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My Cultural Autobiography

Salopez's picture

“I want you to get out of East Harlem and never come back”

Growing up in East Harlem, an urban neighborhood in New York City, I was surrounded by many different cultures. In my neighborhood during the 90’s, the streets were bright and filled with music, color and dancing during the day, and once the sun went down, everyone came in side. My mother wouldn’t let my brother and I play outside once the sun started going down. The gangs the Bloods and the Crips often ran the streets late and night, and my mother knew that the streets were not safe. Before I left to college, she told me “I want you to get out of East Harlem and never come back,” because she didn’t want me to get trapped in the “hood” for all of my life; she believed that I was better than East Harlem. My mother refused to allow me to be part of the growing statistics of Latino high school dropouts. I was taught that I am to strive to be able to provide a better life than what I experienced, for my children and for myself.

I learned that I was Puerto Rican very early on in my life. My grandmother from my mother’s side was the child of a Puerto Rican mother and an Argentinean father, both of which came to this country in the 1920’s. My grandfather from my mother’s side was half Sicilian and Half Puerto Rican. I never met my father’s father, but my grandmother from my father’s side was an immigrant from Puerto Rico who spoke no English. My father is one of 13 children and he is dyslexic and has an 8th grade education. My mother has bachelor’s degree from CUNY College of Staten Island. My family at one point was middle class. My mother, in 2007 became disabled due to complications with diabetes and chronic asthma. Once my mother stopped working, the total household income fell dramatically.

I attended both primary and secondary school in East Harlem. I had happened to test into the Nieves Academy for the Gifted* which was the number one school in our district at the time. The way the New York City board of education divided the city was by district. Students were required (unless they receive special permission from the city) to apply to schools within their district. My class, the kindergarten class of 1997, was the last class which IQ testing was required for entry in my specific school. I stood with the same class for the next 8 years. My class was extremely diverse, but we didn’t have any white students in the class at all. Some of my peers often times thought I was white, but once they heard my last name, they knew I was Hispanic. I never remembered my racial identity being questioned until I moved on to high school. In my primary and middle school years, I was not viewing myself as a raced body yet. When I was young, I had not encountered race and I was unaware, since I was a part of the majority, I never really realized if I was experiencing marginalization or not (Moyenda, 18).

When I was in middle school, I was highly encouraged to apply to private schools and boarding schools. I applied to scholarship assistance programs such as A Better Chance, in hopes that I would receive the financial assistance I needed in order to attend these institutions. My mother felt that sending me away was the best chance I had to receive the best education possible. My classmates asked me why I wanted to go to these “white” schools. My classmates told me that I wouldn’t belong because I’m not white. I’ll be the “token” Spanish girl in the school. I ended up not attending The Millbrook School because I was not able to afford the tuition. The way the New York City high school system is constructed, students are able to travel to any high school that they want to pending acceptance. I wanted to go to a high school in the Midtown area of Manhattan, but ended up at a school in East Harlem named the Pleasantville High*. The ethnic makeup of my high school was 60% Hispanic, which of ~80% of the students were of Dominican descent, 30% African-American and the remaining 10% were students of Asian descents (East Asian, South Asian, etc.).

The Dominican students would often talk Spanish in the hallways, in classes and after school. Because I had been isolated in such a small classroom structure during the entirety of my primary and middle school career, I had never met a Dominican person before. I saw that they knew Spanish, and were communicating in Spanish, knew more Spanish music than I did and they had more friends. I wondered why the Hispanic students weren’t talking to me and trying to make connections with me. I was often teased because I was overweight and I was also the “lightest Spanish girl” in my grade. Because of my white skin, I was often called “la gringa” or “blaquita” by my Hispanic peers. I told them I was Puerto Rican and they asked me “Do you speak Spanish?” I replied no and they said “Well, the you’re not really Puerto Rican.” I felt that my language barrier as well as the color of my skin, was preventing me from being accepted into this community that I felt that I wanted to be apart of because I identify with it. In my reality, it was okay for me to identify as Hispanic/Latino without being able to speak Spanish. To my peers however, since I wasn’t able to communicate with them, then I wasn’t “Latino-enough.” I began to question whether or not I actually was Latino.

By experiencing these microinvalidations, I began to question my experiential reality. What does it mean to be Latino? Was there a formula? “Microinvalidations are characterized by communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color,’(Sue, 274).  My peers were negating my racial identity because I was not able to speak Spanish though my cultural upbringing was extremely Latino-centric. This in turn discouraged me from being determined to learn Spanish and communicate with my Latino peers. The fact that I wasn’t communicating with them, in turn made them claim that I was “white” because I couldn’t speak Spanish. I had a very hard time navigating whether the students were being intentional about their insults, or unintentional. Because I was being marginalized within my own high school community, I was often excluded from conversations, activities and social events. At that time, I didn’t really think about the significance of these microaggressions on my identity and I decided to ignore and do nothing. Sue explains that:

Deciding to do nothing by sitting on ones anger is one response [to microagressions] that occurs frequently in people of color… we submit that not doing anything has the potential to result in psychological harm. It may mean a denial of one’s experiential reality, dealing with a loss of integrity, or experiencing pent-up anger and frustration…(279).

I slowly began to not participate in affinity groups. Because of my experience, I am very discouraged to learn Spanish and feel less of a connection to my culture.

I feel that the first time that I remember questioning my racial identity was during parent teacher conferences my freshman year of high school. My mother has red hair and has very fair skin; she is often mistaken for as white. As we navigated the hallways together, she bumped into my cousin whose son attended the middle school on the floor below. They began conversing in Spanish for a few moments before they parted ways. I saw a few heads turn and watch my mother produce fluent Spanish with an unmistakable Puerto Rican accent. My mother asked me to wait in the hallway as she went to speak with my English teacher. I overheard some parents speaking about my mother:

Parent 1: “I can’t believe she’s Puerto Rican…”                                                              Parent 2: “Yea, she looks Jewish”                                                                                    Parent 1: “… and her daughter es blanquita tambien”                                       Parent 2: “I wonder what the father looks like…”

We returned home and I asked my mother why is it that she never taught me Spanish. She told me that she learned her Spanish while she was studying in school and that she didn’t want to teach me the “broken” Spanish that she spoke. I began to feel more ostracized from the Latino community in which I was immersed in since I was not able to communicate.

            In a homogeneous community, it is very difficult to understand issues of ethnicity. The neighborhood of East Harlem is historically a Latino-Community. I felt that the nature of the neighborhood influenced the racial make-up of the students body; white parents were hesitant to send their children to school in East Harlem. Until fairly recently, East Harlem has been thought of to be dangerous, but because of gentrification, the racial makeup of the community is changing. Thinking of my high school as a community itself, I felt that the Latino students were insensitive to issues of ethnic and cultural diversity. Because I was not part of the majority (Dominican and Spanish speaking), I was often excluded. This reminds me of Amo’s experience growing up in Japan. Amo’s did not seriously consider the social problems of the minority ethnic group in Japan because she was a part of the majority. She explained that it “was difficult for Japanese people to understand the problems of ethnicity and identity because they live in an ethnically homogeneous society and do not experience the oppression and exploitation by other ethnic groups,” (Amos, 294). In my case, the Latino students at my school to recognize the differences within our community: I was an “outsider.” Connecting to Amo’s experience, she notes:

It did not take long for me to realize how much people in the United States make distinctions according to language skills. Those who cannot speak English in a grammatically correct way are not considered very intelligent. Those who speak a language other than English are outsiders; and this means they cannot be fully integrated into mainstream society (298).


I feel that this could be applied to many cultures and communities. “Language is an important aspect of culture,” and when that is inhibited, it builds a wall between the individuals trying to make a connection (Amos, 309).

I feel that my experience with going to high school in an urban community influenced my decision to want to become a multicultural educator. Though I attended local schools, I had some of the best mathematics teachers throughout my time in primary and secondary school. Many of my mathematics teachers in high school were named Math for America* master teachers. They knew how to make mathematics fun, interesting and engage me. I recently wrote back to my high school calculus teacher inviting him to my graduation from Bryn Mawr in the Spring. I decided to major in mathematics because he showed me the possibilities; he inspired me. I feel that mathematics is a science that is often ignored. There are endless possibilities once mathematics is learned and understood. I want to be a mathematics teacher because I want to inspire students to continue with math and to know how important of a tool math is. I hope to build quantities inquiry skills through my teaching. I never had a female math teacher in high school. I feel that if I had seen a female body in the classroom, as a source of knowledge, I would have been more influenced to go into the teaching profession earlier.

Through my education at Bryn Mawr and my experience in teaching in urban areas, I feel that I am well on my way to becoming a multicultural educator. I hope to teach in high-needs school districts after I graduate. As part of the Noyce Teaching Scholarship, this is a requirement for repayment of the scholarship. Through the Bryn Mawr, Haverford Bi-Co education program, I’m obtaining my secondary teaching certification in the Spring of 2015. I hope to give back to students who might not have the opportunity to attend the best schools because of financial problems or district restrictions. I feel that all students deserve a quality education and quality teachers who care about their students. I was very fortunate to have stellar teachers from kindergarten to 12th grade, across all subject areas. I was challenged and motivated from the moment I stepped into every classroom and I am thankful for that. I hope I can be that teacher, and I will be that teacher.








Works Cited

Amos, Yukari T. "Navigating Marginality Searching for My Own Truth." Becoming Multicultural Educators: Personal Journey toward Professional Agency. By Geneva Gay. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003. 293-314. Print.

Berlak, Ann, and Sekani Moyenda. "How I Got My "Black Attitude Problem"" Taking It Personally: Racism in the Classroom from Kindergarten to College. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2001. 17-33. Print.

Sue, Derald W., Christina A. Capodilupo, Gina C. Torino, Jennifer M. Bucceri, Aisha Holder, Kevin L. Nadal, and Marta Esquilin. "Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life."American Psychologist 62.4 (2007): 271-86. Web.

"Math for America - Fellowships, Teach in New York City, Berkeley, Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego, Utah, Washington DC, Math Resources, Math Education." Math for America - Fellowships, Teach in New York City, Berkeley, Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego, Utah, Washington DC, Math Resources, Math Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2014. <>.



jccohen's picture

microinvalidations, power, and mathematics


You tell a complicated, multilayered story here in which you touch on a range of identity issues, from skin and hair color to culture and of course language.  Your description of microinvalidations at your high school and of growing up in a homogeneous community as a context within which it can be ‘very difficult to understand issues of ethnicity’ highlight the ways in which identity is both internally and externally defined.   Although your brief discussion of class suggests the issues of inequity and power that shape the larger contexts here, I think your use of Sue and Amos respectively raises specific questions about your story and these overarching issues. 


Specifically:  In your discussion of microaggressions, it’s Dominicans who are the majority within your school but of course still themselves a minority often oppressed in this country by race/language/class; how are we to understand the nature of microaggressions across minorities/oppressed groups rather than from dominant toward oppressed groups?  And likewise, Amos speaks as a majority person in her home country – are there differences between her experience and the experience of the Dominicans in your story, again because of differences in power?


Language plays a complicated role in your piece – more one of exclusion than of access, it seems to me.  And you’re not the only one who wrote about this; see, for example, pieces by frigginsushi and stonewall.   How might you think further about how schools could work with languages in ways that are productive for all students?


A surprising piece here is your comment that you never had a female math teacher in high school.  What enabled you to move past the not having seen a ‘female body in the classroom’ to your own decision to become that female math teacher?  And how powerful that you’ll go on to offer this modeling to other young women!