Summer of Feminista: The Importance of Multiple Mentors

Raquel is a Latina feminist, multimedia journalist, social media strategist and soon-to-be NYU MA student, where she'll be studying new media and women's studies. 

Mentoring is important for any young woman trying to build her name in the professional world; but with language barriers and cultural differences, the need and difficulty in finding a suitable mentor for Latinas is often greater.

Can this non-Latino professor offer me the insight I need as a woman of color? Can the sole Latina academic adviser provide me with the specialized information I need for my discipline? Chances are, neither of these people will wholly fill the role.

As a 22-year-old Latina trying to make my way into news media, finding a mentor has been rough. According to a study by ASNE, Latinos made up 4 percent of newsroom personnel at all daily English-language newspapers in 2004, while a study from RTDNA shows that they secured just 6 percent of all staff positions at English-language TV news outlets in 2011.

Has my search been grim because there are so few Latina journalists out there? Probably.

But I come from a highly populated Latino area.

In fact, Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education Magazine ranked the University of Central Florida, my alma mater, as one of the top 10 colleges for Hispanic students in the U.S.

Considering that Orlando’s Latino population has more than doubled since 2000, making it the nation’s fourth fastest-growing Latino city in the U.S., UCF’s placement doesn’t come to much surprise.

But even in the city that some folk call “the other Puerto Rico,” there still wasn’t one Latin@ teaching in my journalism program.

With no journalists, or professionals, in my contact list, I needed to accept the fact that my mentor would have to be someone at my university, which meant he or she wasn’t going to look like me or share my cultural experiences.

And two years after I made that decision, I have to say, it hasn’t been that bad.

Actually, it’s worked out pretty well.

During my undergraduate years, I had two mentors, both of whom played a unique and crucial role in my life and career.

My first mentor, who I’ll call my professional mentor, was a white woman.

She was, and continues to be, the only female professor in my journalism program. I never sat in one of her classrooms, but I did make an effort to sit in her office. Often. In every chat we had, I learned a new statistic, fact or perspective on women in journalism, women in academia or just female professionals, which ultimately sparked my intellectual and academic interests and goals.

She was the catalyst to my feminist identity.

The amazing stories she shared with me about forgotten, or ignored, women journalists made me take my degree, my skills and my aspirations much more seriously. She was always honest and told me when I needed to step up and not be so shy, especially in this field. She helped me realize the importance of graduate school (and wrote an amazing letter of recommendation that helped get me accepted into every graduate program I applied to).

Once, while talking with my nephew about Spider-Man, she told him that I was a superhero for women. Her words of encouragement always helped instill a confidence in me that I, like most women, struggle with regularly. My professional mentor wasn’t Latina, and I wouldn’t change that.

My second mentor, however, was Latina.

Though, as my supervisor, she helped in my professional development, she mentored me in a much more emotional and intimate way. She is a caring woman who puts the needs of students above all else. Her joy truly comes from seeing her students succeed academically and professionally. She’s also one of the most honest and diligent women I know, which doesn’t sit well with a lot of folk. Rude, condescending, uncooperative colleagues make for uncomfortable working conditions that would leave anyone frustrated. But out of fear of perpetuating the angry, spicy Latina stereotype, a lot of Latinas stay quiet and take the insidious, professional punches being thrown their way.

Not her.

She stands with the underdog and calls out the big shots.

She showed me how to be respectfully assertive, and she let me know that doing so is OK.

She helped me understand that the sexist, classist and racist discriminations we face help shape us, and we mustn’t forget that in our professional lives.

She told me it’s OK if slang, which is a significant part of my vernacular, slips up during work hours, and that the disapproving eyes I receive when my ride picks me up with hip-hop music blasting from the car speakers are a reflection of others’ characters, not mine.

She taught me to not be ashamed of where I come from, even if my colleagues try to make me seem like I’m less than.
Latinas, like all women, are multidimensional. Our culture, experiences and goals create different layers; one mentor will not be able to fulfill all of our professional, intellectual and emotional needs.

Thus, I believe, it’s important for us to have multiple mentors. And, as Latinas, I also think it’s critical for at least one of those mentors to be Latina. Having a mentor who can understand your culture and your struggles fosters open dialogue and a sense of unity.

For those reasons, organizations like Circle de Luz in North Carolina, which empowers young Latinas through mentoring, classes and scholarships, are indispensible. They teach Latinas things that most professional mentors won’t, like how to pronounce words they’ve likely never used when speaking with their family or how to be media literate in such a racist, sexist society.

But that doesn’t mean that other non-Latino women and men can’t act as mentors, too. As my experience demonstrates, non-Latino mentors can offer a wealth of knowledge and can be equally inspiring and life-changing.

My advice, regardless of the ethnicity or gender of your mentor, is to reveal yourself. This has always been my biggest hurdle. As the first member of my family to attend college and pursue a professional career, I’ve always feared asking “silly” questions or stating concerns that would potentially make me appear “ignorant.” But mentors help us grow. And if we’re not transparent, then we’ll never reap all of the advantages available to us.

So, my final words: Open yourself up to criticism, and work with different mentors who are passionate about your professional, intellectual or personal growth, regardless of their ethnicities.

Summer of Feminista 2013 is a project of Viva la Feminista where Latinas are discussing mentoring and what it means to them. Read how you can join Summer of Feminista.  Link and quote, but do not repost without written permission.