Is there an “Adobe Ceiling” for Latina Women in Academia?

In India, the roof is used as an economic indicator. Whether your roof is made of thatch, tin, or tiles sends a message about your place in society.

Academia has a less-literal ceiling that serves as a symbol of status: the new book Presumed Incompetent describes the difficulty of Latinas climbing the ladders of academia as an  “adobe ceiling” (a reference, of course, to the traditional corporate “glass ceiling”).

Recently, Latinas have been gaining a high-profile foothold in academia. Chief Justice Sonia Sotomayor—the court’s first Latina— described herself as a feminist in a recent interview with Eva Longoria. And, despite the fact that it is much overdue, Yale finally gave tenure to its first Latina law professor.

“When did Chicana studies become cool?” a friend of mine asked me, after looking at the website of our own Alma Mater, Pitzer College. I don’t know when exactly it was, but the field of study has become a topic of conversation on the heels of the news that America is a nation of “minority majority” babies.

Yet despite the increasing “coolness of Chicano studies” there remains a long way to go. In 2008, just 339 (3.1%) of a universe of 10,780 full-time faculty law Professors were Latino.

I talked about this topic with Katherine Rodela, a Phd candidate at Stanford University in Anthropology of Education program at Stanford University’s School of Education. My full interview with Rodela can be seen here.

When Rodela first heard the term “adobe ceiling,” she didn’t like it. “I felt like we were using a stereotypical Mexican object to define the complex barriers Latinas traverse in order to become academics.” But she’s warmed somewhat to the term. “I don’t accept it fully, but I appreciate it.  Physically adobe can be beaten hard to crumble—it’s hard, but possible with lots of effort and force.”

Rodela grew up in what she describes as a working-then-middle-class family. One of the big issues she and other grad students of color deal with is a sense of isolation. Rodela, who identifies as Chicana, is the first person in her immediate family to go to college. In her doctoral cohort, she was one of only five students of color.

Rodela is thankful for her family, but also says she does “feel the adobe ceiling at different times” because “it’s hard to envision myself in that world when I have so few examples.”

Rodela also described how as a woman of color in academia, she has felt like she needs to wear a mask at certain times. “I’ve censored myself, I’ve been silent in times when I should have spoken up, and I struggled to re-find the strong voice I had when I started school.  To me, it wasn’t so much the university itself, it was a combination of my own insecurities as a new graduate student and wanting to show that I belonged there,” she says. In her third year of graduate school, Rodela became a mother. “As Latina women and mothers, we can wear masks to protect ourselves and our families.  But, we can’t be silent.”

Key to succeeding in graduate school, says Rodela—and I agree entirely—is finding support. Dealing with self-doubt and isolation is much easier with friends who understand you. For Rodela, finding the group the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity was like a breath of fresh air.

“Yes, graduate school helps build skills and knowledge,” says Rodela. “But not forgetting the strengths I bring has been something I’ve had to remember and keep reminding myself.”

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