Stories humanize us—they reflect our identity, who we are, what we value, and how we arrived at where we currently stand. The stories we tell speak about what and who we fight for and also quite loudly announce where and when we remain silent.
October 15, 2017
I grew up in New York City, a first-generation American of Guatemalan heritage and the daughter of immigrants. I never felt as an outsider in one of the world’s largest cities. My classmates were from all over the world and I traveled often with my parents to Guatemala to visit family. Geography and travel fascinated me at a young age.
When I was nine years old, my family moved to Honduras, where my parents would work as missionaries. Although my family has always been of modest financial means, it was there that I discovered what privilege meant and how I held some of that privilege. My realizations during the three year period that I lived in Honduras marked and shaped my cultural identity. I learned to better understand my place in different social contexts as an American, as a person of Guatemalan heritage, as a bilingual, as a documented Latina.
I was in 7th grade when we moved back to the United States, to a small, rural town in southeast North Carolina. I remember being asked on my first day how it was that I knew English so well. I had already decided from the beginning that I was an outsider. I did not belong here and my only goal was to leave someday. I continued to struggle with my cultural identity all through high school, often being the only Latina in honors courses, knowing that I had privileges and choices many of my peers did not. Although I was never ashamed of my heritage, a part of me always wanted to enunciate words a little more and seem a little less different. The struggle for assimilation is something I see many of my students fight today, something I recognize very well.
It was not until college, far away in Illinois, that I began to discover what I wanted my role to be in the many different cultural contexts I often found myself. I started taking on the role of "educator", no longer being content with being a “model minority” or the only Latina in the group. I found myself empowered by my cultural heritage and knew that I needed to use my privilege and the opportunities I had for my voice as a tool for advocacy and inclusion.
“I discovered that just as I had spent my entire life figuring out how I fit into the world, many of my students were going through that same process, all the while living in a world that seemed to have forgotten them.”
As a Spanish teacher in Bertie County, at a school where about 80% of the students were African-American, I sought to empower my students by helping them to tell their stories, whether in Spanish or English. I focused on cultural exposure, bringing the world to my classroom and letting my students hear fresh, diverse stories. I focused on drawing connections between educational injustices abroad and at home, drawing comparisons between traditions, foods, music and the commonalities we all shared as well the beauty of our differences.
Teaching in Bertie County built my foundation as an educator, and as my students took pride in their stories and their narratives, I too became more grounded in my own identity, understanding that who I was was who I needed to be in order to stand in front of my students every day.
For the last three years I have taught in Sampson County, from where so many years ago, I endeavored to leave and never return. The many years I spent questioning my own cultural identity, my privilege, and wondering what my place would be in the world are now worked into the narrative of my classroom. There, I challenge my students to think about their identity, their struggles, how they view others, and open their eyes to aspects of Latino heritage they might not know. Many of my students identify as Latinx, and I find myself relating to them in different ways, either as a child who moved to the South, as someone who lived in Central America, or simply the fact that I graduated from the place they call home. I have learned to listen to stories but also watch them develop, as students walk in the hallways, while they work in class, and to try and understand the injustices and systems that we must confront and dismantle every day to ensure that their lives are lived equitably.
I confront my privilege, even as a minority, every day, and remind myself that I have a responsibility to be an ally, an advocate, and a voice. Those of us who can tell our stories must then make way so that others can as well, creating together a road we can all travel.
Angela Rivas is a high school Spanish teacher in Sampson County, North Carolina. A 2012 Teach For America—Eastern North Carolina corps member, Angela taught in Bertie County for three years prior to her current role.