By Juan Prieto, M.P.H., M.A., RUPI Guild Member from Dallas, Texas
As a recent participant in Cedar’s enlightening, non-threatening, interactive, and fun RUP workshop in Boulder, Colorado (August 2012), I suddenly remembered an incident that helped me realize the impact of my actions. It took place eight years ago when I was teaching Spanish to K-8 students in a private School in Dallas, Texas.
My intention to teach them the Spanish language was drastically changed when, during the first day of class after I had translated their real names into Spanish, I asked the older children (grades 6-8) why it was important for them to learn Spanish.
I got many good responses like being able to speak Spanish when traveling to Spanish-speaking countries, making better money by knowing a second language, being able to relate better to a Spanish boy or girl friend, living in Spain, understanding the Hispanic soap-operas available on Dallas TV, etc. Nevertheless, I will always remember the “arrogant” response given by “Miguel” (Michael), who made most of his fellow students break out into uncontrollable laughter, especially Sabrina who obviously enjoyed Miguel’s remark the most.
Miguel said, “I would like to learn Spanish to be able to boss those stupid Mexicans around better. That’s my only reason for learning that silly Latino language.” For a moment I felt puzzled by the emotional reaction his unexpected and challenging remark caused in me. Most of his peers meanwhile seemed to welcome and enjoy his answer. As for me, I thought and felt at that moment that teaching them Spanish would be a mission impossible and most likely fruitless, especially for “Miguel.”
However, recovering quickly by the grace of my better angels and after a brief moment of tense silence, I said, “Very well. If some of you share the same reason as Michael for why you want to learn Spanish, I’ll teach you about the Latino and Mexican Cultures first. Then, I would like to hear if you still want to boss Latinos around, because, let me tell you–we already have a lot of Anglo bosses for Latinos, and many of those bosses are negative. So, after you learn more about the Latinos and their struggles, I’ll check in with you again about what kind of boss you’d like to be for them.”
I thus decided to focus my teaching on the Latino/Mexican Cultures with less focus on the language. I thought and felt that if I helped them to like and understand these cultures, they might become interested in learning the language as well. I supplemented my lectures with videos, films, stories, excerpts from Latino literature, and photos on the history of Latinos in the United States. I remember the time they saw the movie “El Norte” that dramatically explained why many Central American and Mexican immigrants continued coming to United States. I also showed videos on the Cesar Chavez struggle to defend the cause of Hispanic migrant farm workers in California. The students saw the birth deformities caused in the children of these farmers from exposure to pesticides used on the vegetables, fruits, and other fresh foods that these young people only saw in the supermarkets. Most of my students had been unaware of the negative impact on the lives of fellow human beings, including children like themselves, that this fresh produce had cost. Then something extraordinary happened.
I remember how Miguel walked up to me with tears in his eyes and said, “Professor, I do not want to be a boss anymore to Mexicans and Latinos. I want to be their friend. I’m sorry about what I said before. I didn’t know what I was saying.” I couldn’t do more than accept his apology by giving him a discreet hug. Then I said, “Now, Miguel, I think you can be a good boss for these people.” The class responded with a friendly laugh.
The story did not finish there, however. A few months ago, I went to an ice-cream parlor on a hot summer day in Dallas. As I as making my selection, one of the summer employees, a beautiful young woman with intense blue eyes, greeted me with a friendly smile and in well-pronounced Spanish said, “Hola, Profesor Prieto! En que le puedo servir?” (“Hi, Professor Prieto. What can I get for you?”) I was surprised and asked, “How did you know my last name?” She replied again in Spanish, “Yo soy una de sus pasadas estudiantes de Español. Usted me inspiró la profesión que estoy a punto de terminar en la Universidad de San Antonio en Estudios Latino-Americanos con una concentración en Español. Yo soy Sabrina, la niña que se burló mucho en su clase.” (“I was one of your students in your Spanish class years ago. You inspired me to take up Latin-American studies with a major in Spanish. I’m about to complete my program at the University in San Antonio. I’m Sabrina, the girl who used to joke around in your class all the time.”)
We talked for a little while. Then, as I said goodbye, I wished her much success in her profession. A little shocked and surprised, I also felt light and was pleased and happy about the unintended impact of that happy accident eight years earlier when somehow as a teacher I had been patient, kept a cool head, and had used my power well. Long live the Right Use of Power! Gracias, Cedrita (Thank you, Cedar!) and thanks to my better angels.
Cedar Barstow, M.Ed.