Magazine Feature

Ethnic Identity in the Nuevo South

As demographics change, educators must act quickly to support Latinx students

By Elsa Camargo, Delma Ramos, and Cathryn Bennett

Fall 2021

Todos somos virginianos.” We are all Virginians.

Tim Kaine offered this message of unity during his victory speech after the 2012 election. He had won the support of more than 70 percent of Latinx voters across Virginia in his race for the US Senate. In turn, Kaine went on to make issues related to the Latinx community central to his agenda. He spoke in Spanish on the Senate floor in 2013, urging his colleagues to support a bill on immigration reform. In that speech, Kaine emphasized that Spanish has been spoken in the United States since 1565, when Spain founded a colony in St. Augustine, Florida. Today, Kaine’s website contains information in both English and Spanish.

Kaine’s ongoing relationship with Latinx voters is a response to the rapid influx of Latinx residents that has dramatically transformed the social, political, and economic landscape in Virginia and other states across the US South. From 2010 to 2019, the South experienced the nation’s biggest Latinx population growth (a 26 percent increase, according to the Pew Research Center). Since the 1990s, many sociologists have referred to a group of several southern states—usually Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—as the Nuevo (New) South.

To capture perspectives and experiences of college students living and studying in the Nuevo South, we surveyed 544 undergraduate students who self-identified as Latinx or Hispanic and were enrolled at two public universities in spring 2019. The two universities, located in Arkansas and North Carolina, have rapidly growing Latinx student populations and an increasing number of programs and services to support them.

The survey responses, which vary little between the two institutions, show that college students identify with various ethnic and racial groups, not only with a panethnic label like Latinx. Accordingly, educators need to take all of students’ diverse identities into account in the development of curricula and policies. The responses also show that students are very aware of the injustices and social hierarchies that affect their education, emphasizing an urgent need for colleges, universities, state governments, and local communities to provide support, improve access, and increase participation for communities throughout the Nuevo South.

“Latinx students must see themselves in the traditions, practices, and planning of their institutions.”

The South and the Nuevo South are not the same. States that have historically been included in definitions of the South, such as Texas and Florida, are notably absent from definitions of the Nuevo South. This is because Florida and Texas have longer legacies of Latinx settlement, migration, and civil rights advocacy, while recent migration in Nuevo South states has significantly changed the sociopolitical environment and increased awareness about Latinx culture. As with many geopolitical boundaries, the definitions and borders of the Nuevo South are often challenged and can change over time.

Not everyone in the Nuevo South welcomes the demographic changes. Resistance to the growing Latinx community is visible when local police and sheriff departments collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to racially profile Latinx people; when Latinx students are disproportionately placed in vocational or technical education programs; or when people make stereotypical assumptions about the diverse populations of Hispanic or Latinx people.

Since Nuevo South states have more recent histories of Latinx migration, they often do not have the same history of struggles for equity and justice, such as the Chicano civil rights movement that extended across the Southwest in the late 1960s. As with the historical legacies of slavery and anti-Black racism in the South, racialized injustice in the Nuevo South is rooted in a romanticized history that minimizes or ignores violence, intergenerational trauma, and colonialism while upholding white supremacy.

Researchers have identified institutionalized resistance to demographic changes at many colleges, universities, and K–12 school systems across the South and Nuevo South. In a 2018 Teaching Education article, Westry Whitaker and his colleagues at the University of North Georgia describe a “Southern epistemology” that is widespread at their university and other institutions across the region. Southern epistemology downplays the effects of historical racism; resists “critical thinking or ‘ivory tower’ intellectuals”; and displays a “propensity for xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, resistance to analysis, and disinclination toward social change,” they write. Recently, Southern epistemology has fueled several national debates and controversies. In one notable example, legislatures and school boards across the country have banned, or attempted to ban, the teaching of historical racism and critical race theory—which examines how racism is a social construct embedded in societal structures rather than merely the bias of individuals—in public K–12 schools and higher education institutions.

Latinx students have reported feeling that many educators view their bilingualism and biculturalism as deficiencies, according to a 2005 study of Georgia students by researchers Stephanie A. Bohon, Heather MacPherson, and Jorge H. Atiles. Many teachers and college counselors lack the necessary cultural competencies to support Latinx students’ academic pathways, often offering vocational career options rather than providing the resources to help students attend a four-year institution, according to Lucy Bush, an education scholar at Mercer University. Some state legislatures have passed laws, such as Alabama House Bill 56 in 2011, that prohibit undocumented students from enrolling in public universities or receiving in-state tuition. In many Nuevo South states, Latinx students complete their degrees at rates below the national average for the demographic group, according to the Education Trust. Many institutions have also been slow to include these students’ identities and histories in the curriculum or campus community.

In the past decade, the term Latinx has gained more popularity, especially among academics, as a gender-neutral word to describe people of Latin American descent. However, some scholars have identified politicized implications of using this label. For example, the term is not used as often among the general population as in academic spaces, and not all Latina/o or Hispanic people identify with a gender-inclusive label like “Latinx,” according to a 2020 article by Cristobal Salinas Jr. in the Journal of Hispanic Higher Education.

Instead, many people from Latin American countries (and their descendants) describe their ethnicity using a home country rather than broader labels like Latinx or Hispanic. By grouping these various ethnicities together, higher education institutions, faculty, staff, and scholars often develop academic curricula, programs, support structures, and research studies that are too panethnic, failing to acknowledge all the ethnicities that make up the Latinx group. Ignoring the various ethnicities, nationalities, and races of students and conceptualizing the Latinx community as a monolith is a form of ethno-racial erasure.

In our 2019 survey of students at institutions in Arkansas and North Carolina, the students’ responses to open-ended questions about ethnicity and an option to “select all that apply” indicated the wide variety of identities in the Nuevo South that are often grouped together as Latinx. Some students provided unique descriptions such as “I am mixed/multiracial Afro-Latino and Italian.” Others gave more widely used terms such as “Mestiza” or “Indigenous.” Many named a home country. Respondents identified with a total of twenty-one ethnicities, with 58 percent identifying as Mexican or Chicano. Many others identified as Salvadorian (7.2 percent), Puerto Rican (6.6 percent), Panamanian (3.1 percent), Argentine (0.6 percent), Native (0.4 percent), and Uruguayan (0.2 percent). Some participants included up to three identity markers, with one student identifying as “Mexican/Chicano, Cuban, Puerto Rican.”

Latinx students in the Nuevo South are aware of the social hierarchies that affect their education. Our survey asked participants to define equity and social justice in a “check all that apply” format and offered a prompt for open responses so students could provide their own definitions. One student shared an understanding that inequities occur “when two groups are reaching for the same goal; however, one group had an upper hand or privilege to reach that same goal, while the other group didn’t.” Additionally, we asked students about the social and political climate in their Nuevo South state. Sixty-eight percent of students indicated that they did not “believe my state values the presence of the Latinx community,” and 30 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that their state’s social and political climate allowed Latinx people to form a community of support. Several students viewed confronting inequities and eradicating racialized barriers as critical to living safe and successful lives. One student defined social justice as “bringing to light and fighting to end inequalities that don’t allow others to reach their full potential.” Another student emphasized the importance of representation by describing social justice as “the fight to include and incorporate the opinions and feelings of all individuals to improve the social and living standards we’re currently experiencing.”

In many Nuevo South states, Latinx students rely on community organizations to support their access to basic needs such as food, health care, and education. Though 47 percent of our survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their state has the necessary resources in place to support Latinx communities’ access to higher education, 34 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed. One Latinx student wrote that social justice entails “making amends for past and present discrimination toward targeted groups . . . regarding access to resources, opportunities, voice, and power.” Thirty percent of students in our survey reported that members of the Latinx community lack state-funded support and access for all six services and basic needs we asked about. However, some students viewed state policies as helping the Latinx community access education (38 percent), food (31 percent), employment (19 percent), transportation (19 percent), housing (18 percent), and health care (18 percent). In the words of one student, “Equal, fair, and efficient resources [are required] to obtain an education.”

As extensions ofthe state government, public higher education institutions can connect Latinx people, influence their region’s sociopolitical climate, and facilitate processes to develop the community’s identity and improve its economic and social standing. To do this, college and university leaders, faculty, and staff must create culturally relevant curricular and cocurricular content that supports Latinx students’ identity development and provides continuous opportunities to learn about their history, especially within the Nuevo South region.

But educators in the Nuevo South have been slow to change their approach to teaching and supporting Latinx students. Many teachers alienate and racialize their students, causing students to feel devalued and as if they don’t belong. Racialization refers to a person being “raced,” or categorized within an assumed ethno-racial group. In education, this can happen when Latinx people are assumed to all be the same without recognizing the multiple and complex linguistic, cultural, and identity variations across their various experiences. Another form of racialization is when educators view Latinx students through a deficit lens and funnel students into academic pathways based on low expectations for educational success, such as discouraging Latinx high school students from enrolling in advanced placement courses.

Simply opening the front door and admitting historically minoritized students to a university is not sufficient. Institutions must also help students complete their degree. One way to do this is to provide guideposts, which can include ongoing updates on students’ progress toward degree completion; culturally responsive reminders about services to support students’ well-being and academic success; programs to create boundary-spanning networks among students, on-campus groups, and surrounding Latinx communities; and support for basic needs such as food and housing throughout all stages of a college education. Perhaps the most essential step in this process is to distinguish between access and participation, as giving students access to higher education is not the same as including them in processes that create institutional or curricular change.

To avoid the resistance to change that is characteristic of Southern epistemology, college and university leaders must cocreate the identity of their institutions together with the students they serve. The removal of monuments to racism and the enslavement of Indigenous, Black, and Brown people are a contested, yet generative, example of how institutions can change their culture and campus environments to be more welcoming to students of color. With the support of higher education personnel, students can understand how ongoing inequities stem from historical events and power dynamics. As one example, institutions can guide their campus communities in an examination of inequities and their consequences on campus, such as the effects that students of color experience when the majority of personnel in cleaning, grounds crews, and food service departments are people of color while most departmental leaders and senior administrators are White. Conversations about these topics—in class or during campus-wide events—can be an opportunity for educators to foster solidarity across multiple student identities.

Our prior research, published in February 2021 in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, found that Latinx college students are less likely to participate in cocurricular activities or to have access to basic resources such as housing or food, which negatively affects their ability to focus on their education. State governments, including public universities and colleges, must institutionalize the types of support that community organizations are providing Latinx students as they prepare to attend college. State leaders have a responsibility to ensure that basic needs, services, and supports are equitably available to people of all ethno-racial identities. Therefore, institutions must ensure that students know about, and have access to, programs that can help fulfill their basic needs.

For Latinx students to thrive, they must see themselves in the fabric, traditions, practices, and planning of their institutions. To help students do this, higher education institutions must confront the historical and contemporary forms of exclusion inflicted on Latinx people. Through concerted, collaborative efforts to provide support, improve access, and increase participation for Latinx communities throughout the Nuevo South, higher education leaders can better address the injustices that their students face.

Image credit: iStock


  • Elsa Camargo

    Elsa Camargo is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Texas at Arlington.

  • Delma Ramos

    Delma Ramos is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

  • Cathryn Bennett

    Cathryn Bennett is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.