At this point, it might be useful for us to ask ourselves…what is this act, what is this scene in which action is taking place, what is this agency and what is its purpose?”
Ralph Ellison, Lecture to Teachers, 1963
Several years ago I had the opportunity to work in Puerto Rico as an education consultant. I worked in a small town called Yabucoa, almost the exact entry point of Hurricane Maria. These last few days have me worried sick by the devastation, lack of assistance and growing humanitarian crisis on the small, fragile island. Today, I decided to take to writing. Writing is the only act of grace that has remained consistent by my side, unyielding. It is sometimes the only thing I can do in the face of suffering. It is my way of bearing witness or ridding myself of the debilitating sense of hopelessness or guilt. (Rios, 2012)
I was in Puerto Rico at the start of a poorly planned reform movement aimed at installing a new English curriculum. My work there involved training teachers, coaching and program evaluation. Working as an educator on the island of my ancestors had a significant impact on me emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. It gave me insight into myself, the importance of authentic relationships and the type of holistic learning environment needed for our students, especially those from Puerto Rican descent. My Puerto Rican colleague Dr. Roque Tizol wrote a statement for my book that started with, “Education is the process of tempering the soul for a good and productive life.” My last communication with Roque was one day before the hurricane. Since then, nothing.
It is important to point out that in my research and personal observations working with teachers—deficit theory, a culture of poverty and notions of genetic inferiority attached to the Puerto Rican people is still alive and well. Our collective bias and low expectations are fueled by the media and politics. Even now, during this humanitarian disaster there is political commentary focusing on the “already broken infrastructure and massive debt” of the island. In other cases, we see a total disregard for the suffering of Puerto Rico as if Puerto Ricans are not really the responsibility of the US as equal citizens.
In view of this context, teachers can develop an awareness of how dominant narratives, our use of language and how we frame conversations in education and politics can reify disparaging beliefs about Puerto Ricans, devalue their lives and overlook their suffering. If we continue on business as usual, and function on automatic without pausing long enough to reflect and meditate on what is happening; these thoughts, beliefs and false ideologies can lead to low expectations and poor choices in the classroom or school community such as not offering refuge.
What responsibility do we owe students from Puerto Rico? Taking the time to inquire into this question with colleagues is something you can do to make a difference. Shared, mindful inquiry has the potential to lead to awareness and conscientious action. It communicates that you care and accept shared responsibility for students who like yourself are citizens and are suffering in the face of distress.
Build knowledge about Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican diaspora. Ask, what do I know about the political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States? How have Puerto Ricans here and on the island enriched American society? Do Puerto Ricans serve in the military or pay taxes, for example, and do they vote for the president? All of these questions help debunk myths about Puerto Ricans that may prevent you from seeing the whole child in front of you and engaging with him or her with mutual respect, understanding, encouragement and intellectual curiosity.
Finally, practice authenticity and presence by asking your students and parents your honest questions. Listen and breathe deeply while you listen with a willingness to learn from them. This is the pathway into to the deep well of your humanity.