In making a push for more Latino teachers as part of Hispanic Heritage Month, the Obama administration recently released a statement that emphasized: “It’s critically important that our teacher workforce reflects our increasingly diverse nation.”
The truth of this statement lies not in a problem of alienation between children and teachers from different backgrounds, but in the idea that teachers who can help raise children’s awareness of their own backgrounds, through shared language and traditions, can help promote confidence and pride—crucial elements in any person’s personal success.
My parents and nine siblings immigrated to the U.S. before I was born and there are big differences in how my oldest siblings and I felt as children about our Mexican background.
My father, who had a successful mango and sugarcane farm in Culiacan, Sinaloa, was recruited to come to Los Angeles as part of the Bracero Migrant Farm Worker Program, which helped bring agricultural labor initially to California and later to the rest of the country.
Eventually he brought my mother and nine siblings to Highland Park, in northeast Los Angeles, where I was born. Later my father went to work as a cook at IHOP, where he remained for over 25 years. I’ve stayed in northeast Los Angeles and am now raising my own children here; both my children attended the same elementary school I attended as a child.
My older siblings, born in the 1960s, faced racism and bullying, as far back as grade school. My sisters, growing up in the predominantly Caucasian area at the time, remember being called names, and being made fun of for their accents and trouble understanding English.
They all participated in ESL classes at Garvanza Elementary School, in big groups of kids of multiple ages and grades. They were pulled out of class for these group classes while other students had their English classes. It was a different time then. They were asked to not speak Spanish in school. My sisters made a point of trying to assimilate as quietly as possible into the dominant white culture.
The language barriers for my parents affected me when I was in grade school. My mother never learned to speak English and my father had only a limited understanding. This meant they didn’t participate in the school community and they couldn’t communicate with my teachers.
They only took the time to come to school for report card conferences, and in a situation where I was supposed to receive guidance from adults, I was forced to translate for them. I was sad that neither my mother nor father could ever be room parent or volunteer for school activities like fundraisers or field trips. They did make it to school performances, but there was no interaction with teachers involved, and I was thankful for that.
As a child of the ’80s, things were different for me. I spoke fluent English and Spanish. The majority of children in my neighborhood and schools were Hispanic and bilingual. One thing that didn’t change was that all of my elementary school teachers were Caucasian. However, I was far more interested in my family’s roots, traditions and customs. I craved stories of what life in Mexico was like.
As a parent, I want my children to see themselves in their teachers, professors, mentors. The idea that one day they can be these educators, or professionals in these fields, is crucial to their future.
Yet even though so many barriers to success for minorities are being dismantled, Latino children don’t always have the social structures that would encourage them to be proud of who they are.
Although my children are not culturally different from their peers, attending schools in a majority Latino district, my fifth-grader has only ever had one non-white teacher. My high-school-aged child has had only a few.
And in my district, holidays are sometimes ignored, even major celebrations such as the Dia De Los Muertos, when friends and family gather to pray for and remember deceased friends and family members, or Las Posadas at Christmas time, with its Nativity scenes, poinsettias, Christmas trees and piñatas.
Sharing traditional meals like tamales, atole, buñuelos, or cookies, dried and fresh fruit, candy, and a hot seasonal fruit drink called ponche would be a rich and joyful way to celebrate our heritage, but I don’t get the sense that anyone at my daughter’s school is interested in exploring these options.
Would Latino teachers automatically want to create activities around Latino customs?
It’s impossible to say, but it seems likely that more diversity among the staff would raise the likelihood of it happening. And all children would benefit from learning about the traditions of other countries, especially the ones some of their peers or ancestors are from.
Children with cultural awareness become culturally aware adults. Greater diversity among teachers can only serve children and society as a whole.