Latinx Voices: Living in Two Worlds
Ana Luis on What Latina Identity Means to Her
“I lived part-time in another country, spoke a different language at home, ate different foods, and was very immersed in this native culture from my family. But then, I would go out into other spaces within the United States and be received with the privilege of somebody that is viewed as a white woman…I’ve experienced a lot of rejection within my identity from all types of people. So it’s a very complex thing for me.”
Hispanic and Latinx identity is complex and rich. But due to its very nature as a means of categorization, it is often misunderstood or reduced to stereotypes.
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, which is recognized in the United States each year from September 15 to October 15, I spoke with Ana Luis, a Director of Content at Leading Educators, about her experiences as a Latina and self-identified Argentinian. Ana’s mother moved to the United States from Argentina for college, leaving behind four siblings and her parents. As a result, Ana says, “I grew up kind of with a foot in each country.”
She shares her changing understanding of self, her experiences within education as a student and educator, and her vision for the future. It has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Childhood: Navigating Two Worlds
“I had a little bit of an untraditional childhood from my American-born peers in that all of my time away from school was spent in another country. I spent all my summer vacations and extended breaks in Argentina with my family. There was a lot of influence from the Spanish language and Argentinian culture, but also a feeling of being different.
We had a lot of different customs at home. I always try to explain to people: I didn’t grow up celebrating Thanksgiving and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because those just weren’t part of our traditions. But my identity means everything to me. It is who I am.
The struggle I’ve had in the United States is that there is such an emphasis on the Black-White binary—because of the very specific historical context of the United States and the impact of chattel slavery on how we view race and ethnicity in our society—that I’ve had a really hard time being able to fully and authentically step into my identity. The United States still hasn’t decided fully if Latinx is an ethnicity, a race, or both.
My skin is light, and my eyes are blue, so I am received as someone who benefits from light skin privilege. But I have never felt connected to, fully accepted, or integrated into White spaces. The definition of being Latinx or Hispanic in the United States is often to have a different phenotype than mine due to the emphasis on skin color as an identifier. So, I have frequently been rejected from the Latinx community here in the U.S., which is heartbreaking and confusing.”
Finding a Place in School
“I grew up in Lansing, Michigan, where Michigan State University was one of the top recruiters of international students and professors alike in the United States. So, there were a lot of people in Lansing from all over the world. My elementary, middle, and high school experiences were, fortunately, filled with many other kids who were also first-generation immigrants like me.
There were families from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chile, and so many other places on my street growing up. I became very accustomed to identifying myself as Argentinian, and not really thinking about the racial component behind that. It was more like, this is the food we eat at home, this is the language we speak, these are the customs, and sharing those types of things with my peers.
After college, I moved away from Lansing to Indiana, and the way I was identified by others shifted from honoring my ethnicity, linguistic identity, and cultural identity to only my skin color being considered. I had grown up in a place where most people could tell you the difference between someone who is Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Filipino, or Japanese because there was such an emphasis on honoring those home cultures, and then I moved to a place where it was “that Asian person” or “that Hispanic person.” That was really jarring for me because I always understood that ethnicity, culture, and language were deeply embedded in my identity and were to be honored.
As an adult, the identifier of race based on skin color became a much more prevalent concept. And part of that realization happening later in life is probably due to the privilege that I had experienced as somebody who walks the world being recognized by as many as a white woman.”
Bringing Life Experiences into Teaching
“In high school, I started noticing disparities in who was succeeding in school and who wasn’t being supported to succeed, and I built up a lot of outrage. Race was a huge factor. Even though I identified as a first-generation immigrant, Latina, bilingual, and multicultural person, I was lumped in with White students in terms of how I was approached because of how I looked. And that made me really angry.
During my senior year, I had a Latina counselor who built a really strong relationship with me. She really helped me see the different ways that I could make an impact. Probably because she was Latina and our ability to connect linguistically and culturally, I really held her in esteem and wanted to follow in her footsteps. She did a lot for me. She was able to help me get a full-ride scholarship to undergrad. And it just really helped me realize the big difference that education can make in people’s life choices and trajectories. Her influence, coupled with this kind of outrage that I had about inequities that I saw, fueled the work I do now. I gained a very specific lens for those who are the most vulnerable in our education system, as somebody who also had privilege within that system.
I spent 15 years in the classroom, and 13 of those were focused on very non-traditional student populations, meaning students who were either incarcerated or students who had discontinued high school and were coming back. I might have had a 17-year-old male student who had just spent the last year-and-a-half incarcerated and was trying to get back to where he left off. Or I might have a 35-year-old single mom who discontinued high school and wanted to finish now that her kids were a little bit older and in school themselves. Or I might have had a student from Burma who just immigrated to the United States, and their high school diploma wasn’t honored in the United States. So in order to advance in their workplace, they needed to get a United States high school credential.
I really wanted to make my classroom a place where students got to know themselves as learners, and learn how to advocate for themselves. I taught them how to investigate their metacognitive processes. When they’re listening to things, what resonates, and what doesn’t resonate? How to really dig deep into their conceptions about mathematics and build deep conceptual understanding around it.
As a mathematics teacher, and I would try to model my own thought process. When I got this information, where did my brain go? When I was learning how to problem solve, what is the number sense that I relied upon? Where’s the number sense that I need to build? How do I take this concern or misunderstanding that I have and turn it into a question?
I saw it as my job to help students get to a point where, leaving my classroom, they knew how to be true mathematicians. Like, what a mathematician actually is: somebody who is building curiosity about a phenomenon that they’re observing, reflecting on how they think and perceive that phenomenon, and then discussing it with others to make meaning out of it. That’s what true mathematics is intended to be.
In order to do that, students have to know who they are and how they think. I had to be a leader who could emphasize how valuable they were as human beings. They were there to teach me about who they were and how they thought so that we could all like come to similar, mathematically-accurate conclusions together.”
Dreaming About a Fairer Future
“If equity was our reality, schools would be a place where students have the opportunity to learn as individuals. Equity does not stop at ensuring that people of all races and ethnicities have the same opportunity to learn. That is ground zero. After that, schools must also provide them opportunities to learn as individuals, which also means taking into account how people think, the cultural values they hold, their learning preferences, the ways they best make meaning, and the ways that they prioritize and utilize language and their linguistic identities. There are so many layers to who we are as human beings that impact how we learn.
If we had equity, race and socioeconomic status would not be a predictor of somebody’s success. But even more than that, the person’s individual needs, styles, and preferences could be honored. In order for that to happen, the system would have to be transformed. Because not only would you have to take out these predictive factors, but also, treat each student as an individual within that system.
In traditional education reform, we are oftentimes still filtering education through the lens of the system, through the same recipe for success we experienced ourselves. That’s all we know. It’s how we went to school. That’s how school was for our parents. And that’s school is for our kids.
So, to really reimagine the purpose of school, especially as we think about a future that is completely unknown to us, requires a willingness to get uncomfortable. It’s hard to get large bodies of people on board with that. If you’re talking about a district, thousands of people sometimes have to step outside their comfort zone while still having to teach every day. They can’t come in and be like, Well, we’re trying to refigure out what school is, so I’m not teaching you anything today. It’s tricky, it’s really tricky.
“If I could wave a magic wand, I would want to change the core mindset in education from achievement numbers and compliance to honoring the humanity of students. Teachers are under so much pressure to perform, and the way we measure classroom success is so quantitative. Oftentimes, there’s so much qualitative data that we miss out on.
Teachers, as a coping mechanism, often develop survival mindsets within the system. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a teacher that has gone into teaching with bad intentions toward their students. I think what happens is that people get into survival mode and that gets layered on top of their biases, privilege, and the power they hold as the classroom teacher. To relieve that for them would mean they have the permission and space to attack the work through the mindset of the student’s humanity. That’s where you win every time.”