Si, Se Puede

CUNY assures New York City's newest immigrants—the Mexican community— that a college degree is within reach

Events such as the church fair, celebrating Mexican music, unite immigrants in New York City.

Like countless immigrants in New York City's fast-growing Mexican community, Virginia Ramirez and Israel Garcia arrived as teenagers not knowing English. But they quickly found work and soon were building lives here, far from their rural homes. Their path to the future ran through CUNY. It's a path that the University—in an unprecedented partnership with Mexico's Consulate General—intends to widen. CUNY's goal is its historical one: helping Mexicans and Mexican-Americans move into the American mainstream, just as it has helped so many previous waves of immigrants.

Ms. Ramirez, 25, arrived when she was 16. "I realized that in order to do what I wanted to do, I had to get an education. I found work in a deli as a cashier, started in ESL at LaGuardia Community College and moved to a GED. Then I enrolled at LaGuardia," studying theater. She founded the college's first club for Mexicans, joined the student government and was the class representative at last spring's commencement. Now at Brooklyn College, she expects to graduate with a television and radio degree in 2009.

Mr. Garcia, 37, came illegally at 19. He worked in restaurants, starting as a $25-a-day cook trainee, studied English at a library and, at church, heard that he could enroll at bilingual Hostos Community College. (Ruling in Plyler v. Doe in 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court barred states from denying education funding to undocumented children.) He had lived here long enough to qualify for in-state tuition, but, being illegal, was ineligible for financial aid. He kept working, eventually becoming a chef, waiter, host and manager. After a year at Hostos, Mr. Garcia transferred to City College, took remedial English and graduated with a B.A. in psychology 5½ years later, in 1999. "I think I was the only Mexican in college; I never met another." He legalized his status, earned a master's in social work from Columbia University in 2005, and is now a planner at the city Department for the Aging. He said his CUNY degree "allowed me to be a contributor to this country."

The difference between now and when Ms. Ramirez and Mr. Garcia came to New York is the numbers. The 2005 census counted 264,000 city residents of Mexican birth or heritage, nearly 44% more than in 2000. Between 2005 and 2006, their community grew by 16%.

Jay Hershenson, CUNY's Senior Vice Chancellor for University Relations and Secretary to the Board of Trustees, said this influx of often unskilled migrants, with their general lack of education, poses a short- and long-term "educational catastrophe." In response, Chancellor Goldstein asked him to chair a Task Force on Strengthening Educational Opportunities for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Its mission is to devise and deliver educational, leadership and outreach services to that community. It met for the first time in October after CUNY negotiated a memorandum of understanding with then-Consul General Arturo Sarukhan, who is now Mexico's ambassador to the United States.

Over the long term, children born here will likely enter the school system and go on to college, like previous groups. But Hershenson worries about today: The 2005 census found that just 49% of New York City's Mexicans and Mexican-Americans aged 25 or older had earned a diploma or degree: 28% had a high school diploma, 12% an associates' degree or higher and 9% a BA or higher.

And, says Baruch Associate Professor Robert Smith, the high school dropout rate—and never-dropped-in rate among school-aged migrants—are high. The city's public schools do not track students by national origin, but Dr. Smith estimates that nearly half of the Mexicans aged 16 to 19 are neither in school nor high school graduates. At age 14, about 95% of Mexican boys are in school, but by age 18 or 19, only 26% are, the census said. For girls, it falls to 31% from 96%. His research found that most Mexicans quit at the end of the sophomore or the beginning of the junior year. Moreover, many believe that "college is not for Mexicans" or is only for the rich, he said.

The immediate result, as Hershenson sees it: "You're going to have a significant number of children growing up in households where college education isn't present, and an increasing number of children will need future access to higher education. That's what's motivating CUNY to provide greater access to the community."

Gaspar Orozco, Mexico's Consul of Community Affairs, agreed. "I think that the creation of the task force shows the true interest and commitment of CUNY. We want to reach the Mexican community and let them know the university option is open, notwithstanding their immigration status."

CUNY believes that 2,880 Mexicans enrolled this fall, or about 1.4% of the more than 202,000 undergraduates. That compares with 2,470 in fall 2006 and 2,050 in fall 2005.

The task force is tackling areas including:

  • Dropout prevention. CUNY foresees collaborations with public and private schools, as well as with parents and organizations.
  • Student recruitment. CUNY seeks Mexican and Mexican-American students with strong academic backgrounds for undergraduate honors programs and graduate schools like Law and Journalism.
  • Scholarships. Mr. Orozco has raised $50,000 in seed money for a fund run by the Institute for Mexicans Abroad, an agency linked to Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  • Citizenship/immigration outreach. Allan Wernick, chair of CUNY's Citizenship and Immigration Project and a law professor at Baruch College, said the project's six full-time and six part-time centers assist anyone seeking permanent residency or citizenship. The Consulate General, which endorses dual citizenship, is cooperating.
  • Communications. This includes CUNY's Mexican-targeted ¡Sí, Se Puede! (Yes,You Can!) radio, TV and print campaign (
  • Research. David Badillo, an associate professor of Latin American and Puerto Rican studies at Lehman College, coordinated CUNY's first conference on Mexican migration in 2006. "One interesting thing is that many of the undocumented immigrants have not learned Spanish and speak one of half-a-dozen indigenous languages," he said.
  • Hospitality management. Stephen Soiffer, assistant to the president for institutional advancement at New York City College of Technology, noted that many Mexicans work in restaurants, hotels, travel and tourism. With training, they could become managers or entrepreneurs, he said.
  • Community leadership. CUNY's School of Professional Studies, Baruch College's School of Public Affairs and the American Jewish Committee train new Mexican community leaders, helping them develop advocacy, public relations and communications skills.
Task force coordinator Jesus Pérez, director of Brooklyn College's Academic Advisement Center, traveled the CUNY path himself. Arriving at 10, he attended public school and Brooklyn College. "My parents worked very hard for me to continue studying. They said it will help you get a better life. I don't think there's a parent out there who will tell you otherwise." But, he added, "In the Mexican community, parents aren't informed. You'd be surprised at the number who say that college is too expensive, or that their children can't go, or they don't know what college is. That's where this initiative comes in: We will inform them."

You say "Yo amo" and I just say "Amo"

Linguistics Professor Ricardo Otheguy analyzes New York Spanish, which gave us the street name Loisaida Avenue (Lower East Side).

In English, the Big Apple slogan "I Love New York" is simple. But in Spanish, there are two choices: "Yo amo a Nueva York" or "Amo a Nueva York."

Researchers say the presence or absence of one little personal pronoun—"yo," or "I" —may say plenty about the Spanish-speaking New Yorker declaring his or her admiration for the city. Those who have been in New York a long time tend to use more personal pronouns than do more recent Latino arrivals, researchers say. So do those coming from the Caribbean, as compared with those from mainland countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador.

Ricardo Otheguy, a linguistics professor at The Graduate Center and director of the Research Institute for the Study of Language in Urban Society, and Prof. Ana Celia Zentella of the University of California, San Diego, have studied the use of these subject personal pronouns.

"We have discovered that Spanish usage is becoming more like English usage," says Otherguy, "and that in addition, Spanish in New York City is under clear dialect leveling pressures, meaning that the different ways of speaking that immigrants from different places bring to New York tend to become more similar over time." This may reflect "the growth of a new New York Latino identity," he said.

Otheguy and Zentella conducted 300 hours of oral interviews with 142 people and extracted 60,000 conjugated verbs, tallying the subject personal pronouns, which are used far more extensively in English than Spanish and are heard more in some Spanish-speaking countries than others.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, established that the New York City speakers could be divided into Caribbeans and those from mainland countries, and that while pronoun use increased for both, Caribbeans—particularly Dominicans—used significantly more overt pronouns.

"In the course of one generation," Otheguy says, "the pronoun rate increased significantly. Those classified as New Yorkers—they were either born in the city or came here on or before age 3—use more pronouns than those who are classified as newcomers—they were either born in Latin America, came to the city at or before age 17 and have lived here for five or fewer years."

The Otheguy/Zentella study is one of several that analyze aspects of Spanish as it is spoken in the city. The data also is being used to study words that Spanish speakers in New York City borrow from English. "Every language has these loanwords," Otheguy says. "In English, for example, fiancé is a loanword from French, patio is a loanword from Spanish and frankfurter is a loanword from German."

In New York City Spanish, there are many loanwords from English, but they do not conform to the usual 50/50 masculine/feminine balance, he says. "What is interesting is that while the regular Spanish words continue to be about half masculine and half feminine as they are in Spain and Latin America, the loanwords tend to enter the Spanish language as masculine," he says. "That's why on the streets of New York it is el subway, el lunch, and, even if the person referred to is a woman, el baby-sitter."

Los Mexicanos

The Mexican influx into the city is studied by scholars throughout CUNY, but a nerve center for such research is the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies at the Graduate Center. Its director, history professor Laird Bergad, believes Mexicans will follow the "typical pattern among migrant groups," with many eventually entering educational programs and their children flowing through public schools and into CUNY. "Mexicans in New York City, 1990-2005," one of Bergad's studies, helped spark creation of CUNY's task force to improve educational opportunities for New Yorkers of Mexican descent. In Mexicans in New York City, released last June, Bergad sifted census data and found:

  • Only 9% of Mexicans over age 25 had attained a B.A. degree or higher in 2005—the lowest rate among Latino nationalities.
  • Mexicans were the city's fastest-growing Latino group and became the third largest in 2005, after Puerto Ricans and Dominicans.
  • If current growth rates continue, Mexicans will become the city's largest Latino nationality by 2035.
  • The Mexican community is growing due to migration and extraordinarily high birth rates, compared to other Latino groups.
  • Mexican households are highly stratified: 21% earned more than $75,000 in 2005, while 22% earned less than $20,000.
For the complete report and research on other Latino groups visit