When I was six years old, I believed you could not be Mexican and American.
In my world, they did not go together. It was like wearing polka dots and plaid: each was interesting on their own, but they could never be together. To me, there was a time to be Mexican and a time to be American. Being Mexican was a private affair, reserved for people who did not need an explanation of my differences.
I grew up on the northwest side of Chicago in a mostly Polish, Irish and Italian neighborhood. I recall being in kindergarten and telling my teacher that I was the youngest of 10 siblings. Shocked, my teacher asked me to tell her the names of my siblings. Afterwards, she walked me over to one of her colleague’s classrooms and asked me to recite the names for her. What followed was thunderous laughter. Then I was escorted off to a new classroom to recite my siblings’ names again.
To this day, I’m not sure why the teachers were so amused. Was it my siblings’ names? Was it that I had 10 siblings? All I know is that I was being singled out for being different. In later years, whenever my teachers asked for the number of siblings in my family, I told them I had two sisters and one brother. Every time I told that lie, I felt my heart sink. I hated knowing that I had allowed others to make me reject a part of me.
Every time a teacher assigned a project that required me to share about my home life, I felt anxious. I constantly had to explain the things that made me different from my peers. Television images, the stereotypes I suspected my classmates believed, and my early unpleasant encounters with teachers made me think that people like my family were not welcomed in this country. I felt out of place and I wanted to remove myself from the source of this anguish, my family.
Discovering My History
This confusion about being different lasted until I was in 8th grade. Something happened to me then. I started to get angry at myself for rejecting a part of me and I longed to learn about myself and my history. I purposely chose to attend an all-girl Catholic high school with a large population of Latinas.
Unfortunately, while the population at this high school was extremely diverse, the curriculum was not. I remember feeling frustrated because I was an honor student and I had to follow the honors track. This meant I had to take British literature instead of world literature, and freshman humanities which focused on European history. Latin American history wasn’t even an option. I didn’t understand why the students who were deemed “smart” would only be exposed to the literature and history of a colonizing empire, and not of other countries. So, instead of going with the norm, I chose differently. If I wanted to take world literature, I would have to give up one of my study periods and take it as an elective, and I did.
It was in that class that I read Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street.” The book spoke to me. I could not believe that the book was about a Mexican-American girl from Chicago written by a Mexican-American author. I could not believe that she was talking about things that were never talked about, like chanclas and our family life. More importantly, I could not believe that I was reading about this in school and not just for fun on my own. It was part of the curriculum. I was hooked.
But I still wanted to learn more. Every research paper, book report or presentation I had to do, I made sure I learned about the history of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. But I did this all on my own without the help of a teacher. I would not meet my first and only Mexican-American teacher until my junior year at DePaul University.
Giving Students a Mirror
Today, I’m in my 13th year of teaching history in Chicago Public Schools. I know how important it is that my students see themselves in their school’s curriculum.
As a teacher, I make sure we celebrate the stories of all my students, no matter where they are from and regardless of their socio-economic status. It is important that my students know who they are and why society is a certain way. I want them to have as much information possible to tell the world who they are, and more importantly, to tell the world who they are not.
I want them to be able to write their story before somebody else does. I know how it feels to wonder if people from your ethnic background have any real contribution to make to society. I know exactly how awful it feels to go through 13 years of school and have your history mentioned only a few times. So much was left out that could have changed my interpretation of who I was and what I could contribute.
Instead of a window, I wish I would have been given a mirror that would one day help me see that perhaps plaid and polka dots could go together. Yet I am profoundly grateful for the sacrifices my family endured to give me an education, and for the experiences I endured that ensure I will never forget to give power to my students’ stories.
Recently, as I was organizing my garage and looking through my teacher materials, I came across several letters by a few of my Mexican-American female students: Like me, they had parents who worked long hours, sometimes overtime, to make ends meet. Like my parents, their parents spoke little to no English and required interpreters when they came to pick up report cards. Like mine, their parents wanted nothing more than to have their children succeed in this country but lacked the resources or information to help. Like me, these students had to look after younger siblings or had older siblings that looked after them and acted as second parents.
But unlike me, my students had a Mexican-American teacher with a similar upbringing as theirs, a teacher who was able to speak to their parents in their native language, and who understood the perils of being bicultural in this country.
Some of the lines that stand out from those letters are:
“Thank you for teaching me about my roots. Thank you for helping me feel important…”
“When I found out I would have you, my first Mexican teacher ever, I knew I had to stay in this class…”
“Before this class, I was ashamed of my dark skin, my indigenous features, and my straight black hair. Thank you for helping me believe that my culture is beautiful and worthy of intellectual discourse…”
Like most teachers, I have great days, and not-so-great days. These letters help me get through my not-so-great days and remind me of why I chose this profession.