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Resilient Hispanic Women

By Rosina M. Gallagher.

Resilience can be defined as the innate ability to cope with adversity. The research literature identifies four common attributes of resilience: social competence, problem-solving, autonomy and a sense of purpose and future (Benard, 1991, 97).* In my professional experience, I have had the privilege of engaging many Latin-American women, in their teens, middle and late adult years, who, armed with these attributes, have risen above adverse conditions to emerge strong adults leading gratifying lives.

I think of Ana María, a thirteen-year old, whose family comes from rural Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and has resided in a large, mid-western city for 10 years. Ana María is beginning her eighth grade in a magnet gifted center. She has distinguished herself for overall performance and high aptitude in math and science. Last spring she was among a group invited to meet Astronaut Commander Eileen Collins. But Ana María has also learned to become a public advocate. At the end of her sixth grade, she volunteered to testify at the State Senate to support the reinstitution of legislation and funding for gifted programs. In her 30-second testimony, she stated, “I was born in Honduras but have been raised in this great city. My father is a welder. He has two jobs. My mother works at home and volunteers at school. They don’t speak much English but work very hard. My brother just received a four-year scholarship to attend a private high school academy. I came here to thank you for supporting the bilingual gifted program at my school. Many students like my brother and me would not have had an opportunity to do well without this program. Today I speak to you from this side of the Senate floor, but tomorrow I hope to be in one of your seats.”

I recall Graciela, a girl from a humble Mexican background who graduated from a public magnet gifted center with a four-year scholarship to a private college-prep high school. Midway in her sophomore year, her father suffered a back-injury at work. Her mother spoke only Spanish and had to care for her husband and a younger son. To provide shelter and food for a family of four, Graciela kept two jobs, one as a clerical assistant in a radio station after school and one on weekends at a fast-food restaurant. To relieve the pressure of maintaining a minimum “B” average, Graciela describes what sustained her. “I prayed every day. I also went back to my teachers at my elementary school. They just listened to me, offered advice, a nice lunch or help with my projects. Together we came up with the idea for mother to make fresh tamales for my dad to sell at a corner stand at 6:00 a.m. every morning.” Graciela graduated from the private academy and is now a second year scholarship student at the University of Southern California planning to become an attorney.

After speaking at a recent conference I met tearful parents who confessed being “undocumented.” Their daughter had just graduated with high honors from an urban public high school, but, lacking the magic “nine-digit number,” could not apply for college scholarships or financial aid. Thanks to supportive and dedicated teachers and counselors who raise funds annually for token scholarships for undocumented graduates, and earnings from her waitress job, Aurora will attend her first year at a community college. “Praying, working hard, and talking to people bring us hope!” explain the parents.

Vivid still is Margarita’s story. At age 10 she was selling fruit juices in her native Durango, Mexico, to help her single mother support a family of six. At age 15 her mother passed away. To sustain herself and four siblings, Margarita “emigrated” to the U.S, having to lie about her age to find a job. She recalls, “I always thought there was something wrong with me because I never went to school and had difficulty learning to read…I still can’t speak English very well.”

Married shortly thereafter to a husband who curtailed her independence, she dedicated herself to caring for siblings and eventually four offspring. But she struggled to pursue the dream of becoming a beautician by cutting and styling hair for neighbors in the basement of her home, unbeknownst to her husband. Although apprehensive about her competencies, she also became an active participant in school. “I learned so much, and found I could encourage other mothers by sharing my life experiences.” Today, Margarita’s siblings are gainfully employed, several with high school diplomas. Her children are recipients of scholarships; the eldest daughter is finishing business administration, a second is in her sophomore year at a private university, a son attends Culver in Indiana and the youngest will join her brother at the private academy this school year. And…Margarita has just inaugurated her own beauty parlor, “Dreams,” which family helped her convert from a run-down tire shop!

Her husband now comments, “I’m glad you didn’t let me stand in your way, sweetheart!”

Finally, there is a colleague’s struggle to develop her cultural identity and professional goals. Born in USA from an American father and a Colombian mother, Sofía went to study Spanish in Santa Fe de Bogotá. She married a Colombian teacher and became a bilingual teacher herself as the family returned to the U.S. Sofía joined a magnet center for gifted Hispanic English learners and zealously supported its development for 16 years. Inspired by this venture, she eventually completed her doctorate in education and is currently becoming the principal of an elementary school in a Hispanic neighborhood.

The women in these brief case studies reflect resilience and embody some of the cultural values Hispanics hold dear. The unquestioning sense of responsibility for family, strong spiritual beliefs and respect for hard work and personal relationships are clear threads, as is their evolving role. Salient also are elements which have helped these women attain their goals: high expectations, supportive relationships and increased self-efficacy. SENG groups have certainly proven a rich forum where Hispanic women may begin to explore their own sense of self, history and direction.

*Benard, B. and Marshall, K. (Spring, 1997). A framework for practice: Tapping innate resilience. Research/Practice, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement.


Rosina M. Gallagher is a psychologist and educational consultant who was born and raised in Mexico City through early adolescence. She has been evaluator of bilingual programs and coordinator of gifted programs in the Chicago Public Schools for over 20 years. Her research and writings include second language acquisition and working with students and families from diverse cultural backgrounds. Dr. Gallagher has authored and collaborated in several federal grants to include culturally and linguistically diverse students in gifted education. Active in several professional organizations, she is current co-chair of the Special Populations Division of the National Association for Gifted Children.

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