Does Latino identity play a role in a changing world?

In the past many have said that I don’t look Latino, some have suggested that I look Italian. I am fair skinned and while I do have dark hair many people agree with that statement. When I begin speaking fluent Spanish and informing people that I was born in El Salvador it is usually met with shock and statements such as, “I never would have guessed.”

While attending Moorpark Unified School District from fourth grade until my high school graduation I was placed in an odd position. I am indeed Latino, identified as such, and speak Spanish fluently. But I am Salvadorian, not Mexican, which made up the majority of the Latino population within Moorpark and was therefore excluded from that group because I could not relate to them culturally. Also, since a few people thought I was white but I was not actually white I wasn’t able to relate to many white students fully so as to make friendships there either. This led me to a multi-racial, multi-cultural group of friends.

The school has grown exponentially since its inception

When I entered Moorpark High School during the 2010–2011 school year there was a total school enrollment of 2,305 according to the California Department of Education educational demographics unit, with roughly 600 more white than Latino students. During an election cycle in which race has been at the forefront of the media and in a school and district with such a shifting social structure does Latino cultural identity affect social relations among the student body?

Jaime Alanis, 48, is a sociology professor at CSUN with fifteen years of experience who specializes in cultural identity.

The “construction of identity,” said Alanis, “begins with inclusion and exclusion.”

There are two parts of Latino identity according to Alanis, Latinidad and Latinismo. Latinidad is the common cultural similarities among different groups of Latinos such as language, food, music, entertainment, etc. while Latinismo is different groups coming together to fight for a common good, such as jobs where they “transcend traditional nationalism.”

Alanis, growing up in the Chicago area, sees that nationalism among different Latino groups was kept in check in the southwest for a common purpose but he does not see the same trend in California.

Alanis believes there is some nationalistic animosity between Mexico and El Salvador and that may have been the reason I did not fit in with that group due to cultural rivalries.

“Boundaries [are] clearly being drawn,” said Alanis, citing that sports, such as soccer or boxing, bring out nationalism.

An aerial view of the school.

Dan Burchfield, 61, is a history teacher at Moorpark high school with 15 years of experience. Burchfield also serves as the coach for the baseball team and is a leader within the school’s theater department. I interviewed him over e-mail to see how the school has changed since my graduation in 2014. I first asked him whether there is a divide between Latino and white students.

“Yes and No,” said Burchfield, “I believe white and Latino students hang out with friends of their own ethnicity because of a comfort level. The same backgrounds, likes and dislikes.”

Burchfield elaborated further when I shared the observation that when I attended the school I saw Mexican students spend time with mainly other Mexican students.

“I think it is more of a comfort level,” continued Burchfield, “I don’t think it is racist or exclusion, but more of similar backgrounds and struggles of life.”

Burchfield agreed that part of the divide between Latino and white students comes from the language barrier. He believes that “some students have a hard time belonging to a school because of a language barrier.”

Since there is now an almost even population between Latino and white students there have been some social changes.

“It has changed somewhat,” said Burchfield, “with more Latino students involved in school activities.”

“I believe if you have a sense of belonging to a group,” said Burchfield, “your race takes a back seat.”

Meanwhile Ryan Huisenga, 42, another former teacher of mine from Moorpark high school, with ten years of teaching experience in Moorpark, agrees with most of Burchfield’s statements albeit with some variation.

Race relations haven’t changed in his eyes but he commented that if you take a sample group that are not involved in any school activities whatsoever then you will notice a divide and he agreed with Burchfield that the divide between students has to do more with language than anything else.

“It’s definitely more [of a] linguistic barrier,” said Huisenga, “than assimilation to culture.”

You “have to look at so many different factions,” said Huisenga. He named the school’s band as a good example of diversity since there are students from different backgrounds working towards a common purpose.

When I mentioned the enrollment numbers for this year he said it wasn’t because of an influx of Latino students, rather it was due to the fact that enrollment for the district has dropped by around 600 people. He estimated that the number of students currently enrolled within the school was 1,900.

He looks at diversity in terms of a curriculum standpoint, that being a way to bring students from different backgrounds together. He believes that the more diverse the curriculum the more diverse students will be socially. I was a part of the Health Science Academy within the school and Huisenga was one of the leaders of the program, he cited the academy as an example of his theory.

By “creating different pathways into the curriculum,” said Huisenga, “you’ll naturally breed diversity.”

While my former teachers believed that exclusion comes from comfort levels or common interests, Alanis believes it stems more from the immaturity and meanness of adolescence.

My experiences of exclusion are not unique, stories like these unfold within high schools across the country every day. This happens because people usually don’t together without some common purpose so I believe a way to curb the trend of exclusion would be invest more heavily in extra-curricular activities and try to get as many students involved from as many backgrounds as possible.

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