Mentorship for Latinas Is Still Scarce. These Groups Are Filling the Gap

Photo: Getty Images.
For students or professionals at the start of their careers, there are many difficult choices that can determine their trajectory. For women of color, including Latinas, the weight of their decisions can be even more heavy, as they often don’t have the financial cushion and connections to help them if their plans don’t pan out. Mentors can help.
For generations, mentorship has been an effective personal and community development tool to strengthen one’s sense of belonging, educational and professional satisfaction, and overall confidence. Unfortunately, creating and maintaining strong relationships with an experienced and trusted adviser often proves challenging, especially for young women and femmes of color who don’t have a network of mentors in their communities, schools, or industries. One survey showed that only 37% of women reported having a formal mentor throughout their career. For women of color, the percentage drops even more. But the tide is turning. In recent years, groups across the country have been working to ensure mentorship is no longer inaccessible to those who need it most. 
Advertisement
Latinas, understanding what it’s like to be the first in their families and neighborhoods to enter certain spaces and fields, are building mentorship programs specifically designed to help younger women navigate (and dismantle) systems that were never made for them. “I wanted to be the person that I needed growing up,” Salvadoran-American mentor Rachel Vigil tells Refinery29 Somos. “My parents always encouraged and supported me, and wanted me to get a college education. But when it came to actually showing me how to do these things, they weren't able to.” 
After having to learn how to steer her path on her own, she wanted to ensure that a future generation of young women had the tools, resources, and relationships that could make their journeys less complicated. In October 2020, Vigil founded Las Chicas Del Barrio, a Dallas, Texas-based nonprofit organization with a mission to empower young women to become the best versions of themselves. Designed for high school and college students between the ages of 15 and 25, Las Chicas Del Barrio was created specifically by Latinas, for Latinas.
Let’s be clear: Receiving mentorship from someone who looks like you doesn’t guarantee identical social and cultural experiences, but it does increase the likelihood of a shared understanding of issues like colorism, systemic racism, machismo, classism, and xenophobia — and this cultural competency can radically transform the effectiveness of mentorship. 

Latinas, understanding what it’s like to be the first in their families and neighborhoods to enter certain spaces and fields, are building mentorship programs specifically designed to help younger women navigate (and dismantle) systems that were never made for them.

daisy maldonado
“As Latina women, our needs are very specific. We are taught that we have to be a specific way to be a Latina woman,” Vigil says. Moreover, because we are often the first in our communities to exist in some professional or educational spaces, we are unaware of how these unfamiliar systems operate and are unsure of the questions to ask to help us get ahead. For instance, at Vigil’s first job, she struggled to pick out health insurance benefits until someone stepped in as a mentor. “It’s when I realized I was missing out on so much,” she says. 
Advertisement
At Las Chicas Del Barrio, mentees are given the one-on-one attention needed to have transformative conversations. Through the program, young women learn how to submit college applications (sometimes in a language they are still learning), understand how to apply for financial aid for school, and are given the emotional support they need to enter a looming patriarchal society.
Understanding the barriers, inequality, and trauma that young Latinas experience at home and out in the world, it’s critical for mentorship programs servicing this population to also take into account matters of mental, emotional, physical, and sexual health. Enter Latinas On the Verge of Excellence, or L.O.V.E, a New York-based mentorship program working with students in predominantly Latine neighborhoods in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.
Before founding L.O.V.E., Executive Director Claudia Espinosa worked as a suicide prevention counselor. Through her work, she saw the rising suicide rates among Latina teens firsthand, and gained experience in how to approach important topics with young women. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, 22.7% of high school-aged Latinas have seriously considered attempting suicide. “In comparison with other groups, young Latinas experience the highest suicide attempts, teen pregnancy, and dropout rates in New York City,” the Colombia-born Espinosa tells Somos.
Photo: Getty Images.
In the last decade, the organization has served more than 2,000 students with activity in 30 separate public schools across the city. In addition to college and career readiness, their curriculum covers mental and physical health issues, like bullying, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and eating disorders. “Mental health is the foundation for everything. Without it, you're unable to really enhance other sections of your life,” Operations Manager Michelle Garzon tells Somos. “It’s a taboo topic in the Latine community. It's kind of like brushed under the rug. So what we do during our programs is try to ensure our students know this isn't something you should be ashamed of.” 
Advertisement
Another equally important pillar of L.O.V.E’s mentorship programing is education on relationships and sexual and reproductive health. Lessons and peer-to-peer discussions take place on peer pressure, abuse, gender and sexuality, sex, birth control, and sexually transmitted infections. “Young women have sex. It's just a matter of educating them in the right ways,” Garzon adds. L.O.V.E’s teaching for ninth-graders provides them with focused conversations on what healthy relationships look like, boundaries, and dating. Later, these topics shift to how to practice safer sex through demonstrations on condom usage and methods of birth control.
But tackling education on college readiness and social issues are just some areas of ongoing mentorship that can be critical to the success of young Latinas. For those entering the workforce for the very first time, it’s also crucial to see women of similar backgrounds pursuing a variety of careers — especially in male-dominated industries like STEM.  

"Receiving mentorship from someone who looks like you doesn’t guarantee identical social and cultural experiences, but it does increase the likelihood of a shared understanding of issues like colorism, systemic racism, machismo, classism, and xenophobia — and this cultural competency can radically transform the effectiveness of mentorship." 

daisy maldonado
As of 2021, Latines make up only 8% of workers in science, technology, engineering and math fields. “Representation is really important with kids, especially with kids that are historically made to feel uncomfortable in certain situations,” Niesha Butler, who recently opened the first Afro-Latina-led STEM center in Brooklyn, tells Somos. 
S.T.E.A.M Champs prioritizes making tech education more attainable in communities where they’ve been overlooked. Education on game and app development, coding, and robotics is available for children as young as six years old. “When I think of a tech person, I think of people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. I don't think of women or Afro-Latinas. That’s when I realized we needed to change that,” the Puerto Rican-Aruban former professional basketball player says. Computer science is a language that, as is the case for others, is better learned at a young age, adds Butler.
Similarly, at Latinitas, a media and technology mentorship program in Austin, Texas, young Latinas learn basic tech literacy. “Mentors have always been integrated in what we do because there is an importance of needing to see it to be it,” founder and CEO Laura Donnelly says, sharing that seeing the reaction of the girls who have mentors who can pronounce their name correctly has been special. “They need to recognize that they can be in these spaces, and have mentors that are bilingual or look like someone they know — that is the impact.” Recently, Latinitas added a new program that welcomes parents to explore tech with their children. 
Rather than fighting for a single seat at the proverbial table, Latina mentors understand that what our communities need is a safe haven, or a home, to learn and grow together — and they’re building these spaces through mentorship programs.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series

Advertisement