In the bilingual Texas classroom where I first became a teacher, cultural celebrations were a regular part of our curriculum. My third and fourth graders loved sharing stories of their families, their traditions and the communities that made them who they were. But every year, when Hispanic Heritage Month rolled around, I felt a responsibility to push our conversations one step further, challenging my kids to connect their individual stories with the world around them.
This challenge animated our work all month long. We started with journal reflections and small group discussions on the countries we represent, traditions we celebrate, food we eat on special occasions, music we love to dance to and so on. I brought in books on César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, Ellen Ochoa and Jaime Escalante. Throughout it all, we reflected on how strong cultural identities can help us stay in touch with our histories, uphold our values and see our way through difficult times.
Over the course of the unit, one little girl wrote about the challenges her family faced, and how they compared to those of other immigrant groups we’d studied. She noted that her experience paralleled those of other groups not in the majority. With nuance and care, she painted a vivid picture of what it’s like for low-income, first-generation students in this country. I must have read it a dozen times.
Looking back, I know that my students and I were part of something much bigger than the walls of our classroom – both in the progress we made and in the difficulties we faced. Today, Latinos lag behind their white counterparts in academic achievement – graduating high school, reading, writing and performing in math at lower rates. This has nothing to do with ability or will. It’s a direct reflection of systemic gaps in opportunity according to race, class and zip code.
As a first-generation college student, I experienced these gaps first-hand. I came to the U.S. from Guatemala at age six and spent the next two years working my way toward fluency – constructing foreign sounds to read fluidly and comprehend the new Anglo world around me. I went to traditional public schools until I received a scholarship to a boarding school during high school. When I got there, I found myself behind, struggling to keep up.
I worried about my ability to stick it out. My teachers, meanwhile, refused to. They recognized where I was struggling, leaned in to help and assured me I could do the work when I was often sure I couldn’t. I would never have made it to Tufts without them, and certainly not with the abilities I gained. Thanks to my teachers, I knew how to make the most of office hours and study sessions. I also felt empowered to engage with other minority students, leading the Association of Latin American Students and founding the Latino Women’s Club. I think about the impact they had on me at least once a day.
All of this drew me first to Teach For America, then to college counseling and now to the joint Master’s program in Business and Social Work that I hope will prepare me to one day lead a district or influence policies at the state level. Eventually, I hope to be part of developing a holistic approach to college persistence – one which takes into account the very real social and emotional challenges that students face. The tired model of educating students in isolation, and expecting immigrant families to somehow figure out how to support their kids in a system they don’t know, isn’t working. We’ve got to do better.
Whenever I lose faith, I think of my own parents – the value they placed on education and how much they sacrificed to see me succeed. And every time I get a text or an email from a student I taught or counseled – with an update, a question, a good report on a course they’re just loving – I get the boost I need to keep going. This work isn’t easy. I can’t imagine doing anything else.