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AACTE Celebrates Member Leaders of Hispanic Heritage

National Hispanic Heritage Month September 15 - October 15. Hispanic and Latino Americans culture. Background, poster, greeting card, social media banner design. Vector EPS 10

When Mildred Boveda, associate professor of special education at Penn State University, was filling out some basic forms required for an academic appointment, she came to a question that made her pause:

Which of these best describes your race/ethnicity?

  • White/ Non-Hispanic
  • Black/ Non-Hispanic
  • Hispanic

The list went on.

Boveda, an Afro-Latina woman of Dominican descent and complex intersecting identities, had always felt more at home in the Black community. But the erasure of her Latina roots, even just through a checkmark, was not something she could reconcile with.

She checked Hispanic.

Born to prominent Puerto Rican educators, David Fuentes, professor in the Department of Teacher Education at William Paterson University, grew up being told he would instinctively know whether to speak Spanish or English when he met someone new. While this was often true, Fuentes still chose the wrong language many times as a child, which would reverberate through the formation of his identity. But one day, when he was rummaging around his attic at five years old, he stumbled upon a pile of wrapped gifts. He remembers asking his father point-blank if he had found his Christmas presents. “You found the gifts of a young Puerto Rican boy,” his father told him. “Are they yours?”

They were.

Boveda and Fuentes graciously participated in separate interviews for AACTE in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month about their heritage and what that means in the world of teacher education.

Boveda began by explaining that the term Hispanic is Euro-centric and that, although also imperfect, she prefers Latina to avoid connecting her heritage to European colonization. Furthermore, as a Black woman with ties to Latin America, she identifies as Afro-Latina. Boveda, whose parents and siblings were all born in the Dominican Republic, was the first in her family to be born in the United States. “Our experiences have been very much shaped by this realization that we’re racialized beings here in the United States.” Boveda’s first language, Spanish, tied her to her Latina identity but as she grew up, she came to understand that although she was Black, many other Spanish-speakers were not. “Their experiences are going to be different from mine.” Today, she mentors several international students who are becoming aware of this racialization process. “They realize they’re considered ‘other,’ they’re not just considered by their national identity, but they’re racialized as well.”

Fuentes feels he benefits from understanding how his personal, familial, and cultural history is part of an ongoing tale in the United States. “It’s the story of the struggle for equity, la lucha sigue, and I am fortunate to know where I fit in, in that struggle.” Fuentes described the four cultural groups that primarily founded this country. Many of us are familiar with the English, Dutch, and French, but also another thing we tend to forget about—the Spanish. “We tend to speak less about the ongoing nature of the movement of the diaspora; we tend to speak about colonization as something that happened in the past. Yet, here I am, generations removed from an ongoing struggle that oftentimes is withheld from people who look, sound, and speak like me.” He recognized that his experience may not represent that of an entire population, but it is still emblematic of the ongoing struggle. “The Spanish were, depending on your point of view, either reluctant or experienced an inability to do what the other groups successfully did, which melted into the social fabric of America. And so here, we have a diasporic movement that began in the 1400s. And we find ourselves 600 years advanced, speaking Spanish, moving around the Americas … And so I think that being Hispanic is as American as apple pie.”

Fuentes spoke of the importance of celebrating the heritage of our nation’s Hispanic/Latinx students. “I am thoroughly intrigued and invigorated by the public’s involvement in what takes place in schools. I am deeply disheartened to see how that power is being yielded currently. Schools are responsive to the communities that they reside in. And as an institution, we have an obligation to help all children learn.” Fuentes described the history this nation has been grappling with for more than 400 years about oppression and racial inequalities that have been perpetuated legally and systemically in institutions such as schools. “It’s very easy to turn on the television in 2021 and get a sense that we’re imposters or somehow shouldn’t be here. It’s historical, [but] it’s not accurate.” He expressed curiosity about how school outcomes are positively impacted when Latinos have a seat at the table.

Boveda spoke about the need to intentionally, purposefully, and thoughtfully celebrate the expertise of Latinx teachers and teachers of color. While we operate within a system that can make entering the teaching profession a financial burden or even a risk, highlighting the expertise of the few teachers of color we have can be an asset. She explained that the onus should be on people like her who left the classroom to train future teachers. “What are we doing to talk to policymakers and communities and to really highlight the importance for our students to have diverse teachers? What do we do to incentivize schools and school systems to do the recruitment and support these Latinx teachers?” Boveda described using affinity groups to reducing barriers for students of color in teacher preparation programs. “Race-based affinity groups are a huge part of the support system that I have in the field.”

Fuentes explained that the vast majority of community college students are Black and Brown. In New Jersey, where Fuentes lives and teaches, it’s not uncommon for students to get on public transportation at 5:00 a.m. to attend a 9:00 a.m. class. Some college professors will lock the door at 9:01 a.m. or mark students absent when they are five minutes late. Furthermore, Latinx students are very likely to be impacted by loan aversion. “So we need to understand more about the kinds of impediments that directly impact Latins students,” Fuentes continued. He suggested one-stop shops in universities where parents and students could talk to someone familiar with their culture and get financial aid questions answered in Spanish.

 As the struggle continues—la lucha sigue—in our nation, it is more important than ever to honor diverse cultures and contributions of Hispanic and Latinx people. Hispanic teachers and teacher educators are a vital part of our education system, and Hispanic students and their histories should be celebrated. Hispanic Heritage Month runs from September 15 through October 15, but AACTE is committed to honoring Hispanic heritage throughout the year.

Rachel Walker Bowman is a doctoral student in Special Education and Disability Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is currently serving as a research assistant with the Minority Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Equity Center.


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