strength, fighting, and honor) Latinas are resisting the symbolic violence imposed on both Latinos and Latinas within their communities. What we see developing is the groundwork for a more nuanced way of examining the manifestations of symbolic violence as understood through the passing of a father/daughter honor code informed by resistance to and survival of gendered social structures. Thus, future theoretical development of the complexities surrounding the gendered responses to symbolic violence must be further interrogated.

Within the Latinas’ narratives, we see resistance manifest in ways that push back against gendered and deviant stereotypes by developing healthy sexual identities. We also see resistance in the form of young scholars, as many of the Latinas participate in outside programs to further develop their academic identities. Future research with Latinas should explore the overlapping and complex relationships between them, Latino males present in their lives, and other adults within school systems and community-based programs. Doing so would shed further light on the phenomena we are currently seeing in education: the vanishing Latino male (Sáenz & Ponjuan, 2009), girls fighting like boys (Brown & Tappan, 2008), and the positive role that caring adults within these settings can also play (Harris & Kiyama, 2015).

The research recommendations noted above would help to address some of the limitations of this study. Most notably, our data did not specifically address how forms of violence might influence post-secondary opportunities, nor was significant time spent on the overlapping relationships that Latinas had with Latino males. Likewise, focus groups with Latino males did not yield information about forms of violence. We caution that while having an all-female research team likely contributed to the comfort level the Latinas may have felt when sharing their experiences with violence, that same makeup could have prevented the young men from sharing in the same depth.


These systems of symbolic violence that Latina adolescents experience must also be acknowledged by educators and policymakers, informing school practices and the development of education policies. It is important that school practices and policies do not further contribute to the marginalization of these young women by reinforcing the idea that that their school success is predicated on being either a “baby making machine” or a virgin. In addition, there must be awareness about how practices such as school suspension policies do not address the societal, community, and school conditions that result in physical altercations where Latinas must ensure that peers pay them respect. However, in-school suspension policies implemented to ensure that students in this district stay engaged with their coursework may further exacerbate problems. For example, some of the study participants indicated that when placed in an in-school suspension setting with the person with whom they fought, they were more likely to experience additional conflict (Kiyama & Harris, 2010). Students then often experienced extended suspensions that put them at risk of falling behind in high school. These multiple forms of oppression are not acknowledged, leaving the school unaccountable for them and leaving Latinas at risk of leaving high school prior to completion.

The contributions that we offer in this article are multifold. We strive to honor the voices of the Latinas we spoke with and believe there are powerful messages in their experiences. To the best of our knowledge, it is the first time that Puerto Rican Latinas’ experiences with violence have been considered through the complementary theoretical perspectives of symbolic violence (Bourdieu, 2004) and Chicana feminist epistemology (Delgado Bernal, 1998). This allows us to better understand how structured, symbolic, and multiple forms of violence seep into individual, familial, school, and community contexts. Furthermore, examining Latinas’ experiences solely through a symbolic violence lens is limited: One would assume that Latinas are the victims of violence, with males as perpetrators, but our data suggest that this is not the case. Thus, engaging a complementary theoretical framework is significant, as we are able to understand that while Latinas do experience forms of violence, they also use violence as a means of protection and resistance. Through this lens, the Latinas negate the role of victim and complicate how we have come to understand gendered identities. In presenting the school and neighborhood contexts in which these Latinas function, we are able to challenge the assumption that such violence originates at the individual, familial, or community level and demonstrate how Latinas are working against a system insistent on mis-structuring their opportunities. Most importantly, we offer the ways in which Latinas resist such violence in an effort to balance their own relationships and identities. Their resistance reminds us that we too must work to reshape the structures that arbitrarily choose to privilege and honor some and oppress others.


1. Latino and Hispanic will be used interchangeably in this article. While we use Latina/o as the overarching identifying term, we have maintained original terms used when citing literature.
2. Moll (2004) noted ascribed deviant identities as representations of youth that are arbitrarily assigned and influence the “interpretations, discourses, and actions” in schools (p. 129). We have modified his original term and use ascribed deviant behaviors for this article.
3. While the majority of the focus groups were all female, two of the groups included two males. A total of four males were included in the seven focus groups.
4. All participant names, high schools, and local identifiers have been assigned pseudonyms in order to maintain anonymity.
5. Bien educado, or educación, is a notion that highlights the role of family in creating a sense of “moral, social, and personal responsibility and serves as the foundation for all other learning” (Valenzuela 1999, p. 23). For a detailed overview of the theoretical significance of bien educado, see Quiñones, 2010.
6. In this school district students transition from elementary school straight into high school. Thus, high school represents grades 7–12.


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Appendix A: Focus Group Protocol (Semi-Structured)


Share a little about yourself, hometown, background, how you identify.

Ask everyone to introduce themselves.

Ask everyone to share the schools that they have attended.


How they identify (where they consider themselves to be from, race/ethnicity)

We are interested in your experiences and opinions about Latina/o experiences in schools. We are part of a task force working on the high drop-out rate of Latina/o students. The guiding questions we are asking are focused on understanding your concerns about school, and also about the strengths and resources you see that you and your community/family have that help with success in school. Your individual responses and identities will only be known to the researchers, so when we report our findings no individual names will be revealed. We want you to be comfortable that you can be completely honest in your answers, as there is minimal risk involved in terms of your teachers, school, the District, or the University.

Are you comfortable with us taking a few notes during our conversation?

(The purpose of these first questions is to understand your education experiences.)

1. We want to begin with getting your thoughts about your education experience – what has it been like for you?

Probe for good and bad experiences, issues of mobility, etc.

Probe: How many times have you moved? Where are some of the places you’ve lived?

2. What are the strengths of the Latina/o community in [city]?

a. What are the strengths of the community that are specific to education? What resources are available to you for your education?

3. What do you think has been your most crucial time in your educational experiences? Why? Who were the influential people (good and/or bad) during this time?

(The purpose of the next few questions is to understand experiences when students move from different grades or different schools.)

4. What was it like when you changed/moved from the following grades?

Elementary to middle grades
6-7th grade
8-9th grade
10-11th grade
Changed schools
High school post graduation
Any other relevant transition experience

How do you know when you have moved successfully into a new grade or school? Who were the important people (good and/or bad) during this time?

5. What types of issues are you experiencing during these movements from one grade or school to the next? What are some of the reasons that students do not move through school? (i.e., drop out?)

6. Can you describe your process of choosing your high school and then going into high school?

(The purpose of the last few questions is to understand your needs, recommendations, and feedback

7. Are your needs being met when you think about these changes from one grade or school to the next? Do you feel like you are progressing academically in a successful way? Why or why not?

8. What solutions or recommendations do you have that will help. other students have a better educational experience? A better movement from one grade or school to the next?

9. What questions should we have asked that we didn’t? Do you have any other feedback that you’d like to share?

Appendix B: Examples of Coding


CODE: Role of violence and hostile relations

Student 2: That's a lot [of fights] when you're in the seventh and eighth grade, it's horrible. They get mad and when you win or something, or when you lose they think you're talking about them. Say if our team lost and we're just with a down face, you're not gonna be all jolly sometimes when you lose, but they'll think that you're whispering about them and it turns into a problem all the time.

Interviewer: Do you feel like you have to have your guard up?

Student 1: All the time.

Student 5: Not really. I just put a smile on my face and keep going.

Student 2: I don't, I'm not a fighter. I know that if I have to try to put somebody in their place, I would, but I've never been in a fight.

Student 6: No, if I have to let somebody know that they can't disrespect me or whatever, then I let them know, but I've never been in a fight and I don't plan on getting in a fight.

Student 1: So everybody you see that walks in the hallway, they're always putting their guard up. If you say something wrong, it's done. That's when it all starts, you can just say one thing. You don't know who's having a bad day, they don't know who's— So someone will say something and try to be funny about it, and then that's when the fight happens.

CODING – drop-out factors à school & learning factors à safety à fights


Student 3: Yes and I did not want to go to jail for whooping a girl butt. So I thought I better come get my GED and do better.

Student 3: Yes, like I don’t fight in school but they always wanted to, they always wanted to see me fight and they never ever got to see me fight but they saw me once but not in school. It was on downtown. Girl, I feel better here because there’s no girls trying to fight me. I’m making more friends. The school I was, I stopped talking to everybody because they were talking to me and junk and whatever. So here it’s like cooler people, better people and older people that I’m getting along with. You two but in the street, there ain’t no friends in the street.

Student 3: I was tough in school, like nobody used to mess with me but people were—

Interviewer: Why were you like that? Why did you have to be tough?

Student 3: Because if you be like a little quiet little girl, they will mess with you – but if you be like “I’m tough” then they won’t even look at you. But some will be like “oh I’m gonna see, I’m better than her so I’m gonna be tougher than her.” They never got to do that with me because I was like, because I’m a hyper person. I’m so friendly. I like to laugh and chill.

Interviewer: You have a strong personality.

Student 3: Yes but when I get mad, it’s bad; like I get so mad that I don’t even want to talk to nobody and if you talk to me and ask me what’s wrong, don’t. Don’t even ask me because I’ll be kind of rude so I just let know people, whenever you see me serious, mad or whatever, don’t talk to me because I don’t want to be rude and answer with an attitude. They know already how I am so they don’t talk to me when I’m mad but I don’t know.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 12, 2016, p. 1-50
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21630, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 11:49:14 PM

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About the Author
  • Judy Marquez Kiyama
    Morgridge College of Education, University of Denver
    E-mail Author
    JUDY MARQUEZ KIYAMA is an Associate Professor in the Higher Education Department at the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education. Her research examines, through an asset-based lens, the structures that shape educational opportunities for underserved groups to better understand the collective knowledge and resources drawn upon to confront, negotiate, and (re)shape such structures. Her research is organized around the role of parents, families, equity, and power in educational research and underserved groups as collective networks of change. Her most recent publication, with Casandra Harper, is the monograph Parent and Family Engagement in Higher Education: A Critical Examination of the Evolving Relationships between Families, Students, and Institutions (ASHE Higher Education Report Series).
  • Donna Harris
    Rochester City School District
    E-mail Author
    DONNA MARIE HARRIS is a Consultant Research Analyst for Latino Affairs and Bilingual Education at the Rochester (New York) City School District. Her research interests include race and education, educational policy, and the social organization of public schools and classrooms. Currently, she is studying how school policies and practices impact the quality of education and outcomes for Latina/o secondary students in Rochester. She is coauthor, with Judy Marquez Kiyama, of The Plight of Invisibility: A Community-Based Approach to Understanding the Educational Experiences of Urban Latina/os (Peter Lang).
  • Amalia Dache-Gerbino
    University of Missouri
    E-mail Author
    AMALIA DACHE-GERBINO is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri. Her research includes critical approaches to college access, transition, and success for students of color and the sociospatial context of higher education. She investigates how structural geographic factors impact access to higher education institutions for local residents and illustrates that urban spaces are developed and sustained in a manner that divests and isolates low-income communities of color. Her most recent publication, with Vicki T. Sapp. and Judy Marquez Kiyama, is “Against all odds: Latinas activate agency to secure access to college” (Journal of Women in Higher Education, forthcoming).
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