Scholar’s Corner: Mothering as a critical education scholar

LKC sol

Ruth M. Lopez, PhD

April 23, 2019

The NASPA Latinx/a/o Knowledge Community (LKC) strives to support the research and share stories of colleagues who are engaged in scholastic work, especially those who focus on Latinx/a/o educational issues. This year, the LKC co-chairs are highlighting the strength, resiliency, and tenacious nature of mujeres in the field who deliberately and wholeheartedly embrace both motherhood and their professional roles as scholars (#LatinaMamiScholar). We would love to feature your story on the NASPA LKC Scholars Corner!   


If you would like to share with our communidad, please contact LKC Research and Scholarship co-chairs Claudia García-Louis ([email protected]) and/or Tracy Arámbula Ballysingh ([email protected]).


Ruth M. López, PhD is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies at the University of Houston. Her research interests focus examining policies and practices that have implications for issues of equity and access in education. Learn more about Dr. López at


Mothering as a critical education scholar: Discussing immigration and deportation with my young children

For me, being a Latina Mami Scholar means carrying the wisdom of my elders, as well as the knowledge and experience I’ve gained in life and through my education. My scholarly work on the intersection of immigration and education is informed by my own family history as the daughter of former undocumented immigrants from El Salvador y México. I knew from a young age what it meant to apply for papeles as I witnessed loved ones in my community strive to adjust their status after passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Only two years later in 1988, I watched my mother advocate for me when I was 6 years old, so that I would be allowed to progress to 1st grade as a Spanish language speaker in parochial schools with little bilingual support. She knew I was smart, particularly in math, but my current school did not recognize this. I vividly recall her taking me to multiple private schools where I was tested on my aptitude; where I was rejected (and I blamed myself); and where I finally ended up as a 1st grader with access to a teacher’s assistant, Mrs. López, who worked with me on my English proficiency.

This story of my mother’s advocacy is the ultimate motivation for my professional path and for my deep commitment to educational justice. I have shared this story often in personal essays and with my students, and I felt called to share this story in a public space such as this blog focused on Latina Mami Scholars to connect some dots from my past to my present—from being mothered by a young Central American immigrant woman to now as a Latina[1] Mami Scholar with two beautiful children.

Given my scholarly focus on immigration and education, I feel comfortable talking about this topic with various audiences, including other scholars, K-12 educators and administrators, higher education professionals, and communities. I believe I bring a humanizing perspective and pedagogy (Franquiz & Salazar, 2004), as I am able to draw upon my own narrative as a member of a formerly mixed-status family. However, recently I learned I was unprepared to traverse this topic as a mother. This experience led me to think about how we share our undocumented immigration stories and our intergenerational stories of struggle and survival with our children. This seems especially urgent given the anti-immigrant climate, which I have the opportunity to disrupt in my home through counter-stories (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002).

In the summer of 2018, when the media covered the separation of parents and children at the border, I discovered that a child detention center was being proposed in my neighborhood. This “baby jail” as they have been pegged, would be within steps of downtown Houston. I decided to attend a protest at the site and together with my friend and fellow mama scholar, we took our two soon-to-be 1st graders to be in solidarity with those affected. My son had little to share; he is a child of few words so I was not surprised, but I explained what was happening and why we were there. I wanted to show him that when there is injustice, none of us are alone in fighting it.

In March 2019, I returned from the American Association for Hispanics in Higher Education (AAHHE) Annual Conference, with a new book in hand. Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life by Alberto Ledesma, was selected to receive a book award from AAHHE and all conference attendees received a copy. My son glanced at the graphic novel on our kitchen table and found an image of a woman being separated from her family, including her child, at the hands of a border enforcement official. This image froze him, and he asked me why that man was taking this woman. This moment made me quickly think about how I translate all these concepts I know from a scholarly and professional perspective, to an honest and accessible version appropriate for a six-year-old. I decided to approach this by talking about our own family so I asked him: “Do you remember that grandma and grandpa came here from other countries? When they came, they didn’t have the correct documents to come, but they needed to come here to help their families. A lot of families come for the same reason.” At this prompting, he was no longer the child of few words. He asked question after question. I worked to avoid the question about the man taking away the woman because I wanted to think further before explaining, but he pushed: “But why are they taking her away?” I told him there are a number of reasons that people are being taken away from their families, that this is not right, and that no families should be separated. We talked for a few more minutes and I told him I would be buying some children’s books that help him understand what is going on in our society. My husband witnessed this conversation and looked relieved—as if to say, “you handled it well.”

I immediately purchased a few books. Having read Dr. Sandra Osorio’s powerful article about discussing immigration issues with children in Rethinking Schools, “¿QUÉ ES DEPORTAR?” Teaching from students’ lives, I ordered a book she shared in that piece, Del Norte al Sur (From North to South) by René Colato Laínez. Shopping online inspired me to buy others, so I added Dreamers by Yuyi Morales and La Frontera: El viaje con papá ~ My Journey with Papa, by Deborah Mills and Alfredo Alva. Two of the books were about the journey families make up north and one was about the separation of families via deportation—the journey south in this case.

When the books arrived, I did not immediately open them. My son nudged me and asked when we would read the books about the mom getting taken away by the man. The night came, and I worried about what might result from the difficult conversation that lay ahead. I sat him and my two-year-old daughter down to read before bed. We first talked about why people migrate, so I started with Morales’ book. It was beautifully illustrated and demonstrated the beauty I see in people’s immigration stories that are often obscured by the dominant discourse in the media. We had time for one more book that night, and so I selected the Mills and Alva next, to stay on the theme of journeying north to the United States. I knew we would not read the deportation book given the lack of time and I was relieved the difficult conversation would wait.

All was going well while reading the book which documented the story of a young boy who is preparing to migrate north with his father, but when I reached the page where he says goodbye to his mother I could not finish reading the page without crying. Both of my children witnessed my vulnerability and my son stared up at me, his eyes asking many questions. I explained that I was sad because my parents had to say goodbye to their parents in this same way when they left their countries as teenagers. Until I reached to that page, I did not realize I was carrying this particular emotional and intergenerational trauma of separation. In my mind the book on deportation and separation of families was for a later night, but given the sociocultural and political issues that drove my family to migrate, family separation has always been a part of our story.

A few days later we read the book by Colato Laínez and I think it provided a cursory but not comprehensive explanation for my son given that the mother in the story is taken away during a work raid and not while she was with her child. I also explained to him that he may have friends at school who are dealing with something similar—at 98% Latinx, I know this may be the reality for some families. My son still wonders about the man who took the mom from her children. He has since requested “from north to south” as a book we re-read. I know he has more questions and he is thinking deeply about these issues. I know there are many more difficulty discussions I will have with my children and I am resolved to provide a counter-narrative to them.

My support as a Latina Mami Scholar comes from my husband, a Chicano father scholar (a scientist), who shares my views of raising socially conscious children and who navigates the tenure track alongside me. My support also comes from the community of mujeres and critical mama scholars that I call my comadres, hermanas, and sisters. They are the ones I can text at anytime to get advice about navigating the academy as a Woman of Color, to ask about home remedies, get Netflix recommendations, and to ask for resources and tips about difficult life topics. My advice to other Latina Mami Scholars is to build your community, particularly at the local level. I have many mamas that I count on for support across the country, but I also know I need the support from mamas in my community that I can call on for a quick meet up and in the event of an emergency. Lastly, if you are a new mama and/or a mama just starting your academic journey, reach out to other mama scholars. Ask us all the questions! You are not alone.

[1] I identify as Chicana, Latina, Tejana, y Salvadoreña y Mexicana but for brevity I will use Latina in this blog.


Franquiz, M. E., & del Carmen Salazar, M. (2004). The transformative potential of humanizing pedagogy: Addressing the diverse needs of Chicano/Mexicano students. The High School Journal, 87(4), 36-53.

Osorio, S. (2015). Qué es deportar?. Teaching from students’ lives. Rethinking Schools, 30(1), 28-32.


Solórzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2002). Critical race methodology: Counter-storytelling as an analytical framework for education research. Qualitative inquiry, 8(1), 23-44.

Books Mentioned:

Del Norte al Sur (From North to South) by René Colato Laínez

Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life by Alberto Ledesma

La Frontera: El viaje con papá ~ My Journey with Papa by Deborah Mill & Alfredo Alva

Dreamers by Yuyi Morales

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