Academic Colonization & Latina/o Identity in Elementary Education

In her article, “Mascaras, Trenzas, Y Greñas: Un/Masking the Self While Un/Braiding Latina Stories and Legal Discourse, Margaret E. Montyoa uses personal stories as a form of resistance. For her, “Outsider storytelling is a discursive technique for resisting cultural and linguistic domination through personal and collective redefinition.” When considering Latina/o identity, I am an outsider to that identity and experience. But, in most instances I am an insider as a white woman who went to an elementary school that was primarily white. Using my experience as both an insider and outsider this article seeks to examine how Latina/o identity is both erased from the classrooms and curriculums of our schools, and how this erasure becomes a perpetuation of colonist policies and attitudes.

A. Third Grade

In third grade at my elementary school, we learned about different countries and made “country books.” These country books were a project that I absolutely loved because we got to learn about the geography, history, culture, and current events of different countries. They were also an opportunity for me to indulge my overachieving tendencies by cramming as many details, drawings, and facts about the country as I possibly could onto every square inch of each page. I distinctly remember making country books on Russia, Japan, Egypt, Switzerland, and maybe Brazil or Costa Rica. I’m sure there were other countries, but what I don’t remember is why certain countries were selected versus others. I do know that students did not get to pick the country, the teacher assigned them. I also know that the countries we learned about were not necessarily reflective of the racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds of students in my class.

I have good memories of making these country books. And I’m sure what we learned about each country was appropriate for the grade level we were at. And for me personally, I found all the countries we learned about interesting because I liked learning and school. However, I doubt that we learned anything about a country that would be counter to the sanitized, mainstream narrative of American history that still dominates in public education. We did not learn about America’s history of imperialism or support of oppressive regimes in the Middle East; we did not learn to question that Russian communism was a bad thing; and we definitely did not learn that the United States provoked a war with Mexico in order to secure what is now the Southwest and California.

I wonder how the students of color in my class felt about the countries we studied and why we were learning about those countries specifically. Did the one Latina girl in my class feel excluded or as though her identity was being erased because we didn’t study the country her family came from? In retrospect, it seems like the country books could have been an opportunity to let my classmates with different racial or ethnic backgrounds share their identities with the class.

Of course I can’t speak for these students or speak to their experiences at my elementary school. It is easy for me to say that it would have been nice for them to share more of their identity and culture. Perhaps these students didn’t want to share that part of their lives or maybe they didn’t feel comfortable. However, from my perspective I think it is a failing on the school’s part to not offer a platform to celebrate the different identities of my classmates.

B. Identity at Maplewood Elementary

According to the 2016–2017 School Improvement Plan, in the 2015–2016 school year the elementary and middle school I went to was 71.2% white. The reported demographics the school list the student population as being 9% Asian, 5.1% Black, 6% Hispanic, and 8.7% mixed race. There are no American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander students. The total enrollment for the school was 487. This means that there are about 29 Latina/o students at the school, which works out to maybe 1–2 Latino/a students in each class.[1]

These demographic numbers mean that the school hasn’t changed all that much from when I went there (I graduated 8th grade in 2004). I honestly only remember there being one Latina girl in my class. And, I could probably count on one hand the total number of kids of color in my class. The lack of racial and ethnic diversity in my class was mirrored by the lack of diversity reflected in the curriculum.

C. Academic Colonization

Academic imperialism emerged as a concept in the late 1960s and early 1970s to “describe the economic, political and cultural forces shaping the uneven development of academic discipline.” This idea of academic imperialism or colonization also can be seen in the purposeful teaching of only certain histories and the erasure of other histories, voices, and narratives from academia.

Historian and sociologist Robert Blauner explored the concept of “academic colonization” as a component of the internal colonization of African Americans, Native Americans and Mexican Americans by the United States in his book Racial Oppression in America. Blauner identified what he called a “colonization complex” where colonized groups are forced into a dominant (read Western) civilization, indigenous cultures are transformed or destroyed, the colonized are managed and manipulated, and racism is used to dominate and subjugated.

Academic colonization, especially as described by Blauner’s colonization complex, can be seen very clearly in the federal policies on Native American education that were in place from the late 1800s to 1960s. Many people are familiar with the infamous quote “Kill the Indian, save the Man,” but few know that this was Colonel Pratt’s, who founded the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, theory of education as applied to Native Americans. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission gives an overview of federal education policies in their report “A Quiet Crisis, Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country.” In brief, the federal government initially educated Native American children with the goal of assimilation, essentially to bring Native Americans into the Euro-American society in the hopes that Indian identity would be suppressed or become extinct. Pratt’s Indian School was one of 25 schools that were known for aggressively preventing Native American students from speaking their language, practicing their customs, and wearing traditional dress.

Less well known is how academic colonization works to suppress Latina/o identity. In “How the Border Crossed Us: Filling the Gap Between Plume v. Seward and the Dispossession of Mexican Landowners in California After 1848,author Kim David Chanbonpin points out that history and law are used to “inscribe and reproduce the economic and political status quo.” For example, the history of Mexican Americans remains untaught at the elementary, secondary and in many classrooms in higher education. Chanbonpin quotes Professor Guadalupe T. Luna who explains that “[o]mitting land alienation from…history and education promotes Chicanas/Chicanos’ status as outsiders and renders their history invisible,” and goes on to remind the reader that “[m]ost of the U.S. population…is unaware that the United States invaded and conquered Mexico in the late nineteenth century and then seized over half of Mexico’s land as spoils of war.”

Similar to the experiences of Native American students, Mexican American students faced schools that actively sought to erase Chicana/o identity. In a 1972 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report, titled “The Excluded Student; Educational Practices Affecting Mexican Americans in the Southwest,” it is noted that the “dominance of Anglo values is apparent in the curricula on all educational levels; in the cultural climate which ignores or denigrates Mexican American mores and the use of the Spanish language; in the exclusion of the Mexican American community from full participation in matters pertaining to school policies and practices.” The report, in its introduction, goes on to say that this dominance of Anglo culture is “most strongly apparent in the schools.” The curriculums in schools reflect Anglo-American culture and English is the language of instruction. Speaking Spanish at school was prohibited and punished. The report later quotes a graduate of the San Antonio school system who said: “Schools try to brainwash Chicanos. They try to make us forget our history, to be ashamed of being Mexicans, of speaking Spanish. They succeed in making us feel empty and angry, inside.”

This erasure of history and identity is something that I experienced in my own education. In elementary school I remember learning about the colonial period, Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War One and Two, and about ancient civilizations. However, I do not ever recall learning about how the U.S. seized land from Mexico in either elementary school or high school. History was taught from an American perspective and little room was left for other voices or identities. In this way, education becomes a continuation of colonialist attitudes and policies. By erasing certain histories, education maintains the status quo and legitimizes the viewpoint and history of the oppressor. Mainstream education enables “sanitized ‘history’” to “perpetuate conquest.”

D. Decolonizing Elementary Education

Education can be an instrument of colonization or of emancipation. In order to combat the persistent erasure of minority history and identity, educational institutions should seek to educate students with the goal of allowing “self decolonization through critical pedagogy.” This education should and could start much earlier, even in elementary school. Thinking back to my own educational experience, there were so many moments when a more complete history could have been taught — one that challenged the traditional narrative of American history. All students would benefit from an education that brings in a diverse array of viewpoints and voices, and that specifically seeks to celebrate the cultural identities of all students in the classroom.

[1] Maplewood is a K-8 school, so this means that there are nine grades at the school and each grade has two classes.