As a Puerto Rican growing up in New Mexico, I have constantly felt the lack of opportunities to explore my cultural identity throughout my 10 years of public school in Santa Fe. Although New Mexico is a minority-majority state, there is a history of colonization through school systems across the United States that continues to be oppressive toward people of color today.
In my sophomore year, I have learned much more about my Puerto Rican culture and heritage — but only through my own will to do so and by twisting the rules of my history projects. Realizing this and seeing what many of my other friends were going through made me see how many schools in New Mexico are culturally ignorant. There are teachers using slurs or derogatory terms, calling cultural foods and practices weird, and even students taking part in the erasing of culture and the presence of ignorance.
Cultural ignorance within the American school system isn’t a new thing and definitely is not exclusive to New Mexico. My father from Puerto Rico went to school in an orphanage in Chicago. His first language was Spanish, and he left elementary school never having been taught English.
“When I got there, I didn’t know how to speak English,” he said. “When I left, I didn’t know how to speak Spanish. … You lose your culture; language is pivotal to one’s culture.”
This poor experience has left my dad very insecure in his Spanish speaking, often leaving his true identity at the door while socializing. He said in school, his teachers thought he was developmentally disabled because he didn’t know how to speak English and would hit him. It was, in his words, “a total erosion process.”
These methods of physically assaulting students for not speaking English seem like they haven’t been legal in many, many years, but in reality, this was only about 50 years ago. Although corporal punishment is used far less in schools to oppress people of color and their culture, this harmful but often forgotten history is still very relevant in our schools today, just in different ways. According to ProPublica, Black students are four times more likely to be suspended than white students. Often as a result, the students who get suspended may become a part of what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline that pushes students out of classrooms and into criminal legal systems.
Students have voiced they leave their true cultural identity at the door when entering class, including one of my Indigenous classmates and a good friend of mine.
“The times I’ve seen or experienced cultural ignorance in schools in Santa Fe, it’s been in a very much ‘say it politely but still say it’ kind of way,” he said.
Recently, there has been an act of casual racism in my school that reached many on social media: A student posted an edited photo of a poster advocating for attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women. It originally read, “We fight for those who can ‘t,” editing it to read, “We fight for hoes who can’t.”
This is a blatant act of casual racism and misogyny, and students felt our school didn’t do anything until it started to get a larger reach on social media platforms. My friend went on to elaborate on other instances where he’s felt the cultural ignorance in our school, including being told “that is such a fit” or “those costumes are really pretty” when dressed in traditional attire, or being told “you’re very articulate,” by students and teachers with a whitewashed lens on the history of Native Americans.
Many classmates and friends of mine are tired of having to educate their teachers and classmates on common decency when it comes to racism and cultural respect. We’ve voiced that we are tired of it.
How can our education system do so well at teaching us about white history, Christianity and even detail the life of another country’s long-dead king and his six wives, yet fail us so greatly when it comes to common decency of respecting people of color and their culture?