UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

A Talk of Success for Latino Children

Junot Diaz gives a talk in the Healey Library about the lack of mentorship among immigrant youth on September 23. - Photo by Kory Vergets
Junot Diaz gives a talk in the Healey Library about the lack of mentorship among immigrant youth on September 23. – Photo by Kory Vergets

Junot Diaz gave a talk in the Healey Library on September 23 as part of the Gaston Institute’s Speaker Series. Diaz, a well-known author and associate professor at MIT, spoke to a UMB audience about the lack of mentorship among immigrant youth, especially within Latino communities. Although knowledgeable, Diaz admitted up front that he was not much of a public speaker.

In fact, Diaz immediately switched the name of the talk from, “Art and Activism in the Years of Bush” to “To Those Who Would Work with Young People.” Born in the Dominican Republic, Diaz remembers coming to the United States as a child, recalling his neighborhood and schooling experiences. “Most immigrant youth do not see a world that lies beyond their neighborhood; there are not enough role models to act as mentors for today’s youth.”

A common way for the youth to see another part of the world is with a gun slung over their shoulders. “This is real shit, man,” comments Diaz. A mentor should be someone to guide today’s youth, to give someone without hopes or dreams some inspiration.

“There’s never enough mentorship and it’s usually the most marginal people-immigrants, young poor immigrant girls—who have the least mentorship.” Diaz evokes the memory of a high school teacher who made a difference in his life, “While all of the other teachers in the school were singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at the top of their lungs, Mr. S. [Diaz’s teacher] was criticizing then-President Ronald Reagan.”

Diaz recalls the significant number of high school dropouts among members of his community growing up. According to Creating Possibilities for Success for Latino Children in Public Schools, published by the Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Development and Public Policy at UMass Boston, “The Massachusetts Advocacy Center found in the years 1983 and 1998 nearly half of the Latino students in Boston public schools dropped out at some point after entering the ninth grade. This is the highest dropout rate of any ethnic group.”

Who is to blame for such a dramatic dropout rate? Perhaps blaming somebody specific isn’t the answer. According to the publication from the Gaston Institute, “Teachers identify several areas of teacher improvement…the history and culture of Latin America, the theoretical and practical impact of culture on learning…conversational Spanish, and the purpose and goals of bilingual education.” Therefore, mentors that guide today’s youth would reduce the problem of immigrant children feeling as though they had nowhere to turn by giving them a sense of their own history.

After Diaz’s speech unfolded, a majority of the UMB audience could clearly identify with the immigrant experience or the situation of young people today. One audience member pointed out that racism, for instance, is socially constructed and that ideally it would be great to abolish the idea, but realistically racism is something that is always present.

Diaz responded, “In the distant future, this is a problem that could perhaps be solved…but first I would like to tackle some smaller issues…like self-hatred in communities of color and white entitlement. These things, if demolished, could change the planet.”

“Young people have it hard these days and it’s not easy to convince them to become involved in activism, but you’ve got to keep trying, you’ve got to keep putting the message out there. If one person listens, one young woman who has never been a leader before becomes one, then you’ve made a world of difference.” After the audience engaged in discussion, Diaz hung out in the library staff lounge to chat and sign copies of his books – most recently, Drown.