Jennifer De Leon, a Boston Public School teacher and Grub Street writing school instructor, will be appearing with friend Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You) at the Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street, on Wednesday, July 23 at 7PM.

De Leon is the editor of Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education, a collection of personal essays by Latina writers—some of whom you will recognize, like Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street) and Julia Alvarez (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents), and some who may be new to you, like Ruth Behar and Joy Castro. Dealing with themes of cultural identity and assimilation, joy and homesickness, family bonds and independence, these essays mirror the diverse experiences of a population that is vastly underrepresented in undergraduate and grad programs across the country. It’s a book that will be appreciated by Latina students, who will see themselves in these true accounts; but as a non-Hispanic white woman, I also found the essays accessible, funny, and very moving.

I spoke by phone with Ms. De Leon about Wise Latinas and what she thinks is unique about the Latina college experience.

Brookline Hub: Why do you use the word “wise” in the title—as opposed to “smart” or “intelligent”?

Jennifer De Leon: The phrase comes from Sonia Sotomayor (Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States), from a speech she made in 2001 at a conference of Hispanic judges at the University of California—Berkeley. Sotomayor said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” When President Obama nominated Sotomayor as a Supreme Court Justice, Rush Limbaugh called that remark “racist.” Meanwhile, Sotomayor fans were wearing T-shirts with the phrase “I’m a wise Latina.”

BH: In your introduction you quote a statistic from a 2010 article in The New York Times that says only 13% of Hispanic adults have received at least a bachelor’s degree. Why do you think the number is so low?

JDL: That statistic is the consequence of many factors. In the Hispanic community, going away to college is not the norm. It’s a culture rooted in family—and to leave the family is extreme. There is also a lack of role models. To be the first in your family to go to college is to be a trailblazer—and that can be lonely and difficult.

Once a Latina decides to go to college, there are organizations and non-profits to help her—at first. They take students on campus tours and help with the enrollment process. But once the student is in, they disconnect. Retention is difficult. Campus groups help, but some Latinas don’t speak Spanish and don’t feel “Latina enough.” Having support at home and a mentor are critical.

BH: How is the experience of college different for Latinas versus Latinos? Why did you choose to focus specifically on women?

JDL: Maybe my next book will be Wise Latinos! Latino men do have their own set of barriers in college, but with women, we’re traditionally expected to be wives and mothers, not college students. Latinas don’t go to sleepovers or away to camp. Their families are very protective. There is a whole set of stereotypes that get in the way of Latinas’ pursuit of higher education.

BH: In what ways do you think the Latina’s experience of college differs from that of other students? Isn’t it true that college is a place of eye-opening adventures, experimentation, and cultural awakening for most students regardless of their race or ethnicity?

JDL: I think the difference is the family connections that Latinas have. There is guilt and the weight of the family’s wellbeing. Latinas want to get educated and progress but they often have the responsibility of taking care of their family. These students come home during college breaks and they need to take Grandma to the doctor or translate forms for Mom. They can’t just sleep in! My friends and I experienced being the educated family member that others come to for things. You become the family secretary. Also your family is often looking at the clock—you’re an undergrad, then you’re in graduate school, then you’re getting your PhD, and they’re wondering when are you going to have a family?

BH: Do you think the government should do more to help families with the cost of college?

JDL: Absolutely. The price of college is out of control. In Oklahoma students who go to state school get their first two years of college for free. The state is investing in their communities. Elsewhere you have so many young people who are tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

BH: How did you solicit the essays? What were your criteria for selecting which ones made it into the final manuscript?

JDL: I put out a call in 2009, sending an announcement to women at various writers’ conferences, like Bread Loaf in Middlebury, VT and The Macondo Workshop, Sandra Cisneros’s annual event (The Macondo Workshop’s mission is “to bring together a community of poets, novelists, journalists, performance artists, and creative writers of all genres whose work is socially engaged.”) I wanted writers of creative nonfiction rather than academic writers—the type of writing I wanted was for a general audience, something that people could read on the subway! There was a great response from a variety of voices: the 1st generation to go to college, the 3rdgeneration, a community college student. I read an essay on the website The Daily Beast from a student who was undocumented that I wanted to use (the author was anonymous) but the cost of reprinting the essay spiked when Newsweek merged with the site in 2010 so I couldn’t include it.

BH: Who are your favorite Latina writers?

JDL: Many of them are in the anthology. Sandra Cisneros. I got so much out of reading The House On Mango Street. I’ve been following Julia Alvarez’s writing for years. I once drove two hours to hear her read—she’s a huge inspiration for me. I also like Jennine Capó Crucet. Jennine is funny on the page and students connect to her writing. She’s charismatic but she doesn’t take herself too seriously.

—By Jennifer Campaniolo