High School Student
Hispanic + White
Q: What do you have in common with your teachers?
A: Although the Rio Grande Valley has a population of 1.5 Million people, the world I grew up in was pretty small.
From ages 6 to 11, the one thing I had in common with my teachers was my gender. Having strong female role models during some of the most formative years of my life has shaped who I am today. They understood the stigma surrounding “bossy girls” before I even knew what connotation the word “bossy” held. They nurtured my leadership and drive instead of shutting down my “bossiness”.
I never saw this as anything of importance until I got to middle school where the first male teacher I ever had pointed to me as I was planning our group's next step and said, “Well, you’re quite the bossy one. Aren’t you?” I could tell by his voice that it was not a compliment. My whole life, my leadership had always been accepted if not encouraged, but this man who did not understand why young girls should be encouraged in this way, discouraged my initiative and drive for the rest of the year.
Throughout my early school years, I was exposed to a lot of diversity. If my teachers were not Hispanic, they were Colombian or Irish or even African American. This allowed me to grow up in a world that was accepting of differences and taught me how to deal with people who didn't always look like me. Although this was a great skill to develop, it could never match what I learned when I finally had a teacher that looked like me.
In my first year of High School, I really struggled finding my “Latinx Identity”. I wanted to embrace my culture but I didn't speak Spanish and along with the fact that I looked white, it made it hard to feel like I could really check that Hispanic box.
Sophomore year was when I finally had a teacher who was like me--dark haired, had a lighter complexion, and didn't speak Spanish, but still EMBRACED a Latin Identity. For so long, I felt rejected by a world I didn't even know and this gave me hope of one day belonging. She taught me that when we exist in two worlds, we must find a way to make our own and even when you feel like you do not belong entirely to one culture, it is still yours to claim.
Growing up around teachers who shared my race, identity and gender made me not only feel represented in the world, but it made me feel understood and as a young girl, that was all I could ask for.
Q: Does it matter that students and teachers have things in common?
A: One of my favorite quotes from Gloria Anzaldúa says, “The US Mexican Border es una herida abierta where the third world grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country - a border culture.” This border culture is a mix of English and Spanish. It is Mexican ancestry with the American mainstream. It is existing in two different worlds, but never belonging to either.
It wasn't until my freshman year that I had the first teacher who introduced to a new concept : Pride of Place. This man, Mr.Ozuna, walked into our class on the first day of school and said “I went to Yale for college and a lot of people ask me, ‘if you went to Yale, why would you come back and teach at Memorial High School?’ The question I ask you is why don’t you all deserve to have a teacher that was educated at Yale?”.
This was a very defining moment in my life. I realized that the problem in our community wasnt that we didn't want opportunities, but that we felt we didn't deserve them. This mentorship was based on more than the fact that he looked like me with his dark hair and hispanic features (which I shared with most of my teachers all my life), but that he understood our “border culture” and taught me how I could use my voice to help people understand our community better.
When you look up the Rio Grande Valley, 9 times out of 10 you will find some negative stereotype or false narrative perpetuated by people who do not know our community like we do. We, as a community, are constantly underestimated and misunderstood which is a hard concept to grasp for a young girl growing up here.
Growing up, I constantly had to listen to people say things like “there’s no opportunities here” or, “I can’t wait to leave the Valley”. For the first 14 years of my life, I had never been exposed to any teacher or anyone who really loved this place. Being so young, it was hard living in a world that taught me to not be proud of where I come from.
Simply having this culture in common made me not only want more for my community, but made me feel like we deserve more. It allowed me to break out of the stigma that I couldn't be successful here and start making my own success.
For me, having things in common with my teachers is important because I no longer feel like I am alone. And once you feel like you have a community of people supporting you, you are unstoppable.
Sydney is the founder of @thergvmatters. Her #successwithoutborders interview series (podcast coming soon!) encourages youth involvement in her community and aims to inspires people to be proud of their Rio Grande Valley roots. Join in her activism and connect with her on Twitter @sydramon.
Photo (c) 2017 Kristin Leong
Humanizing the gaps separating teachers and students.