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Learning to be Latino: How College Shapes Identity Politics

reviewed by Marcela G. Cuellar & Maira G. Pulido - March 11, 2019

coverTitle: Learning to be Latino: How College Shapes Identity Politics
Author(s): Daisy Verduzco Reyes
Publisher: Rutgers University Press, Piscataway
ISBN: 0813596467, Pages: 212, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

In Learning to be Latino: How College Shapes Identity Politics, Daisy Verduzco Reyes explores how the particular four-year institution Latino students attend uniquely shapes their college experience and outcomes. The book opens by powerfully stating “that there are many ways to be Latino on a college campus” (p.1), which Reyes subsequently demonstrates through her analysis of Latino student organizations in different college contexts. In the preface, Reyes foregrounds the study by recounting her own undergraduate experience navigating the contentious identity politics that may emerge for Latinos on college campuses. The chapters in this book astutely capture the varied identities of Latino college students, their political engagement, and views on racial inequality that are shaped by their undergraduate institution. In doing so, Reyes draws attention to a range of non-academic postsecondary outcomes and learning that occurs outside of the classroom. This book is timely given the growing enrollment of Latinos in higher education.

Using a comparative ethnographic approach, Reyes examines Latino student organizations at three distinct campuses in California: a private liberal arts college (LAC), a public research university (RU), and a regional public university (RPU). Reyes’ ethnographic methodology provides an in-depth dive into the context of these three campuses. Within each campus, Reyes selected two co-ed Latino student organizations, one that was politically driven and one that was not. Over two academic years, she observed these six organizations’ meetings, interviewed members and affiliated faculty, and administered student surveys. As such, the author provides rich insights into each organization, including who typically led meetings, the nature of topics discussed, and the ways organization members interacted with each other and others on campus. Reyes’ methodological approach thus shows intentionality, which is ultimately a major strength of the book.

Learning to be Latino is divided into two main sections: a description of the three institutional contexts and emergent themes on Latino students’ interactions and experiences. In the context section, the author provides detailed descriptions of each campus culture and the corresponding Latino student organizations. These institutions differ in several dimensions, such as size, racial and socioeconomic composition, residential patterns, and the extent to which organizations receive institutional resources, which Reyes identifies as some of the factors that shape Latino students’ lives on campus. While LAC is significantly smaller in size than RU, 11% of the student body is Latino at both campuses. In contrast, RPU is a predominantly commuter campus enrolling more than 20,000 students, of which 45% are Latino, making this a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). In terms of experiences, Latino students at LAC face microaggressions on campus, those at RU experience culture shock, and those at RPU experience no discernable microaggressions as this is an extension of their home community.

These institutional differences create unique contexts through which the Latino student organizations engage with each other, which Reyes broadly describes as communal at LAC, conflictual at RU, and coexisting at RPU. Reyes further keenly describes the role that student organizations play within each campus context. At LAC, Latino student organizations deliver diversity to the broader campus, whereas those at RU serve as spaces of belonging. At RPU, Latino students engage in student organizations to create instrumental connections.

Consequently, in Section One, Reyes outlines how Latino students uniquely form communities on campus and establish identities of belonging at institutions that may potentially feel isolating. In Section Two, Reyes uncovers how these three institutional contexts provide unique backdrops through which Latino students engage on campus and make sense of their experiences. In the first thematic chapter, “Who We Are,” Reyes explores the different ways Latino students self-identify racially/ethnically across each campus. Latino students in both student organizations at LAC identify panethnically as Latino. In contrast, at RU, most students in the non-political organization largely identify as Latino, while some in the political one identify as Chicano. At RPU, some students reject identification with terms associated with colonization, such as Hispanic, and opt for national origin labels, such as Mexican or Salvadoran. This chapter presents a strong and sophisticated analysis shedding light on the diverse ways Latino college students at different campuses define Latinidad. The two other thematic chapters further depict how student political actions and views on inequity among Latinos, within a college campus and in overall society, are often tied to the campus context. In RPU, a commuter campus, student political actions significantly extend beyond campus borders, while actions at the other two are largely bound to the campus. In Chapter Seven, “Where We Are Going,” Reyes describes how Latino students’ views on issues of inequality are not only shaped by college context but also experiences prior to college. These thematic chapters thus illustrate the distinct learning environments and outcomes Latino students encounter depending on the campus they attend.

Given the unique influence of each institutional context, Reyes notes that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to meet the needs of Latinos in higher education. Reyes suggests that an institution like LAC may focus on increasing the number of Latinos and reducing microaggressions, while a commuter campus like RPU may create opportunities for well-paid career pathways or provide more resources to organizations that would engage more students on campus. The layered understanding of how different campuses can best serve Latinos is particularly useful given changing demographics at many institutions. For instance, as more four-year institutions meet the enrollment criteria for HSI designation, some may consider how to more intentionally serve Latinos by understanding these students’ college choice processes (Cuellar, 2019). Similarly, García and Cuellar (2018) propose that emerging HSIs, those enrolling 15-24% Latinos, constitute another unique context in which to consider non-academic outcomes such as civic engagement. Reyes’ insights into distinct contexts shaping Latino students’ experiences and outcomes are thus foundational to future research and practice.

Overall, Reyes provides a cohesive and compelling argument. She further identifies recent political changes that warrant continued research on how Latino college students identify and engage in college, such as the growing legitimization of nativist rhetoric and campus protests for racial justice. The rising use of Latinx, a gender-inclusive term, in lieu of Latino at several college campuses is another recent phenomenon Reyes acknowledges. Since the time of this study, the use of this term has proliferated in social media and on college campuses (Salinas & Lozano, 2017). In a review of the use of Latinx at research universities and HSIs, Salinas and Lozano (2017) find that Latinx appears most through activities sponsored by student organizations. This trend raises questions about how shifting terminology may further shape how Latino students identify across different contexts.

By formulating identities of Latinidad and engaging in ethnic student organizations, Latino students enact their resilience and cultivate community spaces to persist in different institutional contexts. Learning to be Latino powerfully provides an insider look into these dynamics and the distinct impact of different colleges on Latino students’ learning beyond the classroom. As such, this book is a must-read for scholars and administrators interested in understanding who Latino students are and how to cultivate postsecondary environments that advance their holistic success.


Cuellar, M. G. (2019). Creating Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and emerging HSIs: Latina/o college choice at four-year institutions. American Journal of Education. Advance online publication.

García, G. A., & Cuellar, M. (2018). Exploring curricular and co-curricular effects on civic engagement at emerging Hispanic Serving Institutions. Teachers College Record, 120(4), 1–36.

Salinas, C., & Lozano, A. (2017). Mapping and recontextualizing the evolution of the term Latinx: An environmental scanning in higher education. Journal of Latinos and Education. Advance online publication.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 11, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22706, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 9:20:14 PM

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About the Author
  • Marcela Cuellar
    University of California, Davis
    E-mail Author
    MARCELA G. CUELLAR is an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis. Her research examines access and equity in higher education with a focus on Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), Latina/o student experiences and outcomes, and campus climate. Her scholarship has been published in The American Journal of Education, The Review of Higher Education, and Teachers College Record.
  • Maira Pulido
    University of California, Davis
    E-mail Author
    MAIRA G. PULIDO is currently a PhD student at the UC Davis School of Education with an emphasis in School Organization and Education Policy. Her current research interests include higher education and policy, Latinx student access to higher education, and retention and equity in STEM (Science, Technology, Math and Science) education.
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