• magdacabrero

True Justice for Borderlands Children: Latino/a Children's Experiences, Voices & Perspectives

Updated: Dec 31, 2018

“It’s not a comfortable territory to live in, this place of contradictions. Not comfortable but home.” (Gloria Anzaldua, 1999, p. 19)

Borderlands Children or “Ninos de la Frontera”

The term frontera (borderlands), in reference to the Latino experience, generally alludes to the physical frontera (border) which divides Mexico and the USA. Cline and Necochea (2006) quote a teacher of Mexican American children who refers to her students as “los niños de la frontera (children of the borderlands)” (p. 274). That teacher explains, “Los niños de la frontera son un crisol de culturas. Por esta razón, una/o maestra/o debe de disfrutar y aceptar la diversidad de culturas, idiomas, y regiones. (The children in the border are a collection of cultures. For this reason, a teacher needs to enjoy and accept the diversity of cultures, languages, and regions.)” (p. 274). Cline and Necochea (2006) describe borderlands children as children who “frequently need to negotiate two cultures, two languages, and two worlds” (p. 268).

An author who has elevated the term borderlands to a symbolic level is Mexican-American Gloria Anzaldúa (1999) who calls herself a border woman since she grew up between two cultures, “the Mexican (with a heavy Indian influence) and the Anglo (as a member of a colonized people in our own territory)” (p.19). Anzaldúa writes, “The US-Mexican border es una herida abierta (is an open wound) where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds” (p. 19). She divides the term borderlands into physical, psychological, sexual, and spiritual dimensions:

The actual physical borderland that I’m dealing with in this book is the Texas-

U.S. Southwest/Mexican border. The psychological borderlands, the sexual

borderlands and the spiritual borderlands are not particular to the Southwest.

In fact, the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures

edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory,

where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between

two individuals shrinks with intimacy. It’s not a comfortable territory to live

in, this place of contradictions. Not comfortable but home. (p. 19)

While the borderlands experience of Latina/os has been mostly related to the Mexican experience, Esmeralda Santiago’s autobiographical account Cuando era puertorriqueña (When I was Puerto Rican) illustrates the process of acculturation of a young Puerto Rican woman as she moves to the mainland from the island. The main focus of that book involves the problematized identity of a teenager who, in addition to exploring her identity as an adolescent, also struggles to define her borderlands identity. She straddles (Carter, 2005) the language and culture she comes from and the language and culture she moves into.

The linguistic dualism of both Anzaldúa and Santiago is also evident in both their books. As demonstrated in Anzaldua’s phrase, “The US-Mexican border es una herida abierta”, Anzaldúa’s constant use of Spanglish, a combination of English and Spanish within the same sentence, demonstrates the complexity of her borderlands existence. She writes, for example, “la madre naturaleza (mother nature) succored me, allowed me to grow roots that anchored me to the earth” (p.19-20). Some of her verses express that complexity as well:

1,950 mile long open wound

dividing a pueblo, a culture,

running down the length of my body,

staking fence rods in my flesh,

splits me splits me

me raja me raja (splits me, splits me). (p. 24)

In a parallel fashion, Santiago’s dualism is expressed in her prologue as she describes the reasons for the espanglicismos which she calls a language of necessity:

Several years ago, if someone had referred to the many espanglicismos in my

vocabulary, my embarrassment would have left me wordless. Nowadays I

must accept that this language invented by necessity is the one that allows

me to express myself in my own way. When I write in English, I must

translate from the Spanish that is stored in my memory. When I speak in

Spanish, I must translate from the English which defines my present. And

when I write in Spanish, I find myself in the middle of three languages, the

Spanish of my childhood, the English of my adult life, and the espanglés

which crosses from one world to the other just as we cross from our barrio in

Puerto Rico to the barriadas of Brooklyn. (Santiago, 1993, p. xvii, Translated

by Magda A. Cabrero)

In the USA, research of Latino/as’ dual cultural and linguistic experiences has often been limited to mostly Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans (Pahl & Way, 2006; Ruiz & Chavez, 2008). Thus, the experience of many of the more recent immigrants, such as Salvadorians and other Central Americans and Bolivians and other South Americans, remains mostly unexplored. Despite their different national origins, it is possible that many Latino/as may straddle (Carter, 2005) two cultures and languages which are considered to have different degrees of value in the American culture. Latino/as’ heritage culture and language have been considered as colonized by the dominant, colonizer culture and language (Freire & Macedo, 1987; Jimenez, 2002). Nevertheless, while some may speculate that living daily between borders is a negative experience, researchers such as Ainslie (2002), who studies what he calls the borderlands plasticity, see the value and resiliency gained by crossing the borders to often return to one’s roots. In communities that may devalue Latino/a immigrant children, their original cultures and families may help them compensate and add value to their lives.

An important finding by Suarez-Orozco and Suarez-Orozco (1995) has to do with the value generally attributed to family by Latin American immigrants. While it may sound like a stereotype or a cliché, their research does maintain the importance of Latin American familism and its dichotomy with American individualism. The research also validates the importance of family for the emotional wellbeing of Latinos in unwelcoming communities. Moreover, a study by Sabogal (1995) about the effects of acculturalization - process of adaptation while retaining unique cultural markers of language and heritage culture - on attitudinal familism in 452 Latino/as compared to 227 White non-Latino/as, suggests that, despite varied national origins, Latino/as reported similar persisting attitudes towards the value of familism. This finding demonstrated that familism remained a core characteristic of Latino/a immigrants despite the order of generation. The high level of perceived family support remained unchanged despite changes in acculturalization.

The Complex Experiences of Borderlands Children

Latino/a children have often been homogenized as one all-encompassing racial group even though they could come from a variety of racial, socio-economic, educational, linguistic and cultural backgrounds and experiences. Suarez-Orozco and Suarez-Orozco (2000) maintain that the Latino experience is complex. It includes many elements which together combine to determine the academic performance of Latino/a students. These are incoming resources, host culture variables, social support networks, family cohesion, maintenance of culture of origin, peer orientation, teacher expectations, race, gender, student attitudes, perceptions and behavior.

The experiences of Latino/a children in the USA also vary according to the way their families became part of the American minority experience as well as the order of their generation (Suarez-Orozco, Suarez-Orozco & Todorova, 2008). Moreover, they vary according to their perceptions of themselves as immigrant and minority, and whether they lean towards acculturation or assimilation. Children in the same family may have different reactions to and perspectives of similar experiences and explore and assume identities in varied ways.

While some may speculate that living daily between borders is mostly a negative experience, researchers such as Ainslie (2002) who analyzes what he calls the plasticity of borderlands people, see the value and resiliency gained by crossing the borders to often return to one’s roots. And as also suggested by other studies, in communities that may devalue Latino/a children, their original cultures and families may help them compensate and add value to their lives.

My Students’ Contrasting Experiences between Home and School

In the 2009-2010 school year I taught two Spanish for Heritage Speakers classes, level II, at a high school in Fairfax County, Virginia. My total number of students was 43, 23 males and 20 females. With only two exceptions, the parents of all my students were Latin American. Twenty-five students had parents who came from the same Latin American country. The other 16 had parents who came from two different Latin American countries. Thus, for the students whose parents came from different countries, their borderlands experiences became trilateral as they had to negotiate between their bicultural/ binational / bidialectal - even biracial – Latin American heritage and with being a minority immigrant adolescent in American society.

Twenty-six (over half) of my students were 2nd generation American, which means they were born in the USA, but their parents were born in another country. Sixteen students were 1.5 generation which means they had moved to the USA before their teenage years. Only one was 1st generation which means he had recently arrived to the USA as a teenager. My students’ Latin American national backgrounds included the following countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Chile, El Ecuador, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Mexico. The country most represented was El Salvador with 19 students.

With the intention of understanding my students’ perspectives on the similarities and differences between their home and school environments, I asked my 43 students to complete questionnaires about that topic. Regarding cultural experiences, the majority expressed that they lived a dual existence between their heritage culture and American culture. Only a very small number of my students perceived any similarities between their home and school cultures. Slightly more than half (56%) indicated that their home cultures were somewhat different from the school culture, and 39% indicated that their home cultures were very different from the school culture. More 2nd generation (48%) than 1.5 generation students (23%) indicated that their home and school cultures were very different. This fact may illustrate 2nd generation students’ deeper understanding of the American culture, which may impact their perceptions about the contrasting characteristics between their home and school cultures. These data may also demonstrate that, despite the more prolonged time 2nd generation immigrants may dwell in the USA, their home environments still far from resemble mainstream American culture.

Order of Generation: 1st, 1.5, 2nd

Having a borderlands experience may be a common experience between 1st and 2nd generation students. It may also reflect the experiences of children who have grown up in the USA despite their foreign birth. Portes and Rumbaut (2001) characterize the borderlands experience of 1.5 generation children as “combining American culture with the sights and sounds of a history of foreign lands, seeking to balance the pressures of immigrant families and native peers, and striving to fulfill the goals of material success and personal freedom” (p. xviii).

These three groups often experience a lower social class status. They tend to straddle home and school environments which significantly differ culturally and linguistically (Suarez-Orozco, Suarez-Orozco & Todorova, 2008). And individuals in any of those groups may have different cross-cultural identities which demonstrate varied levels of connection to their parental cultural and linguistic identities (Suarez-Orozco, 2005).

First generation immigrants generally use their countries of origin as a point of reference and are often aware of the option of going back if needed. In contrast, 2nd generation immigrants lack that point of reference and belief in that option (Suarez- Orozco, Suarez-Orozco & Todorova, 2008). According to Perez Firat (1994), of the three groups, 1.5 generation immigrants are “translation artists. Tradition bound but translation bent, they are sufficiently immersed in each culture to give both ends of the hyphen their due” (p. 7).

Suarez-Orozco, Suarez-Orozco and Todorova (2008) argue that, while immigrant children initially tend to feel enthusiastic about learning in American schools, a downward trajectory which translates into lower academic engagement starts for many of them by their fourth year in the USA. Some of the factors that contribute to that decline have to do with family structure, parental education, parental employment, and gender (Suarez-Orozco, Suarez-Orozco & Todorova, 2008). Regarding gender, boys tend to experience more blatant acts of discrimination than girls, have teachers who hold lower expectations for them, and are more quickly negatively recruited by the streets. Thus, negative environments impact males more directly. While there is no significant difference between the standardized test scores of female and male students, girls’ GPAs tend to be higher due to their behavioral component (Suarez-Orozco, Suarez-Orozco & Todorova, 2008). Limited parental education and unemployment generally exert a negative impact. And negative family experiences such as divorce or separation of family members who stay behind while others move to the USA tend to cause downward mobility. There may be issues between 2nd and 1.5 immigrant children and their 1st generation parents because of emerging cultural clashes.

Inviting and Listening to The Voices of Borderlands Children

Several scholars who have studied the experiences of Latino/a children in the USA have advocated for or included student voices in their research: Cammarota (2006, 2007); Cammarota & Romero (2006); Dance (2002); Davidson (1996); Freire (1993, 1998, 2005, 2007); Freire & Macedo (1987); Giroux (1988, 1997); Giroux & Simon (1989); Howard (2001); Lee (1999); Nieto (2004); Rodriguez (1982); Suarez-Orozco, Suarez-Orozco & Todorova (2008); Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco (2000); Trueba & Bartolome (2000); and Valenzuela (1999). However, more attention needs to be given to the voices of immigrant children from Latin American countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Bolivians, Peruvians, Hondurans, and Guatemalans, for example, now form a large number in many schools across the USA.

Nieto (2004), one of the strongest advocates for borderlands children, maintains that one must listen to immigrant children who have often expressed the sense of alienation and marginalization they feel in schools. Nieto explains:

Aside from the normal anxieties associated with adolescence, additional pressure for culturally subordinated students may be the result of several factors, including the physical and psychological climate of the schools they attend, the low status their native languages and cultures are accorded in the societies in which they live, the low expectations that society has of them, and their invisibility in traditional curricula. Students are the people most affected by school policies and practices, but they tend to be the least consulted about them. (p. 179)

One powerful example of action research that invites the voices of African American children and should be emulated by researchers of Latino/a children is presented in Studying Your Own School (2007). In this example of student praxis, the African American students become critical about the structural inequalities of their school, and work to transform them. By listening to children, we will access their funds of knowledge and will empower them in the process.

In view of the need to understand the diverse perspectives of Latino/a students from a variety of backgrounds, I invited my 43 students to complete questionnaires, write in journals, and participate in class discussions and focus groups. The perspectives of my students on the borderlands topic fell into three broad categories: conflicts generated from living between two worlds; the split family phenomenon; and perspectives on the 1st, 2nd and 1.5 generation immigration experiences. I have translated the entries from Spanish to English and used pseudonyms to respect the students’ privacy.


Dinaida and Dania expressed some of the conflicts experienced by borderlands students living between two worlds. According to Dania, the eloquent bilingual daughter of a minister, there is always something missing for the borderlands child:

My parents tell me that from age one, I used to travel to El Salvador. I never

went with my parents. I traveled with my grandparents, my uncles

and aunts. My mother tells me that […] I always used to come back speaking with the accent of Salvadorian children. I used to come back as an entirely new

person…each time that I went back to El Salvador I cried while I was going to the airport and while on the plane. I felt that I would miss my beloved ones in the United States …. but when I came back the same thing happened to me. I came sobbing because I felt that I left who I really was there. Even though I was not born in El Salvador, I feel I am from El Salvador. It is in my blood, it runs through my veins. I feel, like India Maria (comedian) says, “I am neither from here, nor from there”. Inside of me there is always a voice that wants to come out. I understand the importance of being bilingual and bicultural in this country but in reality, almost always, only English is the main language. The only places where I feel that I can allow that second person to come out are in Spanish class and at home. I wish I could change that in one way or another. (February 8, 2010)

Dinaida, who was in grief over her father’s recent deportation to Peru, seemed to understand the conflict resulting from acting American while belonging to a Latin American family. She wrote the following about the conflict in Cuando era puertorriqueña:

The conflict of Negi’s mother in Cuando era puertorriqueña is that she [her

daughter] is acting like an ‘americana’. But it is not her fault that she is acting like that. It is the culture. The mother […] does not want her to act as an ‘americana’, because she does not like how they act and dress. (February 8, 2010)

Dania referred to the difference between being, in her words, an immigrant and being americanizada (Americanized):

The child of the immigrant often goes through experiences that are different

from the “gente americanizada” (Americanized people). For example, the culture is different from the “gente americanizada” (Americanized people).

In my experience my parents must meet my female and male friends to

know the kinds of people I hang out with. The people who are “americanizada”

simply go out and that is it. I don’t think that “los padres hispanos” (Hispanic parents) don’t trust their children; they simply protect their children more. (February 8, 2010)

Split Family Phenomenon

Several students had a lot to say regarding the split family phenomenon,

which was illustrated in a movie I showed them: “Under the Same Moon”, about a Latin American child who attempts to reunite with his mother who has emigrated to the USA. Even if they had not directly had that experience like Dinora, many of them knew at least one person who had lived through it. For example, even though Dania had been born in the USA, she knew and sympathized with people who had experienced separation from their family members. In Dania’s words,

I could see and understand how difficult the life of an illegal immigrant is…my friends tell me how they miss their countries, their parents, their family, their friends. You can see in this story what it means to suffer as a result of being an immigrant. (April 19, 2010)

It is interesting to see how she related being an immigrant with being illegal. Perhaps in her experience she had become acquainted with many immigrants who happened to be undocumented.

For 1.5 generation Dinaida, Enid, Francisca and Elmer, the split family syndrome was intimately personal. When I first met Dinaida, she was a sad teenager, as her father had just been deported to Peru. Dinaida wrote in her journal:

I have become introverted. I was expressive before but I have changed. My father was deported; can no longer enter here. Now I cry a lot and I am sad and pretend to be happy when I don’t want anyone to know what happened. Now you know something about me and I hope you will understand why I don’t speak much in your class. (October 5, 2009)

Enid, one of two 1.5 generation sisters of Honduran descent, could clearly identify with the characters in the movie “Under the Same Moon”:

My impressions of “Under the Same Moon” are strange since my mother, father and siblings are immigrants and I remember as if it were yesterday when I came to the USA, that it was very painful for me. I cried like I had never cried before. When I watched the movie for the first time I became sad. It felt as if I had gone through the pain they went through. That is why I don’t like to watch movies like that, since I think that I have gone through the same as the boy. (April 19, 2010)

Francisca, the 1.5 generation female of Peruvian/Venezuelan heritage who admired her immigrant father, wrote:

When I saw this movie for the first time I started to cry because I went through

a similar experience. When my father came to the USA it was very sad for me

and hard not to see him every day. But through the years he could save money to bring me to the USA. And for him that was really hard since he had to work

night and day to make money to be able to bring us. That is why I appreciate all he does for me and my siblings. I don’t plan to get in trouble because he does not deserve that I fail him that way. (April 19, 2010)

For Elmer, the 1.5 generation male from Salvadorian heritage who scored the

highest grade in my class, his childhood experience was like the one of the child in “Under the Same Moon.” In his candid journal entry he wrote the following after watching the movie:

For two years I lived in El Salvador with my aunt. During those years I spent fun time with my cousins. […]. The movie “Under the Same Moon” made me think about my own past. I remember how much I missed my mother. And I used to think like the child in the movie. I thought that she did not love me, but when I grew up I realized that she did. Even though I lived with my aunt and used to see my older sister, it was not the same as having my mother with me. The idea of leaving my whole life in El Salvador made me feel very fearful. I did not know how things were going to be here. When I used to live in El Salvador I did not have to attend school but I was told that when I came to the USA I would have to since that was the law. I felt terribly since I did not want to leave my cousins and could not bring my toys in my suitcase. When the day arrived I felt really sick. When I arrived to the airport, my stomach started aching. I was so afraid that I lost my appetite […]. Then the time came to get into the airplane.

I started to cry. All of my relatives hugged me and said goodbye. I got into the plane with my uncle and cousins. In the airplane I slept several hours. Finally, the airplane landed. There were my mother, brother and sister waiting for me.

(April 19, 2010)

Juan, a second-generation male of Salvadorian origin who slept a lot during

class, not only had family in El Salvador but also helped his mother support them:

I work at McDonalds with my mother. We both work together to pay the rent. Only she and I live in our apartment. In the summer I also I helped her with another job of hers. When I have any money left after paying the rent, my phone, and cable/internet, I send money to my sisters and grandmother in Salvador. I also help other family members. And when I have money left after all that, I deposit it in the bank for school. (October 5, 2009)

Jennifer, a religious female of Salvadorian heritage, was also separated from

her siblings: “I am the only one of my siblings who is in school. They are in El

Salvador” (October 5, 2009).

1st, 2nd and 1.5 Generation Immigrants

Several students shared their thoughts on the last theme: being 1st, 2nd or 1.5 generation immigrants. Their impressions had to do with their own experiences as well as with the experiences of their relatives and other community members. Victoria’s description alluded to the experience of the 1.5 generation immigrant. This quiet but expressive writer of Bolivian descent, wrote:

I don’t consider myself 1st or 2nd generation. I was born in another country but grew up here since I was three years-old. I was adapting to the culture here. But at the same time my parents reminded me of where I come from and what it is like there. The experience impacts the 1st generation at the beginning but little by little they adapt and there is no longer a difference between 1st and 2nd generation. It depends on how your parents bring you up. (February 16, 2010)

Some students such as Melanie, a 2nd generation female of Salvadorian and Bolivian heritage who liked the food her mother made when her relatives came to visit, considered the experience of the 2nd generation to be easier than the one of the 1st generation immigrant. She wrote,

For many immigrants it is difficult to learn English and, for lack of interest to learn or for lack of an education, they make themselves known as ‘chents’. For immigrants of 2nd generation, it is totally different. They grow up learning English and adopt much of the American culture. (February 16, 2010)

Regarding the problems faced by 1st generation immigrants, Ana, a 2nd generation female who was mourning the death of her Bolivian grandfather, wrote,

Children give bad names to immigrants like “chents” […]. I liked the movie [“Under the Same Moon”]. The message was important, to never lose faith. It demonstrated that life is really hard and even harder for immigrants. Many things can happen; police can send you to your country of origin, someone can use you, you can’t find work, and, when you find a job, it is not what you want and they don’t pay you well. (April 19, 2010)

Other students saw lack of appreciation in 2nd generation immigrants as a problem. Ana wrote the following:

First generation immigrants appreciate that they can have a good education. Sometimes 2nd generation people do not care and do not appreciate it like the ones of 1st generation. (February 16, 2010)

Carlos, a 2nd generation male of Guatemalan and Vietnamese heritage, expressed that 1st generation immigrants have a “stronger will” than 2nd generation immigrants who have more opportunities but don’t always take advantage of them. He wrote that: “If someone from 1st generation had the opportunity to attend college, they would take it while someone from 2nd generation would not be as interested” (February 16, 2010).

Enrique, the only 1st generation student, perceived the growing gap between the experiences of immigrant children and their parents as conflicting: “The parents and children develop different beliefs and the children change the manners that were taught by their parents” (February 16, 2010).


We need to invite and truly listen to the voices of borderlands children in order to understand and know how to best accommodate for the complexity of their experiences. We also need to validate these students’ heroism and resilience. Instead of ignoring borderlands children’s home experiences, bridges should be built between home and school. There is enough conflict in Latino/a children’s lives; yet there is a wealth of powerful experiences and possibilities to build upon. We should aim to draw from their strength as we empower them and aim to instill in them a sense of belonging in the process. We should place their borderlands experiences more at the center of the curriculum; this way school will seem more meaningful and engaging. We should help alleviate the complexity of Latino/a children’s experiences; not further complicate it.

In my own experience, I have found important information when I have listened to what students have to say. I am generally surprised at the resiliency of students whose lives are far from ideal; at the initiative and strong volition of their families who sometimes risk it all to move to this country. I am also surprised by the high resiliency that many families provide to their children; but also, at the families that separate due to deportation, hardships, or having to move separately. I am often saddened at the people who eventually give up the language and culture that they initially valued so much. I am impressed by the strength of people who have resisted discrimination through generations, and, despite it all, have achieved certain kind of professional progress and personal freedom. Most of all, I believe that we must continue drawing upon the agency of borderlands children … so, school life, while still full of contradictions and never utterly comfortable, may feel more like home.


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