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Commentary: Latino in the Ivy League

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette: Latinos in Ivy League colleges face special challenges
  • He says others have perception they don't belong in the elite schools
  • He says they're looked to as spokespeople for their minority group
  • Sotomayor said Princeton engaged in a pattern of discrimination, he says
By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr., a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to CNN.com, is the author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano." Read his column here.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. says Latino students are under special scrutiny in Ivy League colleges.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. says Latino students are under special scrutiny in Ivy League colleges.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Sixteen years ago, after I wrote a memoir about my experience as a Latino in the Ivy League, I got a call from a retired Jewish obstetrician who saw his reflection in my words.

A book about being a Chicano at Harvard in the 1980s had stirred memories of being one of the few Jewish students at the University of Southern California in the 1930s.

Now, I feel like calling Sonia Sotomayor, although I realize that her schedule is crowded this week in light of the Senate confirmation hearings for the nominee to the Supreme Court.

I'd like Sotomayor to know that, even though she arrived at Princeton University in 1972 (the year I started kindergarten), I have a good idea what she went through in college -- and, later, at Yale Law School -- because many Latinos who later traveled that road experienced the same thing.

I certainly have a better grasp of Sotomayor's experience than members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, most of whom are white males who belong to an organization -- the U.S. Senate -- where 78 of the 100 people in the club look like them.

The adventure down the rabbit hole begins with an acceptance letter telling you that you're one of the 7 percent of applicants admitted to an ultra-selective school like Harvard, Yale or Princeton.

Word gets around your high school, and soon, people you thought were friends are in your face in calculus class. "If you hadn't been Latino ... you wouldn't have gotten in," they helpfully point out.

They've heard at the dinner table that, thanks to affirmative action, any Latino or African-American who can hold a pencil can get into any university they want. The story takes on an extra irony if you're getting a better grade in calculus than your accusers.

Sotomayor got a taste of such ignorance in her third year of law school, when during a recruitment dinner, a lawyer from a Washington law firm asked the summa cum laude graduate from Princeton whether she thought she would have gotten into Yale Law School if she hadn't been Hispanic. She filed a formal complaint with the law school, and the firm apologized.

Once you arrive on campus, you expect to find the place flooded with Latinos, since you've been told that they're admitted wholesale and that white males are discriminated against to make room. So imagine the shock when you see plenty of white males and only a relative handful of people who look like you.

When I arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1985, I was one of 35 Mexican-Americans in a class of 1,600 freshmen. There were about the same number of Puerto Rican students. When Sotomayor was at Princeton, the numbers were probably much smaller. Feeling alienated, she sought out other Puerto Rican students and co-founded the group Accion Puertorriquena.

In class, you wear two hats. You study hard to compete with classmates, but you also stay fluent in your own culture, because you never know when you might need it.

Let's say you're in a political science course and the professor mentions how Latinos split their votes between the parties. You're the only Latino in class, and everyone looks at you with inquisitive stares. If you don't say something, a roomful of smart people might reach some dumb conclusions.

So you play the cultural ambassador, doing your part to make your white roommate more racially sensitive in case he runs for office someday. You're the intermediary between two worlds, which isn't easy, because Ivy League schools tend to admit the blandest, most assimilated, least-ethnic minorities you can imagine. You're Erik Estrada cast as Che Guevara.

You also lobby the university -- as Sotomayor did at Princeton -- to be more accessible and hospitable to people like you by hiring Latino professors, reflecting the Latino experience in the curriculum and providing a support system for Latino students as opposed to admitting them and forgetting them.

Sotomayor lodged a grievance with what was then the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, accusing Princeton of an "institutional pattern of discrimination" in admissions and in hiring "Puerto Rican and Chicano" faculty.

Then, one day, you graduate. You declare a truce with the school. You're happy that it didn't go easy on you -- and that you didn't go easy on it. You leave with "golden passport" in hand, perhaps with the intent of creating a more equitable world where stories like yours are the rule and not the exception.

In Cambridge, one of the gates into Harvard Yard has an inscription overhead: "Enter to Grow in Wisdom." On the other side, leading out of the Yard and onto the street, it has another: "Depart to serve better, thy country and thy kind."

I bet thin-skinned Senate Republicans would take exception and demand to know: "What do you mean, 'thy kind?' Is that code for picking on white males?"

I think they have it backward. I suspect that Sotomayor was, during her professional life, afraid of being seen as too mainstream by other Latinos because she went to the Ivy League instead of the City University of New York, because she worked for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office instead of Legal Aid. So she overcompensated by giving provocative speeches and by serving law clerks queso blanco, a Spanish white-cheese dish.

Sotomayor might have gone overboard in the culture department not because she was, as her critics fear, too ethnic but because, with every experience she had, she felt less so.

It's been surreal to watch pundits ask whether Sotomayor can get along with people who don't look like her and handle the pressure of integrating an institution that lacks diversity.

They must be kidding. She's been doing that since she first stepped on a college campus nearly 40 years ago with dreams of leaving her mark, breaking barriers and inspiring others -- and no idea that, one day, she'd get the chance to do all three.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr

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