Reclamando el Futuro: Ending Educational Inequity for Latino Students

Reflecting on our privilege and responsibility at Teach For America's Latino Summit.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Christina Torres taught in the 2009 Los Angeles corps and works in Teach For America's Hawaii region.

I walk through the streets of Honolulu fairly unnoticed. At 5'2, brown skin/eyes and long, black curly hair, my appearance is not particularly exotic on the island. I am of mixed descent, which is also far from unusual. Many students in Hawaii will proudly rattle off the ethnicities they can claimJapanese, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, Samoan, and Native Hawaiian are possibilities, but there are more. In one of the only places in the U.S. that doesn’t have an ethnic majority, being "ethnic" doesn't make you stand out. Most people assume I'm some mixture of Filipina and "something else." My Latina identity is the surprise factor.

O‘ahu is the first place I have ever lived where this is the case.

Growing up mixed race (Mexican father, Filipina mother) in Southern California, my Latina heritage has always been the most obvious part of my identity, and often the first thing people noticed. The dark hair/eyes/skin and last name "Torres" made my background a given instead of a guess. Unfortunately, many of the assumptions have been negative:

No, I would correct sneering classmates or passerby, my father isn't a gardener, he's a Physician's Assistant. Either way, it shouldn't affect the worth you place on either of us.

Actually, my mother isn't a house keeper, she's a nurse, and she's Filipina. See frustrations above.

Yes, I speak English. It's because I was born and raised here. Even if I didn't, well... see frustrations above.

Figuring out my Latina identity is an often confusing journey that I'm still navigating. When I joined Teach for America as a 2009 Los Angeles corps member, I found myself teaching at a school where nearly every student in my classroom was Latino.

While my appearance might have been similar to the students I served, the differences were quickly apparent, including the way I spoke to privileges that I’d received—such as exposure to, the arts, educational resources like SAT Prep classes, or even to the simple the expectation that I could succeed—because I grew up in an affluent suburb outside Laguna Beach, CA. Though we may have looked alike and shared the same language, I had no idea what it meant to grow up like my students.

Still, while I did not grow up like my students, I soon realized how much their stories resonated through the roots of my family history. It was only by successfully navigating an education system largely set up to see them fail that my parents were able to move to a place that afforded my brother and I attendance at top-notch public schools. It is that high-quality education that multiplied into opportunities that have and will affect the next generation in our family.

While I did not grow up with the same struggles my students face, the assumptions made about my or my family's capabilities solely based on skin colorand ethnic background affects thousands of students every day. The inequity that come from race-relations in the United States affect an entire community that not only I am a part of, but that my children will be part of as well.

This week Teach For America’s Latino staff, corps members, alumni, and partners will convene in Houston for a conference,"Reclamando el Futuro,” in order to mobilize to change the narrative of educational inequity for Latino students. The key themes and central questions we will explore are: How does my Latino identity impact who I am as a leader and how I lead? How do I want to contribute to bringing about "One Day" for Latino students?  What is our collective charge as Latinos at Teach For America to bring about "One Day" for Latino students?   

These questions are urgent for me. In Honolulu, my Latina identity goes largely unnoticed and that part of my storyis something I am learning to share, since I can no longer passively assume it will be given when someone looks at me. In doing so, it has pushed me to consider what "my story" actually is.  I have been pushed to consider what it means to be mixed race in this work, and to not only amplify the AAPI voice that is often overlooked in EdReform, but also the Latina one that has become more  powerful in recent decades.

There's a word in Hawaiian, kuleana, that means both privilege and responsibility. I grew up incredibly privileged to have what all students should: a great education.  My responsibility now is to learn how I can advocate for students who, because they don’t live in a desirable zip code, are denied the power that comes with a great education.  This week is an opportunity for me to step back and reconsider the role I play to ensure  that neither race nor class determines whether you are allowed to participate in America's promise of a better tomorrow.

Follow live tweets of this event @latinos4ed

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