A letter to America

Dear America,

I’ve grown up in your midst the past 35 years. I grew up in a place named after a native tribe, long since gone from their lands, where kids teased each other openly about losing wrestling matches to the nigger. Placed where students named Janel White of all names made fun of other students’ lips and neck rolls, visible after a fresh hair cut, because they were too black.

I came of age in the care of babysitters who hailed from the Midwest. Who would openly use racial terms like nigger to communicate their disgust for a people they thought less of, people who looked like my grandfather, mi Abuelito.

The only time he came to this country, he never returned to his home. He died not too far away from the Hamilton sign, a billboard off interstate 5 where the Hamilton family exercised their 1st amendment rights to put political perspectives for commuter consumption next to a caricature of you, America… As if Uncle Sam himself had a parting thought for you as you passed through this typical small rural town.

Welcome to America. Now speak English

This message would later be one of the thoughts for the day, years after my grandfather died here. I still use the poster of this particular iteration of the sign my friends had made for me as a teaching tool in my Language Acquisition class at Antioch University.

My upbringing took me from the rural parts of Southwest Washington to the suburban Southern California. Los Angeles was in the midst of an uprising after the police officers whine were tried for beating Rodney King were also acquitted of the charges. Before I left for California, I caught a glimpse into the power of internalized racial oppression when one of the only other Latino kids in the school told me to call him if I needed help when I got to Los Angeles. He said, “I’ll come down with my shotgun and show them niggers.” And so I left.

It was there, in one of the most wealthy parts of Southern California that I learned about the frightening intersection of class and race. The only black students were teammates of mine on the football team, not acknowledged for much else. I became the dirty Puerto Rican, a token Latino minority. I must admit that I internalized a part of this racial stereotyping too, for I was not strong enough to speak out and rise above it, my voice had yet to be found.

It was here that I also learned about the complicity of our law enforcement with upholding the relations and subsequent treatment that highlight our ethnic differences rather than our common humanity. Scared to speak back at police officers who berated me in front of my friends for “talking shit while I was arrestable,” for being too scared to remember to give the officer my last name when asked, even though I could see my house and it was 5 minutes past curfew.

And one of the most powerful life lessons I carried from this place was from the classroom. One an honor roll and gifted student, I was confused at the time, not fully comprehending my lack of academic success, almost not graduating high school. I couldn’t understand why a student like me could not do well at a supposed nationally recognized blue ribbon school, just as much as I could not understand why my history teacher was adamant that the American Civil War was not fought to abolish slavery, but was fought over states versus federal rights… TO OWN AND EXPLOIT HUMAN SLAVES!!!

It is here still, to this day, where schools still struggle to educate minority students in a safe and dignified manner, free from any racial prejudice or oppression.

My journey has now brought me to this place. I have had the blessed fortune to start and raise s family in one of the most segregated urban centers in America: Los Angeles. I have the privilege of commuting only 10 miles into the inner parts of South Central to work with some of the most creative, intelligent, hard working, and inspiring communities. I have held this privilege for the last decade. Teaching and learning from black and brown youth. Mis estudiantes.

I have found my voice. And I want to use that voice today, on Thanksgiving, – often referred to Thankstaking by those unimpressed with the often unacknowledged and misrepresented history of this holiday – to truly give thanks for what I’ve been able to accomplish in this life, here in this land.

I am thankful that this land is full of people willing to lend a hand, work hard for themselves and others. I am thankful for the opportunity to reflect privately and publicly, exercising my first amendment right. I am thankful for the spirit of a people that truly believe by putting into daily action, the ideals that gave birth to you America;

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

I am thankful for those brave enough to resist the system that subjugates their very existence, knowing that to be American is to settle for nothing less than justice. America, on this day know that as much as we love you… The people demand that you change, that you continue to grow and mature, and that you evolve into a better iteration… One that truly lives out your founding ideals. Rest assured we will help you. Because we love you.

Sincerely,

Citizen number (whatever)

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Photo credit: Mear One

Voices, Ethnic Studies, Movements, and Challenges…

There was a lot going on these last two weeks at school. It seemed that even more was going on after school hours. I had the privilege and great pleasure to watch students learn about very important matters in different spaces outside of the classroom. I myself may have benefited even more by watching all of this learning take place.

On Thursday night we had the distinct pleasure and opportunity to take a group of 20 students to the Japanese cultural community center to watch the 10th anniversary Voices of the People’s history performed by several actors and musicians. This important in seminal text was released my first year teaching. I remember going to Immanuel Presbyterian Church and watching Howard Zinn (rest in peace), who is still alive and well in the hearts and souls people, his spirit fiery with inspiration around the education of the complexities (read atrocities) of our nation’s history.

It has been a long time since I have seen kids light up with the essence of true learning and excitement. Not that I don’t strive for that in my class everyday, but to have a completely aesthetic experience, as Sir Ken Robinson would say, in the service of critical thinking and learning? Where you won’t be quizzed immediately after for retention but rather continually reminded of that moment when you were fully alive and connected (not separated) by time and space to other human beings, other lives. This is what I witnessed with my students.

Of course the star power of actors and musicians like Kerry Washington and Tom Morello helped connect the voices of the past; Sojourner Truth, Malcom X, Bartólome De Las Casas, Muhammad Ali, and more… to the hearts and minds of my students. These are the times when there is nothing greater than being a history teacher.

The next day I had the pleasure of hosting our Taking Action students film night. They were screening a very well made documentary on the struggles of students and teachers against the Tuscon Unified School District to dismantle their Ethnic Studies program. Precious Knowledge examined the most extreme and polarizing of ideologies that clash on the battlefield of current day educational reform. As I watched the movie, it was difficult to control my emotional responses to statements like:

With ethnic studies there’s a desire to develop ethnic solidarity. Uh… you know. This group, we’re the… we’re Latinos, that other group they’re the African Americans, that other group they’re the Asian Americans, that other group they’re the Anglos and so on… In the human being there is, uh, there is a primitive part that is tribal. And that will say, I want to be with members of my own tribe, members of my own race and that sort of thing. The function of civilization and the function of our public school system is to get people to transcend that… There are better ways to get students to perform academically and to want to go to college than to try and infuse them with racial ideas.” – Tom Horne, Former Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction

I can’t express enough how tired I am of the misguided (at best) and intentionally misrepresented (at worst) narrative of the state of race relations in this country, where many “well intentioned” people like to believe that we live in a “post racial” society where race and ethnicity (two different things) don’t matter any longer or as much as individual merit. And I wonder how we are to measure transcendence now! If I am helping to facilitate any type of transcendence in my classroom, it is of the type that helps students find agency to combat the dominant narrative of white supremacy that has them internalizing ideas about individual or collective success, like this.

The following Tuesday the students and teachers of Los Angeles, and in a rare moment the school board of Los Angeles, renewed my hope that the struggles towards a quality and dignified educational system is still possible when people organize and listen to the real stories that are being lived. People organized to ensure that what happened in Tuscon would never happen here in Los Angeles. Ethnic studies is now a graduation requirement in LAUSD.

Two days later, teachers, students, and community members rallied at 5 different locations around the city to voice our demands for quality schools that Los Angeles Students Deserve. 719a69f1-8d16-49bc-a6b6-6f5f18937b50 Our teachers and students, including our marching band, helped to provide not only voice but the soundtrack of our demands from the district.

As the last 2 weeks have provided me with plenty of challenging work in and out of the classroom, it is transformational learning experiences like these that keep me coming back for more… well… and the much needed time off.

Dia de Los Muertos…

I am Mexican. Though not completely. My father didn’t really know his father, who was Mexican, and so therefore identified more with the Southern California surfer and beach boy culture. And his mother, my Nana, though her father was temporarily exiled from a small Mexican town where he was the mayor and dated many pachucos as she fondly and often reminisces, also identifies at least aesthetically, with her French and German heritage. Nonetheless I am Mexican, in the most gringo version you can think of, even more gringoized than my Panamanian side!

And yet, when I first learned about the Mexican cultural practice of celebrating those close to us who have passed on, commonly referred to (by gringos like me, as the Day of the Dead, I was completely blown away by the concept. How liberating to know that you can remain close to those whom you will never see again in the physical sense. That you can celebrate their life even in death. How responsible and healthy, to not only learn, but internalize through culture that death is an inextricably important and necessary part of life.

Learning about this tradition from my students and colleagues early on in my teaching career, I had already been touched by La Muerte. I had lost my best friend to an accidental gunshot wound. This most talented and fun young man, who lived life to the fullest, for a mere 19 years, his potential for a career in football never realized, and our promise (carved into a tree on Lake Mayfield) to marry our high school sweethearts, endearing in its naivety, a passing thought of children of another time.

I would soon lose my grandmother, La Profesora, and travel to Panama to see her one last time. I would soon see mi Tia pass. And my stepfather, the man who raised me from 6 years old, my dad. I remember distinctly one of my students, whom I recently ran into again, consoling me when my father passed.

Don’t worry Mr. Gomez. I lost my father too. It will get better.

Her smile signaling the wisdom of a 7th grader, all too familiar with loss, yet confident in her understanding of a bigger picture.

Death can be violent. I have had the displeasure of seeing young people learn this harshest of lessons too many times in my career. Whether with their own lives, or those that are closest to them. This past Halloween, I went out to get some coffee during the work day. I ran into a few former students, as is typical when walking around the neighborhood. It is one of my favorite things to do, see a student whom was once so young, now older, wiser, and more reflective… always respectful and thankful. One of these young men approached me at first asking for some bus fare. The Joker Paint on my face making it difficult for hime to recognize me at first, he smiled when he realized it was me. We talked for awhile about life after high school. How he was doing, where he was going, where I was teaching, who I was still teaching with… the typical small talk. We walked into the donut shop where I could accomplish my mission of a cup of joe and send him on his way with 50 cents. I noticed a huge scar on his neck, around the carotid artery. I asked him how he’d gotten it. He was forthcoming with the darker parts of his life’s story since I had known him as a student. Being stabbed by his girlfriend and accused of attempted rape, an outstanding warrant, a pending lawsuit agains LAPD for excessive use of force. All of these difficult story lines were tempered with a positivity reflected by his sharing of future goals and plans to accomplish them; job interviews, construction work, family recommendations. Above all else it was the genuine resilience embedded in this young man’s smile is what stuck out to me in my mind. In these circumstances you have to maintain laser like focus on the positive, the hope.

As I sat down to write this post this past Halloween weekend, I received a text from one of my colleagues sharing the most unfortunate of news. One of our former students had been involved in a horrific tragedy where a mother had lost her life in front of her own children. Those that taught her say that despite being behind in credits and not being able to graduate on time, she was making attempts and had the potential to achieve academically in the aims towards graduation. We also knew her to have had ties to the unfortunate realities of the streets. My heart wrenched when I read the article. No one should have to experience this type of loss, nor this type of rage. There has to be more attempts at redirecting the hurt and mental suffering that cause tragic exchanges like these. Schools need help in responding to these realities of our youth.

As I tried to zoom out and refocus my original intent for this post, I walked away from the computer and spent time with my own family. We celebrated in what limited way we could with young kids, what I believe to be the core principles behind the traditions of El Dia de Los Muertos; celebration, love, remembrance, and honoring of those we have lost. We saw a most beautiful movie with the girls trying to instill this philosophy to young people. We visited one of many of our local Day of the Dead celebrations. We talked through some of our own family who are with us in other ways. Our family celebrated being together…

As I come back to this entry, realizing that the original thread has been overshadowed by my own thematic brain dumping of a cathartic exercise… I am reminded of the immense balancing act we humans do in this world… balancing our understanding of life and living, with our fears and beliefs about death and dying. I am glad to have access to this rich cultural tradition that shares the wisdom of focusing on celebrating the good in our world and the next. May we all do this a little more.

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