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Edge: Latinx students bring strengths into schools

Research points to ways educators can build on Latinx ‘cultural wealth’
Robert Martinez feature image

Robert Martinez, professor of school counseling, school psychology, and human development and family science, focuses on research that points to ways educators can build on Latinx ‘cultural wealth’.

The following article is from the Fall 2020 issue of Edge: Carolina Education Review.

Researcher: Robert Martinez

Latinx students accounted for more than half of the growth in the U.S. elementary, middle, and high school student population during the past decade. Latinx students make up over 27% of the U.S. school-age population, reaching almost half of all students in some states.

The Edge
Schools in the U.S. need to find ways to better serve the growing Latinx population. One approach calls for educators to recognize and build upon the “community cultural wealth” and “funds of knowledge” (conciementos) Latinx students and their families bring to schools and communities. Robert Martinez, assistant professor of school counseling, describes eight areas of strength (fuerzas) that Latinx students typically possess and suggests ways in which educators — and school counselors in particular — can build upon those strengths.

But the educational potential of Latinx students is not being met by our schools. How can schools better serve Latinx students?

One area of need: better preparation of school counselors so that they are equipped to serve the needs of Latinx and students of color.

Our higher educational institutions must dramatically improve preparation of school counselors and other educators, equipping them to employ culturally informed promotive and protective resources when working with students who face an educational system not created for them, says Robert Martinez, a Latinx researcher and assistant professor of school counseling at UNC’s School of Education.

One indicator of how well we confront this educational-cultural collision, or choque, is whether high schools successfully prepare Latinx students to apply and transition to college, then persist and earn a college degree.


Martinez is a first-generation college graduate and ex-foster youth who grew up in Los Angeles, the child of Latinx immigrant parents who did not finish high school. Now a researcher and teacher of school counseling, Martinez studies how school counselors and school counseling programs can be more effective in serving Latinx and other minority and low-income populations.

Researchers, including Martinez, have identified that Latinx first-generation students face significant inequalities when they seek to reach and complete postsecondary education. More work is needed for school counselors to adopt a cultural lens that helps them identify and implement ways to help these often-overlooked students overcome the college readiness challenges they encounter (Martinez, Dye & Gonzalez, 2017).

Martinez has researched and identified approaches schools, and their school counselors, can use to better serve Latinx students.


Martinez describes the “community cultural wealth” and “funds of knowledge,” or conciementos, that Latinx students typically have and encourages school counselors and other school staff to recognize those strengths — or fuerzas — and to work to build upon them. School counselors need to know that Latinx students come to school with multiple strengths, cultural assets, and cultural wealth that are built around those students’ knowledge, skills, and networks.

These strengths often go unrecognized by school counselors and other school staff who perceive a “deficit model” when thinking about the abilities and needs of under-served student populations, such as Latinx students.

Applying a ‘critical race theory’ lens

Critical race theory, or CRT, is a framework used by many scholars to examine culture and society, including its laws and educational structures. Drawn from the work of Black intellectuals and extended by a movement in American law schools in the 1980s, CRT is applied by educational researchers to examine the pervasiveness of race matters and the ways in which racism affect all aspects of schooling such as funding, disciplinary actions, testing practices, and segregation. Education scholars using a CRT approach challenge prevailing narratives of schools, and question practices and policies that inhibit racial equality.

Martinez advocates that educators use what scholars have described as a “critical race theory” approach to examining and addressing the issues that students of color and their families confront in their daily lives. A critical race theory — or CRT for short — approach accepts the idea that race and racism is a pervasive aspect and influence in American life and calls for scholars and others to identify racism’s influences and to seek to rectify them. CRT also calls for recognition of the knowledge and strengths people of color possess from having endured racism.

Martinez describes eight areas of strength that many Latinx students have and proposes actions school counselors may take that build on those strengths:

Aspirational wealth. Latinx students often develop the ability to have high hopes for the future despite the barriers they face.

School counselors can organize classroom guidance and/or group counseling sessions in which recent Latinx graduates enrolled in college talk about their experiences and answer students’ questions — all to build on students’ aspirational wealth.

Linguistic wealth. Latinx students often are able to speak more than one language, giving them ability to communicate in multiple and varied environments.

School counselors first should see Latinx students’ language skills as a strength, support efforts to build linguistic strength in English, and create guidance lessons in the students’ native language.

Social wealth. Latinx students often capitalize on their social networks and from the lessons they learn from interacting with peers, especially those among other people of color.

Latinx students especially benefit from school counselors who provide them with vital information and assistance in researching and applying to colleges, doing so in a way that connects with the students’ passions and interests. Latinx students also particularly benefit from being connected with peer mentors once they enter college.

Navigational wealth. Latinx students have learned how to make sense of and to navigate in multiple, distinct worlds.

Latinx students would benefit from efforts to encourage college-going at early ages, beginning in middle school. Middle school teachers and counselors can work together to engage students in completing personality, learning, and interest surveys. They can cultivate students’ knowledge about their academic interests and strengths, forming a foundation for students to begin college and career searches.

Familial wealth. Many Latinx students find strength in the support and guidance they receive through their families.

School counselors can take into account the particular importance of family for Latinx students. School counselors should advocate for dedicated time to build relationships with students’ families through meetings, phone calls, and home visits. School counselors can help build students’ visions of academic success, then work with families to connect students’ visions with the academic behaviors necessary to achieve those goals.

School counselors, along with teachers and other school staff, should become attuned to Latinx students’ feelings of obligation to their families and recognize that Latinx students often take on family responsibilities that can take them away from academic work. School counselors can stress with families the importance of students’ regular school attendance.

Resistant wealth. By enduring lifelong racial and gender aggressions, Latinx students often have developed skills to challenge academic and social obstacles.

School counselors can work to help Latinx students become more aware of their resistant wealth, helping them understand how to use it in pursuit of academic goals. School counselors also can work within their schools to identify and lower barriers that inhibit Latinx students’ academic achievements by opening dialogue with school staff to help make them aware of underlying biases and to help make school environments more supportive of Latinx students.

Perseverant wealth. Many Latinx students have developed a strong sense of self-determination, self-reliance, and confidence that helps fuel pursuit of their goals.

School counselors can play key roles in helping Latinx students overcome inequalities they may confront in schools, and fill in for parents when they do not have college-going experience and knowledge. School counselors can facilitate college-going aspirations, especially among less advantaged groups, including Latinx students. Research has shown that seeing a school counselor to discuss college-related topics increased the likelihood of Latinx students attending two- or four-year colleges (Reigel-Crumb, 2010).

Spirituality. Latinx students often have a deep commitment to their religious faith, which provides them a source of strength.

Many Latinx students will talk about their faith and the strength it provides them. School counselors can support this strength when they work with Latinx students. For example, school counselors can ask a focus question such as “Would you like to talk to me about your spiritual self and how it helps you with your academic aspirations?” Doing so conveys to students that they have the freedom to connect their spiritual selves to their academic goals.


More research is needed to quantify how implementation of these types of interventions affects Latinx student populations. Further research is needed to determine how school counselors, often laboring under heavy workloads, can implement these interventions into their schedules.

Martinez says there is an urgent need to help Latinx students move successfully through middle and high schools, and to prepare for further academic pursuits. Culturally responsive school counseling includes acknowledging, and building upon, the unique community cultural wealth of Latinx and other diverse student populations.


Martinez, R. R., Baker, S., & Young, T. (2016). Promoting career and college readiness aspirations and self-efficacy. Career Development Quarterly, 65(2).

Martinez, R. R., Dye, L., Gonzalez, L. M. (2017) A social constructivist approach to preparing school counselors to work effectively in urban schools. The Urban Review.

Martinez, Jr., R., Akos, P., & Kurz, M. (2020). Utilizing Latinx Cultural Wealth to Create a College Going Culture in High School. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development. Accepted.

Riegle-Crumb, C. (2010). More girls go to college: Exploring the social and academic factors behind the female postsecondary advantage among Hispanic and White students. Research in Higher Education, 51(6), 573-593.