"Make it relevant" is an oft-heard cry among educators. Not only are teachers charged with the responsibility to make their lessons rigorous, aligned with state and district standards, but we must also make them relevant and engaging, as well. As an eighth grade United States history teacher, this can often seem nearly impossible, yet it is something I strive for nearly every day. Little do my students realize that their grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, neighbors, and even themselves all have stories to tell that address one of the most central themes of American history: immigration.
I was at best naïve and at worst critically uninformed when I began my teaching career in New Haven some years ago. I assumed that the overwhelming majority of my students would be African-American. I guessed that there would be a sizeable number of Puerto Rican students, as well. However, my main focus was on how to best represent African-American history. I never considered the histories of the other students sitting in my classroom, nor had I considered the damage being done to my Latino students in my complicit cooperation with the dominant belief in mainstream America history that Latinos have little or no part in it. I also failed to realize the degree to which my Puerto Rican students, in particular, were being denied even the most basic access to information about their culture and history.
I did not realize, either, that I would wind up teaching at Fair Haven Middle School. As I mentioned previously, Fair Haven is a high-poverty school with a nearly one hundred percent minority student population. Of that population, nearly eighty percent is Latino. Of those that are Latino the majority remains Puerto Rican, but there are a growing number of Mexicans, Central Americans, and Dominican students represented in that number, as well. Fair Haven Middle School is an iconic building nearly halfway down Grand Avenue. Not only does the building physically serve as a focal point of the neighborhood, its student population reflects the changing demographics of the neighborhood, as well. Its imposing clock tower stands tall over the building and our school principal is often fond of saying that it is our job as educators to let everyone in the community know what time it is. The only problem with that, of course, is that when I began teaching in Fair Haven, I had only a limited knowledge of exactly whom that community represented.
Unfortunately, many of my students seem to have a limited understanding of that community, too. According to recent census data, Connecticut is home to the sixth-largest Puerto Rican community in the United States
. A significant number of these live in New Haven, where it is estimated that 21.4% of the total population is Latino. Nowhere is this more evident that in the Fair Haven neighborhood. However, that population is far from homogenous. Among Fair Haven's Latino community, one finds Mexicans, Cubans, Dominicans, and a rising number of Central and South Americans. In fact, in the ten years between the 1990 and 2000 census, New Haven's Mexican population exploded by 364%
. The changing demographics of the Latino community in Fair Haven has created new businesses along Grand Avenue and enhanced the vibrancy of the community. However, it has also created tensions, as well. My Puerto Rican and African-American students are quick to view their Mexican students negatively, to the point where the words immigrant and Mexican are used as "put downs."
The issues of immigration, migration, and ethnic identity are difficult to ignore in the middle of a community such as Fair Haven. The Puerto Rican students, in particular, are fiercely proud of their heritage, even if many of them know very little about it. Their United States history textbook mentions Puerto Rico on four pages in the entire book, completely ignoring the fact that the island is the oldest and most profitable colony the United States has ever possessed
. Because of this, all too many times when my classes have been studying various aspects of United States history, one of my Latino students will inevitably ask: "Where were we?" The question means, of course, where is our story? How are we included in this narrative? If we aren't included in this story, then why not? What was happening in Puerto Rico or Mexico at the time?
In short, each and every one of my students, regardless of their racial or ethnic background, wants to be included in the sweeping story that is United States history. One cannot downplay the importance of seeing one's culture reflected in their learning in school. While some districts, New Haven being one, now prize their Latino students' bilingualism, there is still little time given to Latino culture and history, yet much attention is given to ensuring African-American history is highlighted throughout the school year. While it is important that all groups be given representation, it is troubling that Latinos are still viewed as second-class citizens, if they are even viewed at all.
Thus, there are numerous issues at play in my seemingly humble eighth grade classroom. My students thirst to know about their own history and it is becoming increasingly imperative that they begin to understand more about each other's, as well. It is only education that will teach my students not to fear each other and their differences, but rather to cherish them. All of my students, regardless of their racial or ethnic background, represent the twenty-first century reality of the Fair Haven community, as well as the reality all over the United States. Therein lies the motivation for an oral history project documenting the twenty-first century face of the Fair Haven neighborhood.