An Education in Assimilation

I have two distinct memories of my mom helping me with my homework. One night, my mother saw me doing my long division homework at the dining room table. “I remember learning that!” she said, and asked if I wanted to see how she’d learned to do long division in Colombia growing up. The math itself was the same, but notated differently, with an underline instead of an overline vinculum. It was novel, and hey, that’s how Colombians did long division, I thought, so I did all my homework the way she showed me. The next day, my teacher scolded me, told me that it was wrong in spite of my correct answers, and demanded that I do my math the right way. I didn’t think about it much at the time, and I certainly didn’t report it to my mom, but what that communicated to me was that my connection to Colombia and my Latina identity has no place in my education.

The second memory involves a social studies world culture project. We were assigned a specific country and tasked with researching that country’s culture. We were then to give a short five minute presentation to the class about our assigned countries. I was assigned Colombia. I don’t remember specifically, but I imagine that I asked for Colombia; as far as I can recall, my Colombian heritage was not common knowledge, and my last name and white presentation meant that no one would know unless told.

I went home and asked my mom to help me on my project. She pulled out books I’d never seen before, with maps and pictures of flora and people and cities of Colombia. She pointed to a framed Colombian flag we had hanging in our living room and explained the meanings of the colors: yellow for the gold and wealth of Colombia; blue for the ocean along its coast and the rivers running through it; and red for the blood shed during the fight for independence. She gave me a campesina boyacense outfit — a black skirt with red, blue, and yellow trim and a white ruffled shirt — historically worn in the region where my family still lives and still used during festivals and celebrations. I donned my costume and went to school, to point at the city of my birth on a map and compress Colombia’s culture and history into a five minute presentation.

This context, I understood, was where my cultural identity belonged: in five minute intervals, and only when specifically requested.

This message was underscored by lack of acknowledgement in the cultural context of Florida more generally. While the history and culture of Colombia specifically may not have been vital for every student at my school — my brother and I were the only Colombians in my school as far as I know — there were certainly other recent histories that were particularly important in Florida given its demographics. Although the wet-foot, dry-foot policy and the preceding waves of Cuban immigration were fairly common knowledge in Florida, it had no place in the curriculum that I can recall. There was no mention of Puerto Rico’s status as a US colony. Although almost a quarter of the population of Tampa is Latinx, my elementary school terminated our Spanish language program when I was in the second grade.

It’s hardly surprising that my education served to isolate me from my cultural identity; education designed as assimilation is not a new concept. During the late 1800s, the US began a policy of forcible assimilation against indigenous communities in the United States. In order to achieve this goal, the US mandated that native children must attend boarding schools operated by non-natives. The purpose of these schools was to isolate native children from their culture, language, and community to ensure full assimilation into white Western norms. As the founder of the first of these schools, Richard Pratt, put it, “In a sense, I agree with the sentiment [that the only good Indian is a dead one], but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” A superintendent of one of these schools, John B. Riley, expressed a similar sentiment: “Only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated, and the extra expense attendant thereon is more than compensated by the thoroughness of the work.”

It’s also interesting to note that all immigrant communities have not faced the same assimilative policy. During the period of attempted cultural genocide of indigenous communities through forcible assimilation, the US Supreme Court recognized the right of European immigrants to educate their children in their native tongue as a liberty interest protected by the Constitution. In the majority opinion by Justice McReynolds, the Court stated, “Mere knowledge of the German language cannot reasonably be regarded as harmful.”

While the education of Latinx students in the US doesn’t approach the violence and trauma of the forcible assimilation policy imposed on native communities, the education unquestionably enforces assimilation. While schools certainly make efforts to recognize students’ needs with respect to their primary language, the end goal remains to ensure proficiency in English, as that is the only language that matters within the curriculum. History is largely taught from a colonialist perspective, heavily weighting the history of Europe leading up to and including colonialist expansion.

To the extent that Latin America does appears in history or literature classes, it is largely addressed as something foreign. While Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, and Pablo Neruda may occasionally appear in high school literature classes, works by US-born Latinx authors is scarce in literary canon. Similarly, while some schools cover the histories of Latin American countries, the histories and efforts of Latinx people within the US, like the Young Lords and the Chicano movement, are absent from most curricula.

This educational structure leaves little space for a Latinx identity; one is either fully foreign or stripped of cultural identity and assimilated into a white norm. While its greatest impact perhaps might be felt during elementary education, when students have fewer tools and less autonomy to combat it, the overarching message persists through all levels of education. Over the past three years in law school, there have been few instances where my identity has been welcomed. Racial, ethnic and cultural identity are largely considered irrelevant by the legal field, as the law relies on the idea of objectivity to validate itself. To even acknowledge the identities of parties or legal professionals involved in the cases we read is to accept that it might matter, which threatens the sanctity of the law.

Ultimately, though, whether it’s welcomed or not, I am a Latina. I am formed by my cultural identity, and the experiences I’ve had inform my perspective and therefore matter. It’s vital to challenge the conception that cultural and ethnic identity has no place in certain contexts, particularly in legal academia, where identity influences law and policy in ways the legal profession is far too comfortable ignoring. Over the past three years, I’ve made conscious efforts to carve out space for my identity, in spite of how it is received. I led a Spanish conversation table, where students met once a week to chat in Spanish for an hour. While Spanish speakers of any race, ethnicity, and proficiency were welcome, it naturally attracted Spanish-speaking Latinx students. I organized an annual Thanksgiving Day cultural exchange potluck event, which provided turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes, and then invited students to bring a dish native to their countries. I brought Colombian pandebono. I participated in a lunch exchange co-op, for which I learned to make arepas and ropa vieja and empanadas.

In the grand scheme of things, these efforts don’t amount to much. But they represent moments and space where my identity existed without sanction. These are moments in which I didn’t do things the right way, as I had been taught, keeping my identity private and out of sight until requested. They were tiny moments of wholeness amidst demands for silence and sundering. And that matters, more than it may seem.