As the only Latina to be admitted to Harvard Law School in 1972, Margaret E. Montoya feels quite comfortable writing and lecturing about issues surrounding race, racism, gender and the law. She has also written about her feelings of alienation as a Latina law student.
There were “painful, poignant and funny ways we didn’t belong at Harvard,” says Montoya, a law professor at the University of New Mexico. “I have written before about the portraits on the walls there … they reflect the ancient history that Harvard is steeped in, old judges in regal robes. Few of us [minorities] could imagine our ancestors hanging on the walls. We were not a part of this ancestral and cultural wealth.”
Montoya also speaks of the alienation that can occur not only on campus but also within one’s own family when higher education is pursued.
“Attendance at elite institutions like Harvard can strain family and community relations because for many Latinas/os and Native students, as well as many African-Americans and some Asian Americans, attendance entails what is called ‘class jumping’ — rapid social mobility that manifests itself in different tastes in food, clothing, friends and vocabulary,” she says.
“As we acculturate into these environments, we can be perceived as moving away from family members who may be having very different life experiences. Students need to be aware of these dynamics and work to retain their family and community ties. Whether we are students or faculty, we need to resist the cultural and linguistic assimilation that is often expected of those of us who come from different life circumstances.”
A New Mexico native, Montoya came back to her home state to not only teach law, but to become active in efforts to create higher education opportunities for Hispanic and Native students.
“I am trying to keep the doors open for students who will follow me as lawyers, faculty members, scholars and policymakers,” she says.
Montoya works to link the University of New Mexico law and medical schools to public schools through these programs so that middle and high school students can envision themselves in college and graduate and professional schools.
“In the past, law schools and medical schools were islands; they didn’t have much contact with the rest of the community,” she says. “We, lawyers and doctors, have so much clout that we should be the voice for educational reform.”
And although her Harvard experience was a challenging one, particularly socially and culturally, Montoya says both she and Harvard benefited from the experience.
“A Harvard education provides a credential that opens doors and facilitates the initial evaluations in getting jobs and being taken seriously. I benefited by being exposed to giants in the legal field, by learning about power and how to recognize and use it and by getting to know amazing students,” Montoya says.
But that experience was not a one-way street.
“Harvard also benefited from our presence. Students of color, and later faculty of color, changed the institution by making it more democratic and egalitarian,” Montoya says. “We changed it by making it more reflective of the nation’s history and expressive of its competing narratives; we changed it by making it truer to its own principles of meritocratic excellence.
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