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Michelle Gomez Parra and Dr. Lorena Garcia

Many of us in higher education have noted changes in student demographics, including the increasing number of Latinx majors entering 4-year institutions. For students from poor and working-class backgrounds, college is a vital path to social and economic mobility. In addition to this primary reason why Latinos attend college, other social forces also shape their desire to do so, and in particular their decision to leave their family home to pursue higher education.

We explore this in a recent article Gender and society. Our research shows that while economically marginalized Latinos perceive college as an opportunity for upward mobility, they also see it as a way to secure gender and sexual freedom. For example, many of the Latinas we interviewed listed a variety of household responsibilities assigned to them, such as cooking, cleaning, and helping to care for younger siblings when they are at home. They saw going to college as an opportunity to free themselves from the responsibilities expected of them for such work in their family’s household.

The Latinas we spoke with also reported that they do not have much discretion over their social lives and spatial mobility while living at home. Their parents often restricted where they could go outside the home and who they could interact with. Our respondents were frustrated by what they saw as unfair treatment based on their gender. They sought to move out of their parents’ homes and attend college in order to gain discretion in their social lives and freedom over their whereabouts. They spoke at length about the new pleasures they experienced as college students living away from their parents’ homes, such as the ability to transcend parental gender rules and have fewer gender roles in the family. Thus, our study suggests that Latinos’ desire for gender and sexual freedom are factors in Latinos’ desire to leave the parental home and attend college.

Latinas were also well aware of the “teen mom” stereotype that Latinas are highly likely to become young mothers. This stereotype also portrays early motherhood as detrimental to Latinos’ ability to move up. Consequently, the women in our study viewed attending college and obtaining degrees as a way to challenge negative stereotypes about Latino sexuality.

In addition to being able to make decisions about their time and social lives, including where they went, we find that college facilitated Latinos’ gender and sexual freedom in another important way. While attending college, Latinas were exposed to a sex-positive discourse that challenged their previously held ideas about sex as dangerous and always leading to unplanned teenage pregnancy. In addition, they also deepened their understanding of gender inequality and how it affected their lives as girls and young women. Their exposure to new ideas about gender and sexuality, often through coursework, shaped their life choices around gender and sexuality. They wanted not only to end their social and economic marginalization, but also to have autonomy in their social activities and spatial mobility and to be free from unequal gender and sexual ideologies.

Overall, our research suggests that constraints based on gender and sexuality shape Latinas’ pursuit of both upward and spatial mobility in college. After college, they are exposed to new ideas that continue to shape their gender and sexual choices. Our study encourages researchers and educators to consider how the intersections of gender, sexual, and racial inequalities shape the educational aspirations of girls and women. Our work also encourages educators to consider how curricula influence students’ gender and sexual ideologies. We show that access to gender-positive discourses and feminist critiques of gender inequality is liberating for Latinas as they use this information to promote their gender and sexual pleasures and shared livelihoods.

Michelle Gomez Parra is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at UC Santa Cruz with a focus on Latin American and Latin American studies. She uses feminist theories of color such as intersectionality and transnational feminism to explore how experiences of higher education and migratory mobility intersect with heteronormativity to influence Latino negotiations of gender and sexuality.

Lorena Garcia is an assistant professor of sociology and Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she also holds a courtesy appointment in gender and women’s studies. Her research interests include the intersections of gender, sexuality, race and class, US Latinos, and youth. She is currently working on her second book project, which focuses on emerging middle-class Latina/x/os parenting perspectives and practices.

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