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Challenging Stereotypes: Latina/x Program Has Powerful Impact on Girls

by Tom Hanlon / Mar 27, 2023

Latina students stand in front of their exhibit

A partnership between the College of Education and Urbana Middle School has resulted in a dynamic program where Latina/x voices can be heard and cultural, racial, and ethnic identities can be known and appreciated.

Latinx youth are often overlooked by society, says Mónica González Ybarra.

“Latinas have a variety of interests, they are super nuanced, they are complex, and they are proud of where they and their families come from,” says González Ybarra, assistant professor in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum & Instruction. “They’re also creative with nail art and fashion and jewelry. Sometimes these things get missed, so we’re trying to challenge those misconceptions through our research.”

González Ybarra and her two C&I colleagues, Assistant Professors Catherine Dornfeld Tissenbaum and Idalia Nuñez, are partnering with Urbana Middle School on “Latinx Voces,” a program designed to recognize Latina/x girls and represent their histories, stories, language, and cultures in humanizing and empowering ways. The project is funded in part by the University of Illinois’ Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion through the office’s Call to Action to Address Racism & Social Injustice Research Program and by the Spencer Foundation, through a Racial Equity Research Grant, which runs through summer 2025.

Meetings in Fall, Exhibit in Spring

The Latinx Voces program consists of 10 weekly meetings in the fall and a spring exhibit to showcase the girls’ work and creativity. The first installment started in the fall of 2021, culminating with a spring 2022 exhibit at the Krannert Art Museum. The 2022 multimodal exhibit was titled “Latina Community Voices,” and was created in partnership with the museum and with Girls Go For It!, a nonprofit organization that hosts professional leadership experiences for girls. The exhibit included music, video, an interactive community map, and hand-drawn words in English, Spanish, Q’anjob’al, and K’iche’.

The exhibit this spring, which takes place at Krannert Art Museum from March 25-May 24, is titled “Latinx Voces: Creaciones.” It will represent different nations of origin and different cultural backgrounds. “It will showcase the girls’ creativity, including nail artwork, friendship bracelets, a poster of how the girls created norms for their space, and a centerpiece that portrays miniatures of representative foods, laid out as if for a meal,” says Dornfeld Tissenbaum. “I’m amazed by the creativity of the girls, by their dedication to making it work, to having the exhibit be an authentic representation of who they are and what they believe in.”

The current exhibit is aided by the girls who returned from last year’s cohort, says Nuñez. “Our returning girls have developed expertise around the museum presentation, so they help facilitate the conversation about the creative aspects of this year’s exhibit,” she says.

The program started a bit slowly last year but tripled in size this year, Nuñez says. “They’re bringing their friends into the program, and that’s been rewarding to see,” she says.

Providing a Space for Latinx Voices

“There’s a real need in schools for spaces where Latina and Latinx girls feel safe, valued, and listened to,” says González Ybarra.

“In initial conversations with Urbana Middle School, they said there was no program that specifically supported girls who identified as Latina or Latinx around their language and their cultural, racial, and ethnic identity,” says Nuñez. “We wanted to create something that would amplify the voices of those in the Latinx community, to create a space for their identities, their stories.”

Nuñez and González Ybarra focus their research on working with Latinx youth and communities, while Dornfeld Tissenbaum has expertise in collaboration and learning with people, tools, and technology in formal and informal learning environments—such as museums—so, the three teamed up on the project.

“We all leveraged our different expertise to come up with this unique program,” González Ybarra says.

Girls Take Ownership

The Latinx Voces project meets the need that González Ybarra referred to: providing a space for Latinx to feel safe, valued, and show off their creative powers. “They’re surrounded by friends that they can laugh with, learn from, debrief with, listen to music with, and vent about their day in the after-school program,” González Ybarra says. “But it’s also a place to create, to do that intentional and laborious work that goes into the exhibit.”

Nuñez emphasizes that the girls take ownership of the program.

“We have meeting activities in mind, but this is very flexible based on what emerges from our week-to-week discussions,” she says. “We learned from year one that we have to be flexible with the planning and designing and just come up with materials that they might enjoy working with or explore using. Our role is to simply facilitate the space that the girls create.”

The girls, Nuñez adds, have been very responsible. “They get into the workspace and start creating, and they ask others for help when they need it, so it becomes a very collective process,” she says.

Challenging Stereotypes

González Ybarra hopes that through the exhibit, the increased exposure of Latinx youth will inform the world around them of their true identities and capabilities.

“It’s important to be able to provide these girls with a space and to challenge those stereotypes that perpetuate harmful and violent spaces where they’re policed and boundaries are put up about how they can act and what they can say,” she says. “So, yes, we’re providing this space, we do this exhibit and it gets a lot of attention, but if folks walk away with ‘Oh, it’s cute,’ or ‘That’s nice,’ then we haven’t done the job that we set out to do.”

However, those weren’t the responses of visitors to last spring’s exhibit, Dornfeld Tissenbaum notes.

“So many visitors expressed appreciation for seeing themselves in the museum in a way that was not ancient history but modern,” she says. “Multiple visitors also appreciated the space that was created for multilingualism as well.”

Powerful Impact on the Girls

Dornfeld Tissenbaum is appreciative herself of the funders both from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and from the Spencer Foundation.

“We were all pretty surprised to get a Spencer grant on the first try,” she says. “We’re grateful to have the opportunity to continue working on this and to hopefully create a model for other museum-university-school connections too.”

That connection has provided for some powerful moments for the girls involved in the project.

“I remember watching a recording of them last spring, being taken while they walked into the exhibit for the first time,” says Dornfeld Tissenbaum. “They were very moved by the experience of seeing their work in this public space. That’s an explicit goal of our program: to increase representation of Latina and Latinx youth in museums, because they’re not represented. So, to see their reaction was very powerful.”

Check out Latinx Voces: Creaciones from March 25-May 4, 2023 at the Krannert Art Museum, 500 E. Peabody, Champaign.