The Mexican American student population is culturally complex. Given this complexity educators and administrators must recognize limiting discourse about students when they hear it. The supposed negative effects of bilingualism, the belief that most Mexican American students are recent immigrants or children of immigrants, and the belief that most are living in communities that do not have the willingness to engage in their children’s education are common in American schooling. The latter two beliefs are part of the dominant, erroneous discourse that demonstrates the need for further exploration of accurate, non-simplistic, and educated discussion about Latino youth.
Exploring the issue of language as an example of how discussions must be broadened reveals that in 2010-2011, only 27% of the total number of Latino students enrolled in California public schools from grades K-12 were English language learners. As these students work to wrap their tongues around the English language many of their Latino peers face issues of language separate from that of English acquisition. In the face of losing their native tongue students also battle feelings of cultural loss. Knowing that students feel ashamed about losing a part of what makes them who they are and how this may have implications for classroom success begins to get at why knowing our students is crucial to teaching them well. The small percentage of ELL youth in light of the dropout rates tell us that the education crisis for this population goes much further than the issue of language.
As one digs deeper there arises rich layers of existence where multiple cultural, linguistic, religious, gendered, economic, and educational values and ideas contradict and harmonize.
What is Nepantla? Nepantla is a Nahuatl word meaning “torn between ways.” The word is commonly used within discussions of Latino identity development but can be utilized within any context where one is torn between competing value systems or expectations. Most importantly, it is a feeling of both belonging and not fully belonging to a part of one’s identity. The following is an excerpt from my political autobiography about Nepantla…..
There is something haunting about this space in which we make sense of ourselves. For Mexicans, for example, in a historical sense, the voices of our indigenous ancestors call through us no matter how far removed we are from the native land. I hear them when I ask Mexican people to retell the Spanish conquest. It is an experiment I like to run once in a while–that of asking people to retell their history–because I like to listen to the voice they use. Without fail, their indigenous voice speaks through them and they use phrases like “they came and took our land”… “gave us disease”…. “took what was ours.” How very interesting that we never use our European ancestors to speak through us.
All people are destined to engage in self-discovery about their identities, about the way their gender intersects with their phenotype, intersects with their class, intersects with their family. Through dialogue and in this need to find clarity about who we are we set ourselves on the path towards reconstructing societal and personal understandings. Together we find flexible and safe places–places where we are treated como la gente. And although this dialogue is not enough to liberate us from structures of power, from rigid ideas about what it means to be woman, a Mexican, an American, of working class, etc , it is the necessary beginning of imparting on younger generations possibilities for their futures.
To create a sense of classroom community, students can benefit from…
1) Reciting poems reflecting cultural elements. The following poem is recited by Arizona’s ethnic studies students who are continuing the battle to preserve ethnic studies classes: Tu eres mi otro yo/ You are my other me/ Si te hago daño a ti/ If I do harm to you /Me hago daño a mi mismo/ I do harm to myself/ Si te amo y te respeto/ If I love and respect you/ Me amo y respeto yo/ I love and respect myself.
2) Developing student projects that reach out to parents and which record and share family and cultural stories.
3) Holding classroom meetings at the end of every Friday to discuss issues occurring in students’ lives.
4) Creating additive ideas of dual language abilities especially in a school climate that seeks to reward students only when they have “graduated” out of English learner labels.
5) Allowing students to use their academic and non-academic language, while developing an understanding of which is deemed appropriate in specific contexts by whom and why this may be