Latina mothers, daughters and the pursuit of higher education — together

·10 min read
COVINA, CA - May 22: Cindy, Cecilia and Abigail Escobedo, left to right, throw their caps into the air while pose for a portrait wearing their graduation outfits at their home on the Sunday, May 22, 2022 in Covina, CA. The two sisters and mother are all attending higher education at the same time. Cecilia, the mother, decided to go back to school late in life and ultimately completed her master's and doctorate degrees alongside her eldest daughter, Cindy. Abigail, the younger daughter, also has attended college alongside her mother, and she is now a student at UC Santa Barbara. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
Cindy, Cecilia and Abigail Escobedo, from left, throw their caps into the air outside their home in Covina on May 22. The two sisters and mother all overlapped at some point in their college careers. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Cindy R. Escobedo’s college years have been, in many ways, shaped by her mother’s.

When Cindy completed an undergraduate degree in political science at UCLA in 2015, she followed her mother, Cecilia, who had earned her bachelor's degree at Azusa Pacific University a year earlier.

In 2016 Cindy graduated with a master’s degree in education. Her mother caught up one year later, obtaining her master’s in nursing. And in 2021, the same year Cecilia's doctorate in nursing practice was conferred, Cindy successfully defended her own dissertation and her degree was also conferred.

On June 11, Cindy will walk at UCLA's graduation in full doctoral regalia, and her novel dissertation — born of her own story — captures what it took to reach this milestone. Cindy chronicled the aspirations, challenges and joys of Latina mothers and daughters who pursued college degrees together.

Cindy identified nine working-class mother-daughter families consisting of 22 women — all but three of whom attended college in California at the same time. Some are one mother, one daughter, while others are triads like the Escobedo women — Cecilia and daughters Cindy and Abigail. The mothers are largely immigrants — from Mexico, Peru, Belize, Guatemala — while all but one of the daughters U.S. born.

But beneath the joy of achievement are complex journeys because for every mother who made sacrifices on the way to her degree, so too did her daughter.

Cecilia Escobedo was a high school dropout before enrolling in a nursing program.
Cecilia Escobedo was a high school dropout before enrolling in Rio Hondo College's nursing program. Since then, she earned a doctorate in nursing practice from Azusa Pacific University. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

For mothers, it meant balancing school nights and full-time jobs, straining to be there for family moments while succeeding as nontraditional students. For daughters, it meant caring for younger siblings while mom studied, becoming an extra pair of eyes on mom's essays and explaining meetings with academic counselors while trying to flourish academically on their own.

What distinguishes Cindy's research is how she delves into an uncharted area, said Dolores Delgado Bernal, a professor at Cal State L.A. who served on her dissertation committee.

She identified a collaborative and collective educational journey in which "educating oneself is educating the family,” Delgado Bernal said. The mother-daughter duos defy the stereotype of "higher education being hierarchical and being individualistic. It’s the opposite.”

As Cindy writes in her dissertation: “This birth story is not crafted as a romanticized, feel-good tale about Chicana/Latina mother-daughter relationships. Rather, it is a complex narrative about Chicana/Latina mother-daughter struggle, resistance, love, and healing that transcends between generations of women who attended college individually and jointly.”

From dropout to nursing student

Cecilia Escobedo is a registered nurse who works at L.A. County-USC Medical Center.
Cecilia Escobedo is a registered nurse who works at L.A. County-USC Medical Center in Los Angeles. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

When she was 27, Cecilia R. Escobedo was driving to work when she had a vision.

She saw herself working in a hospital, stitching up a wound and caring for others. By then, Cecilia, a high school dropout, hadn't been in a classroom for more than a decade. She and her husband, Gilbert, were working full time to raise their two daughters and two sons in South El Monte. She questioned whether she could handle it before attending Rio Hondo College in Whittier in 2000. She prayed to God to help care for her family.

Before long, she enrolled in the nursing program. Cindy, the eldest daughter, remembers being 10 years old and joining her mother in the college library, doing homework or playing with 99 Cents Only coloring books as Cecilia pored over nursing textbooks and studied human anatomy.

There were many sleepless nights, Cecilia, now 48, recalled. She often fell asleep on a desk or couch, too tired to slip into bed. Sometimes she woke up from an unscheduled nap at the library.

What kept her going, she said, were thoughts of a better future for her family. Born in Michoacán, Mexico, she immigrated to the U.S. with her siblings and mother. But when her mother became injured and could no longer work, Cecilia dropped out of school to help pay bills. She was 16.

“Something I learned about navigating the education system: We have to work 10 times harder, be 10 times smarter and sacrifice ourselves 10 times [more],” she said of Latinas. In 2018, about 26% of Latinas held a college degree, compared with 51% of white women.

Still, one moment from her college career still carries the sting of guilt to this day.

Cecilia would bring her youngest child, Abigail, to campus. During one tutoring session, Abigail asked to use the restroom at least three times. But Cecilia was on a roll, and her one-on-one session was limited.

“Just hold tight,” she told Abigail.

By the end of the session, when they were ready to leave, Cecilia looked down to find Abigail looking ashamed. She had wet herself.

Afterward, Cecilia broke down in tears over the incident.

“You’re going to school for a better life, and your daughter peed herself? I had to readjust and do it differently, ” she said.

"In fact, all the motherscholars described feeling guilty for having dedicated a lot of time to their studies, as opposed to investing their energy in nurturing and being physically present for their families," Cindy wrote in her dissertation.

First-generation students — together 

Cindy Escobedo, standing checks on students during a writing exercise at UC Riverside.
Cindy Escobedo checks on students during a writing exercise in her "Education in a Diverse Society" class at UC Riverside. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

As a teenager, Cindy took on more responsibilities. At home she assigned chores, cooked meals and cleaned, duties that Abigail, six years younger, begrudgingly did, while their mom studied and their dad worked.

“My sister was pretty much the head of the house," Abigail said.

Cindy, 29, reflecting on her role with her sister and mother, said it never felt like a burden.

“We — me, my sister and my mom, and other Chicana Latinas — don’t operate as single individuals, just existing for themselves," she said. "We have families to take care of. … In my case, the way that I care for myself is caring for my mom and my sister.”

“I think it’s just loving," Cecilia added. "You're just loving. You love your family, you want to move forward. You extend yourself when somebody can’t."

The women, Cindy found, "traversed the terrains of motherhood, daughterhood and scholarhood" by being sure to care for themselves and one another.

To keep going, Cindy, Abigail and Cecilia sent one another notes of affirmation, sometimes immortalized into bookmarks.

“You can do this,” they would write back-and-forth. “I love you.”

Cindy, who completed her undergraduate, master's and doctoral degrees at UCLA, lived on campus during her undergraduate years before returning home to finish her graduate studies. Cecilia called Cindy her “tutor on demand” who sometimes would roll out of bed in the middle of the night to fulfill editing requests.

Last school year, with their universities still remote, mother and daughter worked on their dissertations at home — Cecilia at a white folding table in the living room, Cindy in her bedroom, and sometimes together in the home office or kitchen. Abigail would often pitch in and edit their pages.

‘Our stories are more powerful together’

As she researched her dissertation, Cindy detailed the hardships, sacrifices and successes of other families.

One mother, who attended Rio Hondo College in the 1990s, told her how her daughter was “about to be born in the classroom” because she went into labor before taking her final exams. After being out of college for several years, Francisca Valencia, the mother, earned her doctoral degree the same year her daughters finished their associate and master's degrees in 2016.

Cindy Escobedo gives a lecture to students at UC Riverside.
Cindy Escobedo, giving a lecture at UC Riverside, will walk at UCLA's graduation on June 11 in full doctoral regalia. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Another mother, Mercedes de Uriarte, who was the first U.S. Latina to accepted to Yale University’s graduate school and served as an editor at the Los Angeles Times, attended school at the same time as her daughter. They shared a commencement ceremony in 1978.

In 2014, mother-daughter duo Gabriela and Danielle Abraham rejoiced when they were both accepted to UCLA as transfer students. 

But they shared difficult moments. By attending UCLA, they made the decision to move into campus housing and live apart from Gabriela’s younger son, who stayed in the San Fernando Valley with his father.

The women enrolled into an intensive summer program to prepare them for undergraduate classes and ended up in a course together. During finals, they shared one desktop computer to write their final papers. Unable to afford a printer at the time, they made sure to arrive on campus early to print out papers.

Still, they persisted. Danielle found their roles were often reversed, and she needed to provide emotional, mental and financial support to help her mother, who spoke English as a second language, stay in school. Danielle took out student loans to cover her tuition as well as family expenses. But she wouldn't change the experience, she said.

"Throughout my life, my mom and I have always been a team," Danielle said. “I never want my mom to ever feel like she can’t depend on me or rely on me for things because I know we've already been through so much as a family."

The Abrahams graduated from UCLA in 2017: Danielle with a degree in gender studies and Gabriela with a double major in Chicano studies and Spanish — summa cum laude, too.

Danielle, 29, is now studying at an acting conservatory and her mother, 57, is working as a program representative for the Center for Community College Partnerships, which helped prepare them for UCLA. They are both considering pursuing master's degrees. Adam, Gabriela's son, is set to attend Cal Poly San Luis Obispo next year.

“Our stories are more powerful together than they are apart since we’re madre e hija," Danielle said.

The journey continues

Cindy, Cecilia and Abigail Escobedo pose for photos in their caps and gowns.
Cindy, from left, with her mother, Cecilia, and Abigail Escobedo in caps and gowns. Their educational journey planted the seed for Cindy's doctoral dissertation about Latina mothers and daughters who pursued college degrees together. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The UCLA graduation ceremony will in many ways be an exhale for Cindy and the Escobedo family. "Yeah, I graduated because we graduated," Cindy said.

Cecilia wrapped up her college career in the midst of the pandemic and working on the front lines as a registered nurse at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. It is also where she celebrated her doctoral graduation from Azusa Pacific. Her colleagues hung up balloons and decorations in her honor.

Her sons, Joshua and Gilbert Jr., also attended college and now work full time at the same engineering and construction company as their father. Cindy is still figuring out what comes next, but Cecilia said she feels a sense of peace knowing her oldest daughter completed her education, something she always stressed.

"I remember telling Cindy, 'Princess, you go to school. And if we don’t have any money, we’ll sell this house,'” she recalled.

"She told me that too,” Abigail said.

Indeed, Abigail, 22, is set to graduate from UC Santa Barbara next year with a degree in sociology.

A few years earlier, in a letter congratulating Abigail for graduating from Citrus College, her mother left her a message she plans to carry with her.

“Congratulations on this accomplishment but you have a few to go,” Cecilia wrote before drawing boxes for Abigail to check off for her future bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.