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‘Pobrecito’ is not the way to see our most underserved kids

You know the word pobrecito if you grew up, like I did, with Spanish-speaking grandparents who could shift its meaning from sympathy to sarcasm with the arc of an eyebrow. “You poor little thing,” it means, roughly.

When I fell off my bike, pobrecita came as a concerned consolation. Little kids can be helpless sometimes, poor little things that need a hand. When I was upset because I couldn’t have another cookie, the word became a warm-hearted teasing from my grandmother: “How awful!” Lately I’ve noticed the earnest sentiment of pobrecito somewhere else: the halls, meeting rooms and offices of state and school leaders, and those running for office.

It’s well-intended no doubt, but some of our leaders have a problematic pobrecito mentality toward New Mexico’s most underserved kids – kids who live in tough emotional environments or in poverty; who are dealing with the day-to-day realities of immigration; or who come from certain backgrounds and live in certain ZIP codes.

Amid the bureaucratic hand-wringing over public education, I hear an undeniable, “Oh, those poor things,” that smacks of a sense of resignation.

Yes, children from low-income households, Hispanic and black students, are behind academically in New Mexico. But isn’t the job of adults in charge to believe that we can change that?

Education is the cause that drives my nonprofit NewMexicoKidsCAN, and the pressing need for transformation in our schools to dismantle structures of oppression and inequity that keep far too many of our diverse students in the margins. I thought that’s why everyone came to this work.

All of our kids – even those who are struggling most – have a singular potential and can rise to great challenges. New Mexico’s best educators are proving this true. In West Las Vegas, for instance, nine in 10 students at Union Elementary are Hispanic, and seven in 10 come from low-income households. They were among the top 25 schools in New Mexico this year, just like other diverse schools that include Corona Elementary in Corona, Anthony Elementary in Gadsden and College and Career High School in Albuquerque.

I can’t help but wonder what some officials are thinking when I hear them extend pity to our struggling kids instead of messages of perseverance and empowerment, lowering standards for students in distress rather than doubling down on wraparound care and raising the bar so the same kids may rise one day from their struggles.

As I grew older, I heard pobrecita less and less – even when the challenges of life became more serious than a scraped knee. Back then we didn’t track what experts in social-emotional learning call ACEs: adverse childhood experiences. Today we know that New Mexico has the highest rate in the country of children suffering through traumas on the list, which range from abuse and neglect to the death of a parent and living in extreme economic insecurity. That’s one in five New Mexico kids – and I was one of them, even within a loving and safe family environment.

I was blessed to have strong support from my loved ones, teachers and friends. But no one said pobrecita because they felt I was helpless or that I couldn’t rise above my circumstances. No one suggested I should do less, try less or envision less for myself. On the contrary, they knew that setting a high bar and working toward my full potential would get me through the storm, as well as preparing me to weather the rest of life’s challenges with improved agency and skill each time.

The same is true for all children. As we approach Election Day and prepare for the 2019 legislative session, we must know more than what candidates and leaders think about the issues. We must know what they believe about our kids: whether they see every child’s great potential to overcome adversity and live their wildest dreams, or if they see a limit on a child’s ability because of conditions beyond their control.