A crucial part of my teaching journey has been to confront and accept who I am in relation to my students in order to forge the most effective partnership with them. In addition, I have enjoyed sitting back and letting my students educate me. For truly, as Deborah Meier said in her book, The Power of Their Ideas, “Teaching is mostly listening, and learning is mostly telling.”
Much of my adult life has been witness to Hispanic and Ladino culture. My journey began quite randomly, when I was a nineteen-year-old college student, searching for a summer volunteer job. I ended up at San Sebastián Christian Service Center, deep in the rain forest of Puerto Rico. I went there to teach English to some of the poorest, most uneducated “jibaros” in western Puerto Rico. But, as with all the stops on my journey, I came away learning more than I taught.
This experience opened a door for me, for when I was twenty-three, I met a Cuban graduate student at Harvard University, and despite our vast cultural differences, he became my husband. Angel joined the Foreign Service, and for fifteen years we lived in several different third-world countries. But the first two, Nicaragua and Ecuador, were the area from which many of my students migrated.
When I started teaching English as a Second Language in Arlington County thirty years ago, I thought that my background would enable me to bond instantly with my Hispanic students. Was I wrong! Only now, after taking a closer look at what the poor populations have endured in the last generation at the hands of the United States, in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru, and Bolivia, do I understand why my students didn’t feel any special affinity toward me. “But my son is Nica! He was born in Managua! You, Jeffrey Flint, you are from Managua. Don’t we have a lot in common?” “Not on your life, Miss. You and your husband represented the United States government, which backed Anastasio Somoza, who oppressed my family and all the poor people of Nicaragua for forty years. When I look at you I see only an American who happens to speak Spanish. I’m glad to be in your country now, but I’ll never forget why I and all of my Central American buddies had to come here. So no, Miss, we don’t have anything in common, certainly nothing that would endear me to you, especially. You’re just a nice teacher who happens to speak Spanish.” So much for my “in” with the Hispanics.
I never actually had this conversation with Jeffrey, of course, but I do understand him better now. I was always a little baffled and disappointed with my students’ disinterest in me and my background. Now, in retrospect, I think they’re being polite. There’s much they could say to me, that their parents and grandparents have told them, that I might not want to hear. For all of these students come from poor backgrounds, and after reading Rigoberta Menchu’s story, and excerpts from Harvest of Empire, I understand where they’re coming from. “To comprehend this new Latino wave, we must have a rudimentary sense of what the immigrants left behind. Simply put, the vast majority of Central Americans today live in perpetual misery alongside tiny elites that enjoy unparalleled prosperity. The average cat in our country eats more beef than the average Central American.” “Central America’s victims perished mostly at the hands of their own soldiers…and invariably from weapons `made in the U.S.A.,’ since in each country our government provided massive military aid to the side doing most of the killing.” There you are. Once I understood and accepted the gulf between me and my Hispanic students, how did this affect me in the classroom?
I taught to what they knew as much as possible. I had many educational materials that told their story and from their point of view. Joel Medrano, an El Salvadorian student of mine, walked from his country to the United States with a few companeros and lived to tell the tale. I read Grab Hands and Run in his class, and what classroom activity could have personally validated him more? That book echoes Calixto’s tale in his Odyssey to the North. Felipe, the narrator of Grab Hands and Run and newly arrived in the United States, was getting to know his American hosts. “It seems that although the U.S. government does bad things in El Salvador and supplies the weapons with which we are killed, many North Americans have good hearts.” That, one hopes, is the conclusion many Ladino immigrants arrive at. One day in my classroom community, my advanced students and I might have had a lively discussion about U.S. foreign policy and the “ugly American.” Another time we might have done a role play about Sandinista policy dilemmas. The Network of Educators’ Committees on Central America published a curriculum on Nicaragua called “Inside the Volcano,” which had all kinds of classroom activities that the students had fun with, and more to the point, related to.
Back in my beginning class, I had a group of Bolivian girls who spoke Quechua around me as well as Spanish. It’s not that they didn’t want me to understand what they were saying (though maybe they didn’t!). I think they were just reaffirming their culture and their uniqueness because Quechua, after all, is not widely known in the U.S. It’s almost like a secret language (echoes of Rigoberta?). They always loved it when I read them The Legend of El Dorado by Beatriz Vidal. They could certainly relate to the Indian history surrounding the legend. Speaking of legends, I loved to teach my unit on Central American legends around Halloween: El Cipitio, La Siguanaba, La Chintintora, El Duende. The kids got a kick out of my familiarity with things only their grandparents used to tell them late into the night. Even though I was not one of them, I think they liked it that I brought these stories into their classroom community.
Of the three units we studied, the Hispanic unit was the one I was most familiar with, both from extensive personal experience, and also with respect to the materials I incorporated into the classroom curricula. And yet, I was still very much an outsider, just as I was when I married into a strongly male-dominated culture. It was that cultural trait that doomed my marriage, because I wasn’t willing to be told what to do. I couldn’t shake being an outsider and carrying the burden of white privilege, whether I was teaching Blacks, Ladinos, or Asians. And yet it’s that very separateness that might have given me the objective edge as their teacher and as their friend. Together we read about and discussed aspects of their history, their suffering, and above all their endurance. For it is that very endurance that I celebrated often in my classroom, how I admired them for what they had to overcome and the discrimination they are still overcoming as they assimilate into American culture. I celebrated my students, so that someday they might celebrate themselves.