I left Mexico for the United States more than 15 years ago to start a family. I entered the country legally, and I am now an American citizen. Departing Mexico entailed a painful process to pack up my family memories, my música, my comida and my language. Once here, I quickly realized that my strong accent was very noticeable. People would talk to me in English and after hearing my response, they would ask where I came from. I felt that I got different treatment than those whose English speech was clearer and carried no accent.
It wasn’t until I had my first child and watched her grow and develop that I decided to become an educator. I got a job at a child care center and my professional life took a 360-degree turn. It has been through my own path to becoming a teacher and my work as a bilingual early childhood educator that I have learned how to deal with discrimination because of my language, gender and cultural background.
Which is why I was appalled when President Trump decided to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and when he recently requested a slew of hard-line immigration measures in order to protect the Dreamers. I am concerned about the future of young kids whose cultural and linguistic richness is needed in our classrooms. I am concerned with the 228,000 children ages 7-14 who would have been eligible for DACA at the age of 15 and would have potentially enrolled in school. It worries me that the temporary relief from deportation and eligibility to work legally in the United States for about 800,000 people under DACA just got even more uncertain.
I work every day to instill anti-discrimination practices in my young students in a dual-language program in the borderlands. The children I teach are of varied ages, developmental levels and linguistic skills, and they all enrich the class with their diverse backgrounds. Their stories enlighten mine. We have developed a strong class culture of multicultural respect by having them bring home-based research projects about themselves to highlight their families and share what makes them unique. We invite parents from different cultures to share their language with the class, and we teach in both English and Spanish by using culturally relevant literacy.
One of my former students, Alejo, who is now 9, came to the U.S. with no English at all. His dad worked in the borderland fields picking up onions and was illiterate. After a few years in our school, Alejo was able to communicate in English with adults and his peers. Alejo’s approach to learning changed noticeably as he started to learn English. He began to participate in class more often and to translate for his dad. He realized that his voice could be heard just by using language.
Alejo’s story reaffirms my duty as an advocate for the wellness of my students and a better life for their families. As an educator, I can testify to the benefits that bilingual students, many of whom fall under DACA, bring to our community of learners. When diverse students learn from each other, in different languages, they also learn to respect differences and embrace diversity. Bilingual students come with advantages in literacy development and problem-solving skills and bring practical benefits to our classrooms, since cognitive functions develop when children grow up speaking two languages.
Today, I carry my accent with utmost pride. My students know that what matters is not the way I speak a language, but what I do to help improve the life of others. I believe we must do everything we can to ensure that children and youth under DACA can remain in this country to forge a thriving future along with their families. The more bilingual students who enter our classrooms, the deeper intercultural understanding will be instilled in our American society, and the more opportunities we’ll all have to live in a multicultural and linguistically diverse world.
Susana Ríos teaches second-grade language arts, mathematics, science and social studies in English and Spanish at Sonoma Elementary in Las Cruces. She is a Teach Plus New Mexico Teaching Policy Fellow.