Diversity Roundtable: On Being Latino At Teach For America

Latino corps members talk about the role diversity plays in their work.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

This post originally appeared on TeacherPop. We have re-blogged it with permission.

We know it’s important for our corps to become more representative of the communities we serve. Currently, however, only 10 percent of our corps identifies as Latino, but 32 percent of students in our placement schools nationally are Latino. A quarter of our placement regions teach in schools that are more than 50 percent Latino.

We’re focusing on aggressive diversity goals around Latino corps members, but what happens once they join the corps?

We asked five corps members and alumni simply what it means to be a Latino corps member. We compiled their answers into the sections below so that the similarities and differences come through. These reflections are not meant to represent the entirety of the Teach For America Latino experience, but together they provide some insight into what it means to be a Latino in this organization.


Images of a group of young female teachers posing with a mascot, a pinata, an empty hotel room, and young teachers smiling underneath a Teach for America logo.


Scenes from the 2013 Teach For America Latino Summit. (Photo: claripen, Instagram)

Coming to Teach For America:

Lorenzo Garza (Phoenix, ’11): Early in the morning, arriving at my school, I sometimes sit alone in my car. As I stare at my room on the second floor of our school, and I am reminded of the community I grew up in. I am reminded of many of my classmates and friends who were not afforded the opportunities that I push my scholars to achieve.

Juan Serrano (Hawai’i, ’12): Working with Teach for America has been a culmination of several events that have shaped my perspective on life. I attended a Historically Black College where I faced frequent, internal battles regarding my own ethnicity as a multi-racial man. I am mixed with Black, White and Mexican. My biological father was Mexican but he did not raise me; my mother, who is Black, did. This internal battle regarding my own identity instilled within me a vested interest in minority communities, many of which are served by Teach For America. I noticed the common theme amongst disenfranchised communities was the lack of an equitable education.

Jonathan Avilez (Phoenix, ’11): As a Latino growing up in a low-income community in Miami, Florida I was always taught to fight for what is ours and for what is right. I had to defend myself growing up in the type of schools that I was attending. Violence and gangs were prevalent in my family. My cousins were examples of what Latinos “should” be like at that time. I even looked up to them and wanted to be like them. But of course my mother thought otherwise. She knew the importance of education for my sister and I, so much so that she became the community worker in my elementary school. She went on to be a paraprofessional in that same school. She wanted to be involved in our education in every aspect. When I left to the University of Florida I had a rough time being separated from my family, but I will never forget the proud faces of my family and especially the tears of joy that ran down my mother’s face when I finally became the first member of my family to graduate from college.

Monica Trejo (Phoenix, ’12): I was fortunate enough to be placed in my home region of Arizona. Being involved in my community is the exact reason I was so eager to stay. This state is dealing with ethnic intolerance, the scars of social segregation, and a shocking discrepancy in the educational prospects between different groups. We are in a state that passed a legalized form racial profiling (SB1070). We are in a state that looks the other way when its law enforcement is embroiled in countless scandals of corruption and public racism. As a Latina in this state, I am in the center of this heated debate.

The Institute Experience:

Anay Martinez (Las Vegas Valley, ’11)I can compare my institute experience to my first semester at the University of Southern California. Coming from a low-income city in southeast Los Angeles, I felt as if I did not “belong” in these places where people looked, acted, and thought differently than me.  During my time at induction and institute, I noticed that I would pronounce my own last name in English, even though I am fluent in Spanish. Yet, throughout my college experience I would always pronounce Martinez in Spanish, as to respect my culture and heritage. This change in myself was brought up by my observation of my institute students. Most of them were Latinos and they would pronounce each other’s names in English, whether they spoke Spanish or not. It made me reflect on my personal K-12 education. Even though all of my classmates spoke Spanish, we all did the same thing too!

Serrano: As I matriculated through the Phoenix Institute, I could not help but feel uncertain regarding our outlook on diversity as a collective unit. I noticed some of my white peers were unable to speak on race, yet they would be serving a diverse community in a matter of weeks. I felt then and still do to this day, that we, as corps members, need to challenge ourselves to speak on sensitive issues like race.

The Role of a Latino Teacher:

Garza: As a Latino teacher, teaching in a school that is predominately Latino, my students and I come into the classroom with common bonds that extend beyond the classroom environment. In my opinion, this is the goal of all teachers; to connect to their students beyond the classroom, to extend the classroom beyond its traditional reach.

SerranoFirst and foremost, I am an educator striving to instill within my students a sense of urgency and investment in their own education. Yet I am concurrently a Hispanic male serving as a tangible example of what success looks like to those that doubt their own abilities

Martinez: I saw the importance of bringing my culture into my classroom the minute I walked in. Being Ms. Martinez led to students all across grade levels finding out that I spoke Spanish, that I liked the music they did, that I could easily communicate with their parents in their home language, and that I ate their favorite foods. I have been given tamales, carne asada, and loads of Mexican candy. If they talk about famous Latino singers or athletes, they know their teacher understands them. And if they try to sneakily gossip in Spanish, they know their teacher understands them as well. I love having that extra little bit of cultural connection with my students, and the best part is that it has never hindered the relationships I form with my non-Latino students.

Avilez: Being Latino and being able to speak Spanish has been eye-opening for many of my parents who never really had a teacher who could speak their language. I can use my background as a learning tool to teach my students about my struggles as an ELL student and be a living example of triumph.

Trejo: Being a Latina and a teacher, I feel that I am compelled to help my students understand that they do not have to be the victims of the multi-generational oppression that may surround their environment.

Bringing Diversity To the Forefront:

Garza:  On a unit level, the students can expect that all of the units will be driven by their own inquisitions; I set aside time to take their questions, and build it into the essential knowledge of the unit. Each unit doesn’t always have to be about a specific aspect of their culture that they already have, but rather, it must have knowledge that is embedded within the unit that allows them to introspectively evaluate those aspects, and grow in their self-knowledge.

On a daily level, I make sure that every student—regardless of what they have done in the past or how they have felt about school or life up until entering my class—comes into my classroom feeling respected and safe. Once inside my classroom, they can feel secure in asking questions of myself or other students, to challenge the learning that occurs within my class, and come to a consensus on what knowledge is worth knowing. They should also understand that respect means not only a respect of others, but a self-respect that is gained when they actively seek out knowledge through reading and researching. If I’ve communicated these ideals effectively, and if they have felt this to be true, they will have more than just high test scores to show themselves that they are true scholars; they will have an abundance of knowledge by which to embody the ideals that scholars strive to achieve.

Avilez: Ninety percent of my students in Room 124 are Latino. sometimes they get to feel comfortable sharing their schemas and inferences with me when they know I can relate to them. Students share their stories of how drugs are destroying their brothers or sisters, how violence is a norm, how divorce has made them escape their own house to keep their young siblings from experiencing the hostility, how family members have been through jail so many times, and how living in poverty doesn’t mean they will give up on their dreams. These are some stories my student share with me and the rest of the class.  Students sometimes start of their stories by saying “I haven’t told this to anyone but I trust all of you in here”. This shows the culture I have created in my classroom that no one is perfect and that no one in this classroom including me has all the answers. I teach my students the skill of acceptance of all races, beliefs, color, and learning abilities. My students have come to understand that diversity just doesn’t mean different colors. Some even share a story in a bilingual manner due to the fact that I tell them that they should embrace their culture and their identity.

Trejo: It is important for all of us, as educators, to be active agents of change INSIDE AND OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM. It may be a challenge to educate our students on these issues when some corps members are not even registered to vote in their regions. Frankly, this is a huge frustration I feel when talking to some corps members. How can we truly create a lasting impact in our communities if we are not making every effort to understand the issues that are affecting the populations we serve? How can we motivate and empower our students to change their communities when we ourselves are passive adults within this community?

What’s At Stake For Students:

GarzaIn Teach for America, we are working toward better, more equitable opportunities. As a Latino teacher, moving toward this goal comes—at least to me—from a deep investment in seeing that my scholars, who have historically been dislocated from those opportunities because of their status within society, become individuals who are attempting to close the gap of those inequities themselves.

Avilez: In my classroom we are not just Latino or African American. We are leaders and dreamers for a better world tomorrow and that better world commences now in room 124. In order for that to occur I need to make sure I am there for them 150% of the time. I am not just their teacher; I am their mentor, friend, big brother, counselor, etc. Not every student will have a mother to help them dream bigger and to achieve higher. It is then our responsibility to plant that seed in every child no matter where they come from. No exceptions, no excuses.

Trejo: When I see my students facing oppression, I know it’s my oppression too. I am expected to remain silent, fearful and apathetic, but I will no longer be silenced. Even if your students’ fight is not your own, we all need to treat it as if it is. We need to teach our students the importance of  using their voice and to stand against the forces of injustice that loom over their community.  We need to lead by example. Only then can we truly call ourselves agents of change.


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