Harvard Educational Review
  1. Mi Padre

    Mexican Immigrant Fathers and Their Children’s Education

    Sarah Gallo

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2017. 160 pp. $41.95 (paper).

    Across the field of education in the United States, consensus exists that schools should be safe spaces for students. Recent current events and the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and rhetoric have moved school safety to the front of the country’s mind, particularly in terms of physical safety. More conversations are needed to understand the urgency of establishing both physical and psychological safety in educational spaces. Immigrant children make up about 7 percent of K–12 students in our schools and have at least one parent who is unauthorized (Passel & Cohn, 2016). For these children and their families, the communities in which they reside and the educational institutions that serve them have become potential sites of danger where students and parents have reported confrontations with ICE, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Matthews, Ullrich, & Cervantes, 2018). Conversely, depending on an individual’s sources of information, nonimmigrant children and families may have formed negative associations about their immigrant neighbors and classmates, leading them to worry about school safety from a different angle. In particular, the forty-fifth US president’s comments about Mexican men have resulted in limited and dangerous portrayals of students and their family members, especially fathers. Focusing on family engagement and its humanizing characteristics is one approach schools use to mitigate tension between community members within their walls. 

    In Mi Padre: Mexican Immigrant Fathers and Their Children’s Education, Sarah Gallo develops a unique approach to family engagement. Informed by an anthropological lens and with training in educational linguistics, the author extends the existing conversation on family-school engagement by providing a new perspective on parenting and family socialization practices that she calls “humanizing family engagement.” Gallo’s framework seeks to dispel normative assumptions that the family engagement practices of White middle-class families are the only strategies that work and is meant to help teachers leverage the differences among themselves and their students’ families in order to improve the educational outcomes of Latin@ children. Her main goal is to provide a model that allows families and teachers to learn from each other, as compared to the typical banking model approach defined by Freire, in which school-family relationships are unidirectional, with teachers passing on knowledge to families. Gallo also helps the reader consider the ways family engagement often elevates the practices of White middle-class families and disregards the practices of families that may use non-school-like approaches. Gallo focuses on the co-construction of knowledge that can occur between fathers, children, and educators. In the same way that she prioritizes relationships of trust between her and her participants, she considers “interpersonal relation-ships founded in mutual trust” (p. 13) as the main mechanism in her humanizing family engagement approach. 

    Throughout the book, Gallo draws on her own insider and outsider positionality as a researcher embedded in the participants’ school community for seven years but also as a bilingual White gay female researcher. This helps her provide a realistic account of how Mexican immigrant fathers in one elementary school in Philadelphia are improving their children’s education while at the same time facing their own serious challenges (e.g., financial, legal, health). The result is an often heartbreaking read that prompts reflection about the ways school-family relationships are tainted by gendered expectations and also expands the manner in which we understand the familial resources children bring to their school experiences. 

    The data Gallo uses to develop her humanizing family engagement framework come from a larger three-year ethnographic study conducted in Marshall, Pennsylvania, which she describes as having seen an approximately 900 percent increase in the Latin@ population between 1990 and 2010. The families portrayed in the book were part of a cohort whose children began kindergarten in 2008, and the majority were mixed-status families, which typically means at least one adult is unauthorized and one child is US born (Taylor, Lopez, Passel, & Motel, 2011). Although Gallo followed these students’ families from kindergarten through grade 2, the findings she presents in this book focus on data she collected during students’ second-grade year (2010–2011). She conducted weekly participant observations and made video recordings of students’ experiences in their classrooms and family-school events and also interviewed students, families, teachers, and administrators. It is evident through the accounts she presents that she developed trusting relationships with these families. Through her relationships and observations, she came to realize the ways Mexican fathers’ roles in their children’s education may have appeared invisible to teachers. 

    Gallo focuses her book on the experiences of five families, specifically fathers and their second graders. She also includes teachers from the children’s elementary school, which she refers to as Grant Elementary. The teachers at Grant “were almost entirely White middle-class women” and mostly monolingual English speakers (p. 18). As she presents the cases of the five families, Gallo focuses on the practices and family-school relationships of two specific teachers who led the two focal classrooms. It is important to note that while the book illuminates the experiences of fathers and their children at home and in school, the book seems to implicate teachers and their role in family-school relationships and suggests ways they can have mutually respectful relationships with students’ families. Gallo describes in-service and preservice teachers as her book’s primary intended audience, although it also has important implications for school administrators, policy makers, and researchers interested in similar ethnographic work. 

    Mi Padre begins with Gallo exposing her positionality to readers, but her vulnerability is rivaled by the access the families she studied gave her. In the first part of the book (chapters 1–4), she focuses on helping the reader understand the ways Mexican immigrant fathers engage in their children’s schooling, in both traditional and unique ways. She shows how the children’s teachers receive the strategies fathers employ and suggests ways teachers can take into account fathers’ particular ways of engaging. In the second part of the book (chapters 5–7), Gallo shifts the focus to the experience of undocumented and mixed-status families. She specifically highlights examples of how immigration practices affect the elementary school children in her participating families and their school teachers. These sections include pedagogical takeaways and reflection questions at the end of each chapter that help readers brainstorm and strategize about how to make their family engagement processes more humanizing.

    The first part of Gallo’s book draws on Delgado Bernal’s (2001) “pedagogies of the home” to underscore the need for an asset-based pedagogy that is inclusive of knowledge fathers contribute to their children’s learning. In addition to setting the context of the study’s research design in this chapter, Gallo introduces the components of her humanizing family engagement framework: recognizing what counts as knowledge, fostering ideological clarity on family-school power relationships, recognizing the teacher-as-learner role, and fostering mutual trust, or confianza. In chapters 2 and 3 Gallo uses the cases of fathers Julio and Ignacio to show how their engagement with their children’s learning was either overlooked or misunderstood by their children’s teachers. They serve as helpful illustrations of what she means by educators needing to develop ideological clarity so that it is easier to recognize nontraditional family engagement. At first glance, it may be difficult for readers to fully grasp what Gallo means by “developing ideological clarity,” but she successfully describes this component as the “blind spots” and assumptions that teachers need to question (p. 108). In chapter 3 Gallo builds on the discussion by showing us Mateo’s relationship with his daughter’s teacher, who had successfully begun to reassess what counts as family engagement. Conversely, in chapter 4 we meet Cristian, who focuses on teaching his daughter, Emily, about the appropriate use of words across different contexts, or what Gallo refers to as “metalinguistic awareness.” The chapter includes a description of the school-based practices in Emily’s classroom that left out Spanish-speaking families’ pedagogies, providing us an example of a case in which the family-school relationship needs improvement. It also features Emily’s voice, which shows how attuned one child is to the ways her classroom excludes her father’s skill sets. This chapter aptly highlights the strengths of a father who others judge as less than intelligent because of his inability to speak English. 

    Gallo then turns to the ways fathers’ literacy practices have helped their children learn at home and school. Chapter 5 returns to the case of Mateo and his daughter, Abi. In a heart-wrenching account, Abi and Mateo tell Gallo about a police encounter they had in their home. Mateo is undocumented, and Abi is aware that he could be deported and separated from their family. Alluding to Freire and Ramos (1970), Gallo presents this as an example of Mateo teaching his daughter how to “read the world . . . by preparing her to safely navigate her surroundings as a member of an undocumented family” (p. 77). Through her father, Abi learned to use storytelling as a literacy practice and was able to tell a narrative of her own border crossing in a creative and engaging way. This chapter is particularly enlightening as it provides a new and compelling way of understanding the experience of migration in children’s lives.

    Chapter 6 features Princess and her father, Federico, who was deported for the minor infraction of littering when Princess was in second grade. Their case is particularly relevant to the experience of Mexican immigrant families because local immigration practices unfairly target Mexican men and fathers. Gallo uses this chapter to show how Princess developed her literacy by writing letters to her detained father (their only form of communication). Unfortunately, Princess and her mother did not feel safe sharing their experience of family separation with Princess’s teacher. Thus, despite the change in Princess’s emotional and academic performance, her teacher was unaware of the reason for her struggles. In interviews with Princess’s teacher, Gallo brings to light the important takeaway that teachers’ lack of understanding about what they are mandated to share about family members’ immigration status often prevents them from proactively engaging with students’ families about the subject.

    In the final chapter Gallo returns to the components of her proposed humanizing family engagement framework to address the potential challenges that may arise while doing this work. She provides a list of concrete steps that school administrators and educators can take to create a safer space for all types of family engagement. She also addresses common assumptions about Mexican immigrant families by including a useful discussion about the importance of exploring the nuance among, between, and within group differences, such as the educational background of parents from similar countries of origin. 

    Mi Padre stands in stark contrast to the portrayals of Latino men—husbands and fathers—in contemporary anti-immigrant discourse. Gallo shares that she learned about “invisibility, trust, schooling, and education” through her work with the fathers (p. xvi). Readers come away with a deeper understanding of these categories. With its humanizing approach, it is a refreshing read during this time of charged political rhetoric and turmoil. 

    With the conversation largely focused on the experiences of mixed-status students in adolescent, secondary, and postsecondary education, Gallo’s work focuses on elementary school families. The experiences of the families Gallo studies serve as an important reminder that educational research designs need to emphasize the role of all caregivers equally. One also hopes that scholars, policy makers, and educators continue to explore the experiences of fathers—not just in Mexican immigrant families but fathers in other immigrant groups as well. Gallo’s work illuminates the power that comes from familial love and the invaluable strength it gives children. 

    Sarah A. Rendón-García

    Delgado Bernal, D. (2001). Learning and living pedagogies of the home: The mestiza consciousness of Chicana students. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 14(5), 623–639. doi: 10.1080/09518390110059838

    Freire, P., & Ramos, M. B. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

    Matthews, H., Ullrich, R., & Cervantes, W. (2018, March). Our children’s fear: Immigration policy’s effects on young children. Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). Retrieved from https://www.clasp.org/publications/report/brief/our-childrens-fear- immigration-policys-effects-young-children

    Passel, J., & Cohn, D. (2016, September). Children of unauthorized immigrants represent rising share of K–12 students. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/17/children-of-unauthorized-immigrants- represent-rising-share-of-k-12-students

    Taylor, P., Lopez, M. H., Passel, J., & Motel, S. (2011, December). Unauthorized immigrants: Length of residency, patterns of parenthood. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewhispanic.org/2011/12/01/unauthorized-immigrants-length-of- residency-patterns-of-parenthood/
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