Tanya J. Gaxiola Serrano: Walking the Walk With Students at the Border

Newly minted PhD and Ford Fellow conducted innovative research on Latinx community college students at the US-Mexico border, looks forward to professorship at UTSA.

Tanya J. Gaxiola Serrano has a unique view of life on both sides of the U.S. – Mexico border, a perspective that has greatly benefitted both her academic and professional careers. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Tijuana, the recent graduate of UCLA’s division of Social Science and Comparative Education (’18, PhD, Race and Ethnic Studies) and her family migrated back to the United States when she was in elementary school. When the family still lived in Tijuana, her father was authorized to cross the border legally each day as a transnational worker. When they moved to Chula Vista, California, her father continued working in sheet metal throughout San Diego County, and her mother crossed back to Mexico each day to teach preschool.

Gaxiola Serrano says that while their former and present homes were less than ten miles apart, there were differences between life in Tijuana and in Chula Vista, a primarily Spanish-speaking, Mexican American community.

“Aesthetically, it was very different, how things looked,” she recalls. “There is a lot more infrastructure in the United States than there is in Mexico. There were improvements, like roads and access to parks and libraries, being able to walk places, things like that, which in Tijuana, weren’t so common.”

“But there were other differences too, in the way that people dress, the music we listen to. The school setting does function differently – it’s a little more structured in Mexico. Not having to wear uniforms [anymore] was a big change. Also, education in the United States was a little more relaxed than in Mexico.”

Gaxiola Serrano was also introduced to the great diversity within the Latina/o population in the United States.

“Growing up, I thought everybody that was Mexican spoke Spanish,” she recalls. “Or that we would all have the same cultural understanding. But I found that to not be the case because as we know, the Latina/o group is a very large group and not everybody is a first-generation immigrant, or has the same experiences.”

Gaxiola Serrano works as assistant director of the Center for Critical Race Studies at UCLA and worked back home in Chula Vista after achieving her bachelor’s degree in psychology at UCLA in 2009 for a social services nonprofit. She is on her way to her first professorship at the University of Texas, San Antonio (UTSA). But it is her original research on the experiences of Latinx community college students living at the U.S. – Mexico border that has garnered a Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship. This spring, Gaxiola Serrano presented this work at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

“It was really important to study this particular community college in Chula Vista because it’s the only institution of higher education in South San Diego, but also because students come from Mexico, crossing the border on a daily basis,” notes Gaxiola Serrano. “These are students who have either U.S. residency or citizenship – undocumented students can’t cross back and forth, but these students can. I wanted to highlight their everyday experience, all the barriers they go through, all the time they spend, how exhausted they are, and all the effort they put into getting a higher education.”

“I wanted to highlight their experiences in order to take that information and share it with the people working at community colleges… [saying], ‘These are your students and this is why it’s important to understand them beyond the time that they spend here at community college,’” she says. “In order for us to really meet [students’] needs, we have to understand where they’re coming from, what their day is like, what they do to get [to school], and what their day is like after they leave [campus].”

Gaxiola Serrano employed a new research method that she developed called walking pláticas – conversations and observations rooted in Chicana feminisms centered on students’ day-to-day routines, that allowed her study participants to select a familiar environment and control their own narratives. The walking pláticas method is based on the work of Jessica Harris, UCLA assistant professor of education, and Cindy Fierros, adjunct faculty at the University of Utah and Dolores Delgado Bernal, professor of Chicano Studies and Education at CSULA and former graduate of GSEIS.

“I think it is important for researchers to have some personal experience with the community they are working with, and to be able to find ways to make sure that the research process is the most honest it can be and the most beneficial to the participant,” she says. “One way I found to do that is to let [my interview subjects] have ownership and let them know that their voices are important and their experiences are valid.”

“The walking plática was a good way for me to observe what their everyday experience is like, and to also give them the tools to take control of this data-gathering technique,” says Gaxiola Serrano. “It was really exciting for me to take the backseat and let them lead and explore what they felt was important to share, in relation to my topic.”

Gaxiola Serrano underscores the effect of the political climate on the students, who despite their legal authorization to cross the border still live in fear.

“Their geographic location and physical presence of the border impacts their [college] experiences,” she says. “Even though some of them may not necessarily have the fear of being deported, it impacts them because they might be part of a mixed-status household, or might have [undocumented] friends, or in general, they understand the fear is very much [concentrated] in this area.”

“[One student participant] had this innate fear, even though she has every legal right to cross the border… [that] I think a lot of us feel to some degree,” says Gaxiola Serrano. “If she had a test or an exam, she tried her best to be as polite as possible [with the border agent when crossing the border from Tijuana to San Diego], to avoid any sort of detainment, or being taken to secondary inspection, because that could have repercussions on her education.”

“She said, ‘When I cross the border, I make sure to turn on my gringa face, my ‘White’ face, to speak English, tell them what they want to hear, and not challenge them in any way, because I don’t want to get in trouble.’ Another student was late for an important exam due to further questioning at the border. She felt guilty in sharing that with her professor, because a lot of the professors don’t know the everyday experiences of these students, and being a student that lives in Tijuana has a stigma attached to it.”

Through her creative and poignant method of walking pláticas, Gaxiola Serrano found resiliency and nuanced survival techniques amid the students’ trials and tribulations, and says that her research “challenges the narrative that Latinx students don’t care about higher education or that they are lazy or unfit for it.”

“They want to be journalists, a chef, an attorney, a marine biologist,” she says. “They want to get PhDs. In terms of their careers and professions, they all have awesome career paths that they are trying to take. For the most part, all of them are on track.”

Gaxiola Serrano examines the college trajectories of Latina/o students through the lens of critical race theory. In a recently-published article in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice, she presents the barriers that Latina/o students face, such as institutional racism, exclusionary academic tracking, lack of information on college and college-prep courses, and the low expectations of teachers and administrators. She posits that these conditions lead to disproportionately high enrollments of Latina/o students in community colleges over four-year institutions of higher learning.

Gaxiola Serrano is currently serving her Ford Dissertation Year Fellowship at UCLA, and in 2019, will enter a tenure-track position in the department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at UTSA. She earned her M.Ed. from the University of Utah.

Gaxiola Serrano co-authored the chapter, “The Role of Interest Convergence in California’s Education: Community Colleges, Latinas/os, and the State’s Future,” with UCLA Professor of Education Daniel Solόrzano, for the book, “Moving Forward: Policies, Planning, and Promoting Access of Hispanic College Students,” published this year by Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press.


Photo by Brenda Lopez, Lovely Beginnings Productions