Letter to the Editor: Charting the Future for Latino Students

Gerardo Vazquez, Community Member

Over the last few weeks, immigrant communities have been front and center in the national dialogue, where their situations are discussed in televised debates and impassioned op-eds. But if you’re wondering where to find the most fascinating, most nuanced, most compelling conversations on the topic, don’t look to CNN or the blogosphere. To find those, you’d have to visit room 237 at Chalmette High School in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. There, my students ask big questions, propose bold ideas and model what it will take to chart the more equitable, more inclusive future they deserve.

When I decided to center my lessons this month on the American Dream, I never anticipated just how eagerly my students would dive into the material — lesson learned. Last week, we had a fascinating debate about whether American-born Hispanics are truly American or would be “forever hyphenated.” The week before that, I poured over their impassioned, principled draft letters to Donald Trump, wondering if I could actually get them in Mr. Trump’s hands. And one of the best days we’ve had all year revolved around a reading of Pat Mora’s poem “Legal Alien” — a work of one of many Latino authors we’ve been reading to help take our conversation further still. As I watch them devour the content, I’m reminded of exactly why I began this work. If we want to live in a more inclusive America, we need to be a part of building it.

As a teacher, I get more of an opportunity to do this than most. I get to see what students are capable of when they get the supports they need. I get to share these stories about my students and their inspiring families. I get to reflect on all the things that made my own road to college possible. I was born in the United States but my parents don’t speak English. I was 7 years old before I learned. Needless to say, this made school a challenge. If not for my family and the educators in my life, I would not be standing at the front of the classroom I’m now proud and privileged to lead. 

Every day, those of us in schools grapple with two realities — the tremendous progress we’re making and the tremendous work left to be done. My students, for example, inspire me with their tenacity, wit and humor, even as I find myself frustrated by a system not equipped to support them. Today, Latinos lag behind their white counterparts in achievement — reading, writing, performing in math and graduating high school at lower rates. These challenges are particularly acute for English language learners. This has nothing to do with ability or will. It’s a direct reflection of systemic gaps in educational opportunity according to race, class and zip code. With our country’s demographic moving towards majority minority, unless we address these gaps, we will soon be living in a world where the majority of students are behind.

As an educator, I get the chance to make a direct impact. This chance helps keeps my focus on what it will take to make change in my lifetime, instead of getting distracted by the latest political gaffe or policy scandal of the moment. As a result, I devote my energies to striving for excellence in my instruction  locating resources far and wide, traveling to other schools and states to observe excellence and bring back best practices for my students, engaging with the school board to think beyond the four walls of my classroom to the needs of our district as a whole.

As the national debate rages on, we all have a choice to make. We can watch from the sidelines, or we can get in the game. Our students are in it  they don’t have a choice. Their families are, too. Let’s be the advocates and activists and Americans they need us to be. Most importantly, let’s empower them to do the same.

Gerardo Vazquez, Tulane class of 2012, is a Teach For America corps member in the Greater New Orleans area. He majored in History, with a double minor in Spanish and Latin American Studies and teaches English and ESL at Chalmette High School in Chalmette, Louisiana.