In the years that I have used this project, the topics (limited by design to the 20th century) have usually reflected student interest in African-American civil rights heroes and villains, constitutional tragedies and court room successes. The students might study the march from Selma to Birmingham, the story of Rosa Parks, the influence of Thurgood Marshall or the evils of Jim Crow. Some students focus on sports stars or entertainment figures - people like Bill Cosby or Marian Anderson, or Jackie Robinson - pioneers who have made a mark on their separate worlds and opened doors for those who followed. In the current year, however, my classroom population has shifted and a greater number of students with Puerto Rican, Mexican, Dominican or Columbian backgrounds sit around the tables in my room. When these students begin their projects on the Constitution, it becomes sadly apparent that we struggle to find topics. The Latino students have a very difficult time finding a 'notable' person or event for their research that reflects their interests. The African American students quickly discover Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X or Mohammed Ali; the Hispanic students select Roberto Clemente, a wonderful choice, but seemingly the only person they can think of. It becomes obvious that teacher and students don't know very much about the civil rights struggles that happen in Hispanic or Latino communities.
Perhaps the terminology itself has made inclusion of Latino topics difficult. As a teacher, if I am not clear about the concepts and the usage, then how can I open up a conversation in my classroom? I repeat what I said in the first paragraph: "I want the students to think about connections between the past and the present and to see that the American Constitution provides a plan for how government protects 'the people.'
Again, which people?
Who are we talking about? In a unit on Latino civil rights, do we identify Americans by their 'homelands' as in Puerto Rican-Americans or Cuban or Columbian? If the class roster indicates I have eight Hispanic students in my homeroom (and New Haven uses Hispanic as an identifier), I still have no idea where the students come from or even what language might be spoken at home. I need to ask the students or remain in the dark. If I am aware of the distinctions and "divide the different national populations that we have come to call Hispanic into five major groups…"
these groups will include Mexican, Central American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and people from the Caribbean, which also includes Dominicans. Other smaller populations have come from South American countries. In 2004, the US Census Bureau used similar categories saying, "
refers to people whose origin are Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Hispanic/Latino regardless of race."
In 2006, the Census Bureau continues the distinction in the
American Community Survey
with a category separate from "What is this person's race?" that lists additional questions under the heading "Is this person Spanish/Hispanic/Latino?"
I never hear the students in my classroom call each other Hispanic or Latino. They always say they are Puerto Rican or Mexican or Dominican and they are proudly aware of distinctions - in their foods, holidays, and family traditions and even in their use of language. Just recently, an 8th grader spent some time explaining to me how Spanish was different depending on where the person comes from. I could only add that my daughter had studied Castilian Spanish in Salamanca, and that it sounded different from what I heard around the school. He agreed. He also added that, if asked, he preferred to be called "Latino"; another student listening in on the conversation responded that she liked to be called "Hispanic." One student was from Puerto Rico and the other from the Dominican Republic. Neither could explain his thinking behind the choice. Even more so, usage of the terms outside the classroom remains complicated and controversial.
I think it is important to recognize and appreciate the country and culture of origin for any person or topic we might study in this unit. We need to do the same for the students in the classroom. In our neighborhoods, we know that Irish immigrants living up the street come from Ireland and Germans from Germany, but few of us can
say which specific country their Latino neighbor came from! We properly use "Africa" as a geography term and not a political/cultural reference. Why is 'Hispanic' an acceptable umbrella? Aside from being able to deal with a large minority population in a statistical way, why do we continue to cluster so many varied peoples under the term Hispanic or Latino? Hispanic is perhaps more formal, supported by the Census bureau that legitimized its use in the 1980 census with the question, are you of "Spanish/Hispanic origin or descent?" In contrast, "Latino, since it is
a government term, will often be used by grassroots organizations, heritage groups and other community-based initiatives. Sometimes it is used to create a more community-oriented environment."
The terms are useful for broader political and social movements. Before I begin the unit in the classroom, we will talk about these labels. We will consider geography, culture, politics and national identity and we will try to understand
these terms represent. Perhaps we will conclude they can be useful and functional, and move on.