Because the future depends on the breaking down of paradigms, it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures. By creating a new mythos – that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves and the way we behave – la mestiza creates a new consciousness.
The photographer stepped out from behind the camera standing at the doorway of the classroom. He leaned toward the class of 11th graders and said, “Actually I want to say something to you.” They looked at him. Young and thin, he could have easily passed for a student in this school in the Texas border town of Hidalgo. It was the first time I had heard him speak; for two days I had seen him only behind the camera. He said something like this:
Where you’re from is important. I grew up in Corpus Christi, not far from here. I thought I had to leave my community to be successful: people would always badmouth it. I have gotten the chance to travel a lot once I got to college, and see amazing places. I meet new people when I travel, and I tell them about the culture of my community, about my roots. When you’re traveling, you meet people who have never been to this area, who don’t know anything about it. You realize that what people will know of where you come from is what you tell them. You tell the story of where you came from – you don’t need to keep telling the same old tired story. The negative story about this area is only one story. What is the story you want to tell?
Misael got me thinking about how much I accept others’ versions of reality rather than doing the creative work of describing reality for myself. Misael’s words to his younger colleagues reminded me that going away and coming back helps us get the perspective we need to be able to recognize the stories of hope and determination and courage that make us who we really are. When we’re at home, wrapped up in the familiar routines and worries, we forget that the reality we inhabit is a story. When we go away, and look back home, the deeper resonances that lie within the voices of our families and communities can emerge. Listening to them helps us to challenge the faceless authorities that dehumanize us.
After coming back from the 2016 North Dakota Study Group meeting in Texas, (“Movimiento Sin Fronteras/Movement Without Borders”), I have been thinking about why Misael, and other university students I talked to in South Texas, are so adamant about young people coming back to their communities. I heard people talking about coming back as a kind of a border-crossing: an act that was not only geographic but also spiritual. By seeking out the stories of their parents and grandparents, they are growing stronger understandings of love, commitment, education – as well as of racism and exploitation. By speaking and hearing Spanish in educational spaces, they are standing up to a history of English-only school policies that demeaned their families. By learning Nahuatl language and literature, they are reclaiming wisdom that preceded the conquest and colonization of the Americas, and that expresses spiritual resistance to oppression.
I wondered what coming back might mean to the high school students in Hidalgo who were listening to Misael.
When I returned from South Texas, I shared with my teacher education class the video of the NDSG meeting there, created by Misael Ramirez and his colleagues Jesús Sierra and Arnulfo Segovia. My students, who have been focusing on systems of racism in education, were inspired to learn about teachers and students deepening their understanding of community, place, and story. They talked about how education based in humanizing relationships could counter testing oppression, corporate control of education, and other ways that schooling systems disrespect students’ lives.
Alongside the NDSG video, my co-teacher Marcus Campbell and I shared Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade’s “Roses in Concrete” Ted Talk, which emphasizes the importance of students in urban communities coming back to their communities, and “creating rose gardens.” This was an important image for my students from marginalized communities, and also for students from privileged backgrounds, who are struggling to find their place as teachers in urban schools with students who don’t look like them. Many of them are realizing that they are part of an education system that is structurally designed to benefit White people at the expense of communities of color, and they are asking how to challenge racism from within the education system.
One student, a young white woman from a wealthy community, realized that she unintentionally supports students’ marginalization when she assumes that they need to leave their communities to succeed:
This idea made me think of the volunteer work I have done with children from the inner city of Baltimore. My mindset working with them was always to help them get out, and essentially get into the world in which I exist. I think I have been conditioned by society to imagine my world, the mostly White world, as the ultimate goal. I sincerely wanted to help these children, but in my mind helping them was getting them into my world and leaving their world behind.
Though these realizations are painful, they are also liberating. For my student coming to terms with the assumptions she had made, “coming back” means value and dignity. She is coming to question her “helping” narrative, which distorts who her students are and who she can be with them. The more she learns to respect where her students come from, the more she can know of their reality – and of her own. Her stories are changing; her range of meaning is expanding and deepening. To quote South Texas native Gloria Anzaldúa, “Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.”