Brown Quarterly - Vol. 2, No. 1 (Fall 1997)

Teachers Talk

We Are All Americans

Effectively communicating with and respecting students are probably the primary goals of all educators. Is there a better way to communicate with Latino students while developing more respect for their cultures?

It may be time for us to reconsider our society's philosophy when it comes to education and the way we interact with and perceive one another in today's troubling political environment of "English Only" laws, funding cutbacks in education programs, lessened commitment to Affirmative Action and other current issues. For all disproportionately affect people of color in the United States.

Given this fact, I would like to offer teachers the following challenging question, to help them promote critical thinking among students: "What is an American?" Most text books have given the definition, "Anyone who is from America." Although I would agree with this definition, I would place it in broader terms.

The word America, according to its etymological origins, is derived from the name of Amerigo Vespucci, an early European explorer of the Western Hemisphere. The label America was put on the entire Western Hemisphere or the New World as it was called by Europeans during Vespucci's time. Shortly after the arrival of European explorers to America, the term American, meaning one from or residing in American emerged. At that time there were millions of Americans: the majority of whom were the indigenous, non-European populations of Central, South and North America.

In Latin America, these concepts are very widely accepted. Furthermore, many Latin Americans think in this same mode today. Not only do people in Latin America refer to all of the Western Hemisphere as Las Américas (the Americas), but they refer to the people from this region of the world as Americanos (Americans).

On the other hand, American according to popular definition in the United States, is taken as synonymous with possession of U.S. citizenship. To citizens of Hispanic descent and to Latin Americans, this usage is exclusionary. In Spanish, the proper translation of this usage of the word American is estadounidense (for which there is no equivalent English term other than U.S. citizen). It would be improper to translate the word as Americano because such a term would include Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Brazilians and anyone else from the Americas. Others in the Americas realize that when U.S. residents say Americans they actually mean U.S. residents.

When teachers pose the question to students, "What is an American?" to Latinos the answer would be clear: "someone from the Americas." For an American from the United States, after hearing the aforementioned description, the answer would hopefully be broadened. These differences in perception and language are very important to keep in mind when educating Latino children.

In terms of understanding students, keep in mind that cultural norms can lead to misperceptions on our part as well. I was faced with this situation when a student of mine was absent from class for two weeks in a row. When I asked what the cause of her absence was she was hesitant to respond. After assuring her of my concern, she did explain that there had been a family emergency to which she had to attend.

In this case, I was not only reminded that for most Latino students the family takes precedence over studies, but that a cultural "taboo" about sharing family problems with strangers caused my student's silence. I could have written off the absences as a lack of commitment. However, it turned out that her absences truly proved her commitment to a higher priority--her family. By understanding this, I made arrangements for the student to make up her work and her commitment to the class was proven as a result. Such are the cultural "obstacles" between our students and their goals.

As we educate, if we can remove one obstacle at a time then we can gradually retain more Latino students in school. Today we can begin by changing our definition of American. Tomorrow maybe we can begin to address other concerns such as mentoring, bilingual education, and others. However incremental the step, a change which encourages respect, retention, graduation, and hopefully matriculation in higher education is a change for the better.

Ian B. Bautista
Information/Education Representative
Kansas Advisory Committee on Hispanic Affairs
Hispanic American Heritage

The purpose of this editorial is to write about the importance of teaching Hispanic American heritage in our schools and to offer some ideas for doing so. As such, I believe it is important for my audience to see where this specific topic fits within the overall picture of multiculturalism, or equity in education. Therefore, a brief history recap lesson is in order.

Since the early 1960s, there has been a dynamic trend towards the integration of multiculturalism in the curriculum of our schools, both public and private. The purpose of multiculturalism has been primarily to gain more equity in education. In other words groups of people whose history and culture had not been included or had been stereotyped began to push for more fair representation in the curriculum. These not only included traditional ethnic minority groups, but later, other groups such as women, religious, and white ethnic groups to reflect the growing sense of pluralism in our country.

Prior to the 1960s and still today, to a large extent, education has served to re-enforce the notion of a "melting pot," where everyone sheds his or her ethnic heritage and dons a new "American" skin. However, in his book, Affirming Equity, Dr. Fred Rodriguez asserts that many educators believe that schooling has promoted more of an Anglo-conformity perspective.

From a personal perspective, I agree with Dr. Rodriguez. Growing up, I was as fascinated and interested as the other kids in my class in learning of the great early leaders of our country. I understood then as I do now that if this is what really happened, then every child regardless of his or her background should learn about the major events that have made our country what it is today. But something very subtle yet persistent resided in me. These men that we're learning about are great people indeed, but they're white and I'm not . . . so where did I come from and how did I get here? Also, how did people from my culture contribute to this country to make it what it is today? Looking back, I also remember the look in the eyes of every other child who was not a white male in my class and they had the same expression.

It's similar to being on a basketball team as a youngster and being told over and over by your coach how great the Jones family has been in making your team the success that it is today. You feel proud of your team's history and admire the Jones family but you also want to know what your past relatives did to contribute to the team's success, especially if you know that they played on the team. At this point, you can go in a few directions. You can either go all out to make a name for you and your family or you can give in to the feeling that you'll just play an insignificant role on the team just as your family apparently did. Or, you can ask your coach about the contributions of your family to set the record straight in from of your teammates.

Using this simple analogy, it's easier to understand why members from non-white male groups have chosen their paths. Numerous individuals have decided to work hard to make a name for themselves and their families. Many have given into the mind-set that they'll just be another nobody in society to be lost forever in history, and this has partially led to the various maladaptive behaviors of addictions, violence, and apathy. Others have decided to set the record straight in an effort to erase the myths and stereotypes that have become prevalent and replace them with the awareness, understanding, and pride that result from knowing a more accurate account of our nation's history.

I hope that what I've written has convinced you (if you weren't already convinced) of the need for a more equitable education. I say this because I firmly believe that if more of you were convinced, there would be a vast amount of mainstream ideas and resources for teaching subjects such as Hispanic American heritage in our classrooms. As it stands, there are pockets of resources scattered throughout the country. One practical idea is to use all methods of research to obtain the resources you seek. Find out if someone in your district is teaching Hispanic American heritage; look to local community centers and churches that serve a Hispanic population; ask the librarian for assistance; use the internet.

In just two days of research, I came up with the following resources listed below, including Rebecca Oropeza, a high school English instructor who teaches in the Kansas City Kansas school district and has a long list of recommended books. Another good resource person is Dr. Gene Chavez who authored Understanding Latino Diversity from a Historical Perspective, a comprehensive booklet on Hispanic heritage. One good central resource is the National Council of La Raza, the largest organization advocating for Hispanic rights. The information is out there if the commitment is there to look for it. Teaching Hispanic American heritage may be a small part of the solution in reconstructing our educational system toward a more equitable one, but it's a good start!

List of Resources
Dr. Gene Chavez, President, Chavez and Associates, 913-962-7780/913-722-7300 ext. 18

David Chavez, National Council of La Raza, 816-471-4383

National Association for Bilingual Education, 202-898-1829

Rebecca Oropeza, Language Arts Teacher J.C. Harmon High School, 913-722-7300 (w)

Eladio J. Valdez III
Formerly of J.C. Harmon High School
Kansas City, Kansas