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Understanding Identity and the Latino Diaspora in Middle School

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Emily Crispell

Multicultural Education

Final Field Paper

May 8, 2014


Understanding Identity and the Latino Diaspora in Middle School


           My field placement was at A----, an afterschool program focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and college access. This program developed through a partnership between a community based organization and the Bryn Mawr College Civic Engagement Office and was in its pilot year beginning in January 2014. The students who participated in the program were a group of fifteen 7th and 8th graders from a local school district that was largely immigrant populated and lower middle class. All of the students came from Latino or Hispanic backgrounds with the majority of students being predominantly of Mexican descent. Every Saturday from 10AM-12:30PM the program met at either Bryn Mawr College or community based organization. The objectives of the program were to help the students develop the skills necessary to become competitive college applicants and graduates, and to encourage students to explore underrepresented fields of study for minorities and women such as STEM fields. Each week focused on a different topic or activity which usually revolved around college preparation, STEM activities, or development of the student’s understanding of themselves as learners. One of the unique aspects of the program was its focus on parental engagement. Every other session was a joint parent and student session, thus promoting the importance of parental involvement and support throughout the student’s educational career.

           As an afterschool program there was more freedom to explore different subjects that we as the volunteers thought was important or that interested the students. However one of the constraints that we faced was time. Considering that the program only met on Saturdays for about 2 hours there was often a challenge of deciding to either cover all the topics we planned on covering or choosing to go in depth on topics that the students were engaged in.

           Since the group of students was largely homogeneous I didn’t anticipate there being issues related to identity or multiculturalism. However, once at the placement some major questions about identity surfaced in the group. While the program did not focus specifically on identity, questions about identity or situations that created discussion about identity were present and unavoidable. In this paper I would like to further explore the questions about identity brought up due to different situations in my field placement.

These questions surfaced while doing a joint parent student session. During this session the parents and students split up. The parents and program facilitator had a conversation about the importance of the students understanding of their identity and how having a better grasp on who they are will help them cope with microaggressions in the future. While many of the parents and students may consider the college application process intimidating, they may not have put much thought into the challenges they will face once accepted. “Hispanic students generally graduate at lower rates than their white peers, even among schools with similar admissions standards” ("Low Hispanic College Graduation Rates…”). With this in mind we thought that it would be important for the students to start to think about their identities. They will continually be told both consciously and subconsciously that they don’t belong, so it is critical that they have a strong grasp of who they are and know how to find and utilize their resources. While the parents had a discussion with the facilitator, the students and volunteers worked on a writing exercise called an “I am From” poem. The “I am From” poem is a poem template adapted by Levi Romero and inspired by the “Where I’m From” poem by George Ella Lyon. In this writing exercise the students fill in the blanks to questions that relate to unique things about their homes and families.


Here is a conversation that stemmed from the writing exercise:

Student 1: “I have my own room”

Student 2: “Oh you’re so lucky to be an only child”

Student 1: “No I’m not an only child. My brothers and sisters are back in Mexico. I was    born in Mexico.”

Student 2: “Oh I was only born in boring old Norristown”

Student 3: “Hey I was born in Mexico, too”

Student 1: “Oh yay! There are some real Mexicans here too.”(Referring to herself and Student 3).


When I overheard this conversation I a lot of questions came to my mind. What does it mean to be a real Mexican? How does this idea of authenticity affect Latino students who don’t speak Spanish, were born in the United States, or are multiracial? How does this complicate the student’s understanding of their identity? As a biracial Latina student born in the United States who is not fluent in Spanish I have had my identity questioned many times by both people inside and outside the Latino community and have myself questioned my ties to my Latino identity. “Just like many of the students I interviewed, I continue to live my life shifting my identity from one context to another. This does not imply that I am unsure of who I am, nor that the students in this book do not know who they are. However, when you operate within a societal context that uses skin color to situate everyone, you become aware of what you can and cannot be”(Fergus,xi). Just like Edward Fergus put it as a biracial Latina I have found myself shift my identity in different spaces or contexts. After listening to the student’s conversation, it made me reflect on my experience as a student and how my identity or how I present my self shifts in different contexts. It became clear that it is even more important that the students understand their identities because there will be times when their identities will even be challenged by people in their same categories.

Unlike the United States most Spanish speaking countries define their identity by the country they originated from not their race or skin color like in the United States. As minority students one issue that they will continue to face is questions about their identity and belonging. “These questions about identity often get addressed through formal and informal policies of mediating institutions (Lamphere,1992; Levinson and Sutton, 2001)- notably schools (Goode et al.,1992)- which are key sites for the enactment of status hierarchies and other scripts for the interethnic interaction.”(Education and Policy in the New Latino Diaspora,1).There are two types of identification, self identification and external identification. Calling into question the realness of a person’s identity is a form on external identification. By establishing who is a real Mexican and who isn’t the students are in a way able to create internal social hierarchies.

During another parent and student session there was an icebreaker activity called hot potato speed dating. In this activity the parents formed an outer circle and the students formed an inner circle. They would spin until the music stopped then they would pair up with the person across from them and answer a question about themselves or one of their favorite things. Most of the parents only spoke Spanish and all of the students were bilingual except for one student. Student A did not speak Spanish and faced difficulty in this activity and communicating with the parents of the other students. This question of authenticity of identity may be related to limitations in communication. Not being able to communicate in the same language as even some of your relatives is a huge barrier. It is also expected of Latino students to be bilingual. After the session that day on of the volunteers mentioned that she “thought Student A was joking when he said he did not speak Spanish”. In schools it may not be stated that Latino students are expected to be bilingual but when students are expected to translate school letters, permission slips, or even conversations between parents and teachers that is the message that is sent to the students. It may also deal with a shift away from assimilation that was once the goal of many Latino parents and is the reason that many Latino people in the United States do not speak Spanish. In order to succeed in the United States and achieve the American dream it was thought many Latino parents had their children grow up speaking English and not Spanish.

            In both situations the students brought up issues related to their identities as Latino students in the Latino diaspora. There were two situations that centered around authenticy and identity. In the first situation the students brought into question how the idea of authenticity can challenge some identities like Latino identity as a Latino born in the United States vs. a Latino person born in Latin America or the Caribbean. In the second situation, the student experienced how their identity as a Latino who didn’t speak Spanish didn’t meet expectations of others and excluded them. While the after school program was not focused specifically on identity, when issues related to identity came up they were addressed.




Works Cited

"Education and Policy in the New Latino Diaspora." Education in the New Latino Diaspora:        Policy and the Politics of Identity. Ed. Stanton Emerson Fisher Wortham, Enrique G.         Murillo, and Edmund T. Hamann. Westport, CT: Ablex Pub., 2002. N. pag. Print.


Fergus, Edward. Skin Color and Identity Formation: Perceptions of Opportunity and Academic     Orientation among Mexican and Puerto Rican Youth. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.


"Low Hispanic College Graduation Rates Threaten U.S. Attainment Goals." Bill & Melinda          Gates Foundation. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, n.d. Web. 14 May 2014. <       College-Graduation-Rates-Threaten-US-Attainment-Goals>.