Esther J. Cepeda


 Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. 
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(Advance for Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- It might seem obvious that the angst and fear President Trump has stirred up with his thinly veiled verbal assaults on people of color will translate into votes for a Democrat -- anyone but Trump -- but it's just not a slam dunk.

While 62% of U.S. Hispanics say they are certain to vote for a Democratic candidate, a still stunning 22% of Hispanic registered voters surveyed at the beginning of September approved of Trump's job performance, according to a Latino Decisions poll.

Nearly the same percentage said that if they had to choose between Trump, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, they'd choose the president -- even though the same poll uncovered that 50% of respondents thought Trump and the Republicans are being hostile to Latinos rather than attempting to cultivate their votes.

This will be inconceivable only to those who don't understand that there is no such thing as a cohesive "Latino" community. The Hispanics in this country are as diverse as can be, and they are not held together by language, immigration status or experiences as a so-called minority.

Indeed, we are probably about to witness the growth of both ethnic and political diversity in the Latino community. That's because, since about 2000, the increase in the Latino population has been mostly driven by births, not immigration.

Latino children have been a quarter of all U.S. public school students since about 2016, and, as a teacher, I get to see this diversity. There are children who recently arrived from Latin American countries and those who are the second or third (or more) generation to be born here.

On paper, many of these students can be nearly indistinguishable from their non-Hispanic peers. I have two Latina Hildas in my fourth-grade class, plus a whole crop of Sophias, Olivias and Emmas. The boys are no different; there are multiple Brandons, an Aiden, an Ethan and a Jackson.

Though some of these kids have dark skin and brown hair and eyes, others have lighter features. Either way, growing up as a quarter or more of a classroom has an impact on a student's perception of the power dynamics in a group and in a school building -- it does not lend itself to growing up feeling like a "minority."

This isn't to say that an Americanized name and the privilege of U.S. citizenship would eventually have some sort of automatic correlation with support for the Donald Trumps of the world. But a general friendliness toward the Republican Party has always been a hallmark of Latinos who own businesses.

JPMorgan Chase recently estimated that Latino-owned businesses could, in the near future, potentially add $1.4 trillion to the economy.

That's a lot of Latinos who are probably open to a business-friendly, non-immigration driven agenda pitch from the Republican Party -- if only they'd abandon the immigrant bashing and try a welcoming strategy.

And there is plenty of opportunity.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents, 73%, said that it was even more important to vote in the 2020 election than it was in 2016, making Latinos a prime target for any candidate at any level. It's just a matter of reaching out to them.

I recently listened in on a state organizer-level conference call for a prominent presidential candidate who is hoping to make inroads in Wisconsin. During the 50-minute call, along with ground-level strategy and tactics, one person asked about outreach to the African American voter base. None brought up Hispanics, even though they are now a slightly larger percentage of the state's population than blacks.

That's the story of the Latino voters in America: Ripe for the picking, but they are either taken for granted as a vote for whichever Democrat appears on a ballot or forgotten about altogether.

Is that because in the back of people's mind's they believe the false rhetoric about "most" Latinos here being in the country illegally and therefore unable to vote? Or is there Sleeping Giant fatigue -- people tired of hearing about how important the Latino vote is, but knowing this electorate has yet to punch its own weight?

It hardly matters. What's important is that if campaigns don't start Latino outreach now, they will be squandering an important opportunity with voters who are ready and waiting to be courted.

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group


(Advance for Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- All of the books by best-selling author Paul Tough have been meaningful to me. I'm a teacher, and there's nothing an educator loves more than books that offer up a clear, concise answer to the question of how to best help children succeed.

But his latest book is personal. Tough was in the process of researching his now-released "The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us" when we first talked a couple of years ago about the fact that neither of my sons -- both children of someone who was the first in their family to go to college -- wanted any post-secondary education.

My younger son had decided to go into welding at around the same time that news headlines were suggesting (erroneously) that welders made $150,000 annual salaries. This was also when Republican politicians started pushing the idea that a liberal arts degree paled in its utility compared with a vocational education.

Tough started checking in with my son and his older brother, a free spirit who never even considered college and who left his home state to work as a short-order cook in southern Oregon while his girlfriend trained to be a doula.

The jury is still out. My older son is now working a career-track restaurant management job, and his brother learned all too well an important detail that Tough uncovers in a chapter dedicated to the welding craze: "One of the many odd things about the rhetoric that posits welding as the antithesis of college is that in order to become a welder, you actually have to go to college."

Tough describes the "13 separate welding courses, starting with basic metal cutting and moving up through stick welding, plate and pipe welding, and glass metal arc welding ... [plus] basic classes in math and English as well as more conceptual courses in welding metallurgy and the symbols and specifications used in blueprints" necessary for an associate's degree at one community college.

Believe me, the papers and tests in general education and discipline-specific community-college courses like Manufacturing Processes -- a class my son returns from at 9:30 at night -- are no less difficult than those found at four-year universities.

And after all that arduous work, if you can't provide a drug-free urine sample for an internship or a job welding at a real factory, then you've wasted your time and money.

And students are increasingly being trained in the skills of adapting to working with robotics and artificial intelligence, not necessarily in using their hands. My son walked away from a post-internship job offer because the painstaking effort of checking a machine's work was simply too boring to contemplate doing for more than a few months.

Though I sincerely hope that some sort of career trajectory will emerge for my welding son -- who actually wants to be a blacksmith but can't fathom having to limit the artistry of the craft to fixing people's fences -- I agree with Tough that the wealthy-welder myth serves the interests of those who'd like to see an academic status quo maintained.

"If we are able to persuade ourselves that there are plenty of lucrative opportunities available for young people [who don't want a traditional college education and] who didn't much like high school, it absolves us of our shared responsibility to address the reality of [such students'] limited economic prospects," Tough writes.

And, by the way, don't believe that welders are better off than philosophy majors -- the $150,000-a-year manual labor job is a myth: "The [welding] salaries that make headlines in The Wall Street Journal are somewhere between rare and apocryphal," Tough writes.

It's a fairytale designed to take our attention off the real lack of lucrative noncollege options available to people who didn't start out as academic superstars: "It provides a way to distract public attention from policy shifts that have made it more difficult for young people [who don't want to go to college] to reach the middle class."

Tough's book arrives at the very moment when energized voters are pressing presidential hopefuls on how they would help all young people reach a middle-class life. This includes everyone from first-generation college students who don't have the resources to game the system in their favor to those who feel they have no other recourse than to go into extensive personal financial debt for a degree.

Millions of futures depend on engaging in a vital discussion about dependable noncollege options for our young people. Many of us got our shot at a solid, middle-class life without having to go into student-loan debt. Doesn't the next generation deserve the same opportunity?

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group


(Advance for Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- (BEG ITAL)Contact paper. Plastic boxes for crayons. Damage-free picture hangers ...(END ITAL)

If you're a teacher, this list looks very familiar.

(BEG ITAL)Poster frames. Dry-erase markers. Blank self-adhesive labels ... (END ITAL)

These are the kinds of items that don't always make it onto the standard school-supply lists, but we buy them at the start of the school year so that the students streaming into our classrooms for the first day of school can feel welcome and at home. Safe.

(BEG ITAL)Fluffy pillows. Comfy blankets. A few extra granola bars or pretzels for the extra hungry ... (END ITAL)

For some students, school is the only place that will offer two meals each weekday and the support of adults who are able to meet their academic and emotional needs with predictable routines. Other students simply need a place where they can let their intellects loose with the guidance of teachers who are ready to challenge them and allow them to struggle productively.

And that takes love, time, energy -- and money.

In fact, it takes an average of $459 a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute, which took the National Center for Educational Statistics' 2011-2012 Schools and Staffing Survey and adjusted for inflation to 2018 dollars.

This is money we're not reimbursed for. Usually it doesn't even take into account money from our own pockets for candy rewards, small toy incentives and special favors like special pencils, erasers or markers.

And the number fluctuates depending on where you live.

Teachers here in Illinois, for instance, spend a little less, with a state average of $439 a year. Teachers in North Dakota, where the poverty level is slightly under the national average, spend the least out-of-pocket, at $327. California teachers spend the most, at $664.

Not coincidentally, California has one of the highest levels of poverty in the U.S.

Those teachers, I'm sure, are shelling out for all manner of "school supplies" that are outside of the regular realm of loose-leaf notebook paper, pencils and sharpeners.

Last year I bought the following "supplies" out of my own pocket: snow pants, backpacks, stickers for class projects, jigsaw puzzles for students who reported having no educational toys at home, and yarn and hooks for a student who wanted to learn how to crochet but whose parents needed to economize with the family budget. I bought a supply of petroleum jelly and cotton swabs for mending winter-dried lips that cracked and bled at school.

This year I'll be teaching mostly Latino fourth-grade students, and I don't know what their needs will be.

Teachers never know.

For the most part, classrooms are a mix of students who find school easy, who get along just fine or simply don't need any extra help -- and those who come to school carrying an awful load of emotional or mental baggage that they're not able to articulate on the first day.

The best educators seek to not make such distinctions -- they aim to treat each student as an individual learner and not as the representative of a whole demographic whose income level, immigration status or family history will determine how well they'll perform.

But most of the best -- and even a lot of the middling and worst -- teachers believe that their students are special and worthy of all the little extras that make school a place that can be full of wonder and fun.

Things like themed nameplates, bulletin-board displays and four-color glossy pictures so the kids can see their own faces decorating their classroom walls. Or comfy seats for students to read in so they don't have to sit at their desks all day.

(BEG ITAL)Large zip-top bags. Plastic crates. Electric pencil sharpener ...(END ITAL)

This year, I went "back to school" on Aug. 1, with full days of professional development to learn how to better teach reading and math. I also learned how to reach kids who might seem to not care but may actually just be hungry or sad.

But along with protecting students, teachers were also taught to protect themselves. We were shown how to get out of a chokehold, a hair pull and a fist strike in case a student attacked.

Most disheartening was that we were taught that our doors must be closed and locked at all times while we're teaching, in case of armed intruders.

This growing climate of fear nationwide makes the list of back-to-school "must-haves" for teachers both free and quite precious: Empathy. Hope. And a whole lot of courage.

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.