Latino Author and Educator Provides Tools for College and Life Success

Bertha Barraza’s new book The Sense of Belonging, as its cover declares, is “An Ethnographic Autobiography of Marginalization.” In other words, it’s her life story about being an immigrant from Mexico to the United States. She came to this country as a teenager with her family. She knew little at the time other than that she had to work hard to make a living, and work hard she did, at several minimum wage jobs until one day she had an awakening. She had not finished high school and no one was going to promote her without a high school diploma.

Bertha now knew what she had to do, but a high school diploma wasn’t what she wanted. She decided to quit her job and go to East Los Angeles College and fill out an application. She had no idea of what really lay ahead for her. She only knew that getting a college education was the first step to bettering her life.

I won’t go into all the details of Bertha’s journey because she describes them all in the book. What is important, however, is that this book is not just her biography. It’s a look at the processes Bertha underwent to earn an education and it serves as a guide to students today who want to do the same. Bertha details everything a student would need to know to get through college, especially Latino students like herself. She discusses everything from using a day planner to how to apply for grants and scholarships.

Bertha also knows that it is next to impossible to succeed on your own. She knows how difficult her journey was, which is why she’s written this book-to encourage future generations who may be in the same position as herself to have a better life. She also encourages students to seek out role models and mentors who can help them. She has a chapter on the power of networking. She also has a chapter on the Puente program that she joined-an organization for Latino students-which allowed her to meet and excel with fellow students like herself. This program’s curriculum also led her to discovering Chicano literature, in which she found stories of people she could relate to that encouraged her to succeed and to make the world a better place for herself and other struggling students.

A Sense of Belonging is appropriately titled because it also explores how we can find our place in this world. It teaches us to pursue our destinies and not give up until we have achieved our dreams. During the course of her journey, Bertha went from working in a fast-food restaurant without even a high school diploma and barely speaking English to graduating from college, getting a job working at a community college, and even earning a PhD. Today, Bertha is the embodiment of the American Dream, and living proof that anyone can succeed if they put their mind to it and work hard.

Beyond all of this book’s wonderful advice about what skills you will need in college, how to manage your time, how to take advantage of various resources that universities offer, and an overall guide to a college education, at its core is a deep sense that inner strength will pull you through. Bertha is the epitome of having courage in the face of adversity. And despite all her hard work, she remains humble and grateful for the success she has achieved because she knows none of it would have been possible if others had not given her a helping hand.

That gratitude is displayed today in her role as a professor and counselor to students at a California community college where she helps them navigate the work/school/life balance so they can also succeed. Beyond that, Bertha also loves to travel and experience new cultures. And travel she has-everywhere from Moscow to Barcelona to Dubai to Zimbabwe. Her journeys have taught her that at the most basic levels, we are all humans and all want the same things. She embraces deep and rich cultural experiences and brings them back to share with her students so they too can become world citizens. She also reaches out a helping hand to those in need around the globe. In Zimbabwe, she traveled with a missionary group that adopted a school. In Nigeria, she attended a school’s grand opening and donated books to the students.

Bertha Barraza is one of our unsung heroes. It wouldn’t be going too far to call her the Latina Oprah Winfrey for the good she has done and for the message of hope and success she has spread to countless students. The Sense of Belonging is the perfect book to gift any student who might be struggling through high school or college or who simply needs a boost in self-esteem. I would especially encourage giving it as a high school graduation gift.

Book Review – Mixed – My Life in Black and White

“I hate covert racism. I always hated guessing whether someone is being mean/rude/nervous because they hate my race or because they are having a bad day. As I got older, I noticed that covert racism is like depression: You know it when you feel it, but it’s hard to explain to someone who has never experienced it. It’s like a sixth sense that God has given people of color that white people don’t believe in. We just know.”

In her memoir “Mixed: My Life in Black and White” (2006), Angela Nissel writes of the struggles she faces while growing up biracial. Nissel’s name may be familiar to fans of the NBC comedy series “Scrubs.” She has been a staff writer for the show for four years and is now consulting producer. As a starving artist (a.k.a. freelance writer), Nissel sold some goods on eBay for extra cash. The winning bidder for one of those items was a television executive who had read her first book “The Broke Diaries” (2001), which was about her days as a broke college student. The eBay winner introduced Nissel to a television literary agent who sent copies of “The Broke Diaries” to shows hiring comedy writers. Nissel had numerous job offers, but chose “Scrubs.”

Her knack for sarcastic, quick-witted humor that is a driving force in “Scrubs” is what makes “Mixed” a must read. When Nissel is in the fourth grade, two of her classmates, Jimmy and Michael, call her a zebra. (That isn’t the humorous part.) Nissel’s father finds out and goes to the boys’ houses with Angela. Jimmy’s parents scold their son. However, Michael’s father slams the door in Angela’s father’s face. That father’s dog has been using the Nissels’ yard as a bathroom, so Angela’s father concocts a hilarious scheme involving an Ex-Lax pill. Angela asks her father whether the Ex-Lax will hurt the dog. “‘No, just Michael’s father’s carpets,'” her dad replies.

Later, though, Angela discovers that her father has been cheating on her mother, but even this situation is steeped in humor. “I already knew my parents were having problems and she suspected my father of cheating. (Note to parents: Trying to have cryptic conversations by spelling words out no longer works once your child is reading.) Then later, “Ever since the first argument about my father c-h-e-a-t-i-n-g with w-h-o-r-e-s, my mother had started working a lot….”

The thing about this book is that the comedic moments are also sad ones. And this is Nissel’s strength: She makes you laugh, but she also makes you think. Comments from people about her looks teach her that there is “good” hair and an “ugly” nose. The features people consider pretty are from her white father.

She went to all-black schools, all-white schools, public, private, schools associated with different religions-yet she never fit in. She was never white enough or black enough, so she was the target of merciless teasing. “Being a mixed child, you get used to people staring at you,” she writes. She immediately follows with humor: “I learned that rolling my eyes or sticking out my tongue was the quickest way to get people to avert their gazes.” She learns that being biracial is no easier in the dating world. She notices that of six black male coworkers at a production company, “five had white wives and one was dating an Asian girl.”

The book is filled with Nissel’s struggles, but she doesn’t want you to feel sorry for her; she is explaining how her experiences (good or bad) made her who she is. She makes you care about the people in her life, particularly her mother, who let her daughter change schools and religions-almost as often as she changed her clothes-in an attempt to find herself. Nissel doesn’t censor herself-or anyone else-which makes for brilliant dialogue and unapologetic honesty.