In high school, Candace de León-Zepeda was working in her family's tire shop. Patricia Portales was preparing to become a secretary. Margaret Cantú-Sánchez was college-bound but already cognizant of the lack of Latino representation in books.
Against many odds, all three will get what one of their mentors described as "a little papelito," a precious piece of paper, that will open doors to the academy.
Today they'll receive their doctoral degrees in English from the University of Texas at San Antonio.
They're anomalies. While the nation has almost 50 million Latinos, according to 2011 census data, it can boast only 174,000 who have Ph.D.s, less than 1 percent of all Latinos of all races.
The number remains low even though Latinos account for 14 percent of those in higher education, said Deborah Santiago of the Washington-based Excelencia in Education, whose mission is to accelerate higher-education attainment among Latinos.
"It's clear Latinos are primed and ready to go," she said.
UTSA's trifecta is regarded as a coup for a department that set out in the early 2000s to establish a doctoral program that emphasized Latino literature. It encourages wide-ranging research interests, said Professor Norma E. Cantú, a graduate adviser credited with nurturing the program.
The trio's dissertations explore the role of Latina women during World War II, the educational dichotomy Latinas face between home and school cultures and the impact of educational inequalities on Mexican Americans.
De León-Zepeda, 34 and mother of a 5-year-old, described herself as "developmental everything." She may have had the most remarkable journey to a Ph.D.
In high school, she couldn't pass the state-required test to graduate, barely getting by. Like her parents, who were migrant workers and went to segregated schools, she felt school was for "other people."
A school counselor said she "wasn't college material," De León-Zepeda recalled, and "no one argued."
"It was logical. We worked. That's what my family did," she said. "I went to the tire store with my boots on."
Her associate's degree at Del Mar College took 41/2 years.But she eventually got to UTSA with a master's degree, five months pregnant. She teaches English at the University of the Incarnate Word. The journey was made all the more worthwhile, she said, "when students say you're the first Latino professor I've had."
Portales, 39, whose dissertation focused on Mexican American women during World War II, was on a path her two older sisters had forged.
A Holmes High School vocational student, she was placed at Southwest Research Institute, where she joined a book club.
"One day," Portales said, "they asked me where I was going to college." Their shock at her reply, "I'm not," helped jump-start an interest that was already within. "I loved English," she said. Her mother used to take her to the library.
She is already tenured at San Antonio College.
Cantú-Sánchez, 28, who taught high school before setting sights on the college classroom, took a more direct route there: She received an English Department fellowship and went to school fulltime.
But her dissertation is a testament to Latino experiences in public education.
Latinas have an identity conflict, she said. "I argue it occurs when they enter the school system. ... You don't see yourself, your culture is repressed and your language isn't validated."
"You overcome it with a mixture, a weaving together of the education of school and the education of the home."
Cantú-Sánchez hopes to continue researching ways to change the classroom so that students "can say, 'I'm here, I'm represented.'"
By the end of the summer, the doctoral English program will have graduated 20 students, Professor Cantú said. It's still a small number but better than when she got her Ph.D. in 1982.
For her, today's graduation is bittersweet. It's her last before retirement in August.
What will the three Latina Ph.D.s do this weekend?
They'll celebrate. One said her family is throwing her a Ph.D. pachanga. Then they'll be back at work on their next goal: getting dissertations published.