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Since I started on staff in 2009, by-in-large my identity has been that of a white gay male from a low-income background. As such, that was largely the perspective that was often solicited from me. However in my personal life, when I am asked to define myself I generally first, very proudly, identify as a Puerto Rican or as my cousins would jokingly call me, “ a blanquito Puerto Rican.”
The rich culture and background that I come from serves me in my home, with my family, and among my closest friends. Outside of these communities though, I felt for many years that it was not safe to claim to be a Latino because my Spanish is not great and my skin is not brown.
This changed a few months ago when I had the opportunity to attend the 2012 Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and Teach For America leadership summit. For two days, I was surrounded by hundreds of Colombians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Ecuadorians, El Salvadorians, and many others who had unique perspectives and experiences. All had varying degrees of Spanish fluency. Some were black; some brown; some white. It was the first time I’d looked around a room and seen such a rich representation of proud Latino leaders. And I realized that each of us had a unique opportunity to be a voice for the Latino families in our regions who oftentimes go unheard.
Over the past 10 years, the Latino population in Charlotte, North Carolina—my hometown—has grown more than 17-fold. This growth is no surprise. In the 1990s, our city actively recruited Latinos from other countries to work here. It is because many of these people that we have such a booming and beautiful city today.
And yet the families of those who helped make our city great now face deportation, family separation, extreme poverty, and gross discrimination. In this extremely politicized and contentious topic, it is critical that we set aside politics and remember the important role Latinos play in the cultural, economic, and moral fabric of our city. As a Puerto Rican man I feel it’s urgent that I help my colleagues and fellow citizens remember how we have benefited from the wonderful families who represent Mexico, El Salvador, and so many other places.
I am not proud that it has taken me almost four years in my work to really commit to partnering with and advocating for our Latino students and families in Charlotte. But I am grateful that my experience has pushed me to learn more about our Latino families, their stories, their challenges, and how I can help them overcome the struggles and champion their assets.
Mark was born and raised in St. Paul, MN and attended college at Saint John’s University. Straight out of college Mark joined Teach For America as a part of the Metro D.C. 2007 corps. He taught first and third grade while obtaining his Masters in Education at George Mason. After two years of teaching, Mark joined the Teach For America—Charlotte staff first as a manager of teacher leadership development and now in a role focused on the region’s professional development and regional support systems.