You Speak So Well

It was after a faculty meeting a few years ago that one of my colleagues came up to me in the parking lot and said, “Ray.  You speak so well.”
I responded, “Uh. O.K.” She continued to talk and, in her mind, expand the compliment while silently, in my mind, I wondered, “Why do you sound so surprised?”

I thanked her and used the growing traffic as an excuse to end her monologue.  As the year went on, I got to know this colleague better and despite what I believe to be her sincere intention, I still count her compliment as a reality check.  No matter how many college degrees we earn, how successfully we lead in our careers, how articulate we are in one or more languages, we can still be treated like the indios tourists admire condescendingly from tour buses near Cancún: “How charming.”

It’s our cultural charm that has allowed Latino students, and their families, to accept inferior educational services for decades.  We remain, in many ways, like the indigenous beggars who hold out their hands for whatever benevolence the wealthy release in their favor.

In Chicago, many Latino students remain like those beggars, waiting with anticipatory thanks for any handout that will get us through the academic year.  Our city’s educational reform movement has failed the Latino community.  While many schools in African American neighborhoods have been torn down, rebuilt, remodeled, renamed, restructured, or re-imagined for success, schools in Latino communities remain insignificantly changed.   The African American community—by all means—deserves better schools.  And they should not sacrifice their gains—by any means.  What we as Latinos must learn from our African American counterparts, however, is we must speak up and—above all—remain united in a cause.

What educational leaders must significantly recognize to improve the poor quality of Latino education is—the poor quality of Latino education is not significantly recognized.

On May 12, published an article titled “The Education Crisis No One Is Talking About” (link at the bottom).The problem with the article is that it misleads the conversation by de-emphasizing the low-quality of educational settings many Latinos face—overcrowded schools, limited school choice, deficit-based educators—and emphasizes the same ol’ argument that they’re (we’re) all English-language learners. No wonder people are surprised when one of us can speak well.  While the article may stir some coffee talk, it does little to highlight the deeper, widespread educational problems in our communities.  The biggest obstacle not recognized in the article is the deficit-based view we confront every day.  I faced it with my colleague in the parking lot.

In Chicago, we face it when we look for a high school in a Latino community with the words “college prep” in the name.  Not one exists.  We face it when 2010 U.S. Census data tells us that in Chicago’s 26th Street neighborhood there are at least 10,000 young people between the ages of 10 and 14 (link at the bottom).  With only two high schools that cannot hold all of them and many others bus rides far away, our young people are
destined to drop out.

The other disadvantage not mentioned in the article is that, in general, we are a population too nice to work with.  Quedamos bien.  Regularly.
Our music, art, cuisine, and soap-operatic history make us pleasant company.  If our humility overtakes us, we are powerless.  Our organized revolts do not compare in number or impact to those of the African American community.  We can organize around immigration reform but
even that is losing its momentum.  Furthermore, these efforts just contribute to the notion that we’re all recent immigrants that should be grateful we are here.  We’ve been here.  We’re staying.  Lots of us know English.

Another problem not mentioned in the Time article is the ill-founded view of cultural capital.  Some teachers think they’re giving Latino students the knowledge they need to make it in America.  Students have to read the “classics,” know all the Greek gods (Roman, too), and regurgitate Constitutional amendments in chronological order.  All of this is done too many times without looking at any national standards.  Will all of this help low-income Latino students compete with affluent students whose future is guaranteed? Not if it is unconnected to what the ACT has identified as the essentials for college readiness.  Like it or not, ACT controls whether or not our students get into college.  No.  We, as teachers, can control that.

What our students need are educators who believe students can learn the College Readiness Standards—and educators who can teach these standards.  That means teachers have to know their content as evidenced by more than our self-imposed expertise.  Our communities need teachers who believe our students can analyze, synthesize, and evaluate.  That means our teachers must be able to do this as well.  We need educators who believe the cultural capital our students need is grounded in today’s ever-changing  reality of ideas, not in their own educational experiences in a context from another time, another place.  This means we need teachers who can look beyond their personal bias against standards and realize that standards can be used to engage students with real-world tasks that make them question and change social structures.

I remember another conversation with a colleague who said he didn’t teach the ACT’s College Readiness Standards and looked down on me because I did.  When I asked him how he would explain his reasoning to me if my own children were in his class, he couldn’t.  If any teacher looks at the ACT College Readiness Standards (I mean really looks at them not just says he did) and says he won’t teach them, that teacher doesn’t belong in education—especially not in the Latino community.  We’ve had too many people make decisions for us.  What the obstinate educators may really be hiding behind their opposition is their own ignorance: “I don’t know this stuff” or “I don’t know how to teach it.”  In that case, they better learn because our students deserve someone who does.

We need to take our high-quality real-world projects and connect them to national standards.  But there’s a caveat.  At one high school where I
taught briefly, we had over 50% of the students in honors and college-prep English classes and all of these students came from a middle school
where over 70% of the students met or exceeded writing standards on the ISAT.  But the writing curriculum–created by our literacy coaches–was still deficit based.  We were given curriculum maps that started writing instruction with lowest English College Readiness Standards about subject-verb agreement and prepositions.  One of the worksheets had students identify prepositions like this: Fish swim (above / below) the water.  Circle one.

We need to align our work with national standards in challenging ways.  If we do not, we are limiting our students’ opportunities nationally.

What I realized after teaching at one of Chicago’s top selective-enrollment schools for four years is that magnet-school students are not always gifted.  They are, however, always confident.  Many people have told them they can succeed.  So when their intellect struggles, their confidence kicks in.  Low-income Latino students can learn this survival technique, too.

As educators, we need an asset-based view of our students so we can look beyond language issues, migration patterns, poverty.  We need to
believe our Latino students can succeed with a college-prep curriculum and include this belief in a high school’s name—just like Chicago’s Hope College Prep, Brooks College Prep, King College Prep, North Lawndale College Prep, UIC College Prep, Westinghouse College Prep, Jones College Prep, Payton College Prep, Northside College Prep.  None of these is in a Latino neighborhood.

Most of all, we need to stop being so condescendingly surprised when Latino students succeed.  We can speak well; write well; think.  And we should speak up more.

 Originally published May 31, 2011 on Ray’s first blog.
Links referenced above:’s “The Education Crisis No  One Is Talking About”,8599,2070930,00.html?xid=fbshare2010
U.S. Census data on Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood

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    As a Texas school leader I witness the effects of the "pobre cito" syndrome. Many families and students have low expectations and unfortunately some teachers do also. All students, regardless of socioeconomic status, race or gender need to be challenged and guided towards success. I work at a school where over 95% of the student body is Hispanic and many are "at-risk". However, we have the expectation that ALL students will graduate our school and the college/university of their choice. We partner with our parents and we hold teachers, parents and teachers accountable. Our students need schools to engage and partner with the community and families.

    Great blog, hopefully Mr. Salazar can talk to my students when I take them to visit universities in Chicago this fall.

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    I know very well the feeling you had when you were given that seemingly innocent compliment. I had similar experiences my first few months as an attorney. The first time I appeared for a case status hearing at the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, the arbitrator looked at me and asked "son, are you a paralegal or a lawyer?" Any recently-sworn, young attorney would have walked away from such an experience with a severely bruised ego. Fortunately for me, I already knew how the Commission works and the relatively small community of attorneys who practice there. As such, it was no surprise to hear the arbitrator question me - a stranger he had never seen before.

    However, I have heard similar things outside the courtroom and in social situations. I stopped counting how many times I heard acquaintances say something along the lines of "an attorney...YOU?...I never imagined..." or "are you really an attorney?" Better yet, to date, I still hear "a poco tu eres abogado?" and "tu estudiaste?" Of course, these questions appear to be wholly innocent. However, I assure you that, in context, they sounded borderline condescending.

    I agree that there's nothing surprising about young Latinos speaking, reading, and writing well. Our community has repeatedly shown that it isn't very good at encouragement. Rather, surprise, skepticism and even jealousy appear to be the feelings projected by it when young Latinos succeed. I admit this is a broad generalization of our community, but I have yet to encounter any significant evidence to indicate otherwise.

  • Thank you for commenting. You're right, Hugo. The disappointment when I meet a Latino parent who does not value education is deep. It happens. Not all of our gente do this but when I hear it, MAN! It hurts.

    To Jeff--I'm in. You gotta take your students to DePaul first! Hugo will agree.

  • Hi Ray, I just "found" you, so I am backlogging and reading some of your older posts. I am also a White Rhino-Latino English Teacher. I really enjoyed this piece. I think it is really difficult at times to be a Latino, and more specifically in my case, Mexican-American. I have gotten the same reaction as you experienced. On the flip side, however, I have also been looked down upon, even scolded by other Latinos because I am not fluent in Spanish. I feel like I can't win! It's tough out there.

  • In reply to Noelia:

    Hi Noelia,

    Thank you for posting a comment. I agree. I also think white rhinos have the opportunity to re-define what it means to be a successful Latino/Latina.

    Chicago Mexicans are now moving into their 2nd and 3rd generation on the Southwest Side, so we need to promote the idea that success may not look like it looked a generation or two ago. We are changing what it means to be successful--and that matters.

    Please spread the word about my blog and I hope you share your reaction to other posts.

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