David Meza has spent the majority of his childhood with his father behind bars. From the age of two, David was raised by his mother and watched his father bounce in and out of prison on charges of impaired driving and aggravated assault.
But thanks to the efforts of a local youth-mentorship program, David, now 17, has a steady, positive male role model in his life for the first time.
"My mentor is like my best friend," David said. "Whenever I have a rough time or a hard day I know I can just hit him up and he's got my back. He's not only a support but he gives me good feedback and good advice."
About once or twice a week since March 2010, David and his mentor meet to go bowling, talk about schoolwork or look into college scholarships.
Even though David has recently improved his leadership and decision-making skills with the support of his mentor who is a middle-aged white man, he was never given the opportunity to learn from a positive Latino role model throughout his education. "Growing up, I didn't think Latinos could be teachers," said David. Now a junior in high school, David has been taught by two male teachers since kindergarten – one of them white, the other black.
David's experience is not out of the ordinary. In a country where more than one out of five public school students is Hispanic, only about 7 percent of the nation's 4 million elementary and secondary education teachers are Hispanic, according to 2009 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The gap between Hispanic teachers proportionally representing Hispanic students is only expected to become greater. The U.S. Census Bureau projected in 2008 that the Hispanic
Additionally, the Census Bureau reports that by 2050 there will be more school-age Hispanic children than school-age non-Hispanic white children.
"Minority teachers are critical because they may be better equipped to meet the learning and mentoring needs of an increasing proportion of the school population than teachers from other backgrounds," according to research presented in the Journal of Hispanic Higher Education by professors Victor Saenz, of The University of Texas at Austin, and Luis Ponjuan, of University of Florida.
Of the 280,000 Hispanic teachers in the United States, only a quarter are male, less than 2 percent of all elementary and secondary education teachers. It's no wonder that students like David haven't had a Latino male teach them throughout their whole school careers.
But male teachers, let alone minority male teachers, are a rare find. Around 82 percent of elementary school teachers in the United States are Wwite females, Saenz said during a conference focused on young Latino males sponsored by Arizona State University's Center for Community Development and Civil Rights.
"It's not to say at all that somehow Latino teachers are going to be the problem solvers here," Saenz said. "But when the teacher core is predominantly white and female, that certainly speaks to a much broader systemic issue around training teachers for that next generation."
Although David Meza said he wants to attend ASU and study psychology so he can eventually be a counselor for kids, the thought of being a teacher is still a foreign notion.
"I don't think it's an occupation growing up that (Latinos) look at," David said. "Me as a kid, I never really looked at it as, 'I want to be a teacher.' That's just how it was for me. It never
Policymakers are beginning to take notice of the dearth of minority males pursuing careers in the classroom, however. The U.S. Department of Education launched the TEACH campaign in late September with the stated goal of increasing the number of minority male teachers on the primary and secondary school level.
"With more than a million teachers expected to retire in the coming years, we have a historic opportunity to transform public education in America by calling on a new generation to join those already in the classroom," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said when the initiative was announced.
As one of four states where more than 40 percent of students are Hispanic, Arizona is trying to close the achievement gap that sees Hispanic students score on average 150 points lower on the SAT than their white counterparts.
John Huppenthal, who is Arizona's new superintendent of public instruction, said he wants to work on graduating more Hispanics from high school and getting them through college.
"The achievement gap to me is the civil-rights issue of the century," said Huppenthal, who was a Republican state senator from Phoenix before his election to the education post in November.
How to go about closing that gap, however, is a matter of deep contention in a state struggling to ease race relations while addressing its illegal immigration issues. And recent legislation such as the law banning ethnic studies in the Tucson Unified School District has legislators debating how to approach school reform and minority-student achievement.
"The solution isn't affirmative action," Huppenthal said. "If there's anyone victimizing these
While in the Senate, Huppenthal and his Republican majority backed a plan proposed by then superintendent of public instruction Tom Horne (now the attorney general) to pass the ethnic-studies bill because they believe such programs promote racial divisiveness.
"They don't also teach (in those classes) that Thomas Jefferson was the writer of the Declaration of Independence and that Benjamin Franklin helped draft the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States… that to me is toxic. I simply won't tolerate it," Huppenthal said.
Democrats, however, argue that the bill is another step in the wrong direction, one that will hold back efforts to help minority students succeed.
"Learning about one's culture, I think, is the first step in knowing who you are and who you want to become," Rep. Anna Tovar, a Tolleson Democrat said. "And taking that away from a person – whether they be Latino, black, Chinese – it doesn't matter what the culture is, you're taking away a person's right to learn about who they were, where they came from, and truly who they want to become as a person. I think banning the ethnic studies does that, specifically for the Latino community." Tovar said that the political climate, demanding challenges of teaching and low pay are obstacles that are keeping qualified people, particularly males, away from the profession, especially in Arizona.
"Just seeing how much education is cut in Arizona and the value we place on education, I can see why people have doubts about becoming a teacher," she said. "They are fantastic role models for our community and we need to push anyway that we can for more Latino teachers."
Tovar, who taught English as a second language to kindergarten and first grade students for five years in Tolleson, believes more incentives need to be placed on creating more minority
Ariel Rodriguez, an assistant professor at Arizona State University's School of Community Resources and Development, agrees that incentives should be utilized to lure Latino males toward teaching. With the high-school graduation rate for Latino males, including immigrants, at 50 percent, the achievement gap is something too large for the government to ignore, Rodriguez said.
"If you want to succeed as a country, you need to have all your individuals succeeding at at least a level of graduating high school, but if they're dropping out at extensive amounts, what are they going to do?" Rodriguez said. "They're going to continue to build more jails and do things of that nature, so it's about where do you want to put your resources?" Occupying more jail cells is exactly what the trend has been for Hispanics. The Bureau of Justice finds that 21 percent of 2.1 million inmates in federal, state and local prisons are Latino, and they're the fastest-growing minority group in the American prison system. Sixty-three percent of them are between the ages of 18 and 34 – the primary college-bound age group – and the number of Latino males in prison cells is almost three times as high as the number in college dorms.
Mentoring outside the classroom
Like many young Hispanic men that are put behind bars before they receive a high school diploma, Daniel Ovante, 26, turned to a gang for support due to a lack of male role models in his life.
After Ovante's father died when he was 8 years old, his mother walked out on him and his three sisters, leaving his grandmother to raise them. By age 12, Ovante was an initiated gang member.
At age 21, Ovante, by then a father and still a member of the same gang, was indicted on charges of organized drug-sale operations and went to jail. After he was released, he said he walked away from his old lifestyle in order to maintain relationships with his wife and children.
"My kids are so small, they don't know what daddy's done or daddy did," Ovante said. "Thank God for that."
Now a father of four, Ovante said he is doing everything in his power to steer his children, especially his only son, away from turning to the life he chose to participate in.
"You're going to turn out how you want to turn out," Ovante said. "But I'm pretty sure (having a strong role model) would have helped out a lot." For young Latinos – like Ovante and David Meza – who do not have strong male role models at home or at school, programs like the teen-mentor program at Phoenix Youth at Risk are alternative solutions.
The teen-mentor program is a nine-month commitment dedicated to personal-development education, in which a community mentor is matched one-on-one with an at-risk teenager to act as a positive role model for them, Program Manager Veronica Magallanes said.
"Our kids come to us because they want something different, something better, and they don't know exactly what that is, but they just know that they want something that's more positive in their life," she said. "Some of them just want a better relationship with their family, or they actually want a relationship with their family."
Of the 31 teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 actively participating in the teen program, around 75 percent are Hispanic, said Magallanes, adding, however, that there are only four Hispanic male mentors for all community programs at Phoenix Youth at Risk.
"What I can tell you is what I don't see, and what I don't see is Hispanic mentors," Magallanes said.
Phoenix Youth at Risk Volunteer Manager Nancy Blade said her goal has been to recruit more male and culturally diverse volunteers to represent the minority populations that the organization serves. Recruiting males has been difficult, however; 75 percent of volunteer applicants are still white women.
"I really want a program of mentors that reflects our youth, because we want that cultural connection," Blade said.
David, who was matched with a white male volunteer, said it would have been different if he had been matched with a Hispanic male because they would have had more in common initially. However, he said he was glad the placement worked out the way it did.
"He has certain things that he's gone through and I have certain things," David said.
Having the opportunity to have a cultural connection between mentor and mentee is ideal, but it's not a panacea, Blade said.
"The bottom line is the dependability of someone to suit up and show up and be there for that youth, and I really think that crosses all racial (and) ethnic boundaries," Blade said.
One of the few Hispanic male mentors for Phoenix Youth at Risk, David Rubalcaba, 22, said he wishes he had known about similar programs when he was younger.
"I had a very rocky relationship with my father growing up," Rubalcaba said. "My male role model was my older brother, really."
Rubalcaba started volunteering in May, but was initially concerned about the time he would have to dedicate to his 16-year-old mentee, since he is a working single father with two sons, ages 3 months and 2 years, as well as a full-time student at the University of Phoenix.
However, Rubalcaba said his participation in the program has helped improve his relationship with his own father. He felt like a changed person even after the first time he met with his mentee, especially after realizing the similarities between their family situations, he said.
"It was like the best experience in the world," Rubalcaba said. "You really got to experience it to know what I'm talking about. It's breathtaking."
Stigmas and stereotypes
Although Rubalcaba has found his time spent as a mentor at Phoenix Youth at Risk to be rewarding, he initially wasn't sure he was right for the job.
"I wasn't the best kid growing up, so it's really hard to (be a mentor). It's like you feel like you're being a hypocrite," Rubalcaba said. "I know going into it, I had to wipe my mind clear of anything I did in the past because I knew that that just wouldn't work."
Rubalcaba said that some of his Latino peers might be hesitant to join a mentorship program or accept the idea of being a role model because it's hard for them to reconcile things they did in the past and tell the younger generation what to do and how to behave.
Even though there is a clear need for strong Latino role models in the community, Rubalcaba's reason for initially doubting he could be a mentor is just one of several that could explain the void created by the lack of willing Latino male teachers and volunteers.
Others believe the problem may be more cultural. Ariel Rodriguez, whose parents emigrated to the United States from Cuba, said pressures from parents, community members and churches all place certain expectations of the career that a Latino male may choose to pursue, especially taking typical gender roles into consideration.
"A teacher tends to be a more female-oriented career," Rodriguez said. "Your parents would never encourage you, if you're a young man, to become an elementary school, middle school, even high school teacher."
Rodriguez said parents of Latino males might be less supportive of their children becoming teachers because of recent budget cuts for schools across the nation and the skepticism of entering a low-paying profession.
"They work very hard, then, for you to have these opportunities and they really would like for you to pick something that they perceive, or at least there's some sort of perception that you're going to succeed a lot more," he said.
With Rodriguez's belief that there is a strong link between the lack of Latino male teachers and the Latino culture's continued perception that a man should be powerful and strong, encouraging young Latinos to pursue teaching will be a huge challenge, he said.
"It would have to start with a few, sort of, brave individuals and, sort of, start seeing people within these roles," Rodriguez said. "But as long as we continue to see female teachers, we're not going to see ourselves."
'A learning experience'
David Meza concedes that having a white mentor has had its challenges and that a cultural barrier exists between the two, but he also believes being paired with someone who came from a different background has had its share of benefits.
"I kind of like it that I ended up with him," David said. "It's a learning experience."
David has been living with his father for the last five months and now appreciates him being an important part of his life.
"I look at him now as a role model," he said. "He's supporting me."
Even with his father back in his life, though, David said that having a Latino male teacher to look up to would be inspiring to him and his classmates, and show that Latino males can break the stereotype and play an important role as teachers, mentors and role models.
"It would help give us a role model, somebody to look up to. Somebody to look at and say, 'They're doing this. They're teaching kids.
I can do the same thing and help somebody out.'"
To believe it, all David needs, it seems, is to see it first.