M’ija. My daughter. Sweetheart. I have long had an observer’s love for this Spanish word, a contraction of “mi hija,” my daughter.
When I first moved to Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, 11 years ago, I loved to listen to my neighbors calling their daughters m’ija, and those daughters calling m’ija to their little sisters. It sounded so beautiful and so essential to their culture. Sometimes a much older woman would call me that, and I would smile.
A few years later, I married a man from Mexico and we had a child.
But I felt strange about calling her m’ija. I’m Irish-American. The way I was raised, we love our kids, but we’re not much for endearments or public displays of affection. “Buddy” was about the most I could manage.
Yet I wanted my daughter to grow up around women for whom calling her m’ija felt true to who they were. I worried that might be hard for us, since my husband’s family is all in Mexico. We only see her abuela (grandmother) and tías (aunts) for milestone events or long-awaited vacations.
We are very lucky because our school has helped fill the void. Our daughter is among the growing numbers of U.S. children of Latino heritage. Her school, Namaste Charter School, serves large numbers of Latino children and makes deliberate efforts to recruit a diverse faculty and staff.
But for more children like mine to have the opportunity to hear themselves called m’ija or m’ijo (my son) at school, we need more Latino teachers. Today, nearly 25 percent of U.S. public school students are Latino, but less than 8 percent of their teachers share their heritage. That’s why the White House is taking time this month to promote #LatinosTeach, which shares stories of Latino teachers making a difference and resources to get involved.
Last year, in kindergarten at Namaste Charter School, my daughter had two fabulous teachers. And one of them, Señora Lizzette Garza, called her m’ija.
Sra. Liz taught two of her favorite subjects: science and social studies. At home, my daughter was eager to experiment with different objects to see which ones floated and which ones sank. She also worked diligently to prepare a presentation on the Philippines, and tackled counting to 10 in Pilipino—a taste of a third language, beyond the Spanish and English she uses in school every day.
While my daughter is curious and likes to take on new projects, I know her love for Sra. Liz added to her dedication to her schoolwork.
In the spring, my daughter was eager to stay after school for Sra. Liz’s jewelry-making class. Their shared love of art encouraged my child to step out of her comfort zone and voluntarily take on an after-school activity, a big step forward in independence. (Not to mention all the cool key chains and necklaces she brought home.) After the kindergarten graduation ceremony, they shared many abrazos (hugs).
Sra. Liz told her, “Have a good summer, m’ija!”
Sra. Liz isn’t the only Latina teacher at Namaste. Already, my daughter is looking forward to learning in the fourth-grade dual-language classroom from Sra. Liz’s sister. More broadly, Latinos and Latinas serve in a variety of school roles—teachers, administrators and key support staff like the school social worker, Ms. Betty (Beatriz Gorman), who serves as the linchpin for Namaste’s highly regarded social-emotional learning.
My daughter is very lucky to have a community of women and men who understand and support a key part of who she is. Thanks to that community, she hears herself called m’ija every day. I’m glad the White House is helping states and districts develop the pools of talent that will give more children this kind of community and support.
When Latinos teach, our children win.