When I was younger, I seldom thought about my identity; I barely knew what “identity” meant. What is race? What is ethnicity? What is culture? I suppose I always found myself to be a little different than my peers (I attended a predominantly white elementary school in Brookfield, Wisconsin), but I never thought much of it.
I never dissected why I was different, what made me feel like I didn’t quite blend in with everyone else. Was it my name that was too long? A jumble of letters that clinged and clanged in the mouths of those who spoke it and seeped between the teeth because it couldn’t quite settle on the tongue.
Yes, that was probably it, my name. Julia sounds better. Or maybe Sarah. Well … it could have also been the food I packed for lunch. Pão de queijo, a gross, smelly, weird-looking clump of cheese that made others question and point and frown. Or my hair. My big, poofy, mountain of hair that was just so alluring that people couldn’t help but sniff it, “pet” it, point, laugh.
However, none of the aforementioned reasons alone fully encompass why I felt ostracized. They are merely the minute parts of myself that others were exposed to, but they are simply byproducts of something much larger, much more significant. In truth, the reason is that I am Latina. In retrospect, it’s unfair how not understanding a part of myself that was fundamental to learn caused me much perplexity as a child. If I had simply been taught more about ethnicity and race, and how important it is to value my culture, the divisions in my classroom would not have seemed so puzzling to me.
And so, I pondered on this; sitting in my room many years later thinking, “how can I contribute to my community? How can I aid my community in a way that stems from personal experience?” I eventually settled on this seemingly mundane idea: my ethnicity. What if I helped others better understand the Latinx culture, express my knowledge and experiences living in this world that only a small percentage of people share? What if I could help others better understand and honor themselves and those around them?
Being a freshman in high school, the most accessible way to catalyze this initiative was by founding a club. My high school did not yet have a club dedicated to promoting Latinx cultural awareness, and so I decided to found one myself. I was very insecure at first. I did not know how to run a club, I did not know how many people would be interested in joining, and, most importantly, I did not know what I would share, how I would lead.
The Latinx Culture Appreciation Club has been running for seven months (founded in November of 2020, running until May of 2021). At first, it was difficult. I felt very discouraged at times, feeling that the content I was presenting was subpar, and was not voicing everything I wanted to share.
However, as more members joined, and the more accustomed I became to running meetings, I felt a much clearer path ahead of me. In fact, I even felt as though a passion of mine had been unveiled: advocating and being a voice for my community.
As more meetings progressed, the greater my understanding of my culture grew; the more proud I grew. I began to expand my club, finding ways to support my community, engage members into the content, invite guest speakers to voice their knowledge and experiences. What once was an idea with a wobbly and weak foundation became a firm and fixed reality.
But alas, the reflecting and pondering does not end there. I continue to think about this endeavor, more specifically, its beginning. Why did I start this club? Why did I feel the need to start this club? Why did the responsibility of teaching others about a predominant ethnicity in Southern California fall in the lap of a teenager? Essentially, why wasn’t the Latinx community already taught about in school?
Being a Latina in a classroom, is it my job to teach others about my culture?
To answer, this responsibility should not fall upon any single person, especially not a high school student. But, I feel as though if I don’t, then who will?
Lack of representation of people of color in the education system is not an issue solely revolving around the Latinx community, but the Black or African American community, Asian community, Indigenous community, American Indian community, etc. Teaching students about different cultures, races, and ethnicities, and how these aspects of human identity influence structures and patterns in our society, is something that is completely neglected in the education system, and it is often students of color that suffer from this dereliction.
The absence of people of color representation in the education system is an intricate issue, and so I myself am not entirely sure as to how exactly it would be resolved or mitigated. As much as I am passionate about teaching others about my culture and community, it should not be a job I feel obligated to do myself.
Although I feel comfortable voicing my person of color perspective, this is not a universal truth for all POC students. Students of color should not be relied on to speak up for their entire race/ ethnicity/ culture; any expectation of this should be eliminated. Everyone has varying comfort levels in revealing their stories as a result of upbringing and personal experiences.
Ultimately, it is not a student’s responsibility to be a voice for their community in a school setting, however, the education system has left many students of color feeling as though we have no other choice.
I should not experience the pressure of having to be a teacher for my peers, rather, I should continue to take on the role of a student and define my place in raising awareness for my culture as I choose.