Module 6. Our Story: Latinx Americans
THE RECENT PAST
After the tumultuous era of the 60s and 70s, Latinx Americans continued to diversify American society. However, because of racial categorization, some Latinx Americans struggled with identity. According to the last 20 years of census data, millions of Latinx Americans chose “other” as their racial category on the census. Legal precedent puts Latinx individuals under the umbrella of “White,” but many reject this distinction. To complicate matters more, colorism, or shades of skin tones also effect how Latinx Americans choose to identify and/or are labeled by appearance. Other factors such as generation, cultural traits and traditions, and language complicate Latinx identity even more (Navarro, 2012).
In politics, Latinx Americans are continually confronted with issues immigration and reforms. DACA, the DREAM Act, and Latin American immigrants have sparked much controversy in recent years. Both pieces of legislation addressed the segment of Latinx Americans that were originally brought to the U.S. as children. These children lived the majority of their lives on American soil, educated in American schools, raised in American culture – making them American in all ways with the exception of a legal document. Some of these children grow up in mixed documented families. In the recent past, there have been numerous threats to deport “undocumented immigrants,” regardless of their participation within and contributions to American society. To deport any of these children, some now adults, would most likely result in separation of families and a displacement of individuals who argued that the U.S. was their rightful home, and they had no say in the original migration into the U.S.
The DREAM Act, Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, allowed these children of immigrants to gain access to education, government funding for education, and conditional residency. DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act, was passed under the Obama administration in 2012, and it allowed for minors to apply for deferment of deportation. In 2017, the Trump administration rescinded DACA in an attempt to end the program. However, since then, the act has undergone numerous legal battles that have resulted in the extension of the act. Currently, there are an approximate 700,000 DACA recipients in the U.S., and challenges to the program are still on going.
Xenophobia against Latinx communities have instigated much conflict and political debate. Latinx Americans continually strive to break long held stereotypes and maintain fair representation in popular culture and media. They do this while still retaining their cultural heritage and identity, in a complicated and deeply personal expression of individual identity.
Before I began my career as a college professor, I was an elementary school teacher. Like most elementary school teachers, I have many stories to tell, and I will share one very important and special one.
Entering the teaching profession in central California in the 1990s, I found myself in a world where bilingual skills were in high demand, and bilingual classes were frequently taught and common to find. I was not bilingual, and I was assigned to a class where most students were native Spanish speakers. I even asked my principal to change my assignment to English-only. His response was that he would rather have a capable non-Spanish-speaking teacher teaching a bilingual class that a lesser teacher than did speak Spanish.
If you are thinking “Are you kidding me?” get in line. I thought my principal had lost it. But there I was, in a class where some of the students knew little English, and others were somewhat resentful that they had an African-American non-Spanish speaker for a teacher rather than a fluent Latino Spanish speaker. It was not an easy year, and I really didn’t know what I was doing half the time.
But one thing I did was refuse to do nothing. I enrolled in a beginning Spanish class at West Hills College Lemoore. I slowly but surely acquired linguistic skills in Spanish. I learned courtesies and “survival” language of course, but at least, I could give students permission to use the restroom and go to recess, using Spanish words. I took more Spanish, and even attended a summer Spanish language seminar. Within two years I was well—far from fluent, but much better off than before.
One day I was sitting in my classroom, and a monolingual Spanish-speaking parent came in my classroom. She said she needed help with understanding her son’s homework. For the next 15 minutes, I struggled with the Spanish I knew, but when she walked out, she said “Muchas gracias, Maestro.” I was practically faint from exhausting every Spanish word I knew, but that was my first successful conversation with a parent. What happened next nearly electrified me. Standing in front of my desk was a line of non-English speaking students with math books in hand, asking me for help, in Spanish. None of these students had said more than a few words to me the entire first four months of school!
When they saw that I could speak some Spanish, that was all they needed to know. The door of communication had been opened. A very happy conclusion to this awakening happened several years later. One of my former Spanish-speaking second graders was the valedictorian of her eighth-grade class. During her graduation speech, she thanked me as her favorite teacher, for of all things – being the only teacher who spoke Spanish to her. Now that is incredible, considering I was not fluent in Spanish.
To close, a little goes a long way. I am a strong advocate for learning a second language or at least part of a second language. It opened up doors of communication between my students and myself and gave me a respect and knowledge of a different culture that I never would have been privileged to know otherwise.
What motivated the writer to learn Spanish? What were some of the rewards for the time invested in learning it? What does this story tell you about the value of knowing a second language?