Welcome to Esther J. Cepeda's archive of columns published by The Washington Post Writers Group and other publications.
It is indescribably powerful to see an older Latin American man apologize to his brother for having been intolerant of his sibling's gender identity. That's just not the kind of openness you expect to hear from conservative people living in a traditionally religious and macho culture.
In the opening segment, we meet Juani - whose birth name was Juana Rosa - and who is described as the first Cuban to get female-to-male sexual reassignment surgery. It is Juani's brother, Santi, who regrets his homophobia and begs for forgiveness. Their elderly mom reminisces, also with regret, at having forced a very young Juana to wear dresses even though she hated it. Her acceptance of Juani is obviously as natural as any mother's toward her grown son.
Posted at 05:03 PM | Permalink
This is my sixth year highlighting favorite books that are diverse but not about diversity. I get a lot of raised eyebrows and questions about this peculiar genre.
Well, there are a lot of books out there that are diverse and about diversity — meaning that they are written by an author from a minority group and are specifically about that particular group’s unique life experiences.
For example, Jennine Capo Crucet’s “Make Your Home Among Strangers” is a devastating story about the trade-offs a first-generation college student makes when she leaves home for that “better life” all immigrant parents wish for their children.
Lizet’s experiences are universal to any first-in-their-family to attend college. But her Cuban-American identity struggle in the shadow of the circa-2000 Elián González drama makes for a story that has particular resonance for Latino readers.
This is fantastic — obviously, writers of color often pursue literature in order to tell their own stories.
Equally wonderful, however, is when an author gets to write for a very broad audience on a topic not specifically associated with his or her ethnicity.
As Puerto Rican novelist and founder of La Casita Grande Editores, a new publishing house specializing in Latino and Caribbean literature, Jonathan Marcantoni recently told me, “The biggest challenge in the Latino publishing scene is getting stories that go outside of immigration, identity and the American Dream narrative, which is what Latino authors are stuck in.
It’s almost an unspoken rule that if you tell a story, it has to include one of these things, and as a result there aren’t too many science fiction, crime or romance novels written by Latinos and other writers of color that stand on their own as genre works.”
This is why it’s so important to highlight when such authors and books do come along — they have stories to tell that are meant for everyone and aren’t anchored by the few topics that have been deemed authentic and acceptable for nonwhite authors.
Posted at 04:59 PM | Permalink
Thanksgiving is upon us again and Feeding America, the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief organization, estimates that one in seven people in our nation utilizes its network of food banks.
This number applies even in one of the richest places in the world — Silicon Valley — where the tech explosion has fueled skyrocketing rent and mortgage costs that have cast many longtime residents into near or actual homelessness.
"My family has been here since 1860 or so; they were pioneers who came in a covered wagon to farm the rich land and now, all these years later, there's concrete and tar, parking lots for high-tech companies and freeways covering what used to be called the Valley of the Heart's Delight," said Dee Dee Kiesow, a development officer with Cityteam Ministries, a San Jose-based nonprofit that works to help people struggling with poverty, homelessness and addiction. "Now, with the high cost of housing, just renting a room in a house takes nearly all your money and people are making hard choices about whether to eat or pay the rent. After living in this area 150 years, even my family is facing having to move out."
Kiesow told me that, counter to the stereotypes about who goes hungry in America, in the heart of Silicon Valley, homelessness and hunger are not exclusively linked to unemployment:
"Many of the people who use our food pantry have jobs. We have lots of two-parent working families but they have to choose when and what to eat. The biggest crisis facing all of us is being able to afford to have a roof over our heads. The big tech boom brought a glut of people with very high salaries — to the point where there is little or no housing for our low-income men, women and families. Food and everything else have become so expensive, and if you have a minimum-wage job and make, say, $22,000 a year, I don't even know that you could find one room to rent for that kind of money here."
(Apartmentguide.com says that a studio apartment in San Jose averages $2,537 per month.)
Posted at 04:58 PM | Permalink
Pedro J. Torres-Díaz is a principal at Jackson Lewis, P.C., a law firm that concentrates on employment discrimination, wage and hour counseling and litigation both in Florida and Puerto Rico. Torres-Díaz graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a bachelor's degree in business administration and then obtained a Juris Doctor (magna cum laude) from the University of Puerto Rico School of Law. After his graduation from law school, he clerked for the Hon. Aida M. Delgado-Colón, United States Magistrate-Judge (now Chief United States District Judge), at the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico.
You've been a lawyer for 20 years now, how has the legal profession changed in that time?
The state of the economy and changes in technology have made the practice of law different from 20 years ago. One mission that we have at the Hispanic National Bar Association is to provide members with tools for adapting to practice of law in modern times by learning alternative technologies and skills. Also, we do training for our membership so that they can successfully sit on boards of directors of corporations.
We found that only 1 to 2 percent of all Fortune 500 boards have Latino directors and we are actively providing training to members so they have the necessary skills to serve on those boards across the nation.
My theme for my term as president of the HNBA is 'Strengthening the Future of Law,' but that's not just about professional development.
One thing that hasn't changed is that we continue to be severely underrepresented in the legal profession. Only about 4 percent of lawyers are Latino and in the case of Latinas, they represent only 1.2 to 1.3 percent of the legal profession. Despite our efforts a lot remains to be done.
The make-up of the lawyer population should clearly reflect America's, demographics but is there something more to it?
Posted at 02:03 PM | Permalink
When Kirn Kim was 16, he was part of a group of five teens who killed an honors student who attended their high school in Fullerton, California. Kim had been along for a ride with a pal who was known for his big talk and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years-to-life in prison for having been a lookout in the murder.
Today, 23 years later, Kim is one of an emerging class of individuals – the formerly incarcerated – who are struggling to make a life for themselves after they've paid their debt to society.
"What happened was a tragedy," Kim told me. "But I was determined to make the best of a bad situation and be that one exception, if I ever managed to get out of prison."
To that end, Kim used his time behind bars to earn a bachelor's degree in business and became active in rehabilitative programs where he could counsel and help struggling inmates. After 20 years and two tries, Kim was finally granted parole.
He moved back home with his parents and, taking back up with a childhood love of computers, delved into coding and computer programming courses at a local college.
But he hit a brick wall when it was time to find work.
Posted at 01:59 PM | Permalink
CHICAGO -- Pre-K education has long been seen as a potential silver bullet to help at-risk children excel in school. But new research is prompting second thoughts about its effectiveness for low-income kids.
In a recent policy briefing describing statewide pre-K programs in Tennessee, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of the Annie E. Casey Foundation report that by third grade, children who attended pre-K had worse attitudes toward school and poorer work habits than children who didn't.
About 3,000 children were randomly assigned either to attend a pre-K classroom or to not participate, then data on both groups' subsequent academic performance were taken from a state database.
The short-term impacts of the program, reported in 2013, looked good. Researchers found that children who attended preschool performed better than those who didn't on end-of-year achievement tests and got higher ratings from their teachers when kindergarten began. Plus, teachers said that the pre-K children were better prepared for school, had better work skills, and were more positive about school (this is similar to results in other studies of pre-K programs).
However, the 2015 data, which included results of student performance into the third grade, showed that the achievement-test advantage for children who attended the pre-K program had disappeared by the end of kindergarten (also similar to results in other studies).
Worse, by the end of first grade, their teachers rated pre-K program children as weaker in their work skills and less prepared for and more negative about school. Strikingly: At the end of both second grade and third grade, children who hadn't participated in the program performed better on academic tests than children who had.
No one knows why, but factors could include that the activities the children experienced were not age-appropriate to their developmental needs -- i.e. heavily dependent on structured direct instruction rather than on student-interest-based play (we've all heard the horror stories about kindergarteners made to fill out worksheets, so this is not far-fetched). Or that students who had initially been ahead of peers got bored by waiting for them to catch up as they progressed through grades 2 and 3.
Posted at 10:25 AM | Permalink
BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA
You wouldn't have expected much from the modest young man who moved to the big city from his backwater country home and ended up in an artsy halfway house peddling hand-painted postcards to pay for his next meal.
He was a late-blooming boy; a congenital late sleeper whose dad thought he was lazy and underachieving (a perception shared by many others). A dreamy kid who was bad at spelling and grammar, he was a scatterbrain who was always running late. Plus, he was terrifically boring and normal in the way he loved his mom, his sweet cakes heaped with whipped cream and his white fox terrier.
And yet from these humble beginnings emerged the man German historian Volker Ullrich calls, in his spellbinding new book "Hitler: Ascent (1889-1939)," a "sensationalist, pop-cultural icon of horror."
Ullrich explains that part of his reason for reconsidering Hitler is that since the global entertainment industry has created a caricature designed to "send the maximum shivers down audiences' spines," the phenomenon of the dictator stands to lose all connection to real life.
And so over the course of 998 pages, Ullrich leads us through Hitler's early life and his rise to power, before chillingly concluding this first of two volumes with Hitler nearly killing the Czechoslovakian president Emil Hacha during a late-night bullying session in which Hitler secured that country's forced break-up.
Ullrich starts us off with what few details the world has about Hitler's youth, then the disappointment that Hitler's social-climbing father felt about his moody son's artsy aspirations. We quickly move to Adolf's time in Vienna (where he lived alongside Jews in a men's home), his gratitude to his mother's Jewish doctor during her long and ultimately fatal battle with breast cancer, his seven years of struggle to make it as an artist and, eventually, his unimpressive military service.
Then things get interesting.
If one’s perception is, effectively, one’s reality, then we can expect life to get better soon. That’s because despite the media — and a certain presidential candidate — battering us with negativity about demographic change, racial strife and political polarization, America’s 55 million Latinos are feeling sunny about the future.
In a new National Council of La Raza poll of Latino registered voters’ views on the economy and health care, 51 percent of respondents said that the economy is getting better. Forty-eight percent said that a year from now they expect to be doing better financially, with 63 percent of 18- to 35-year-olds saying so compared with 36 percent of respondents 36 and older.
A full 66 percent said they expect that their financial future and opportunities will be better than their parents’.
Though the individuals polled expressed fears about Social Security not being around when they retire, about debt loads and about potential job losses, majorities (61 percent of 18- to 35-year-olds and 55 percent of those 36 and older) still said that they believe that their hard work will pay off and they will be able to get ahead.
To give you an idea of just how radically positive these young Latinos are compared with other groups, let’s look at the Harvard Institute of Politics’ most recent national poll of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds.
When asked whether they are “hopeful” or “fearful” about the future of America, 51 percent of all respondents indicated that they are fearful. However, of the whites, blacks and Hispanics who were polled, no group was more fearful about America’s future than white men and women.
Sixty percent of white women and 54 percent of white men are scared about the future — about 10 percentage points more than Hispanic women and men. And only 36 percent of white males and 32 percent of white females believe they will be better off financially than their parents, compared with 45 percent of Hispanic males and 52 percent of Hispanic females.
I blame this on a decade’s worth of alarmist news headlines about minorities displacing white people as the new majority. Without a doubt, 10 years or so of pitting minorities against white people in a high-stakes game of demography-is-destiny has been the impetus for our current presidential contest in which making America “great again” is code for making it white again.
In the two weeks before the election, the dueling narratives about the Latino vote are boiling down to this: The “Trump Effect” will propel more Hispanics than ever before to the polls, or “Don’t believe the hype.”
There’s so much uncertainty about what will happen on Nov. 8 that partisans are basically stuck grasping at anything that might predict victory for their favored candidate. Yet the data continue to say different things.
The Pew Hispanic Center recently published numbers that threw a wet blanket on those hoping Donald Trump’s insults of minorities would spur trips to the polls. Its late-summer survey of 1,507 Latino adults, including 804 registered voters, painted the so-called “Sleeping Giant” as still snuggled in its pajamas, snoring away.
Pew found that the share of Latino registered voters who said they are “absolutely certain” they will vote this November (69 percent) is down from the share who said the same in 2012 (77 percent).
Predictably, young people, who have a reputation for not getting out to polls, reflected some of the sharpest declines.
Posted at 02:11 PM | Permalink
CHICAGO -- Like manna from heaven, a small bit of much-needed joy fell upon Chicago Saturday night as the Cubs secured a trip to the World Series for the first time since 1945.
I wasn’t watching the game but knew the moment they won because the pure bliss emanated from Wrigley Field many miles out to me as my neighbors burst from their homes onto the street shrieking and hooting. Moments later, the sky was awash in fireworks and people were driving down the street honking their horns in jubilation.
The collective delight offered a refreshing pause for Chicagoans distressed over the nation’s election-year anxiety and the gun violence pounding the city’s lowest-income residents.
On Saturday night, people of all backgrounds, races and income levels were in the streets singing together, hugging and crying -- there were quite a lot of bittersweet tears, in fact. The Cubs’ win brought wistfulness to those lucky enough to witness the October miracle.
Yahoo Sports’ Kevin Kaduk picked right up on it, writing: “The thing that struck you were the tears.
“The tears were for so many things. They were for the achievement, of course. ... But for the fans, the tears were also for so many other things. It was for relatives no longer with us. One man waved a posterboard sign that said ‘Best fan in heaven: Mom’ with a picture of a woman wearing a Cubs hat in a hospital bed. ‘I wish my dad was alive’ trended on Facebook because so many people were posting that phrase in relation to the Cubs.
“It was for people no longer near us, too. Fans texted and called others from the stands when they could catch a signal. When’s the last time so many sons and daughters called their mothers and fathers that late on a Saturday night?”
Posted at 02:14 PM | Permalink
In its trademark satirical style, The Onion nailed it with its stunningly prescient story titled, "Trump Maps Out Plan For First 100 Days Of Not Conceding Election."
Deliciously, the imagined post-election press release from the floundering Republican presidential candidate detailed: "Within my first 10 days, I will introduce a comprehensive plan for my disgruntled supporters to march on the White House, and by day 30, I will submit a formal petition demanding [Hillary] Clinton's immediate removal from office." The spoof concluded by saying that Trump "looks forward to fiercely disputing the legitimacy of a Clinton presidency for the next four years."
You'd be forgiven for accidentally believing this was a legitimate statement from Trump, who has managed to suck so many people into his reality distortion field that even normally levelheaded people are getting out of whack.
Former presidential candidate John McCain made remarks last week that basically outlined a scenario in which a Clinton win would trigger four years of Republicans blocking any Supreme Court nominee put forward by the incoming president. McCain eventually walked back his strident comments but they give you a good idea where things stand.
For those of us who believe in the strength of a two-party system in which the loser of an election peacefully concedes to the victor and works harder to win next time, things look grim. Trump's insinuations of rigged elections and his call for his supporters to monitor polls for fraud – mostly in communities of color, it turns out – are eroding what little public trust in government is left.
Posted at 07:34 PM | Permalink
CHICAGO • After years of negotiations and input from education interest groups, teachers and their unions, the U.S. Department of Education recently released its revised Teacher Preparation Regulations, designed to help ensure that students get the best new teachers possible.
The idea is that if teacher-preparation programs transparently report on a variety of performance metrics — such as placement and retention rates of teachers in their first three years in the classroom (including in high-needs schools) as well as feedback from new teachers and their employers on the effectiveness of their training — the data will help improve the efficacy of these programs.
And there's no question that they need improvement.
In 2013, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) put out a seminal report that found only 10 percent of 1,200 teacher-preparation programs nationwide were adequately training people to succeed in the classroom. More recently, a 2015 NCTQ report found that standards for training new teachers are inconsistent — even within the same prep programs.
After investigating 13 institutions that offered both undergraduate and graduate degrees in education, the NCTQ found that even on the same campus, some programs allow certain students to graduate with glaring omissions in their training, such as not taking a single course in classroom management or introductory special ed.
Posted at 02:18 PM | Permalink
BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA
CHICAGO -- In a year in which immigrants have been dragged through the mud and certain politicians have called on them to be driven from this country, it's ironic (and heartening) that six of this year's Nobel laureates are American immigrants.
Five of them were born in Great Britain, the other in Finland, and all are affiliated with top-tier U.S. universities like Princeton, MIT and Northwestern University.
Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, a Scottish-born researcher at Northwestern who won the prize in chemistry along with French and Dutch researchers, told the political website The Hill: "It's particularly pertinent to have these discussions in view of the political climate on both sides of the pond at the moment." The naturalized U.S. citizen concluded, "I think the United States is what it is today largely because of open borders."
He needn't have equivocated -- that's absolutely historically correct. We can look back through our centuries of welcoming immigrants and it's generally seen as an unqualified good.
The problem is that conflicting political agendas, media accounts and advocacy organizations' casting of immigrants as archetypically good or evil -- unlawfully present drug smugglers and violent criminals or angelically humble, poor, hardworking and striving for the American Dream -- leave out the vast majority of immigrants who don't fit neatly into either stereotype .
Posted at 03:38 PM | Permalink
BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA
...So, thank you, Shaun R. Harper, for your Washington Post blog declaring that “Many men talk like Donald Trump in private. And only other men can stop them.”
Harper, a University of Pennsylvania professor and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, wrote: “Truth is, many men objectify women and say outrageously offensive things about their breasts, butts and other body parts in spaces we occupy with each other. ... And such talk is not confined to gyms and country club showers, but occurs too often in other spaces where men are among other men — in fraternity houses, on golf courses, in barbershops, at bars.”
Here is the part that made me cheer in vindication: “I have even seen men stand aside and engage in this kind of talk about moms at kids’ birthday parties.”
Posted at 03:34 PM | Permalink
Ten years after Mexican-American activist Willie Velasquez died, then-President Bill Clinton awarded him the posthumous honor of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, declaring: "No person in modern America who has run for public office wherever Hispanic Americans live has failed to feel the hand of Willie Velasquez. His appeal to the Hispanic community was simple, passionate and direct: “Su voto es su voz” (“Your vote is your voice”).
If the name doesn't ring a bell, don't feel bad. Unless you have a few Latino studies courses under your belt, Velasquez is another unsung American hero you've never heard of but should know.
For the anecdote about the presidential honor, we must thank Hector Galan, the producer and director of the new VOCES/PBS documentary "Willie Velasquez: Your Vote is Your Voice," which premiered last week and is available to stream free on the PBS website.
Galan, a longtime chronicler of Mexican-American history, takes viewers through a crash course on the long and still-in-progress road to Hispanic political empowerment through the story of Velasquez, who grew from a poor kid living in a barrio on the west side of San Antonio, Texas, to the leader of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. That organization became the nation's largest Hispanic voter registration effort at the time and helped increase the number of Hispanic elected officials in the U.S. by 82 percent between 1974 and 1987.
Posted at 07:38 PM | Permalink
BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA
CHICAGO • Ever get the feeling that women are collectively crying out for help but no one is listening?
Scan the landscape of entertainment aimed at women and you'll find a theme: alcohol dependency.
Some of it is portrayed as fun — there is a whole craft industry dedicated to "Wine O'Clock" and #WineWednesday home decor, and celebrities like Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb shamelessly glamorize early morning drinking on their "Today" show — but it's increasingly desperate.
Take Paula Hawkins' hit novel (and soon-to-be blockbuster movie) "The Girl on the Train." I picked up the book based on reviews that said it was "the next 'Gone Girl.'" It was not.
Alas, it turned out to be melodrama revolving around an alcoholic woman's unraveling, her gin-fueled blackout providing the mystery's convenient device. It wasn't nearly as entertaining as promised, unless of course you are drawn to stories about women who tear their own and others' lives apart via alcoholism.
In the land of reality, there are two separate memoirs on The New York Times hardcover best-seller list right now that will surely not eclipse the popularity of "Girl on the Train" but deserve some major play for their frank and bracing descriptions of what alcohol can do to smart, high-achieving women.
ABC News journalist Elizabeth Vargas' book "Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction," starts out painfully, with an introduction detailing her crushing, everyday anxiety — a state of low-grade terror that leads to her ever-present prayer: "Dear God, I need a drink."
Posted at 11:58 AM | Permalink
BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA
CHICAGO • Thank goodness Hispanic Heritage Month is almost over. I'm not a fan, because who wants to be paid lip service for 30 days? And it's not even a proper full month, but the latter half of September and the early part of October.
Sure, several mid-September days mark the anniversaries of the independence of multiple Latin American countries, but that seems to have little to do with honoring the "contributions Hispanics have made [to this country] throughout our history," according to this year's official White House proclamation.
Hispanics are nothing less than all-American constructs. Ironically, though, it's a classification that's mostly meaningful to non-Hispanics in the United States.
Check it out: Anywhere in the world my mom goes she is Mexican. My father, a naturalized U.S. citizen who has lived here longer than anywhere else, is, to others, forever from Ecuador. Me? No matter where in the world I go, I'm an American — except for in Latin America where I'm a "gringa," which I'm perfectly comfortable with, thank you very much.
Here in the U.S., it's far more complicated. White, Asian and black non-Hispanics call us Latino, Hispanic, the teeth-grinding "Latin," and sometimes even the cringe-inducing "Spanish." And if they're from California, they might whip out "Chicano" as well.
Generally there's been a years-long (and incredibly tiresome) back-and-forth among people with Latin American heritage about whether they should be identified as "Latino" or "Hispanic." As of last count — the Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project reported on this phenomenon in 2012 — a few of these people (21 percent, including me) were a minority-within-a-minority who identified as "American."
Posted at 04:30 PM | Permalink
By Esther J. Cepeda, Opinion Columnist
The U.S. Department of Education recently released an “English Learner Tool Kit” designed to support public schools in meeting their legal obligations to students learning the English language. The purpose: to ensure they have equal access to quality education.
This is no small feat.
I was once a teacher in “bilingual education” programs in a state at the supposed forefront of educating English-language learners. My experience left me feeling that native Spanish-speaking students were too often herded into “self-contained” classrooms with a Spanish-speaking teacher and left on the margins.
Because such classrooms are opened only if there is a set number of students of the same language in need, it is usually the Spanish-speaking students — and not the far smaller populations of Polish, Asian and other new immigrants — who get shuffled off into these native-language programs that are rarely integrated with the general school population.
Posted at 04:26 PM | Permalink
CHICAGO • News stories are starting to trickle out citing "deep concern" about whether Hispanics — who, polls show, prefer Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump — will head to polls in the numbers the Democrats need in order to win.
But a better question is: Why should Latinos be expected to turn out to vote when so little attention is paid to them? They seem to matter only to journalists hot to publish overly simplistic reports proclaiming that Hispanics will either be decisive or again fail to punch their weight on Election Day.
To put this in perspective, here's what a new weekly poll — a collaboration among the Hispanic polling firm Latino Decisions, Telemundo News and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) — has to say about what Latino outreach looks like in the weeks before the election:
While more than 91 percent of polled Latino registered voters stated they would more than likely cast ballots this year, more than 60 percent reported that they had not been contacted by a campaign, political party or organization.
For all the talk about "The Sleeping Giant" and demography-as-destiny, the major political campaigns are effectively making assumptions about what Hispanics will do come November and then leaving it all to chance.
Posted at 04:16 PM | Permalink
BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA
In our Internet-connected world where cute is king and issues of substance tend to be discussed only if there’s a catchy meme to share, people are far likelier to know that Sept. 17 was National Apple Dumpling Day than that it marked the beginning of Constitution Week.
Pity the starry-eyed individual who wrote the official proclamation of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day 2016, which the White House sent out to its press list late last Friday:
It’s difficult to imagine a time when our nation’s young people were less suited for the responsibilities of citizenship, given public schools’ neglect of civics education.
In May 2015, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released its report card on history, civics and geography and found that only 18 percent of all eighth-graders assessed were at or above proficiency (defined as demonstrating competency of subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and related analytical skills) in U.S. history. Only 23 percent were at or above proficiency in civics.
Posted at 04:13 PM | Permalink