Towards Linguistic Justice and a Decolonized Classroom for Hispanic Heritage Month

My teaching career began in 2001 in the Soundview neighborhood of the South Bronx.  I’m White, I was 21 years old, and I was the only Spanish teacher on staff.  I was young and eager and, Hispanic Heritage Month starts the school year, so I went really hard in that first Spanish class with the poetry of Pablo Neruda, the paintings of Frida Kahlo and the music of socialist troubadours like Victor Jara and Silvio Rodriguez.  


The kids weren’t as enthused as I had hoped.  

Why aren’t you guys excited about your own history?

The irony (and flat out racism) of this scenario completely escaped me at the time. As with Pan-Africanism, Pan-Latinidad requires foundational understanding of the unique, independent nations and cultures first.

It’s disrespectful and colonialist to skip that step.

I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed about being a White Spanish teacher per se  but I can say that it is a minefield of potential White supremacy and I’ll admit to stepping on a few (read: a lot) of those mines over the years.  

I like to say that as an anti-racist, the only thing I’m truly an expert on is my own past failures.

be humble.PNG

SideBar: I’ve come to refer to these failures as my “anti-racist references;”moments of deep learning I can return to as references for when I’m facing something similar in the present.  Most of my anti-racist references as a White Spanish teacher had todo with a lack of humility and correcting young people on their own language. As in:  “Yes, Dunlevy, “hanguear” IS a verb, and it means “to hang out,”get the fuck on board.”

Telling people who they are, how to speak their own language, what their cultural traditions are and “correct” ways to be literate and multi-lingual are the essence of colonialism in the classroom.  

But, I’m a fast learner and, I eased up pretty quickly on being the authority on the language of my students.

Moving forward, Hispanic Heritage Month was a special time for me during my teaching years and not just for the obvious linguistic and cultural connections.  HHM is celebrated from mid-September to mid-October because of the wave of independence hard won by 5 Central American countries in the early 19th century.  Simón Bolivar and José de San Martín were right behind them, fighting furiously for independence in the South.  Hispanic Heritage Month starts our school year with a celebration of victory over colonialism.  As a Spanish teacher, HHM was a way to frame the year to come.  

How can we decolonize this class and educate to liberate?

Towards the end of my teaching career I was teaching Advanced Placement Spanish Language and Culture to Native Language Spanish-speaking students (NLS).  I opened the year with a circle to begin the long, beautiful process of deeply knowing my students.  My first question to these students, who would likely represent between 5-10 different Spanish-speaking countries, would be this:

“How would your life be different if you were still living in the country of your ancestors?”

This question began a process of exploring the cultural and historical wisdom that these young people brought to the classroom community.  It started a conversation about who we are as a group, and how our lives are being shaped by being in this place here and now.  

And while I could write a novel about how many ways I had to get it wrong to get it right, I want to talk about one of the ways I think our schools can get it right for our Hispanic students.  I’m referring to advocacy for Native Language Arts programs for Native Spanish-speakers.  

I noticed that when I got my first job at 21, I had a class of about 32, approximately 14 of which were fully bi-lingual (fluent in both Spanish and English), about 8 could understand Spanish with fluency but preferred to communicate in English.  The rest were Native English speakers.  The class was Spanish 1.  According to the curriculum left to me I was meant to start with basic greetings.  

Even the Native English speakers were like; “Miss- everybody knows how to say ‘hola’.  Damn.”

This struck me as a gross mis-programming of our students, and a clear act of the “English-only” messaging of our school system.  The linguistic diversity in the classroom needed to be celebrated, but instead it seemed like we were all set up to fail.  

I love to differentiate instruction, but this was basically the equivalent of holding the summer Olympics with only one event.  I have professional gymnasts, swimmers and runners in the room, but everyone has to run relays.  And if we complain, the advice is to just change up the track.  

Linguistic colonialism is rampant in our schools, and I want to argue that one of the best ways we can celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month as educators is to advocate for linguistic justice for the nearly 93,000 Spanish-speaking students in our NYC Public Schools.

We can advocate early on to assess students and split them into different levels of Native Language Arts classes where the instruction takes place primarily in Spanish and functions much like an English class for English speaking students.  

We can develop programs around Native Language Arts Education in schools where dual language programs are financially or programmatically impossible, and where otherwise, NLS students will end up in Spanish 1 with non-native speakers learning how to say ‘hello’ and conjugate basic verbs.  

SideBar: Since the small school movement of the early 2000’s, most community schools can’t offer differentiated levels of Foreign Language or ELL classes, which means that bilingual students often end up in the most remediated classes in BOTH of their languages.  It is one of the most fundamental ways we educationally neglect multilingual students in our public schools.

At this point, we’re into the school year and while the advocacy for a Native Language Arts program can certainly start now, a full change to programming and schedules is unlikely.  So what can we do as educators to promote language justice in our classrooms and to begin to decolonize our schools in the spirit of Hispanic Heritage Month?  A culturally responsive classroom relies on the deep cultural narratives of the young people in the room, and HHM is a great time to start exploring those stories.  Here are just a few ideas:

  • Participate in one circle process a week for the remainder of HHM and ask your students to tell stories about their families and ancestors.  You might ask questions like:
    • Tell us about a family value that you inherited from your parents or grandparents
    • What’s really important to your family and why?
    • What does home mean to you?
    • Where do your people come from?
    • How do your people gather together?  What is a family party like at your house?
    • Can you share a story that’s been passed down through the generations of your family?
  • Have students create a giant map of the world (consider centering Africa and not the U.S. on your class-map) and have each student bring in a family recipe. Have students research the origins of all of the ingredients of that family recipe, and with unique colored pencils, have students draw a line from  the origins of the ingredients (rice from China, yuca from the Caribbean, etc,) to their country of origin, and then to their home in New York.  Celebrate these worldwide journeys in some way at the end of the unit.  Encourage students to present their “recipe journeys” in their native language or dialect.
  • Have students interview an older family member and either record the interview on film or audio, and then invite them to present the film or a re-enactment of the interview for the class.
  • Have students create small plays in which they dramatize a family conversation in their home.  Encourage them to enact the language or dialect they use with their families, and invite  someone to translate if necessary.

These are just a few small ideas, but you’ll notice the focus isn’t to teach culture during a month that celebrates cultural heritage-  the focus is to solicit cultural histories from the students themselves, no matter where they’re from.

As the years went on, I didn’t completely abandon the Neruda or the Chilean folk music in my Spanish classroom.  But I did learn to be more reverent of the rich cultural wisdom that our multilingual and diasporic children bring to the classroom every day.   

I love languages, and the most beautiful thing for me about teaching to and through language is that it is the gateway that opens us into deep culture.  

As educators, let’s take advantage of Hispanic Heritage Month to move beyond the surface cultural signifiers of clothes and music into the rich, multi-faceted ways we express beliefs, values and desires rooted in our ancestral histories.  Isn’t this the essence of a month dedicated to celebrating cultural heritage?  



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