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  • Writer's picturemagdacabrero

True Justice for Lost Borderlands Youth:

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

Facilitating Reconnection, Validation and a Healthy Sense of Identity

in Their Labyrinthic Journeys

“The recipes, the herbs and the cures; the music and the songs and the dances; the prose and the poems, the sorrows, the joys; the gain, the loss. This is my legacy. But I am old and failing. I entrust it to you lest it be lost and forgotten.” (Preciado Martin, 1993, p. 36)

He was hunted by nostalgia. His yearning to explore the history of his ancestors in a land he barely knew was unmatched among all of my students. His need to understand and connect to his roots overwhelmed and made him sad. It was as if he could only intuit what he was really made of, who he really was. He was going through hard times struggling to transition between the life of a marginal with oppositional tendencies and the engaged life of a student with academic potential. His negative self-perception needed transformation. His tortured soul was lost in the labyrinth of his young life’s odyssey. He needed to find his center, his inner spring, through a journey to a past, a vital part of his essence, he barely knew.

He was the kind of student who could get to my core, who challenged me to grow out of my comfort zone as a teacher and human being, to climb out of the prisons I choose to live inside. He was filled with as much suffering as potential for greatness. I decided to include him in my circle of cariño (caring, loving kindness) to help him develop his voice and agency, and facilitate the exploration of his ancestry and identity. I wanted him to reencounter the most pristine part of his nature and gain a more resilient sense of identity.

Because of his college potential, this bright tenth-grader was in the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program and was taking several Advanced Placement classes. Advanced Placement History was his favorite. He expressed: I want to learn about Mayans and Aztecs. I feel connected because it is my culture; I am Mexican, Mayans love art. American history is boring, not enough background or ancient history. I like to read about what people are capable of doing; genocide and all of that. Some people break down and cry about it, but it happens. Not me. People make decisions that affect the whole world”.

Early in the school year he let me know he did not like reading. Still, I believed that there ought to be one book out there, meant to serve as a vehicle to transport him through an ancestral journey that would help satisfy his yearning. In his zone of proximal development, I understood my role as the one of a facilitator of literary encounters that could evolve into liberating partnerships between my student and text. His developing heightened social and reader identities seemed imperative so my quest to find him the right book started. After it became clear that he did not like fiction I found him one about Latin American history which included Aztec and Mayan history. In an essay that was the longest of any of my students and by far his best in the year, this young man wrote a detailed account of the history of his Guatemalan and Mexican ancestors based on that book.

Of all of my forty-five students that year this young man had the hardest time completing a project about social identity, “that part of the individual self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership” (Tajfel & Turner, p. 255). For that project students were required to provide at least eight visual and written representations of how they perceived themselves. They were to provide at least one cultural or national representation and one linguistic representation. My goal for that project was facilitating my students’ identity exploration and construction. I meant for them to redefine their own sense of identity, critically questioning the way they had been identified by mainstream American society.

In my typical nagging fashion, I asked this young man many times to hand in his project without any success. Finally, I asked him fully knowing the answer, “Why can’t you do this project?” He answered in his characteristic straightforward manner: “Because I have heard so many bad things about me that now I don’t really know what to say about myself”. I was not surprised about his answer since in a journal entry in which I had asked my students to explain how they identified, he had written: “I identify as a ‘hispano’ or ‘latino’ since both for me mean the same. People identify me as ‘bruto’ (brute), ‘maleante’ (criminal), gangster and all of those labels. But I don’t care. I am who I am and don’t care about what anyone says about me. I also identify as a worker since when I like to accomplish something, I do a good job”. I told him at least three good things I perceived in him and made some recommendations about how to turn his violent tendencies into something positive. The next day he finally handed in his project which demonstrated a great deal of exploration and profound thinking about himself.

In our school’s curriculum, it was not easy for this young man to encounter meaningful books whose characters reflected his life experiences and cultural attributes, who would be helpful in his identity exploration. He was more motivated to read about characters who exemplified marginalization. For another independent reading assignment, he chose to read the biography of Tupac Shakur which he found in our school’s library. He wrote in his journal: “Some similarities between Tupac and me are that we grew up in poverty, listened to music, knew people with special kinds of jobs. We ran out of home and used to get into a lot of problems”. Tupac Shakur, who was killed at the age of 25, was a rapper whose songs had to do with “growing up amid violence and hardships in ghettos, racism, other social problems and conflicts with other rappers […]” (Wikipedia). Tupac personifies the experiences that many traditionally marginalized students identify with. These students are barely ever provided the chance of motivating literary encounters with characters that reflect and validate their experiences in texts that bridge onto their schools’ curricula.

I also guided my student’s heritage language exploration. In a journal entry where I asked my students to express their thoughts about their language expression and their heritage language, he demonstrated his clear preference for diglossia – speaking two languages without combining them: “For me Spanglish is for the ignorant because that is what I learned when I was a child. I was also taught that being bilingual is better than simply speaking one language. Thanks to my parents I can speak in Spanish well even though I still need to improve it. Being able to speak two languages is good since I can understand both English and Spanish well, and I can speak, read, and write in both languages”.

I appreciated this young man’s communication style with me. While other students often told me what they thought I wanted to hear, he was blunt and candid, almost oppositional at times. In our growing relationship this allowed me to be equally blunt and candid. The day I found out how heavily he was still immersed in delinquency I went to talk to him. At that time, I was still upset about the imprisonment of one of my students. Among many things, I told him, “Young people who do bad things are not bad people yet. You are still on time to grow into a good adult.” I also bluntly said: “So you mean that I will also have to visit you in jail like I have to do with (my incarcerated student’s name)? Because I will not give up on you.” Then he said crying: “My mother abandoned me.” I could not help but cry with him. My words would never be able to bring his mother back or heal his deep wound. Deep listening and empathy were all that he needed in that unforgettable moment that transformed me out of my self-imposed confinements.

Loss of Connection and Sense of Value for Heritage

This young man exemplifies some borderlands youth, especially second-generation youth born in the United States from immigrant parents, who have lost connection to their roots[MC1] and yearn value for themselves, their communities and their heritage. In their childhoods they have bought into marginalizing stereotypes and labels about themselves that, if unexplored, can permanently damage them. His yearning fits Pahl and Way’s (2006) description of “… adolescents who are of a later generation may feel a need to reconnect with their origins and feel greater affirmation and belonging than immigrants who are trying to assimilate to the host culture” (p. 1405).

Portes and Rumbaut (2001) express concern about the lives of some second-generation culturally subordinated borderlands children:

“Relative to the first generation, the process of ethnic self-identification of second-generation children is more complex and often entails the juggling of competing allegiances and attachments. Situated within two cultural worlds, they must define themselves in relation to multiple reference groups (sometimes in two countries and in two languages) and to the classifications into which they are placed by their native peers, schools, the ethnic community, and the larger society.” (p. 150)

Portes and Rumbaut divide the second-generation immigrant experiences into three categories. Consonant acculturation has to do with parents and their children acculturating and learning English at a similar pace. Downward assimilation takes place when parents don’t acculturate and learn English at the pace of their children. This causes role reversal in which the parent loses control over the child. Downward assimilation also tends to occur in the absence of a supportive community that helps the family maintain the integrity of its heritage culture and language. Students experiencing downward assimilation may live bonds of solidarity that, far from helping them succeed academically, pull them away from advancement:

“Reactive ethnicity is a ‘made-in- America product’- basis for collective solidarity […]. Youthful solidarity based on opposition to the dominant society yields an adversarial stance toward mainstream institutions, including education” (p. 285).

Fast assimilation is unhealthy for children and their families. They propose that selective acculturation is the ideal experience for immigrant families. When children selectively acculturate, they are fluently able to move between the world of their parents and the world of their schools. They can experience and select the values of both cultures. They are bilingual which allows them to continue communicating fluidly with their parents as they learn the new language. They also have been able to explore and identify with the valuable aspects of their cultural background and histories. Their identity is enriched and does not suffer.

Research has also explored the conscious or unconscious denial of one’s heritage culture and language to assimilate to the dominant culture and language. The students who choose the colonizer over the colonized identity run the risk of suppressing a major part of their identity. According to Nieto (2008), students for whom assimilation would mean suppressing a major part of their identity need to become bicultural for the sake of survival. The colonization of a major source of identity for Latino/a children, for example, may be extremely detrimental for them and may impact their self-esteem and academic achievement. This form of colonization is often seen in schools whose subtractive practices do not build on the cultural and linguistic experiences of those students and do not help them to explore or redefine the colonized parts of their identities.

Vigil (1988) explains that one of the most challenging tasks for children of Latino/a immigrants is developing a positive sense of identity:

“Language inconsistency at home and school, a perceived gap in the status of their parents and the quality of their environment and those of the larger society, and thedangers and attractions of barrio streets create an ambiguity in their ethnic identity. Parents and older siblings are often unable to effectively guide youngsters in ways to reconcile the contrasting cultural worlds, and this results in an uneven adoption of acculturative strategies.” (p. 41)

All the challenges mentioned above combine with the need for refuge and belonging as causes for cultural transitional youngsters to join gangs, which occurs more commonly among second-generation Latino/as, according to Vigil. When students are ready to explore their social identity, complications can result if they find that the people they are closest to are not valued by the dominant culture. Nieto (2004) explains:

“Aside from the normal anxieties associated with adolescence, additional pressure forsubordinated students may be the result of several factors, including the physical and psychological climate of the schools they attend, the low status theirnative 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.” (p. 179)

Another detrimental factor to student emotional wellbeing and academic achievement may be when students develop an oppositional identity. According to Suarez-Orozco, Suarez-Orozco & Todorova (2008), first and second-generation immigrant students may develop oppositional identities if they experience discrimination and feel alienated from the mainstream educational culture. This oppositional identity may trigger an oppositional stance against certain aspects of American culture and institutions. However, their oppositional identity does not necessarily oppose academic values. On the contrary, immigrant youth tend to value receiving a good education. But a great number of these young people “in turn disconnect from their studies, finding their schoolwork boring, constricting and irrelevant to their lives” (p. 215). Sadly, many immigrant students attend schools which don’t nurture an academic identity. Through the years, “academic improvement was the exception, not the rule” (p. 261).

Racialization and Labels

The racialization of the Latino ethnicity in the USA has also impacted many young people. Gans (2007) has explored the dichotomy between ethnic identity and racial identification. While ethnic identity may be personal and private, the identification as a racial being is imposed on a person by society and it eventually impacts the child’s racial identity. Once Latino/a children become aware of the way they are racially identified by society, their race might then turn into a problematic part of their identity. Cross (1991) alludes to the detrimental effect that racial identification by society may have on the developing identity of nonwhite children because those children start internalizing the negative perceptions of others.

The way Latino/a students are identified (Cross, 1993; Gans, 2007) through labels may also impact their sense of identity. Portes and Rimbaut (2001) argue that there is a strong connection between identity and labeling:

“Ethnic identification begins with the application of a label to oneself in a cognitive process of self-categorization, involving not only a claim to membership in a group or category but also a contrast of one’s group or category with other groups or categories. Such self-definitions also carry affective meaning, implying a psychological bond with others that tends to serve psychologically protective functions.” (p. 151)

Labels attributed to Latino/as may have a negative impact on their sense of social identity. Rumbaut (1996) argues that immigrant students’ self-esteem may be influenced by the way they are labeled at schools. For example, he found that the label “Limited English Proficient” negatively impacts the way immigrant students feel about themselves. Oboler (1995) argues that labels which are supposedly simply meant to socially categorize groups of people, stigmatize the very people they categorize. Accordingly, Oboler suggests that the label Hispanic not only stigmatizes Latino/as but also is limited in that it does not acknowledge the rich diversity of Latino/a students’ origins and histories of introduction to the United States.

Exploration to Find Value in the Side that Has Been Forgotten, Suppressed or Denied

Assimilation for most of American history has resulted in the denial or the forgetting of the elements of society which do not belong to the White Anglo-Saxon, protestant culture, and language. Thus, assimilation to being monolingual and monocultural may represent a form of self-denial for people who live bicultural/tricultural and bilingual/trilingual existences. Research has demonstrated the value of remaining connected to the minority part of oneself, of not forgetting it, in order to gain resilience and self-worth (Dance, 2005).

In the process of assimilation to the American culture, borderlands students may eventually distance themselves, start forgetting, or suppress their heritage language and cultures. Helping them remember and become reacquainted with their heritage language and culture, may help them compensate and add value to their lives and provide for a more positive sense of identity. In their existences between the white dominant culture and their families’ cultures and languages, they need to explore and gain a higher opinion of the side that has been forgotten, suppressed, or denied.

Some studies have shown the benefits for immigrant children when they are well versed on their ancestral origins. For example, Caplan, Choy and Whitmore’s (1992) inquiry on Asian students led them to conclude that, for those students, keeping their ancestral knowledge made a difference. The students who kept in contact with their ancestral knowledge succeeded academically and even performed better than their more affluent peers. Moreover, Machado-Casas (2009) interviewed Indigenous Latin American immigrants who expressed that forgetting their languages would be like losing their identities; that passing on their languages to younger generations served as an important source of survival. In that study the researcher found a strong connection between heritage language, culture, and identity.

Giroux (1992) has explained the importance of the language of remembrance when it comes to the educational reform of minority youth:

“[…] educational leaders need to be skilled in the language of remembrance.

Remembrance rejects knowledge as merely an inheritance, with transmission

as its only form of practice. Remembrance sees knowledge as a social and

historical construction that is always the subject of struggle.” (p. 10)

Of all the legacies, the heritage language is of utmost importance. According to Portes and Rumbaut (2001), immigrant students go through a language dilemma: “[…] the languages they bring are close to their sense of self and national pride. On the other hand, those languages clash with the new environment” (p.113). Portes and Rumbaut argue that, of all the important legacies, while language may be the most important to keep, it may be the most difficult to transmit from generation to generation. Students who are going through the English acquisition process may feel that English has more cultural capital and may quickly start focusing on learning English instead of maintaining or continuing to remember their Spanish (Freeman, 2000; McCollum, 1999; Potowski, 2007). Also, students have shown to resist using their heritage language over English (Freeman, 2000). Other students feel much more comfortable speaking Spanglish (Chappell & Faltis, 2007; Sayer, 2008).

Social Identity Exploration: Constructing, Negotiating, Redefining of the Social Self

Instead of passively accepting the way society has identified them, borderlands students should be encouraged to explore, construct, negotiate, or redefine their own cultural meanings and identities. Some students may also prefer to distance themselves from adhering to an ethnic identity and focus more on their national identity. Portes and Rumbaut refer to four types of identity that second-generation immigrant children may adopt: foreign national-origin identity; hyphenated American identity; plain American national identity without a hyphen; and panethnic minority-group identity. A hyphenated American identity may be in a combination with another national identity such as Salvadorian-American or a panethnic identity such as Hispanic-American. Panethnic minority-group identity has to do with belonging to an ethnic group such as Latino or Hispanic which encompasses a group of different Latin American national origins. Portes and Rumbaut suggest that the sense of identity of immigrant students is not fixed as it tends to change according to the experiences they encounter: “The shift, therefore, has not been toward mainstream identities but toward a more militant reaffirmation of the immigrant identity for some groups and toward panethnic minority-group identities for others.” (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001, p. 157)

Even though in his journal entry he claimed not to care, it seems to me that this young man may have been seriously impacted by the way mainstream American society identified and labeled him. Through the self-labeling project I asked my students to do, I meant to guide their exploration and construction of their own self-labels. This in turn could impact their academic achievement. Zarate, Bhimji and Reese’s (2005) study explores the impact of self-labeling on academic achievement. These researchers conducted open interviews to study the relationship between ethnic labels and the academic achievement of 79 Latino/a students, 78% of whom were born in the United States. The subjects they interviewed were part of a 15-year-old longitudinal study. What Zarate, Bhimji and Reese found was that students who only stuck to one ethnic label and/or did not offer a national or cultural explanation for the label they chose, tended to have lower academic achievement. On the other hand, the students who identified with several ethnic labels and offered an explanation based on the place they and their parents were born, their roots, background, and cultural heritage, tended to perform better in school.

This young man’s yearning came at a time that research has suggested is typical. Phinney (1989; 1993) argues that for most youth, the time to explore their social identity is when they are going through middle adolescence or about the time they are in 10th grade. According to Phinney’s model of ethnic identity development, the stages of social identity include unexamined, moratorium or search and achieved or committed. School literary practices could be powerful venues for this exploration.

Building Less Resistant Readers through a More Meaningful Bridged Curriculum

Vyas (2004) argues that literacy can serve as an important source of exploration, construction and expression of identity. He suggests that there is a bidirectional relationship between literacy and identity. An individual’s sense of identity influences the process of becoming literate and adopted reading behaviors and, vice versa, the experiences with literacy shape the individual’s sense of identity.

Literature that mirrors borderlands youth in a positive way seems to have a beneficial impact on their sense of identity. In an ethnographic study that examined the implementation of a multiethnic literature curriculum in two urban 10th-grade classrooms, Athanases (1998) found that students often experienced a heightened sense of pride and identity validation when they could identify culturally with people and events within literary works. Rosenblatt (1995) also suggested that the relationship between literature and students’ cultural identity calls for more exploration. She added that students need a variety of contexts in which they can explore the relation between literature, culture, and identity.

A researcher who proposed alternative literary contexts to engage traditionally marginalized students was Moje (2000), who argued that the literacy practices of marginalized adolescents should not be consigned to a category of mere resistance or deviance. The researcher suggested that “practitioners need to acknowledge the power of unsanctioned literacy in the lives of marginalized youth and develop pedagogies that draw from, but also challenge and extend, those practices” (p. 652).

In an effort to convert resistant readers into less resistant ones, Leslie (2008) conducted an action research project in which she used literature that was not school sanctioned. Leslie argued that students can explore their own marginalized positionalities by using non-school reading material as a bridge between dominant and non-dominant forms of discourse. For her methodology she did discourse analysis of the conversational transcripts of six students who met with her weekly throughout one school year. The data suggested that “reading texts from a critical stance requires students to take on resistant discourse patterns” (p. 189), and that “…school-driven definitions of literacy need to be reexamined in light of adolescents’ authentic literacy practices” (p. 178).

Leslie’s main contribution consists of demonstrating how schools can implement alternative ways to inspire traditionally marginalized students to read. Schools also need to develop their critical literacy and find alternative ways to represent their multiple identities in positive ways. I remember when my school’s librarian asked me to supply a list of classical works of Spanish literature. I commended her for what she was trying to do but also told her that my resistant readers would probably benefit more from reading books that reflected their marginalized lives.

As I looked at Leslie’s criteria for her students to be considered at-risk, I discerned how many students in my school could be considered at-risk because of their eligibility for free/reduced lunch, failing a state-mandated standardized test, difficult immigration experiences, probation, attendance issues, families in crises, failing two or more classes, and/or the probability of dropping out of school. A standard curriculum and literary practices that do not reflect the lives of these students – a large number across the schools in northern Virginia, for example – commonly generate disengaged students, the ones who are punished the most.


This young man needed much more than a lesson in Spanish. He needed to explore his social identity through a liberating curriculum that would help him heal and find himself in his torturing labyrinth. He needed literary experiences that shed light on the lives of literary characters or real people who did not only reflect his marginal life, but also validated his own experiences. He needed a curriculum that empowered him through bridging practices that placed him more at the center. He needed a curriculum that did not treat him like “other people’s children”. His internalization of the inferior value of his ethnicity, culture, heritage language and funds of knowledge debilitated him. Perhaps it was easier for him to go oppositional than lose face.

Like many students who have tremendous academic potential and should be destined for greatness, he needed a teacher. As many teachers who do this day in and day out, I did all I could to be there in his zone of his proximal development, to include him in my circle of cariño. I often remember the account by Victor Rios, author of Punished. When he was a troubled teenager and on the same day that his best friend was murdered in front of him, he ran to his teacher, took refuge in her embrace and cried. She stepped out of her comfort zone, made him commit to becoming academically engaged, and helped him graduate. She invited him to her circle of cariño. He did not only graduate from high school but also earned a Ph.D. He is now a college professor and author who advocates for lost youth like he once was.

Soon after the conversation in which he cried, this student I will never forget abandoned delinquent life. When I saw him at a school event volunteering for his AVID program, he told me “I am trying to improve, I don’t want to go to jail.” I replied enthusiastically, “You will not go to jail!” I was glad to hear that not too long afterwards, after much keeping on at it, he finally convinced his father to take the family to Central America. He visited the Mayan ruins in Guatemala, the country of half of his heritage.

A few years after he graduated from high school, he came to visit me. He was in college facing some obstacles but with the goal of becoming a child psychologist. The Advanced Placement Psychology class he had taken before he graduated from high school taught by a highly understanding and caring teacher helped him heal and become passionate about psychology.

I often think about this young man who challenged me to become a better teacher. I wonder if he is now a child’s psychologist helping youth who yearn for a sense of connection, validation and self-worth; youth who feel lost in the labyrinth of their American odysseys.


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