I understand that to hold “courageous conversations” means participating in a tango of lead and follow, learning to shift between my identities as a teacher of color and an activist who vows to change stereotypes about Latinas.
I teach in the heart of my city, Denver West High School. The halls echo with the voices of my parents, mi tias, and mi tios—all former students. I work in one of two turnaround schools now housed in the building. Each day I teach here, I seek to resurrect our culture and show kids that they can be proud of who they are and where they come from.
1969. Protestors chant, “Chicano Power!” Emptying the school halls, students fill the streets with cries against injustice. They are done being labeled “beaners” and “stupid” by their teacher. They are tired of being marginalized.
December 7, 2014, 8:30 pm. The text from school administrators reads, “Emergency assembly tomorrow… before this becomes a bigger problem… walkouts will not be tolerated.”
Will not be tolerated.
Yesterday, I walked with my students as they protested, angry that Darrin Wilson was found innocent in the murder of Michael Brown. Together we were chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot.” I saw them with new eyes—inheritors of the world. And now I am being asked to deliver a message that silences them.
Recalling what I’ve learned about the riots of ‘69, I can almost hear the slurs clinging to my students as others did to their ancestors: “Thugs, punks, ghetto, stupid…”
How can I now be a part of silencing these young people?
I can’t help but think about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Jessica Hernandez. Other young brown people now silenced for good. My students bruise and scrape their way through the turbulence of life in an urban school, living fast and violently–sometimes with far less than most of us could ever endure. I know it takes collective participation to organize against broken systems. And so I want my students to use their voices, to be activists. To change the world.
Long before the events of Ferguson, I was a student advocate, a seeker of justice. But after Michael Brown, I recognize something more: silence is acceptance. I understand that to hold “courageous conversations” means participating in a tango of lead and follow, learning to shift between my identities as a teacher of color and an activist who vows to change stereotypes about Latinas.
This ebb and flow of activism is a dance for my students too. They sway back and forth among their identities: street-smart adolescents, urban learners faced with tremendous odds, young activists, and vulnerable children.
December 8, 2014 – 7:30 a.m. I look out at the faces in the auditorium, and see my comrades in protest. There is so much they need to learn about living—and thriving— in a society dominated by white hegemony. So much I can teach them about “the dance.”
As I prepare to speak, I again hear the voices of the Chicanos of ’69 marching outside the school building: the ghostly cries of the migrant workers paid far less than their worth; of my grandfather fired again for refusing to work another four hours without pay; of my mother slapped on her hands for saying her vocabulary words with an accent; of those downed by tear gas.
“I’m supposed to tell you to stop protesting, and to stay in your classes,” I begin, “and I’m standing here with you, not against you. I too, am angry.” The room grows silent and I pause for a long time, swallowing my tears. “But I also know that you’ve got to know the rules well before you break them. You also need to know what you are up against. You need to be willing and able to be uncomfortable to voice your convictions.”
I tell them, “Your message will have more impact if you organize your protests on your own time, when it’s inconvenient for you, and when the world least expects you to care. I’m supposed to tell you to not protest, and to stay in class. But regardless, I support you.” Silence.
As we begin a new school year, I now see that a line in the sand (rather, on the dance floor) was drawn that day.
Some colleagues joined me at the front of the room. Others have yet to talk to me. Most days, I dance alone.
Meanwhile, a newfound confidence has emerged within many students, as a result of exercising their voices.
For me, being a responsible activist and teacher presents an ongoing dilemma. I want to do what is right, regardless of whom it may make uncomfortable, but at the end of the day, I must still work with and for people who might deem my truth as trouble.
I don’t know what this year will bring—what new dances I may need to practice. I do know that my students are watching. They look on as I negotiate decisions about when my truth as a human being makes it impossible for me as a teacher to remain neutral. I want to help them learn how to dance… and keep on dancing.
Jozette Martinez is a member of CTQ-Colorado’s Culturally Responsive Teaching Project, which is supported by the Denver Foundation.