Are You Sure Your'e Mexican

A blog about being a 3rd generation, bi-racial Mexican American, who doesn't speak Spanish (though I'm learning!) and working with a diverse, inner-city high school population. I have found using the label Mexican-American for myself proposes more challenges than one would think. This blog, in a nutshell, focuses on those challenges.

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Sunday, June 5, 2011

I Lean Like a Cholo, But Talk Like A Guerro

Big topic of conversation this week:  "Talking White."  Since I have been at my predominantly Latino school, teaching, this has been a claim not only against myself, by students, but also a claim against the school that we are trying to make our students talk and act white.  Now, to be fair to my educated readers, I will refer to "talking white" as such, as this is the terminology my students use not realizing the potential danger of  *gasp* offending a white person. 
Racial identity, as I have said in an earlier blog, is something I often times obsess about.  Sure, its always been an issue, growing up in the state of Montana where I felt like a raisin in a box of corn flakes, but didn't become a serious point of contention until recently.  My first year at my current school, my students caught on right away to the fact my last name was Latino, so wanted to know what my first name was.  Now, we have a lot of Joses, Luis's, Eduardos and the like.  They didn't expect for me to say my name is Nick.  This then naturally lead to questions about my middle name.  I told them it is Jerome.  Then the laughter ensued.  They asked so eloquently, "What the hell are you Maestro (this is the Spanish word for teacher)?"  I asked what they meant.  And one brave student said, You have a white first name.  A black middle name.  A Mexican last name.  What are you?  Another student then chimed in: Well he looks sorta Mexican.  He listens to black music.  He talks like a guerro.  He's Mr. Globo (translates to globe).  So for about a week, this was my nick-name.  Also, this was the start of a roller-coaster ride of emotion over the issue of language vs. racial identity.
So the topic of "talking white" came up most recently this week, during an interview with MPR regarding our first ever graduating class.  I know its no KDWB, but felt like it was a big deal to get to interview, as I know a lot of people around the twin cities listen to public radio.  The interview was done with Rupa Shenoy, an Indian-American woman.  It ended up, in  around-about-way, coming to the topic of teaching Latino, Black, Hmong and African students how to navigate the professional world (our school has a corporate internship program in which the students work once a week to help pay for their, otherwise unobtainable college-prep tuition), especially if all they have known for 14 years is the street/barrio world.  I brought up the fact that, especially during Freshmen orientation, the topic of "talking white" seems to come up.  Criticism of both students and parents arises as we try to "whitewash" them during training.   What 14-year-olds (and often times parents) need to have explained, is that its not that they have to act or talk white, but instead need to learn how to "code switch."  Code switching is the terminology prescribed by Ruby Payne, an expert on the Culture of Poverty.  She's responsible for volumes of literature assisting affluent society with the skills needed to help poor brown children.  Anyway, she speaks of code switching as the ability to switch from street slang to professional talk in a matter of a second depending on the audience to whom a person is talking.  As a teacher you see it all the time: A student hanging out with their friends, speaking in language that would make a sailor blush, but then as soon as they see an adult, they switch back to the well mannered young man or lady they pretend to be in your presence.  Code switching within the culture of poverty however is a little more refined.  It requires the ability, for Spanish speakers and street slang-speakers to switch, sometimes from not just street slang, but also to another language.  To see some of our Seniors code switch the way they do is a thing of amazement.  Seeing and hearing them talk with their friends in the morning, and then seeing them interact with their office counterparts in their corporate work study placement later in the day is like night and day.
So, ultimately, the difference between teaching our students to "act white" and to code switch, is that we are teaching them that there is value in both systems.  To teach our students to act white, would mean that we are negating not just their culture and experience, but who they are as human beings.  To code switch offers value to both systems (professional/white & their home/street life).  It teaches them there is an appropriate way to act in both settings.  In fact, to act professional at home or on the street could and most likely would lead them to getting an ass-beating.  Likewise, if they spoke to their supervisors the same way they speak to their peers, would most likely lead to a firing.  So they see, practically the need to be able to navigate both systems. 
After the interview, Ms. Shenoy turned off the microphone and told me thank you for speaking so frankly, but had to it ok that I said what I said?  I was surprised by her concern.  I asked, "Regarding what?"  And she replied, "Referring to your students claim of being taught to act 'white.'  Is that going to get you in trouble?"  I responded, "I was told to do three things.  1. Be honest.  2.  Keep students names and identities private.  3.  Keep to the talking points regarding statistics of graduates, tuition etc.  I did all of those things, so don't think talking about "being white" would be an issue."  She said,"I just don't want to get you in trouble."  I told her I would talk to the principal, who was waiting to be interviewed.  She almost scared me as she blurted out, "NO! He will definitely tell you, 'no.'"  So, me being confident called him over anyway.  I told him the interviewer's concern, and he said, "Oh.  No, that should be fine."  She was shocked that he was alright with it.  I, knowing my boss pretty well was confident he would be ok with the topic matter, especially as the token Mexican on staff.  More so, I think he thought the topic was ok, because he trusts me.  Or because he is looking for a reason to fire me.  I am betting on the prior.  Either way, I am interested in seeing how the interview comes out.  I am thinking since she brought that  small section of the 28 minute interview up, that it was the one that was of most interest to her.  Maybe I was the source, this time, of the hard hitting journalism that has made her a success.  I am just hoping I don't come off as a bumbling idiot in the interview.  If I do, I guess I can blame it on my inability to code switch, right? 


  1. I really want to hear your interview! And the code switching business brought me back to many grad school discussion. Nice job as always, maestro! Tef

  2. Nick

    I love your blog.
    I read the article on MPR.
    I'm going to write about you on my blog.

    Immigration Talk with a Mexican American

  3. Great post! My son, who is forever being told that he talks 'white', will enjoy your take on the issue.