‘I Was Very Isolated’: Report Documents Alienation of Hispanic Students in Ontario


Back in her native Ecuador, Ammy Goya says she was a “social butterfly,” always bubbly, knowing everyone at school and liked by teachers and even students in different grades.

But when she and her mother first arrived in Toronto in 2016, she found herself overnight in a city where she knew no one but her father, who brought them here.

Instead of continuing to high school from where she left off in Guayaquil, Goya – with her limited English – was placed in grade 7 at an elementary school here and ended up with an English-Spanish dictionary on paper everywhere. she went.

“I didn’t make any friends for a long time here, so I was very isolated,” recalls Goya, now 18 and a Grade 12 student at Toronto’s Dante Alighieri Academy.

The social isolation Goya felt is common among young Hispanics and contributes to the problems they face in school, according to a new study by researchers from Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), formerly known as of Ryerson University, which examined the experiences of these young people in Ontario. educational system.

Based on interviews and focus groups with 60 Hispanic people between the ages of 16 and 26, the study found that Hispanic students do not see themselves represented by teachers and peers, and many struggle to develop a sense of belonging to their school and community.

While immigrant students all face different levels of challenges and barriers in finding their place in Canada, largely due to language and cultural barriers, researchers have suggested that the struggles of Hispanic students have gone relatively unnoticed.

“Our main problem is the invisibility of the community. They are truly invisible in the system,” said TMU social work professor Henry Parada, co-author of the report, I Just Want to Belong Somewhere: Latinx Youth’s Experiences in the Education System in Ontario, Canada, published in the Journal of Latinos. and Education.

(The right word for the community in question is up for debate; there were 447,325 self-identified Latinos in the 2016 Canadian census, but more than 910,000 people said they were of Hispanic ethnicity. Latinx is a term of more recent origin.)

Although the number of Hispanic immigrants to Canada has grown steadily over the past two decades and now accounts for about 10% of all immigrants admitted here each year, Parada said the issues facing students have been overlooked.

Latin America is made up of many nationalities, each with their own culture and history, and newcomers here, despite being concentrated in a few neighborhoods, are generally spread across the province, he said.

As a result, he said, Hispanic students don’t have the critical mass like other immigrant populations in the school system, and their needs and presence tend to be overlooked. These school experiences can also impact students’ academic performance, he said.

Data released by the Toronto District School Board in 2017, for example, found that Latin American students actually had the lowest graduation rates of any racial group, at 76.3%. These experiences can have other consequences in the labor market and in the child protection and justice systems, Parada said.

Young people in the study told researchers they felt isolated without a strong sense of community; felt that their cultures and values ​​were ignored; and perceived a lack of empathy or outright discrimination related to accent, culture and stereotypes.

These sentiments are not limited to immigrants but also to students born and raised here. Several of the Canadian-born Hispanic youths shared that they were arbitrarily placed in ESL classes, despite being able to fully understand English.

“My mum and dad still had an accent… My teachers recommended that I take ESL classes because they thought I had trouble speaking,” said one respondent. “I had no trouble speaking. It was the way I pronounced the words.

Another girl said she was the only Hispanic in her predominantly white school, and that her peers would make racist comments about “building a wall” – a slogan of then US President Donald Trump – when she was around.

Young people all said they would like to have Hispanic teachers available at their school who can help them navigate the system, saying they would find them more accessible, easier to understand and easier to talk to. Of the 60 participants in the study, only 13 had had such a teacher.

Cinthya J. Alarcon, who came to Canada from Mexico in 2017, said she was lucky the school she was enrolled in had a small contingent of Hispanic students she could connect with. . Although they came from various countries – Argentina, Peru, Colombia – they bonded quickly because of their common experience.

“It was my first day at school and they recognized I was from Latin America and immediately asked me, ‘Are you Latina?’ I said yes.’ And then they invited me to sit down with them for lunch,” Alarcon said.

“We were in different levels and classes, but because of our language, our music and our humor, I felt more comfortable with them. They understood me better because we all had different experiences. similar.

She said she tried hard to learn English and got involved in school clubs and joined the athletics team to meet people, but made few English-speaking friends. , even when everyone was friendly with her.

“It’s hard to make friends because I had trouble explaining myself and they were talking too fast. I felt left out in a way and felt out of place,” she said. “It would have been easier if English was my first language and if I had been brought to Canada at a younger age.

Researcher Veronica Escobar Olivo, co-author of the TMU report, said she was surprised that little had changed in the student experience since she graduated from high school in Ontario more than a decade ago. . Born and raised in Canada to Salvadoran immigrant parents, she said she didn’t meet a Hispanic educator until she started studying at TMU.

“It is surprising that people who follow the same educational system as me experience very similar things,” said Escobar Olivo. “When I embarked on this research project, I thought that my experience was not the norm. And it’s a bit disheartening to see that this is still the norm.

Escobar Olivo said that the school plays an important role in the settlement and integration of an immigrant child in the country, because parents are often unable to help: they are busy struggling to meet the basic needs of family, or they simply lack the tools and knowledge to guide them.

“The main recommendations would be to include Latin Americans more in the conversation. Not much attention is paid to a very small population in the education system. But either way, I think that means there has to be Latin American involvement,” she said.

“There needs to be policies and programs instilled that meet the unique needs of young Latin Americans.”

Goya said she got a fresh start after starting high school at Dante Alighieri, when she gained more confidence and joined the school choir and student council. While it is important for schools to engage with the community, she encourages her peers to do their best even if they feel unsettled and rejected.

“I have friends who still don’t know English even though they have lived here for a long time. I have a friend who said to me, “Can you buy this for me because I don’t know how to ask for it in English? ‘” said Goya, who aspires to study animation at university.

“They should try not to get too comfortable, although we all want to stay in our comfort zone with people who speak the same language. I know it’s difficult, but it will hinder our progress and our evolution here in Canada.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based journalist who covers immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung


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