Addressing Identity and Empowerment in Schools

I am sure I will find little argument when I say "schools and the education system of any population are the foundation for any sustainable economic development."  But then most people who agree would go on to talk about the importance of science and math, technology and global perspectives, and all these issues are important to the curriculum of schools in the 21st century as we each search for a way out of the current recession.  But there is another subject matter in need of reform which is often overlooked when discussing how to better prepare students for the new economic realities.  The development of empowered self aware individuals ready to add value on a local or supranational world stage requires more than math and science.  History and civics unattended may just be holding us back or if properly reviewed be factors of  innovation and economic development. 

The objectification of Puerto Rican culture ­

An education that ignores the questions of who am I? where do I belong? is kneecapping students from feeling engaged or relevant to society. Over the past 6 years, I have observed how Puerto Rican schools have reduced Puerto Rican history and culture to a handful of overly romanticized formulas.

  1. Puerto Rico was called Borinquen (or Boriken)
  2. Taino is the name given to the indigenous people living on the Island before the Spanish came.
  3. The Taino were a peace-loving people.
  4. Cristopher Colombus discovered the Island in 1493 on his second voyage to the Americas.
  5. The native population was enslaved and colonized. Many died due to exploitation and exposure to illness.
  6. To satisfy the demand for labor the Spanish imported slave labor from Africa.
  7. What is a Puerto Rican? Puerto Ricans are the mixture of Taino, African, and Spanish heritage.
  8. Puerto Rican culture and tradition was documented and formalized in the 18th century. This is the time when the Plena and the Danza came to be mainstream icons in local music and dance.
  9. The Jibaro is a name for a traditional Puerto Rican character typical of the mountains.
  10. Main agricultural product: sugar cane
  11. Slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico in1873 but was generally condemned by the local population 40 years before that date.
  12. US invaded Puerto Rico in 1898
  13. US citizenship was gained in 1917
  14. First Puerto Rican elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marin in 1948
  15. Puerto Rico becomes "Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico" 1952
  16. Important figures include: Román Baldorioty de Castro, Ramon Emeterio Betances,  Eugenio María De Hostos, Virgilio Dávila, Cayetano Coll y Toste, José Campeche…

Though the list I have compiled here reaches the 20th century they are not all given the same weight. Year after year come November the pageantry of celebrating the Discovery of Puerto Rico, soon after Columbus Day, calls for a month long indulgence in the first 8 factoids. The romanticism of the taino and singing and dancing of plena and danza are annual traditions in most every school and most every grade.

The yearly celebration reinforces the limited view of what it is to be Puerto Rican.  All notions of what is to be Puerto Rican that are not rooted in the 1700s or 1800s are not Puerto Rican. Education, hospitals, roads, industrialization, the phasing out of agriculture as a mainstay of our economy are all things that just happened. How they happened is overlooked.

This reductionism of Puerto Rican culture and history may facilitate teaching but it stunts what students learn. If we are looking to raise empowered citizens, ready to take on the world and develop new plans, discover new ways forward, the study of factoids and dates is woefully insufficient.

What our text books do not say

What does Puerto Rico look like today? Our population had diversified beyond the Taino, African and Spanish concept. The influence of the American, Cuban, Dominican, Hatian and Asian migrations are rendered invisible, leading to the persistence of xenophobic remarks and the politics of exclusion.

When The Economist dubbed Puerto Rico the "Welfare Island," there was general outrage. Our national sensibilities had been offended on a global stage.  We are so entrenched and enamored of how we see ourselves that we do not understand how another could portray such a vile and embarrassing picture of us. If we do not see our nakedness how can we get on with the work of fetching us a new wardrobe?  Our students need to understand how our economy works, how infrastructure has been built, why projects have worked and failed, how and why our economic model has changed.

The death of a meaningful identity

The objectification of Puerto Rican culture in conjunction with the systemic-failure reproduced by our current public education system are poised to spell the death a meaningful Puerto Rican identity and destroy the engine for sustainable economic development.  This may sound dire and fatalistic but it has happened elsewhere and the mechanisms are all in place. In fact, we see it happen everyday.

Over the past 4 years at least 100,000 Puerto Ricans have left the Island in search for greater economic opportunity in the US mainland. Top on many parents reasons for leaving is access to good public education and greater job opportunities. 

Carla left Puerto Rico with a heavy heart. She never imagined she would leave. Being Puerto Rican was such an intrinsic part of her self definition, her love of herself and her family were only second to her love for her Island. She and her husband started a little restaurant in a picturesque part of town. But the economic slowdown affected them. Each month they chose which utility to pay. It became clear before long that their children could not afford to go to private school. A few months down the line they might even loose their home. Leaving was the only viable solution, the only way out that promised a good education and the ability to survive maybe even thrive in an economy.

Carla hopes her children will not forget that they are Puerto Rican but it saddens her to know that soon this distinction will fail to be relevant.  Her eldest son is already playing football and happily engaged in his school community.

Ben had never been to Puerto Rico. He was now 52 and for the first time was visiting the home his mother so often talked about.  his mother, Amarylis or Doña Mari, met a US Army soldier deployed on the Island in 1954, fell in love and left.  She came back many times over the years, maybe once every 5 years.  She loved writing poetry in Spanish, singing and cooking.  Wherever they lived, Doña Mari set up or joined a  Puerto Rican cultural group to have for parties and prayer circles. As the youngest of three siblings, Ben heard Spanish but it was a colorful accent. His siblings, father spoke English to him, and his mother when push came to shove, did too.  His older siblings understood Spanish but could not speak it, Ben barely understood it.  When asked how he saw himself, he is quick to say "I am an American."  More clearly upon, coming to Puerto Rico, he discovered how little there was here with which to identify. The visit to Puerto Rico, confounded Ben.

Ben is a successful manager. What does being Puerto Rican mean to him?  Ben had only the Puerto Rican recipe book to represent the influence of Puerto Rico in who he is. For all practical purposes who he is, and why he is how he is, is because he is American. The intent here is not to put a value on being or not American, but rather on what it means to be Puerto Rican.

Marisela is a US citizen, born in Puerto Rico. She laughs when she says she is Puerto Rican because she knows it does not sound right. The rest of the Island her peers see her as a Dominican. Her parents were both Dominican immigrants to Puerto Rico, but Marisela was born and raised here.  She has felt the stigma of "not being Puerto Rican" her entire young life.  This has led her to be quiet in public, though talkative and vibrant at home. Teasing in the school yard was not the only problem. Early on, teachers assumed Marisela was learning impaired, because she was so quiet. Marisela’s mother can recount the many fights she has had in school with teachers, administrators and staff.  Marisela has been coached at home, by her mother to be steadfast and persevere.  "Focus on your studies and ignore the rest." Marisela has listened to this advice many times.  Marisela hopes to graduate from vocational school and become a professional nurse.

If being Puerto Rican is captured in the 16 bullets, history is soon to deem it irrelevant. Our entrepreneurs or employees who could have been intrapreneurs are leaving.  Our youth is disengaged. Those with hope to make a difference in their family, feel invisible or discriminated against by the world around them. The path to Puerto Rico’s sustainabilty requires a change.

Path to sustainability

The world is littered with examples of populations that had a strong sense of self but then lost it or had it eroded only to be mired in economic dependence and social despair, rising rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, joblessness, and an aging population. Current trends are acting against us, will Puerto Rico be one more curiosity in a travel book or will the Island become an attractive destination with a thriving economy, high quality of life, and source of citzens ready to make a difference for good on a global stage?

The path to sustainable economic development requires education reform but this reform cannot forgo a review of how history and civics are addressed in schools.  I am not asking for national indoctrination, that we have excelled at. I am advocating for an exploration of history and a greater connection between schools and their communities.  We should encourage students to ask the questions: Who am I?  Why am I here? What is my community like? What great things and success stories are around me? What do I want Puerto Rico to be? How can we do that?  Reveal to students the face of Puerto Rico today and investigate how things happen or don’t happen.  Armed with a sense of who they are and why things are, they will be able to use science, math, technology, arts, culture and sports to make their mark on the world.