By: Vanessa A. Sansone, The University of Texas at San Antonio
For many education scholars, the month of April means one thing – AERA Annual Meeting. But for the city of San Antonio, where AERA’s 2017 meeting is being held, the month of April is synonymous with the 11-day celebration that is Fiesta de San Antonio. And as it turns out, this year’s conference will overlap with Fiesta. As a native of San Antonio, I cannot help but think of how the intersection between both major events offers AERA attendees with valuable insights beyond what they will gain from attending sessions. This is because Fiesta allows for attendees to experience the cultural richness that is embedded within San Antonio’s multi-ethnic community, and at the same time gain a deeper understanding about cultural-assets, which can enhance educational research on underrepresented student groups. Allow me to explain how I came to this point.
So, what exactly is Fiesta? Well, to put it quite simply the word Fiesta translated into English means party. But it is more than just a typical party for the city of San Antonio. In fact, this is a much-beloved time where community members take a moment to celebrate our distinct culture, heritage, and history. And it is our history that is interwoven with aspects of colonialism (e.g. the Six Flags over Texas, which include Spain, Mexico, France, the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy, and the United States), patriarchy, racism, and classism (Ehrisman, 2003). Like any growing city, modern-day San Antonio still has its issues that stem from these historical roots, especially in relation to education. But throughout history Fiesta has been used as an event that enables the city’s marginalized groups to push back against these “-isms”, and demonstrate as well as highlight their cultural assets that reflect the heart and beauty of the San Antonio community at-large (Ehrisman, 2003).
Today, Fiesta for many San Antonians, like myself, are marked by a time of cultural traditions. For me and my family, such traditions include: donning a flower-crown; cracking cáscarones; wearing a brightly colored Puebla dress; listening to Tejano music in front of the historic San Fernando Cathedral; eating fruta con chile y limón; trading Fiesta medals; watching the fireworks outside of Fort Sam Houston (a US Army military installation); and attending the Battle of Flowers parade (which dates back to 1891) and Night parade. Of course, these traditions vary among San Antonians because Fiesta includes over 100 events that happen across the entire city. What is amazing about these events is that they celebrate such differing cultures as Mexican, Native American, German, Creole, LGBTQ, military, Texan, as well as the various communities across the city that collectively make up the fabric of who we are in San Antonio.
Given that San Antonio’s demographics make up a large proportion of residents who come from ethnic minority backgrounds (e.g. 63% Latina/o), I believe it is these types of events that offer a glimpse into the cultural components of underrepresented students that tend to get overlooked in educational research (US Census Bureau, n.d.). As a researcher who uses sociological approaches, I am constantly aware that we are products of our own socialization. It is socialization that forms the lenses that we use to create and interpret our research in education. A byproduct of this is a limitation in our understanding of what is seen as a norm or “traditional” when we have differing experiences from one another. Take for example the seminal work of educational sociologist, Annette Lareau, who used ethnographic participation to study the lives of White and African-American children from poor, working, and middle class families. In Lareau’s (2003) book, Unequal Childhoods, she included a section in her appendix that was devoted to her methodology where she wrote about the challenge that she and her researchers faced when they encountered what they believed to be “wrong” parenting practices. She noted that much of what was viewed as abnormal was because it differed so much from the experiences of her and her researchers’ own upbringing.
Although Fiesta is just one event in San Antonio, it does offer visitors from AERA exposure to the activities and experiences that many underrepresented students and their families from San Antonio find meaningful. This also applies to educational research. For example, on the Friday of April 28th, all K-12 students will have the day off from school so that they can attend the Battle of Flowers parade with their families, which explains how attendance at this event regularly exceeds 350,000 people. For higher education students in San Antonio, final project deadlines tend to occur at the same time as Fiesta. But many local universities host official Fiesta events on their campuses, with proceeds from these events funding student scholarships and organizations (e.g. St. Mary’s University Fiesta Oyster Bake; Fiesta UTSA; and Palo Alto College’s PACfest).
Speaking from personal experience, this time is difficult for me as a Latina first-generation college student when I must make choices between Fiesta family tradition and writing a term paper. This is because Fiesta heavily involves two things that are at the center of Latina/o culture in San Antonio: family and tradition. I know it does not sound like that is something one should be empathetic about, but if you take a step back, I think you will find it matters in terms of one’s decision-making, stress, and persistence. A main concern is that my cultural commitments to my family during this time of the year conflict with what is expected of me as a college student. The fact that I am a first-generation college student only increases the stress because it is difficult for my family to understand when I choose the term paper over Fiesta.
I think these tensions are important to bring up when we talk about educational research. Because we are collectively working to make higher education better for all students, we should follow in the footsteps of researchers (e.g. Adriana Kezar, John Braxton, Sara Goldrick-Rab, etc.), who have asked the field to re-conceptualize dominant frameworks that act in ways that essentially marginalize the experiences of underrepresented students in higher education. In particular, I am reminded of the book chapter by Laura Rendón, Romero Jalomo, and Amaury Nora (2000) that appeared in John Braxton’s book, Reworking the Student Departure Puzzle. In that chapter, these researchers discussed how the work of Vincent Tinto (1993) offered a good foundation for studying student persistence, but lacked conceptualizations that more accurately reflected minority student experiences in higher education.
In revisiting the chapter with Drs. Laura Rendón and Amaury Nora (who are also natives of South Texas), I asked them why, at the time, they felt compelled to ask the field to reconsider the traditional student persistence framework as it applied to minority students? And why should emerging graduate scholars look to do the same in their own research?
Dra. Rendón responded,
- I was in my 40s when this chapter was written; yet, the essence of the piece is still timely. At the time, I had an intuitive sense that something was missing with respect to how students of color made the transition to college and became involved in the academic and social fabric of college life. I took the time to re-read all of Tinto’s books and to examine other theories and critiques of departure models. I came away with the sense that what I had initially sensed was correct. We learned that the transition to college is not linear and is quite complex; the assumption that students must totally separate from their families and culture to succeed is incorrect; both institutions and students are responsible for success; an intersectionality framework is needed to better understand student success; rather than focusing on how dominant students find success, minoritized students should be studied to reveal how their personal strengths and cultural tools propel them to succeed.
Dr. Nora stated,
- My concerns regarding Tinto’s model were two-fold: conceptual and methodological. I felt that there was an exclusion (and/or lack of clarification) of some very important facets of students’ experiences that would capture more specifically what was going on in the lives of traditional as well as non-traditional students. Methodologically, I felt that those conceptual issues would lead to misspecification errors in the models that we were testing. How valid would those models be if they did not truly capture the reality in students’ college experiences?
Thus, I hope that as AERA attendees embark on San Antonio for the upcoming annual meeting, most will choose to attend one, or some, of the Fiesta activities. But beyond attending, I hope that they take a moment to appreciate the culture, grasp the assets that are embedded within our community, and use that new learned knowledge base to enhance the frameworks that are applied in the study of underrepresented students and marginalized communities. It is these cultural components that often get bypassed but can shape experiences and outcomes in higher education.
Vanessa A. Sansone is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at The University of Texas at San Antonio. Her research explores issues influencing the experiences of underrepresented students in higher education. In particular, her areas of research interest focus on college affordability, Latina/o students, student veterans, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, governance, and postsecondary student trajectories.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Dra. Erin Doran and Dr. Guan Saw for their feedback on earlier versions of this piece, as well as Dra. Laura Rendón and Dr. Amaury Nora for taking the time to be interviewed. Additionally, I want to extend my gratitude to Crystal Garcia for her support and suggestions with this topic.
Ehrisman, L. A. (2003). Inventing the fiesta city: Heritage and performance in San Antonio’s public culture. (Doctoral dissertation). The University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved from Texas ScholarWorks, The University of Texas at Austin Libraries.
Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Race, class and family life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Rendón, L. I., Jalomo, R. E., & Nora, A. (2000). Theoretical considerations in the study of minority student retention in higher education. In J. M. Braxton (Ed.), Reworking the student departure puzzle (pp.127-156). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.
Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
U.S. Census Bureau (n.d.). Quickfacts: San Antonio city, Texas. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/LND110210/4865000.