As an educator, I draw incredible inspiration from my niece. Her picture sits on my desk and she is the reason I push through challenging times with grit and persistence. She was born in 2011 when I was a teenager. She grew up amidst multiple family traumas, which became a trigger for her behavioral issues at school. She was in my custody when she started Pre-K. As a student who absolutely loved school, I eagerly anticipated sharing this joy with her. What I faced instead was encounter after encounter with her white teacher telling me everything that was wrong with my Latinx niece. These ongoing judgments escalated to the teacher’s conclusion that she ‘could not function in a classroom setting’. I felt powerless and confused, questioning how the education field I cherished so much could turn so ugly.
I began my research and ultimately got my niece the special education services she needed. This was no easy feat, as it was done with little support from her relatives because of the cultural differences and misconceptions about special education that persist within some Latinx communities. Families require intentional knowledge building, responsive communication, and culturally relevant messaging to counter stigmatizing narratives. Without my ongoing involvement, my niece may have not received necessary services due to communication gaps between my family, community, and the school.
Fast forward to today: my niece is a rising young artist who knows how to advocate for her needs. The individualized support she receives gives her the opportunity to work toward accomplishing her academic goals and become an increasingly independent learner. Fueled by my personal experience as my niece’s advocate, I aspired to become a knowledgeable teacher who could play a proactive, impactful role in children’s lives by truly knowing them, their needs, their strengths, and their stories.
I share my niece’s story because I believe deeply in the transformative power of storytelling to shift mindsets and increase empathy. As we close out the official celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month this week, I know that this year’s theme of esperanza (hope) is one I will commit to throughout the year ahead. Instilling and sustaining hope is absolutely essential to our success as educators. I find literature can be a powerful avenue for these authentic and necessary conversations. Both in the classroom and in my work as a coach, I enjoy sharing poetry and stories to highlight diverse perspectives, particularly from Latinx communities. As illustrated by my niece’s experience, using narratives is a way to center others, build respect and understanding, and confront stereotypes in non-threatening ways.
At an internal training in early October, I led our opening activity by reading “My Name Is Santiago”. In the poem, a Dominican-American boy reflects on the physical, emotional, and mental weight of expectations around his own dreams and those of his relatives, as well as society. We used the Think, Feel, Care routine to unpack the poem’s cultural nuances and dominant norms, leveraging the protocol to build understanding through critical thinking. It was an effective way to name assumptions generated by white ideology, and explore the complexities within Hispanic and Latinx narratives that shape our experiences, specifically in the classroom.
It is important to continue exploring the diverse countries and identities we honor each Hispanic Heritage Month. I invite you all to uplift different voices, center historically marginalized populations, forge connections, and work to ensure that we are advocating for all students in ways that show cultural responsiveness, empathy, and hope. Within each classroom, there are daughters, sons, children, nephews, and nieces – like mine – who must be fully seen and valued in order to reach their full potential. We each possess the ability to empower students and listen with care as they discover and share their individual stories.
Stephanie Garcia is a Partner at Highlander Institute supporting schools through coaching and change management. She is based in New York City. To learn more, follow her on Instagram @educatingwithsazón and Twitter @Stephgarcia_16. For a great resource to explore with students across grade levels, subject areas, and cultural dimensions, check out this Social Justice Booklists page.