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The digital literacy practices of Latina/o immigrant parents in an after-school technology partnership.


Drawing from a larger qualitative four-year study of an after-school technology partnership called La Clase Magica at the University of Texas at San Antonio (LCM@UTSA), we focus on how digital literacies mediate the literacy learning of Latina/o bilingual immigrant parents. We also discuss how the elementary school and university partnership addressed the opportunities and challenges of working with culturally diverse families.

Specifically, this article explores the ways Latina/o families in the program use technology to bridge existing cultural and technological divides. The term family member is utilized along with the term parent because it better reflects the situations of Latina/o students, who often are raised communally by extended family members and close friends (Machado-Casas, 2009b).

Using a participatory perspective on parent involvement (Vasquez, 2003, 2006), and the multigenerational community utility-based model of Latina/o families' interactions as a theoretical framework (Machado-Casas, 2006; Valdes, 1996), this article explores how Latina/o families involved in LCM@UTSA use technology as a bridge for connecting with their children, getting involved with the school, and becoming part of the local and global 21st century community.

The research conducted here is significant, given the digital divide that persists along racial and class lines. In the following sections, we provide information on that digital divide and technology usage among Latina/o parents and families as well as family involvement in technology education. We close with reflections on partnering with local parents, an elementary school, and a university teacher-preparation program; we offer implications and directions for further investigations.

The Digital Divide in the U.S.

In the U.S., the digital divide--the gap that exists between people who have access to digital technology and those who do not--is tightly linked to access to computers and Internet usage that can be examined across socio-economic status, ethnicity, and age. Households with a yearly income of $75,000 or higher have a home computer ownership rate of 88%; at the $15,000-to-$24,999 income level, home computer ownership drops to 33%; a yearly income under $15,000 yields only a 23% home computer ownership rate (Chakraborty & Bosman, 2002).

The two ethnic groups with the highest levels of home computer access are Asians at 78% and Whites at 75%, compared to 51% of African Americans and 49% of Latinas/os (Fairlie, 2005). These figures do not change significantly when we examine Internet access at home. For African Americans and Latinas/os, these figures drop to 41% and 38%, respectively (Fairlie, 2005). Some families may own a computer but cannot afford consistent, monthly Internet service at home. Also, within the Latina/o population, "Mexicans have the lowest home computer and Internet access rates, followed by Central and South Americans" (Fairlie, 2005, p. i).

Levels of education and language are significant factors for not engaging in online interactions (Fox & Livingston, 2007). Given that four in 10 Latina/o adults have not completed high school, their opportunities for participation are largely diminished (Fox & Livingston, 2007).

These statistics are similar in school contexts. According to the U.S. Department of Education (2000), only 7% of Latino students in first through sixth grades report using a computer at home compared to 31% of White students. In fact, Latino families are half as likely to own a computer as White families, and they are 2.5 times less likely to use the Internet (U.S. Department of Education, 2000).

The digital divide highlights that computer literacy is not a luxury but a need, as technology affects nearly all aspects of everyday life (Machado-Casas, 2009b). In today's information-based economy, computer literacy is a central requirement for many jobs. Since many Latinas/os do not have access to computers at home or at school, they are likely to lack computer and technology skills, rendering them unqualified for many jobs (Pruitt-Mentle, 2002).

Furthermore, technology is a focus of academic curricula, and computers are a central medium for knowledge distribution, thus further marginalizing many Latinas/os without computer access at home. Our research findings demonstrate the importance and benefits of establishing after-school technology partnerships for Latina/o students and parents that can improve familial attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge about technology (Rivera, 2008; Ek, Machado-Casas, Sanchez, & Alanis, 2010).

Parent/Family Involvement and Technology Use

Research has consistently reported that children learn well when their parents are actively involved in their learning (Delgado-Gaitan, 1990). Further, parental support and modeling helps to enhance and secure student achievement and provides long-lasting educational gains (Darling-Hammond, 1997).

Although many Latina/o parents express a desire to be involved in their children's schoolwork (Quiocho & Daoud, 2006), they often demonstrate little or no school involvement (Bauch, 1992; Costa, 1991; Ferrer, 2007); this is because they are expected to follow traditional involvement methods (volunteer at the PTA, go on field trips, donate money or goods, etc).

Instead, Latina/o families engage in non-traditional school involvement practices that are more difficult to quantify and observe (Valdes, 1996). Thus, many teachers perceive that Latina/o parents do not care about their children's education (c.f., Smith, Stern, & Shatrova, 2008). Nevertheless, Valdes (1996) explains that Latina/o parents sometimes do not understand the concept of involvement as it is expected in U.S. schools, while Bauch (1992) confirmed that other obstacles encountered by Latina/o parents include failure to understand school operations, a language barrier, and their own lack of formal education.

Furthermore, many schools today choose to communicate with families through the use of technology, such as emails, e-bulletin boards, online portals, and digital announcements; the retrieval of these school messages requires at least basic computer literacy skills that some Latina/o families may not have. These hurdles, along with other computer literacy challenges, make school involvement difficult for Latina/o parents, particularly when the subject is technology.

Scholarly attention must continue to examine the digital divide at home, where such a gap can create a multigenerational rift between parents and their children. Not having the opportunity to co-learn with their children often creates a digital divide between Latina/o parents and their children that exacerbates the sense of separation many Latina/o immigrant parents already feel when communicating with their children. This can lead to decreased family communication, less closeness, and more anxiety about child-rearing practices (Machado-Casas, 2009b). Hence, it is imperative to explore how to bridge this divide so that families can begin to see technology as a resource.

On a related note, Machado-Casas (2009a) has discussed the importance of utility knowledge, or the knowledge and skills necessary for immigrant survival, both in the U.S. and in the country of origin--i.e., skills that go beyond basic ones to those necessary in order to become active participants of today's globalized society.

This research, conducted in North Carolina with indigenous Latino immigrants, revealed that families wanted to learn about technology, but many had children who could not be left at home alone while the parents attended adult programs. Furthermore, there were no programs available to them and their children at the same time that could ameliorate a digital divide between Latina/o parents and their children (Machado-Casas, 2009b).

This is similar to what Wong-Filmore (1991) found among Chinese immigrant families when the children shifted to the use of English, thus furthering the gap between parents and children. In the Machado-Casas study (2009b) this permeated to nearly all aspects of life--including the interactions between Latino parents and children, a relationship instrumental in developing computer and technology literacy as they both contribute to each other's development and growth.

Some work in the area of assessing after-school technology programs has yielded positive results. For example, Duran (2001) assessed how an after-school technology program designed for low-income Latina/o immigrant families enhanced computer awareness, basic computer skills, basic word processing skills, and multimedia and telecommunications familiarity.

Latina/o parents involved in the program showed significant gains in every area of assessment over the course of the project; gains were greatest in knowledge of the Internet, specifically in familiarity with multimedia and telecommunications technology. For the parents involved in the program, computer literacy rose from 32% to 73%. This study proved that parent and family integration in after-school technology programs can be beneficial.

Furthermore, Duran (2001) noted that the interactions between Latina/o parents and their children in this program were instrumental in acquiring computer literacy. Overall, this study concluded that after-school technology programs for immigrant Latina/o parents and children are beneficial, as they connect family members, teachers, university students, faculty, and others from the community.

In another study, seven elementary school students and their parents were recruited to participate in a pilot after-school program called "Learning Together" (Tartakov & Phillips, 2003). The participants were low-income families of various ethnic backgrounds, including Latinas/os. These students also reported feeling excited about their new abilities to work independently on the computers and experiment with new programs (Tartakov & Phillips, 2003).

Background on the After-School Technology Partnership

LCM@UTSA is a collaborative among the Academy of Teacher Excellence at UTSA, Los Arboles Elementary (pseudonym), the surrounding community, and Los Arboles' families. More than just an after-school program, LCM@UTSA is a partnership designed to promote: (1) the use of technology for learning and teaching and for developing cultural awareness, (2) maintenance and development of children and their families' bilingualism and biliteracy, (3) the use of technology for scientific and mathematical knowledge, (4) the preparation of future bilingual teachers, and (5) opening the college pipeline for first-generation Latina/o students. (For a detailed description of the original La Clase Magica [LCM], which started 20 years ago in San Diego, see Vasquez, 2003.)

Now in its fifth year in Texas, cohorts of bilingual teacher candidates (20-25 each semester) take a class at the university campus that is directly tied to LCM@ UTSA. These bilingual teacher candidates are also required to attend the after-school sessions of LCM@UTSA, once a week for two hours, at Los Arboles Elementary.

With the Academy of Teacher Excellence's support, UTSA students are provided with hardware to use with Los Arboles Elementary school students; during different semesters, students have received an iPhone, netbook, iPod touch, iPad or iPad mini that they keep for their future classroom teaching. The Talleres de familia de La Clase Magica (Family workshops of LCM), which work with families whose children participate in LCM@UTSA, constitute a critical component of the after-school technology program and are run by a professor from the research team.

Talleres de familia de La Clase Magica

This study explored the impact of the parent and family technology talleres (workshops). Parents and/or family members whose children participated in LCM@ UTSA were invited to attend talleres on the third Tuesday of every month. They attended during the same time that their school-aged children were in LCM@UTSA with the bilingual teacher candidates. Between 12 and 20 family members, ranging in age from 18 to 80 years old, including young mothers and fathers as well as grandparents, participated. Most families were Mexican nationals or Mexican Americans, one family was from Honduras, and one was from El Salvador. Each family had one or two children enrolled in the program whose ages ranged from five to 10 years old. To increase participation, we provided free childcare of younger children not enrolled in LCM@UTSA.

In Spanish, the term talleres conveys something beyond the simple top-down approach utilized in most workshops; required here is what Vasquez (2003) calls a participatory approach, where researchers/presenters are mediators and families are full participants in their learning processes, determining what they would like to learn and how they would like to learn it. Families were invited to reflect on their journeys as immigrants in the United States and how using technology would help them in their new lives.

During the talleres, families worked on a series of technology activities ranging from the most basic (turning the computer on) to more difficult tasks (sending an email or creating a PowerPoint or an iMovie). Family participants took a communal approach to learning, sharing, and teaching, based on the knowledge they found most useful and necessary for their everyday lives (Machado-Casas, 2010).

During the workshops, family members were asked about the importance of technology in school, at work, and with their families. But most importantly, they embarked in a technology discovery journey that led them to create several important connections and digital pieces.

Family members were asked what skills they wanted to learn, and upon consensus, the desired technology was taught. Participants wanted to learn computer and iPod basics, because those were the technologies being used by their children during the current LCM@UTSA. In addition, participants' created utility knowledge lists (Machado-Casas, 2009a) of skills that would be useful in their everyday lives, such as sending money online to their families in Mexico or Central America.

The focus on utility knowledge highlights the participants' need to learn skills that reflect their realities and facilitate their busy lives. Hence, they stated how technology could help them fulfill the most important components of their everyday lives in the most efficient way. Through this activity, LCM@UTSA families were asked to become researchers, observers, and users of technology in multi-situational spaces in everyday life.


To help readers gain a better sense of our qualitative, descriptive study, we share the broader urban research landscape as well as details about our participants, data collection, and analysis.

The Study Site

Our study was located in South Texas in a city that is predominantly Latina/o. San Antonio has a population of 1.3 million that is comprised of 61% Latina/o residents (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006-2008). Of the 1.3 million residents, 13% are foreign-born (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006-2008). In addition, the 2000 Census identified 44% of the population in San Antonio as Spanish speakers (Romo, 2008).

In this region of the state, it is not uncommon to hear residents speaking "a mixture of Spanish and English in their homes and communities" (Romo, 2008, p. 79). This majority Latina/o population fosters a way of life, a culture, and a language that is not unlike that found along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Data Collection

Our qualitative data were collected as part of the larger LCM@UTSA project and include: digital stories (StoryKits), videos, pictures, narratives, surveys, field notes, and interviews' conducted with LCM@ UTSA families that focused on their opinions about technology needs. The family interviews asked how the talleres developed their technology literacy and whether they felt they were connecting more with their children, especially in regards to technology.

We used traditional qualitative techniques to analyze both the open-ended responses on the parent surveys and our participants' digital stories, which were primarily written by mothers for their children. We coded the multiple sources of data, and then proceeded with focused coding of themes and patterns that emerged from the initial analysis. Below, we provide a portrait of the families using the survey data. Next, we share the results of our themed-coding analysis and organize the presentation of this data in two themes: parents' views and beliefs, and emotive digital messages conveyed to the children by the parents.

Results of Technology Surveys: A Portrait of the Families

Twelve adults participated in the survey that was administered during the fall of 2010. Combined, they had 19 children participating in LCM@UTSA that school year. During fall 2010, there were 20 children in LCM@UTSA, and in spring 2011, there were 21 children. Thus, our survey nearly captured the opinions and information of all children's households for that academic year. (Across the five years of this partnership, student mobility or movement has not been a major challenge.)

Of the adults surveyed, 12 are women, none are men. The majority of these adult female family members are between the ages of 31 and 40. From this group of 12 women, only four were born in the U.S.--the remaining eight all came to this country after age 10 (mainly from Mexico). One woman was born in the U.S. but grew up in Honduras (her family's country of origin).

All 19 children in these surveyed households are U.S.-born. Eleven of the families currently have relatives living in Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador. However, only five of them report returning regularly to visit them. The families' transnational ties are also reflected in their self-reported language abilities: seven of the 12 moms/ aunts/grandmas who filled out the survey are Spanish dominant, three are bilingual, and two are English dominant.

While half of the women are homemakers in our study, the others all work in diverse settings. See Figure 1 for a chart that reflects their occupations. The yearly household incomes of the women who participated in LCM@UTSA is reflective of their occupations: the majority fell in the range of $10,000 to $20,000, while only one household earned more than $40,000 per year.

In terms of computer and Internet usage and other forms of technology available in the 12 households (see Figure 2), the most prevalent types of technology are cell phones and the Nintendo DS (a dual-screen, handheld game console popular among children). Nine households had either a desktop computer or laptop; a few had both. This means that 75% of our participating families had some type of computer at home; however, we know that in some cases, families would purchase a new computer and it would sit in the box because household members did not know how to set it up (as reported by conversations with the local principal).

In addition, five of the families reported not having Internet at home; in our estimation, this can be a costly, recurring expense that many families in this community cannot afford. In these cases the families report using the Internet at school, at a neighbor's house, and/or at the public library.

Our survey also asked the adult participants to rate themselves and their familiarity or knowledge of computers. Of the 12 women who responded, the majority reported being "not very knowledgeable" while only one listed her-self as "very knowledgeable." This also reflects the fact that many of the moms/aunts/grandmas asked to have training on how to set up email accounts during LCM@UTSA's first taller.

Emergent Themes across Multiple Data Sources

Parents' Views and Beliefs

Through analysis of the parental surveys, interviews, and digital stories (StorkyKits), we tapped into parents' views of technology and its importance in their own and their children's lives. Parents (all given pseudonyms) expressed that they valued technology, in particular how it could help their children succeed in school. (1) Parents realized the ubiquitous use of technologies: "todo se hace a traves de la tecnologia [everything is done with technology]" (Josefa Rocha). Specifically, parents wrote about technology as a tool that their children needed to do their homework and to find needed information:

Que es una herramienta muy importante para los estudios de mis hijos como hacer tareas y porque ahi encuentran toda la informacion que necesitan sin tener que salir de casa.

That it is a very important tool for my children's studies like homework because they find all of the information there without having to leave home. (Rosita Saucedo)

While all the parents in the talleres were learning digital literacies, they expressed different motivations for participating in workshops. For example, one of the mothers stated:

Para estar corriente con lo tecnologico y poder usar los aparatos tecnologicos. Dos, para ayudarle a mis hijos y que ellos esten orgullosos de que su mama sabe usar la tecnologia.

One, to be caught up with technology and be able to use technology devices. Two, to help my children and that they are proud of the fact that their mother knows how to use technology. (Rebeca Tovar)

Like Rebeca, many of the parents were motivated to learn technology to support their children's learning because, as explained previously, they were aware of technology as a tool for their "desarrollo escolar [development in school]." However, parents were also motivated by other reasons. As Rebeca stated, she also wanted to learn so that her children could be proud of her. Indeed, Rebeca referred to herself in the above quote as "su mama [their mother]," thus underscoring how the mother-child relationship mediated her participation in digital practices.

Another mother stated that she realized she needed to learn to use the computer because she saw that her son was using it:

Yo tambien disfruto de las clases en LCM. Antes de LCM, yo no safoa nada de la tecnologia, pero al ver a mi hijo usando la computadora, tuve que aprender.

I also like the LCM classes. Before LCM, I did not know anything about technology, but once I saw my son using the computer, I had to learn. (Graciela Verdugo)

Thus several of the parents were motivated to learn about technology because of their children's own digital practices.

Parents also learned to use technology from their children. In this way, literacy practices mediated the familial relationships in the home. Herminia wrote:

Si, muchas gracias por su programa, porque gracias a ustedes mi hija a [sic] aprendido como manejar la computadora y mas hacerca [sic] de la tecnologia y ella nos ensena en la casa a nosotros y a sus hermanos y el taller tambien es muy bueno porque aprendemos mas nosotros. gracias por preocuparse por nuestros hijos y por nosotros. Gracias.

Yes, thank you very much for the program, because thanks to you, my daughter has learned how to use the computer and more about technology and she shows us at home and her brothers and sisters and the workshop is also very good because we learn more ourselves. thank you for being concerned about our children and us. Thank you. (Herminia Castro)

Herminia's daughter's expertise gained at LCM@UTSA complements what Herminia is learning in the talleres. The daughter also teaches her father and her brothers.

Digital Carino and La Educacion: Emotive Messages from Parent to Child

The importance of family relationships as well as the emotional connections embedded in them was further revealed in our analysis of the parents' digital products, including their stories written with "StoryKit"--an application that allows users to create books that incorporates pictures, videos, and text. Family members could choose the subject of their virtual books that ranged from three to ten pages. Below we analyze two representative stories. We provide the authors' words but not the images they chose to accompany them. (Parents scanned or photographed pictures that they brought from home to include in their individual StoryKits.).

Fiorela Guzman created a story about and for her son. She brought pictures of her son doing different activities at home. Fiorela writes:
   [Tittle Page]

   Mi hijo Juan

   My son Juan.

   [Second Page] Juan es mi hijo lindo. El
   es dulce, me ayuda en casa y es un buen
   estudiante. Cuando se necesita algo en
   casa el siempre me ayuda, y tambien a
   sus hermanas.

   Juan is my beautiful son. He is sweet, he
   helps me at home and is a good student.
   When we need help at home he always
   helps me, and also his sisters.

   [Third page] Yo estoy muy orgullosa de
   ti, porque vas bien en la escuela y estas
   aprendiendo de las computadoras.

   I'm very proud of you, because you are
   doing well in school and you are learning
   about computers.

   [Fourth page] Te quiero mucho Juan.

   I love you very much Juan.

Fiorela's story makes evident her love and pride for her son. She constructs him as a beautiful and sweet son who is always willing to help her and his sisters out. Following Smith and Riojas-Cortez (2010) who examined Latina/o parents' letters to their children, we refer to these Latina/o parents' expressions of affection as carino (love, care).

Many children of immigrants experience separation from family members due to migration and the inability of their parents to go back to their home countries. For these children, technology plays a critical role as often it is the only way they "get to know/meet" family members who live in other countries (Machado-Casas, 2008, 2009). Estela Pacheco, created a story about her family for her daughter Emilia:
   [Tittle Page]

   Tu familia en Mexico

   Your Family in Mexico.

   [First page] Esta es tu familia en Mexico
   que no conoses.

   This is your family in Mexico that you
   have never met.

   [Second page] Este es mi papa, tu abuelito

   This is my dad, your grandfather Pepo.

   [Third page] Esta es mi mama, tu abuelita.

   This is my mother, your grandmother.

   [Fourth page] Estos somo todos los hermanos--somos
   muchos ... 9 hijos en total.

   These are all the siblings--we are so
   many ... there are 9 in total.

   [Fifth page] La familia es muy imporante,
   y aunque no estas en Mexico ellos te quieren

   Family is very important, and although
   you are not in Mexico, they love you very

   [Sixth page] Vas a ver que algun dia conoceras
   a todo la familia.

   You'll see one day you will meet the entire

   [Seventh page] Tienes preguntas?

   Do you have any questions?.

   [Eighth page] Recuerda que tu familia
   te ama.

   Remember that your family loves you.

Throughout the StoryKit, Estela shows Emilia that carino is not only constructed via physical interaction but also through virtual means, highlighting the fact that they are indeed family and that love crosses borders. She also uses technology as a tool to create a visual memory bank of family members whom her daughter does not know.

Data analysis revealed that parents value technology as a tool for their children's success; there is a reciprocal sharing and support between children and parents; and mothers often express their role of a caring parent through written and oral messages of carino. In addition, participation in the digital practices at LCM@UTSA (and at home) becomes another way to "be and do" parent and mother.


We examined the digital literacies of Latina/o immigrant parents at LCM@ UTSA, an after-school technology partnership. Parents' and families' relationships with their children serve to motivate them to learn new technologies, primarily to support their children's schooling. Through their engagement in new technologies and its practices, parents and families enact their carino for their children and display themselves as loving parents and families, both in the U.S. and in their home countries. Moreover, the parents who chose to create emotive digital stories show educators how readily they are to adopt new technologies if it can be a medium for expressing and building their parent-child bond.

Finally, this research project is important because of the pervasive digital divide that exists along racial and class lines. While schools make efforts to bridge this divide, it is critical for other entities such as universities, non-profit organizations, and local businesses to collaborate and work with districts to improve technological outcomes. LCM@UTSA is an example of such a partnership: it is much more than just an after-school program because it involves components beyond mere skill acquisition; relationships between children and parents are enhanced as are those between families/schools and universities.

In other work (Ek, Machado-Casas, Sanchez & Alanis, 2010), we document in great detail how we implemented LCM@ UTSA and offer recommendations for other organizations that wish to partner with schools and communities to establish their own after-school technology programs. We hope that other educators take heed and adopt our primary finding and recommendation from this project: that partnerships must be incorporated into the communities to be served--steeped in the language(s), culture(s), and practices of the participating families and students.


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(1) All parent responses written in Spanish on both the surveys and on their StoryKits have not been edited. The reader will note certain grammatical/spelling errors in the parents' original writing.

Margarita Machado-Casas, Patricia Sanchez, and Lucila D. Ek are professors in the Department of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas.
Figure 1
Occupations of Adult Female Respondents

Waitress,                      1
Homemaker,                     6
Medical Receptionist,          1
Business,                      1
Certified Nursing Assistant,   1
Baker's Assistant,             1
Parent Educator,               1

Note: Table made from pie chart.

Figure 2
Available Technology in Households

Other                        [1]
Regular Computer (desktop)   [7]
Portable Computer (laptop)   [6]
Printer                      [3]
InternetService              [7]
Cell Phone                   [12]
iPod                         [4]
iPodTouch                    [2]
Nintendo DS                  [9]
Wii                          [7]

Note: Table made form pie chart.
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Author:Machado-Casas, Margarita; Sanchez, Patricia; Ek, Lucila D.
Publication:Multicultural Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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