10/04/2019 by Michael Brosnan | Education News and Trends
Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month in Schools
September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month — a federally established designation by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. Not all Latinx people and groups are fond of the month. Some feel the time is used far too often for surface-level commercial purposes with little benefit to the Latinx community. But the point of the month, as the Library of Congress puts it, is as an opportunity to celebrate “the histories, cultures, and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.” And, to my way of thinking, such a tripartite celebration would be a good thing for the nation at the moment.
For all of us in the field of education, there are additional reasons to embrace this month. Besides being an opportunity to acknowledge the nation’s Latinx culture and myriad achievements, this month is a chance to re-examine school cultural and curricular practices that impact the experiences of Latinx students and the broader Latinx community.
A driving impetus behind this work is the disturbing fact that too many Latinx American youths, which is the majority of the Latinx population in the U.S., are increasingly subjected to discrimination. As a result, many say they feel like foreigners in their own country. Among those who have recently emigrated to the U.S., the majority feels deeply anxious about daily life, even when they are legal citizens.
In a recent survey, for instance, immigrant youth responded to the question, “Most Americans think that most [people from the respondent’s birthplace] are_________.”
Two-thirds of the responses were negative.
One 14-year-old boy of Mexican descent wrote, “Most Americans think that Mexicans are lazy, gangsters, drug addicts that only come to take their jobs away.”
Imagine you are this 14-year-old boy. Imagine what it would take for you to feel this way. Now imagine what it would take to change your view to something more positive.
In her 2017 book, “Citizens But Not Americans: Race and Belonging Among Latino Millennials” (NYU Press), Nilda Flores-González interviewed more than 90 Latinx American Millennials. Her research touches on the experience of a broad range of young American citizens who are aligned, sadly, in feeling like second-class citizens or unwelcome guests in their own country.
“Although citizens by birth,” Flores-González writes, “they are aware that they are seen by non-Latinos as non-citizens because their Latin American ancestry — disclosed by their looks, cultural manners, and/or surname — points to their immigrant background.”
One Latinx student puts it this way, “People assume a whole list of things I could be, but American is not among them.”
For educators, the lesson here is clear. We need to go do more in every school to support Latinx students so they feel truly included and valued.
While educators are not the initial cause of this sense of marginalization among Latinx youth, inaction on the matter means that educators are likely to perpetuate the alienation. A better choice is to engage. What does engagement look like? It starts with acknowledging that many Latinx students feel marginalized in their own country, communities, and schools — and that there are both historic and ongoing reasons for their experiences. Open this door and the options present themselves for supporting Latinx students and changing the school culture for the better.
In independent schools, broadly speaking, diversity practitioners encourage schools to explore the question of why and how students of color can end up feeling like “citizens, but not Americans,” as Flores-González puts it. Doing so can open up conversation on how the broader culture reinforces this feeling through numerous forms of discriminatory practices and a steady bombardment of microaggressions — and how these practices and microaggressions work their way into schools.
Many schools are already engaged in conscious efforts to work with Latinx students to increase their sense of belonging. This work includes addressing racial bias in the curriculum and school culture. It includes the use of affinity groups. It includes an examination of hiring practices, the make up of the board of trustees, the kinds of cultural assumptions of what it means to be a highly educated American, the choice of books in literature classes, and more. I appreciate these efforts. Schools need to constantly evolve — stay focused on being part of the positive larger cultural efforts to educate all students well across race, ethnicity, class, and other cultural qualifies so the students.
But I also see a good argument for using Hispanic Heritage Month as part of this work. It’s a time in which we can push harder for a redefinition of what we mean by “American” and how that plays out in our various communities. The old and still standing prototype of American as white European and Christian needs to shift — and shift quickly — into a new prototype of a constantly evolving culture of race and ethnicity that embraces the ideas of freedom and opportunity along with civic responsibility and a commitment to the common good, all without marginalizing those who bring new perspectives to what it means to be American.
Flores-González’s research and writing makes it clear that this her preferred path forward. In her book, she also points out how many of the Latinx Millennials are already leading the efforts for greater inclusivity in the nation.
I understand why some might frown upon official months like Hispanic Heritage Month; other designated months that acknowledge minority groups often do little to change the culture. But I hope educators will see this an as excellent opportunity for us to join with the Latinx Millennials in rewriting the national narrative on belonging, countering the vitriolic anti-American racism that seems on the rise of late, fighting the tendencies in so many communities to commit microaggressions against Latinx Americans, and moving our schools and nation toward their clearly stated ideals.
If we start (or further elevate) the conversation now, there’s a very good chance it will spill over into the other months of the year, too.
Latinx Resources for Educators
According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. Latinx community is a very large group — more than 60 million, around 80% of whom are U.S. citizens, living in every state in the nation. For details on the demographics, see the Pew Research Center’s recent piece, “Key Facts About U.S. Hispanics and Their Diverse Heritage.”
For educators looking for related resources, the Library of Congress website dedicated to Hispanic Heritage Month includes numerous links for teachers.
Latinx students make up around one quarter of students nationally — in public and private schools. But the percentage of Latinx teachers remains around 8 %. The Center for American Progress outlines ways to increase the percentage of Latinx teachers nationally.
For independent schools, the percentage of Latinx students nationally is around 5 %with a smaller percentage of Latinx teachers in the schools. At CS&A, we are working with schools to increase the diversity of teacher and administrator candidates to help move the community forward in its efforts to become a well functioning, diverse community of schools. We hope you can join us at our next FORUM/Diversity — taking place in Philadelphia on Friday, January 31 and Saturday, February 1, 2020.
Michael Brosnan is an independent writer and editor with a particular interest in education and social change. He writes often on the intersection of racial justice and education. His latest book of poetry, “The Sovereignty of the Accidental,” was published by Harbor Mountain Press. He can be reached at www.michaelabrosnan.com.
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