Familismo, success, and service to others

In my last post, I considered how approaching students of color from a deficit perspective (focusing on what preparation, skills, motivations, or resources they might lack) can be harmful to them and detrimental to the mentoring relationship, especially in the situation when the mentor is white. This focus does not recognize the assets that students have and which they bring with them to campus. Tara Yosso has identified six distinct forms of capital forming what she has termed “community cultural wealth,” a robust framework for thinking about the student experience. This model moves away from a more narrow, individualized understanding of assets and capital to a broader understanding, one based on the history and lived experience of communities of color. In this post, I want to focus on two forms, aspirational capital and familial capital, and how they come together to help students in navigating the world of college (and beyond). As David Pérez has shown in his work, this is especially the case with Latino male college students, who put a high premium on family (or familismo).

Aspirational capital refers to “the ability to maintain hopes and dreams for the future, even in the face of real and perceived barriers” (Yosso 2005, p. 77). While this idea connotes similar ideas as the term “resiliency,” which has received a great deal of attention in recent years in higher education circles, as a category in Yosso’s framework it is wrapped up with the lived experience of Chicanas/os, who maintain and nurture a sense of possibility and high aspiration regarding their children’s futures. Pérez observes how this transmits into strong academic determination in Latino male students. As Pérez and Sáenz have shown, this determination is further nurtured by support networks, especially from peers but also from faculty (see “Thriving Latino Males in Selective Predominately White Institutions,” in Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, Vol. 16(2), 2017).

Familial capital refers to the “cultural knowledges nurtured among familia (kin) that carry a sense of community history, memory, and cultural intuition” (Yosso 2005, p. 79). As Yosso explains, the understanding of family and kinship here is broad, underpinning a strong sense of commitment to one’s community. Familial capital gets expressed as a part of a students’ identity (e.g. a strong sense of who they are, where they come from, and who are their people). It also comes into play when students need support during times of struggle or crisis and look to their family for help. Patrick Reyes underscores the importance of this broad understanding of one’s kin and community in The Purpose Gap. (See this post for more on Patrick’s work).

One student in Pérez’s study named Ricardo referred to the “double-edged sword” that comes with academic determination and high familial expectation. He described the pressure to succeed weighing on his shoulders, and that he was “scared to death” during his first year:

I wouldn’t be able to return home, look my parents in the eyes, and say “I couldn’t do it.” It’s almost like a little piece of them is on campus with me… [and] I know at the end of the day that I’m not just doing this for myself.

Ricardo quoted in Pérez 2017, p. 131

Many of the students that Pérez interviewed expressed motivation based on the sacrifice made by their parents. The result was a desire to be “the ideal college student,” as a student named Geraldo expressed it, balancing academic achievement with active participation in campus activities including opportunities for leadership and undergraduate research as well as in some cases athletics or joining a fraternity.

For a helpful overview of familismo as an important value for college students, see this 2017 article from Psychology Today.

Aspirational and familial capital combine to form a powerful set of motivations, honed skills, and resources. In their study of immigrant and first-generation Mexican heritage students at a prominent Western university, Easley, Bianco, and Leech (2012) found that ganas–the desire to succeed–was a commonly held trait. As the students conveyed their desire to succeed, it became clear that it was wrapped up with a strong sense of family and obligation to family. Ganas has multiple components, including: 1) acknowledgement of parental struggle and sacrifice, (b) strong value of family and family’s history, (c) parental admiration and respect, (d) a desire to repay and pay forward, and 3) resilience and willingness to persevere (Easley et al., 2012, p. 169).

To run you only need legs, time and desire. Everything else is an accessory.

Source: http://www.myspanishnotes.com/2010/12/tienes-ganas

In turn, familismo and ganas underpin a strong orientation of service to others. This might inform student’s vocational choices, such as Lupe’s goal of becoming a juvenile police officer and his expressed desire to help youth get out of the vicious cycle of poverty (mentioned in Pérez and Saenz, 2017, p. 176). But it is also expressed during their time on campus. Pérez and Saenz (2017) describe students serving their peers on campus and pursuing opportunities to serve in surrounding communities (p. 176).

In his work on the success of Latino male college students, Pérez also found a marked absence of faculty and administrative mentors. Less than one-fourth of the participants in his study reported having a meaningful connection with faculty and administrators on campus (2017, p. 132). While there were a few notable exceptions, most of the students turned toward peer networks for advice and support, and this did not always serve them well. Given their strong sense of familismo (commitment to family, broadly understood) and ganas (desire to succeed), why don’t Latino male students seek out faculty mentors as part of a strategy for success? Across several interviews, and this is confirmed in related scholarship, students expressed hesitation because they did not want to disappoint or appear foolish (Pérez 2017, p. 126). This is a prime example of what Steele and Aronson have termed stereotype threat, the risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group.

These findings and anecdotes from the research show how vocation and virtue come together for Latinx students. In the growing discourse around vocation, we often emphasize the tradition of the classical virtues. In their book Living Vocationally, Paul Wadell and Charlie Pinches refer to the virtues of attentiveness and humility, fidelity and courage, justice, hope, and patience as the necessary virtues for “the journey of the called life.” (See The Journey of the Called Life for a short review on their book). On this blog and elsewhere, I have written about loyalty and community and their connection to vocation in very general, non-culturally specific terms. We do this tradition (the tradition of the virtues)–and our students–a disservice if we talk about the virtues as if they are universal, unchanging categories, uncoupled from lived experience and social location. It is incumbent upon those of us who care about helping students in their vocational discernment to understand the nuances of familismo and ganas, how they come together in forming Latinx students’ reasons for being in college, a foundation for resiliency, and an orientation toward the future.


Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015), and, more recently, “Loyalty in the Time of Catastrophe: Anthropocene Reflections” (co-written with Mark Larrimore). Currently the Online Community Coordinator and the editor of this blog, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. Click here to see other blog posts by Hannah.

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