María Figueroa, a member of the Danza Coaticue, dances in the San Diego Women’s March 2018 (Manuel Velez )
Commentary: How Chicanas like me find hostility and healing in school classrooms
By María Figueroa, published in San Diego Union Tribune January 5, 2021
It was in sixth-grade social studies class at Spurgeon Intermediate School in Santa Ana when our teacher, Mr. Adams, asked the class what we were. The question perplexed me for only a minute as I sat in the front row, staring directly at him. He sat stoically in his wooden chair and waited for an answer.
“Mexican. I’m Mexican,” I responded, the only student in the class to do so.
He immediately shot back a grin and asked, “Were you born in the U.S.?” Without thinking, I quickly responded, “Yes!”
“So, you’re American, not Mexican, because you were born in the U.S.”
For a second, I felt confused, as if Mr. Adams had attacked me for answering incorrectly. In that moment, my debating tendencies kicked in and I searched for a rebuttal to this attack. My mind went quickly to what I most confidently knew: “I’m Mexican because my parents say so.”
Ironically, educational settings have been sites of both hostility and healing for Chicana/os. They are spaces where I have simultaneously been made to feel invisible and embraced. Perhaps Mr. Adams wanted me to feel empowered enough to be una americana. But americana and American to me has always been synonymous with Whiteness. Being White was something that I never was, and something that I and my classmates would never be.
Six years after Mr. Adams’ comment, and one year before the passage of California’s Proposition 187, I enrolled at UC San Diego. I made the transition from high school through the university’s Summer Bridge Program. Its holistic approach to educating first-generation college students of color established an environment where we gained sociopolitical consciousness by reading history, and learning theory and praxis. This is where I first learned about Mendez et al. vs. Westminster School District of Orange County, the landmark desegregation case fought and successfully won by a local Santa Ana family. In this same program I began reading from Ronald Takaki’s “A Different Mirror” and learned about the “Master Narrative” of history. It was also here where my academic tio, Patrick Velasquez, greeted my parents and younger siblings in a parking lot of UC San Diego’s Revelle College to assure them that I was going to be safe and in good hands. Indeed, I was.
Much like that sixth-grade social studies class, most of the classes I encountered at UC San Diego didn’t validate my existence either. It wasn’t until I enrolled in Chicana/o and Ethnic Studies classes taught by faculty of color that my identity was fortified. It felt oddly validating to read authors whose last names were in Spanish and who made references to a home life and families that I recognized. These classes also introduced me to new theories that helped shape my Chicana Indigenous identity. In fact, learning the Mayan philosophy of In Lak’Ech in my Chicana/o Theatre classes became formidable in defining myself as a Chicana scholar who descends from Indigenous thinkers, writers and artists. Somehow this concept of tu eres mi otro yo — you are my other self — tapped into what was missing throughout my entire K-12 experience. In Lak’Ech healed me from the educational susto — soul loss — that so many of us young Chicana/os have and continue to experience.
My dad has a great dicho — “Pues pa’que tanta escuela?” — which he delivers when challenging intellectuals: What good is an education if...? This is how he reminds us not everything can be taught in a classroom. I often thought of this at UC San Diego. I succeeded academically due to the love and support of many mentors, allies and peers who were also growing politically. However, it was my involvement in the student group MEChA (Movimiento, Estudiantil, Chicano de Aztlan) that taught me great organizing skills and grounded me in a politics of community that allowed me to form lines of solidarity across historical, social, cultural and political causes. Because of this, 50 years after the Chicano Moratorium, and since the founding of El Centro Cultural de la Raza and Chicano Park, I continue to embrace the legacy of the struggle for Chicana/o civil rights and the search for our identity.
While at the time, I interpreted Mr. Adams’ question as hostile, in retrospect I realize it helped me understand that my Chicana Indigenous identity has never been divorced from a true American identity despite resistance from the dominant society. In fact, it’s this resistance towards a homogenized definition of “American” that serves as the foundation of my Chicana Indigenous identity. Mr. Adams unknowingly has served as my In Lak’Ech — a threshold reminder of who I am and will continue to be.
Figueroa is a professor at MiraCosta College teaching in the Letters Department and a member of Danza Coatlicue and lives in North County.