Borderlands Latino/a Children: Other People's Children
Updated: Sep 1, 2018
“For neither good nor evil can last forever; and so it follows that as evil has lasted a long time, goodness must now be close at hand.” Don Quixote de la Mancha
The day after Donald Trump was elected President, a large number of students – mostly Latino/a - at the Fairfax County high school where I worked were distressed. Our school psychologist, social workers, counselors, and other staff members were overwhelmed, having to comfort American citizens as well as documented and undocumented immigrants. Their fear of being separated from family members due to deportation or of being targets of discrimination was too overwhelming to allow them to concentrate on ordinary school tasks. For many students, this emotional state lasted for months, affecting their academic performance and school attendance. I have never known a group of children better able to intuit the worst. They feared atrocities perpetrated against themselves, their families and communities. As we have recently seen with children at the border, their fears have proven to be prophetic.
The White House’s recent family separation and zero tolerance immigration policies, in addition to the in-limbo status of DACA students since September, have not been the first cases, of course, in which Latino children have been treated as “other people’s children”, a term first used by Harvard University’s Lisa Delpit (1995) to describe the condition of African-American children. As documented in Punished (Rios, 2011), Subtractive Schooling (Valenzuela, 1999) and “Diverse Learners, Diverse Texts” (Athanases, 1998), Latinos have often been punished more frequently and severely than white students; have attended inferior schools; and have been held to lower expectations and offered fewer opportunities. Moreover, their stories and needs have often been placed at the margins of schools’ curricula.
All of these factors have had a negative impact on the self-esteem and sense of identity of Latino/a children. Research has shown that Latinos who have spent most of their formative years outside of American soil have a better chance of developing a stronger sense of identity. Latino/a children without this experience will often be left culturally adrift. I am grateful that I migrated to the continental United States from Puerto Rico at the age of 19, after having grown up in a society that allowed me to feel that I had cultural and social capital. As a young adult migrant, I already had a strong sense of identity and self-worth that helped me deal with discrimination throughout my professional and personal life in the continental United States. The value I place on my cultural heritage, as well as on the Spanish language, is an important contributor to my emotional well-being in the face of inequitable experiences. Without a strong sense of self-worth and identity, children with weaker ties to their ancestral countries lack an important resource for self-preservation and emotional health. Growing up in communities and under a government that devalues their ancestral culture and language will likely have detrimental and lasting effects on the mental health and academic success of migrant children.
Another serious issue to consider is that in many schools, certain teachers, counselors and administrators don’t know much about Latino migrant children’s stories. As a consequence of being a Spanish-speaking Latina educator, I have often served in professional roles that deal directly with Latino/a teenage students. In view of these students’ adaptation challenges, I worked with my school’s psychologist, its parent liaison, and a volunteer from the community to implement a program to support them. In addition, I interviewed 43 Latino/a students about their borderlands experiences for my own doctoral research. In listening to borderlands students’ stories, I have been struck not only by the often horrific details of their odysseys but by how little some school administrators know about them when dealing with behavioral problems. Some students – mostly males – are already being punished weeks or months after they have arrived in the United States. In their interactions with these students, administrators have often failed to ask key questions to find out who these students are and what they have gone through. Instead of listening compassionately working to provide systems of prevention, intervention and support to students who have already experienced tremendous difficulties in life, administrators have often opted for the easiest and quickest option: punishment. These students are treated like “other people’s children” by those in charge of them at their schools. The program we developed took a different approach to student behavioral problems, and its example contributed to the implementation of similar programs countywide.
Though I have spoken with hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant students, the following students and their stories are the ones that most stand out in my memory:
A young man who had escaped being murdered in his country. He deeply missed his mother and feared that she would be murdered. He was so sweet and well-mannered that it was hard for me to imagine why a gang would want to murder him.
A young lady who was haunted by memories of living with an abusive family member while her parents were making their way to the United States. The abuse had disfigured her face and her mental state was deteriorating. This young lady will probably need lifelong therapy to recover from her experiences.
A young lady who endured extensive sexual abuse by her cousin while her mother was making her way to the USA. I will never forget her sobbing and moaning in my office, which could be heard by the entire Student Services Department.
A young man who told me that he and his siblings lived with and took care of each other, without their parents, for several years.
A young lady who wept in my office countless times. She first cried about her bitter-sweet memories of living with some family members - some of whom were kind and others who were not - and about her challenging reunion with her mother in the USA. She also described her fears regarding her nine-year old sister making an unaccompanied journey to the USA. Her agony was among the worst I have ever seen in my 29 years of working in schools.
A young man who told me that his worst experience after his very long, dangerous odyssey to the USA was the shame of been stripped naked by strangers upon his arrival.
A young lady who told me crying how she was given only one day notice to get ready to come to the United States.
A DACA student - one of the most inspirational I have ever met - described how she had to move from home to home to protect her little sister from cruel family members as her parents were trying to establish themselves in the USA.
A young lady whose older sister, who had only embarked on the journey to the United States to accompany her, was raped by the coyote in a hotel room next to her. When they arrived in the US, her sister disappeared, and she feared that the coyote had abducted her. This student agonized for weeks until her sister was finally found in an immigration detention center for adults.
These and many more stories have often been told by children who are traumatized from having experienced what no child or adult should ever, ever experience; by children who at some point in their lives have felt abandoned by desperate parents; by children whose parents often see no other way to provide for them but to become undocumented, underpaid, marginal migrant workers in the USA; by children who often have difficult adaptation and family reunification experiences when they finally arrive in the United States; by children who do not feel valued; by children who do not feel that they really belong anywhere.
This administration’s policies have been destructive, not only to children separated from their families or to DACA students, but to all of the millions of “other people’s children” who were gripped by fear on the day after the presidential election. By witnessing what happened to children in similar situations and with similar backgrounds, their awareness of being perceived as the other and less than only intensified. The latest events have added insult to injury for millions of children – American citizens and documented and undocumented immigrants - who have done nothing to deserve it. Decent leaders are merciful with all children. They treat all children as if they could have been their own.
With recent events, the list of discriminatory and racist actions targeting Latino children as “other people people’s children” has grown even longer. The separation of Latino children from their parents without any previous notice may be the cruelest of all. These borderlands children have been brought to a country whose president was elected after conducting an openly bigoted campaign against their human dignity. Having recently arrived from a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, I cannot help but notice the resemblance in the practice of deceiving parents about the whereabouts of their children. As a parent, I cannot imagine a more painful experience than having my children snatched from me and subsequently being kept in the dark about their whereabouts. This is one of the most disturbing elements of our humanitarian crisis: Latino parents were not considered human enough to be told the truth about where their children were being taken; they were denied a fundamental need that we all share as parents, the need to protect, watch over and nurture our children. The cruelty these policies have inflicted on parents is surpassed only by the cruelty inflicted on their innocent children. Yet, as in any humanitarian crisis, compassionate people everywhere have stood up and cried out: “These are not just ‘other people’s children’! These borderlands children could have been our own!”
Athanases, SZ (1998). Diverse learners, diverse texts. Exploring diversity and difference through literary encounters. Journal of Literacy Research, 30 (2), 273-296.
Cabrero, M. (2011). Using borderlands literature to increase interest in literacy in the heritage language: Teacher research with Latino/a students. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest LLC.
Delpit, L. (1995). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press
Nazario, S. (2006, 2013). Enrique’s journey: The story of a boy’s dangerous odyssey to reunite with his mother. New York: Random House Children’s Books.
Oboler, S. (1995). Ethnic labels, Latino lives: The politics of (Re)Presentation in the United States. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Rios, Victor M. (2011). Punished: Policing the lives of Black and Latino students. New York: NYU Press
Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: US-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. Albany: State University of New York Press