True Justice for Lost Borderlands Youth: Facilitating Reconnection, Validation and a Healthy Sense of Identity in their Labyrinthic Journeys

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Author: Dr. Magda A. de La Paz Cabrero. To view Dr. Cabrero's full bio, click here.

“The recipes, the herbs and the cures; the music and the songs and the dances; the prose and the poems, the sorrows, the joys; the gain, the loss. This is my legacy. But I am old and failing. I entrust it to you lest it be lost and forgotten.” (Preciado Martin, 1993, p. 36)

He was hunted by nostalgia. His yearning to explore the history of his ancestors in a land he barely knew was unmatched among all of my students. His need to understand and connect to his roots overwhelmed and made him sad. It was as if he could only intuit what he was really made of, who he really was.  He was going through hard times struggling to transition between the life of a marginal with oppositional tendencies and the engaged life of a student with academic potential. His negative self-perception needed transformation. His tortured soul was lost in the labyrinth of his young life’s odyssey. He needed to find his center, his inner spring, through a journey to a past, a vital part of his essence, he barely knew.

He was the kind of student who could get to my core, who challenged me to grow out of my comfort zone as a teacher and human being, to climb out of the prisons I choose to live inside. He was filled with as much suffering as potential for greatness. I decided to include him in my circle of cariño (caring, loving kindness) to help him develop his voice and agency and facilitate the exploration of his ancestry and identity. I wanted him to reencounter the most pristine part of his nature and gain a more resilient sense of identity.

Because of his college potential, this bright tenth-grader was in the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program and was taking several Advanced Placement classes. Advanced Placement History was his favorite. He expressed: I want to learn about Mayans and Aztecs. I feel connected because it is my culture; I am Mexican, Mayans love art. American history is boring, not enough background or ancient history. I like to read about what people are capable of doing; genocide and all of that. Some people break down and cry about it, but it happens. Not me. People make decisions that affect the whole world."

Early in the school year he let me know he did not like reading. Still, I believed that there ought to be one book out there, meant to serve as a vehicle to transport him through an ancestral journey that would help satisfy his yearning.  In his zone of proximal development, I understood my role as the one of a facilitator of literary encounters that could evolve into liberating partnerships between my student and text. His developing heightened social and reader identities seemed imperative so my quest to find him the right book started. After it became clear that he did not like fiction I found him one about Latin American history which included Aztec and Mayan history. In an essay that was the longest of any of my students and by far his best in the year, this young man wrote a detailed account of the history of his Guatemalan and Mexican ancestors based on that book.

Of all of my forty-five students that year this young man had the hardest time completing a project about social identity, “that part of the individual self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership” (Tajfel & Turner, p. 255).  For that project students were required to provide at least eight visual and written representations of how they perceived themselves. They were to provide at least one cultural or national representation and one linguistic representation. My goal for that project was facilitating my students’ identity exploration and construction. I meant for them to redefine their own sense of identity, critically questioning the way they had been identified by mainstream American society.

In my typical nagging fashion, I asked this young man many times to hand in his project without any success. Finally, I asked him fully knowing the answer, “Why can’t you do this project?” He answered in his characteristic straightforward manner: “Because I have heard so many bad things about me that now I don’t really know what to say about myself”. I was not surprised about his answer since in a journal entry in which I had asked my students to explain how they identified, he had written: “I identify as a ‘hispano’ or ‘latino’ since both for me mean the same. People identify me as ‘bruto’ (brute), ‘maleante’ (criminal), gangster and all those labels. But I don’t care. I am who I am and don’t care about what anyone says about me. I also identify as a worker since when I like to accomplish something, I do a good job”. I told him at least three good things I perceived in him and made some recommendations about how to turn his violent tendencies into something positive. The next day he finally handed in his project which demonstrated a great deal of exploration and profound thinking about himself.

In our school’s curriculum, it was not easy for this young man to encounter meaningful books whose characters reflected his life experiences and cultural attributes, who would be helpful in his identity exploration. He was more motivated to read about characters who exemplified marginalization. For another independent reading assignment, he chose to read the biography of Tupac Shakur which he found in our school’s library. He wrote in his journal: “Some similarities between Tupac and me are that we grew up in poverty, listened to music, knew people with special kinds of jobs. We ran out of home and used to get into a lot of problems”. Tupac Shakur, who was killed at the age of 25, was a rapper whose songs had to do with “growing up amid violence and hardships in ghettos, racism, other social problems and conflicts with other rappers […]” (Wikipedia). Tupac personifies the experiences that many traditionally marginalized students identify with. These students are barely ever provided the chance of motivating literary encounters with characters that reflect and validate their experiences in texts that bridge onto their schools’ curricula.

I also guided my student’s heritage language exploration.  In a journal entry where I asked my students to express their thoughts about their language expression and their heritage language, he demonstrated his clear preference for diglossia – speaking two languages without combining them: “For me Spanglish is for the ignorant because that is what I learned when I was a child. I was also taught that being bilingual is better than simply speaking one language. Thanks to my parents I can speak in Spanish well even though I still need to improve it. Being able to speak two languages is good since I can understand both English and Spanish well, and I can speak, read, and write in both languages”.

I appreciated this young man’s communication style with me. While other students often told me what they thought I wanted to hear, he was blunt and candid, almost oppositional at times. In our growing relationship this allowed me to be equally blunt and candid. The day I found out how heavily he was still immersed in delinquency I went to talk to him. At that time, I was still upset about the imprisonment of one of my students. Among many things, I told him, “Young people who do bad things are not bad people yet. You are still on time to grow into a good adult.” I also bluntly said: “So you mean that I will also have to visit you in jail like I have to do with (my incarcerated student’s name)? Because I will not give up on you.” Then he said crying: “My mother abandoned me.” I could not help but cry with him. My words would never be able to bring his mother back or heal his deep wound. Deep listening and empathy were all that he needed in that unforgettable moment that transformed me out of my self-imposed confinements.

This young man needed much more than a lesson in Spanish. He needed to explore his social identity through a liberating curriculum that would help him heal and find himself in his torturing labyrinth. He needed literary experiences that shed light on the lives of literary characters or real people who did not only reflect his marginal life, but also validated his own experiences. He needed a curriculum that empowered him through bridging practices that placed him more at the center. He needed a curriculum who did not treat him like “other people’s children”. His internalization of the inferior value of his ethnicity, culture, heritage language and funds of knowledge debilitated him. Perhaps it was easier for him to go oppositional than lose face.

Like many students who have tremendous academic potential and should be destined for greatness, he needed a teacher. As many teachers who do this day in and day out, I did all I could to be there in his zone of his proximal development, to include him in my circle of cariño. I often remember the account by Victor Rios, author of Punished. When he was a troubled teenager and on the same day that his best friend was murdered in front of him, he ran to his teacher, took refuge in her embrace and cried. She stepped out of her comfort zone, made him commit to becoming academically engaged, and helped him graduate. She invited him to her circle of cariño. He did not only graduate from high school but also earned a Ph.D. He is now a college professor and author who advocates for lost youth like he once was.

Soon after the conversation in which he cried, this student I will never forget abandoned delinquent life. When I saw him at a school event volunteering for his AVID program, he told me “I am trying to improve, I don’t want to go to jail.” I replied enthusiastically, “You will not go to jail!” I was glad to hear that not too long afterwards, after much keeping on at it, he finally convinced his father to take the family to Central America. He visited the Mayan ruins in Guatemala, the country of half of his heritage.

A few years after he graduated from high school, he came to visit me. He was in college facing some obstacles but with the goal of becoming a child psychologist. The Advanced Placement Psychology class he had taken before he graduated from high school taught by a highly understanding and caring teacher helped him heal and become passionate about psychology.

I often think about this young man who challenged me to become a better teacher. I wonder if he is now a child’s psychologist helping youth who yearn for a sense of connection, validation and self-worth; youth who feel lost in the labyrinth of their American odysseys.