In this week’s Just Talk, John Rogers sits down with Mariana Ramirez from the Math, Science, and Technology Magnet Academy at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles.
Mariana serves as the Social Studies Department Chair and the Common Core Lead. She also is the sponsor of the school’s MEChA Club, and a member of the Politics and Pedagogy Collective.
John Rogers: Can you begin by describing the community where you teach?
Mariana Ramirez: I work at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, which historically has been an immigrant neighborhood, beginning with eastern European and Jewish immigrants, as well as Japanese immigrants and others in the first the half of the 20th century. Since the mid-twentieth century it’s become more of a Mexican or Latino neighborhood, and recently it’s more Latino as more people have come from Central America. Right now, Roosevelt is about 90% Latino. Many folks consider it to be the heart of the neighborhood. Most of my students are immigrants themselves or their parents are immigrants, so immigration is definitely an issue that impacts all folks in the community.
What is distinctive about being an educator in a community like Boyle Heights, which has a large immigrant population? In what ways does that shape your work as an educator?
I am also an immigrant, and even though I’m now a naturalized US citizen, I definitely experienced what it is like to be undocumented and to have parents that are undocumented. That upbringing shaped me first as a human being, and later as an educator, so while I understand what that feels like, I also understand that I have a certain privilege. It’s important for me to demystify our educational system for parents and students, because our educational system is very different from that of Latin America. Constantly speaking to parents and students in a way that breaks down the barriers and steps to get to college, for example, is very important because I know that’s a generational issue. Parents don’t necessarily come with that knowledge, because it’s just not very accessible. As an educator, it’s important to convey how our educational system functions and some of the setbacks my students may encounter. I provide statistics about the proportion of Latino immigrant youth who are thriving within the educational system, which presents a very gloomy reality. I convey it not to depress my students and their families, but so that they can understand it, and together we can consider it as a positive challenge for all of us. How do we change that reality? What can we do, each and every one of us, so that we all can have better access?
You noted that you grew up as an immigrant student. In previous conversations you have described yourself as a “border crosser.” What does that means?
A border crosser is a student who somehow has access to live on the Tijuana side of the border, but attends school on the San Diego side of the border. We had tourist visas and we’d use those to cross the border. We had to be very careful doing that, because we couldn’t cross with books, for example. If we did, it had to be very few books. We had to hide them under the car seat. We had to have a story, like where we were going and why. As children, we understood that what we were doing might be wrong, but it was for our benefit. Some children are US citizens but their parents are not, so they live on the Tijuana side of the border. During high school, a lot of my friends lived in Tijuana, and they crossed the border as teenagers on their own. It was just part of their daily commutes, like living in South Central and going to school in East LA, like many of my students do. There is a privilege attached to that because you can cross the border, but it’s also very daunting for a child or a teenager to do that alone, because immigration agents are terrifying and dehumanizing. They sometimes ask irrelevant questions. And the wait can take forever.
There might be three to four hour waits. All of that impacts how you show up to school. You’re there to do the best you can, but you’ve already been through so much in crossing the border in the morning to even get to school—you just want to succeed, to make your parents proud, and to show everybody that the reason you struggled crossing that border is to do well in school. Oftentimes, in my experience, the school wasn’t very welcoming. I didn’t feel like I was being challenged, and that teachers had a lower expectation of me.
There were televisions in classrooms, and the playgrounds were beautiful, but the learning that was going on wasn’t pushing me to become a better student, or a better human being. I was pulled out for ELD, and I remember that it was a small room—it felt like a custodial room, because there was a lot of brooms and mops in there. It was with another student’s mom, and she would go over the days of the week with me. Being a border crosser, we knew English already from TV, and by the exchange of culture. It’s just a part of what you see every day. For her to teach me the days of the week and the colors, as a child it left me thinking, “Maybe I’m not smart enough.” I wanted to be with the other kids that were learning history or science in the afternoons while I was there learning colors. I still wanted to do the best that I could, even though all this other stuff was happening around me.
Did this early experience shape your understanding of the border?
With the kids I grew up with, we had this knowledge of what the border meant: who can cross it, who couldn’t cross it, and why. Being six years old and having that understanding of immigration policy is something else, right? We might hope that children live an innocent life, but as immigrant border crosser children, you face that reality. You understand how to engage with an immigration agent, for example. Your parents teach you what to say and what not to say. You learn to have patience as a child because crossing the border takes a long time.
Your family has crossed that border for generations, and the border had crossed your family, too, in a way. I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit to this fact, as parts of your story includes history and knowledge that many readers may not be aware of.
My great-grandfather came to Tijuana when it was just a small town, because there was money to be made there. It was being built up to become a tourist attraction for Americans; there was a casino and a racetrack, for instance. Later, my grandfathers on both my mother and father’s side became part of a guest worker program that was created around World War II and lasted until the 1960s due to shortages in labor. The US government went into nearly all states in Mexico and hired workers through this program. Most of them were agricultural workers. Both of my grandfathers worked in the same cities in central California, Guadalupe and Santa Maria. They didn’t know each other, but neither went back to their home states when the program ended, and they ended up living in Tijuana. My grandfather on my father’s side had a green card, but he didn’t use it, and instead gathered his family in Tijuana because there were more opportunities there compared to their small town in Jalisco. Later, in the 1980s, my brother got diagnosed with cancer and the only place to access chemotherapy was in San Diego. My grandfather became a US citizen and requested a green card for my father. Once that happened, my brother got access to the health services he needed and eventually my father requested green cards for us. By the time I was in college, I was able to get a US citizenship through naturalization.