Conchita Hernández Legorreta is a disability rights activist and co-founder of the National Coalition of Latinx with Disabilities. As a teacher, doctorate student, and founder of METAS (Mentoring Engaging and Teaching All Students) Conchita advocates for programming and policy changes for people with disabilities in the U.S. and internationally.
When my family migrated to the United States from Mexico in 1991, my four siblings, my parents, and I lived on a horse ranch in California’s Central Valley where my father labored. My parents were grateful for the opportunity and acquiesced to the owners’ exploitative expectations. They would hold on to my father’s wages for “safe-keeping” and my mother would clean, cook, and care for their children for no pay.
My siblings and I ranged between the ages of three to 13 years old, and the owners told my parents not to send us to school. They would also limit the number of times we could visit our extended family who lived nearby. When my dad asked for his wages, the owners stated that they did not have to give them to him because of the cost they incurred having us live on the ranch. Due to the fact that we were immigrants, didn’t speak fluent English, and didn’t understand the distinct institutions and systems in the US, my parents were unable to fight for their rights. This experience has remained with me throughout my life and shaped the way in which I have come to understand my role as a disabled immigrant Latina.
Living in the United States as an undocumented blind Latina has shown me all the ways in which the various systems have failed to provide basic rights to all but a select few. This lesson started when I was still a kid. My mother decided to stay in the United States because both my brother and I are blind, and she realized that we could get a better-quality education with accommodations and support than if we were in Mexico, where there were none. At the time, we could also receive medical treatment without being legal residents.
My brother and I attended many different schools, yet no administrators fully explained to my mother what legal rights we were entitled to. At most schools we received subpar services, but it was more than my mother had ever expected. As a first grader, I was often asked to interpret Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings for my parents. An IEP is a legal binding document that determines which services students with disabilities will receive in public school. That was never explained to my parents in their language, and thus they could not be part of the decision-making process. My mom believed that the school was doing us a favor by giving us the bare minimum, when in reality they were failing to provide us with services that were simple basic rights. Now, as a professional in the field of disability, I realize that our situation is not unique. I have repeatedly seen first-hand how schools disregard immigrant families, especially those who do not speak English.
I now understand that Northern California was the site of the Disability Rights Movement that spurred many national changes, such as the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and a disability identity. However, I never learned any of this in school, and I never had role models who saw having a disability as something positive. I now realize that much of this was because my community and I were not the intended audience of this movement.
The Disability Rights Movement was mainly led by white disabled individuals who did not make an effort to include the voices or experiences of people of color. The systematic consequence of that was that I did not have access to my basic rights, resources, and information. If my community had half the amount of information that white middle-class Americans have, things would be much different. Yet in lieu of a lack of systemic support systems, my family and community stepped forward to provide me with loving, educational, and empowering care. They taught me what the school system and Disability Rights Movement failed to do.
My younger sister taught me how to tie my shoes non-visually, my grandma taught me how to wash dishes non-visually, and my mom moved houses every time I changed schools so that I could safely walk home in middle and high school. My friends understood my needs and worked with me to ensure I could participate meaningfully with them. I’m not arguing that folks do not need institutional change, but that we often thrive because of our community, with or without it.
Many other activists of color and I are most at odds with the Disability Rights Movement’s fixation on ‘independence’. This is a notion that an individual with a disability should do everything on their own, and that anything short of that hinders that individual. However, this is a Eurocentric concept based on capitalist individualism in which each individual needs to yield a high production value or have no value otherwise (Block et al, 2015). The reality is that individuality and independence is not part of my and my community’s narrative, or that of other communities of color, nor has it been for thousands of years.
Instead, the concept of mutual aid or “interdependence” as used by Sins Invalid is more representative of many of our experiences as BIPOC in meeting “each others’ needs as we build towards liberation, knowing that state solutions inevitably extend into further control over our lives.” We thrive when we exist in a community as active participants, creating our own resources in spite of the void.
Many folks are so eager to highlight ableism in communities of color, yet lack a basic analysis of how white supremacy is a root cause that keeps communities of color from accessing information, education, and funding.
Conchita Hernández Legorreta
Another misconception that I constantly hear is the idea that the Latinx community inherently has a negative connotation of disability. However, I contend that we all live in an ableist society. The Latinx community lacks access to information and resources with language being a barrier, as three out of four Latinx people speak Spanish at home (Rodriguez-Lainz et al, 2019); we are not inherently more ableist. Institutionalized power structures control who has access to information, thus the failure lies with the government, organizations, and nonprofits that continuously underserve communities of color and especially communities in poverty. Very few programs offer resources and information in any language other than English. Very few have culturally competent information, and few lack representation of these communities in any type of leadership position, both as people with disabilities and BIPOC.
Many folks are so eager to highlight ableism in communities of color, yet lack a basic analysis of how white supremacy is a root cause that keeps communities of color from accessing information, education, and funding. There are many college-level panels on the topic of disability that are not accessible to my community. I did not learn that a disability community existed until my senior year of college when I happened to have a blind professor. If I had not gone to college, I might still lack the relevant information to flourish, as many in my community do.
I gave up on trying to transform and beg organizations and institutions that my community matters, and that they should do more to outreach to undocumented, dual-language, communities in poverty. I gave up trying to prove why we are important and why we need access to their information. With community in mind, in 2016 I came together with a group of friends that are all disabled people of color and who also happen to be professionals in the field of blindness and disability, and created our own nonprofit, METAS (Mentoring Engaging and Teaching All Students). We serve families in the United States and internationally who are oftentimes left out of these conversations and left without resources. We provide families information on how to navigate the special education system and advocate for their children, and we connect them to disabled adult role models.
In one of our initiatives, we partnered with the National Federation of the Blind of Texas to provide trainings to undocumented blind individuals in the United States who cannot access services due to their immigration status. For many of the participants, our workshop was the first time they held a cane in their hand, learned how to access print materials, and had a positive outlook about their future. We held a nationwide conference in Mexico in July 2020 through a grant from the Holman Prize where we had more than 300 attendees. We provided everything free of charge, including workshops, meals, and childcare, and we are still in contact with those families. During quarantine, we have put on virtual seminars in Spanish and we have over 600 people registered for our September session on how to make materials at home for blind students. Many families reach out to us because systems and schools have failed to serve them.
Everything that I do revolves around my community and making sure other children get opportunities I was denied in school. I decided to become a teacher of blind students and am getting my doctorate in special education from George Washington University. My research is focused on the experiences of blind English learners in high school, and how their insights can help guide practitioners to better serve them. Somewhere out there is a child who does not know they are perfect just the way they are, and who might not hear it from their white, able-bodied teachers. I was that child having English as a second language and living in poverty.
I continue to fight for institutional change and inclusion for disabled BIPOC immigrants, yet I don’t pretend that this is enough, nor that being included in a capitalist, ableist, racist, xenophobic system is the answer to our problems. I believe that my community is best served when we gather and envision a liberated world outside of oppressive systems, and we fight toward it everyday. We’ve always been our own best answers.
Latinidad is ever-evolving. It cannot be defined by a blanket term or monolithic idea. That's why it's important to look at its future with respect to its past and present — and that's our mission. In a series of essays, reported articles, and stories for Refinery29 Somos and Latinx Heritage Month, we'll explore the unique conversations and challenges that affect these communities.