Affirming Identity: A Hispanic Heritage Month Reflection

Mariangely Solis Cervera is the founding Spanish teacher at AF East Brooklyn High.

Mariangely and her mentor, Dr. Ochoa.

Mariangely and her mentor, Dr. Ochoa.

I am a Latina. I am proud of that identity and I want to help instill that pride in others. But that identity wasn’t affirmed by anyone outside my family until I was in college. I teach because I want to change that for kids. My father taught me to be proud and my mother taught me to be humble. That balance has been very helpful.

My mom is Mexican, my dad is Puerto Rican and I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. There, the word ‘Hispanic’ was nonexistent to me – you’re born on the island, you’re like everyone else. Then, we moved. The moment I set foot in California, I was different. I was the kid who didn’t speak English, the kid whose parents didn’t speak English. I went from being like everyone else to being “the other.”

I didn’t see a lot of role models who were like me. Even through college, I could count the number of Latina teachers I had on one hand. Thankfully things changed my last year of undergrad. I met my mentor, the first professor who could speak to me directly about things like, “this is racism and this is how it affects you explicitly and implicitly.” She showed me what a big deal it was that I was an ESL student, daughter of parents who didn’t speak English, daughter of a dad who didn’t finish high school, and made it as far as I had. She challenged me to use my story to impact others. This was the first time someone called me something other than a good student. She called me a “mujer with a story.” It was no longer enough to just do well in life; it was time to help la causa, el pueblo.

Mariangely and her family.

Mariangely and her family.

Teaching seemed like the only field where I could do this, and Teach For America was my outlet. I taught in Houston for four years before coming to Brooklyn. My current struggle is, what do I do now with this power and knowledge that I didn’t have five years ago? In my class, we talk about things such as identify, people’s history and the importance of being bilingual/bi-cultural. As a teacher of color, once I made the choice to get in front of a group of kids, it became my responsibility to be purposeful about my impact because I am a mirror to many of my students: Latina, woman, queer, language learner, first generation college student, bilingual and a member of a beautiful yet underappreciated culture.

I’m teaching beginner Spanish and an intermediate class for native Spanish speakers. We’re reading the novel "Casi una mujer" by Esmeralda Santiago. It’s been great so far because I am able to take kids on a journey of self-exploration in a safe and affirming environment. I have ninth graders asking me questions like, “why is the language Spanish so sexist?" "What should I do if my family is also very judgmental?" "Why are Latinos all so different?" or  "Why can’t I call someone Spanish if they speak Spanish?” Had it not been for my mentor, I never would have understood how racism, classism, sexism and homophobia affect me and my community every single day. I am honored to guide students in this process.

As a Latina teacher I make sure I’m affirming kids’ identities while also pushing kids to love and affirm others. It’s my duty to make sure I’m sending this message to students and colleagues. I tell my students, “Don’t be afraid to ask people, learn from them.” We always talk about stories in my class—if you don’t want to judge a book by the cover, you need to read the story. I want to help my students realize that our world is a painful place to live in partially because too many people rely on the one story being shared by stereotypes in the media. If we work a little harder at creating safe dialogues with one another, we can have a more welcoming world.

To Be Puerto Rican, Male & From Hartford: A Hispanic Heritage Month Reflection

Nick with his wife and three children in 2000.

Nick with his wife and three children in 2000.

Nick Lebron is a community outreach associate at Achievement FIrst. 

I am a Puerto Rican man from Hartford. My skin color, facial features and machismo make up the cover of my life book that the world sees. I am that, and I am more. My truth is not one single thing.

When I was young, I was cute and cuddly in everybody's eyes. When I started to grow and become a young man, I was no longer seen as cute, and I started to notice that certain types of people who wanted hugs before began to cross the street when they saw me. This perception that people had of me was not helped by the fact that I was enthralled with hip hop culture. I am in the first generation of my family to be born in the U.S. and unfortunately, my elders and other Puerto Rican traditionalists perceive hip-hop as black culture exclusively. But to be young and Puerto Rican in Hartford was to embrace hip hop. I don’t know how to dance salsa. I speak Spanish, but I don’t do it flawlessly. Those are reasons why, to some, I do not fit so neatly into the Puerto Rican demographic box I am supposed to check on surveys or the census. It’s sometimes hard because I don’t know others like me: Puerto Rican men from Hartford who are heavily influenced by hip hop and who are also professionals.

My heritage can leave me without a box to check in professional settings. I am not black. I’m not white. To some, I might not be “Puerto Rican enough.”

I am proud of the barriers I’ve overcome, and I’m proud that I am opening doors for people who fit the same mold. I want to show young people who are like me that there’s more out there than gang members and ex-cons. I can be your role model. I want people to see me in meetings and know they can see themselves in those meetings. If you look at statistics, Hispanic men have a low college graduation rate, but Puerto Ricans specifically have a graduation rate that is far lower. It is important for me to work in a professional setting where there aren’t a lot of us. I feel like I’m setting a precedent for others coming up behind me.

Nick and his mom.

Nick and his mom.

I am Puerto Rican. My mom and pops told me so. I walk with my head high knowing this. I look at my kids, a generation further removed from Puerto Rico, and I see more assimilation. But I know we’ll never be truly assimilated—I know the way the world sees us—and so I want us to hold on to the pride. I am so proud that my when my son runs Cross Country at his college, he wears sleeves bearing the Puerto Rican flag.

There are many truths to being Puerto Rican. I am no less Puerto Rican because I was born in Hartford – there are more Puerto Ricans in the United States than on the island. I am no less Puerto Rican because I choose hip hop over salsa. I want to see the Boricua nation overcome the divided mentality the dominant culture ingrained in us and become one whole nation. We also need to show that there are many paths possible for Puerto Rican young people – I want my journey to serve as one example. My parents told me the same thing I tell my kids: You are a true Puerto Rican!


A Day On Broadway

This summer, two of our high school students from Brooklyn had the chance to spend a day with the team at Finding Neverland. They got a behind the scenes look at how it’s produced, toured back stage and capped off the day by watching a performance. Here, they reflect on their experiences during their day on Broadway.

The opportunity to see Finding Neverland and learn what happens backstage has really opened my eyes to what it's like to be on Broadway. I was surprised at all the work it takes to make a show happen and run so smoothly. The show itself was magical—it made me feel like I was four years old again! Everything in the play was so eye-catching and beautiful that it even made me cry at one point. It’s also very inspiring how hard everyone in the show works to be able to make it successful. I’ve always wanted to perform in front of people, but it was only recently that I decided I want to be on Broadway myself. This experience pushed me to work harder and improve myself as a performer so I can make that happen.

Alaila is a junior at AF University Prep. In addition to her academic achievements, she's had many leading roles in school performances, including Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray.

My day on Broadway was once in a lifetime, and I feel lucky that I had the opportunity to see what it’s like backstage. I realized that the work the performers put in for the show is not always easy. For example, being in a tight and cramped room might not be the best to get dressed in, but you make it work with the space that you have. The team talked to us about how you always have to be prepared for anything to happen and multitasking keeps the show going (we learned that as Captain Hook does his change, he's moving around and there's someone helping him put the next wig on). My favorite part was probably the dancing section of the tour. The biggest lesson that I want to take with me is that you still have to continue even if you make a mistake. Your mistakes don't show who you are—they’re just something to learn from.

Zaria is a junior at AF Brooklyn High, where she’s a dancer and leader, serving on student government.


Thanks to Robin Hood, SpotCo and the cast and crew of Finding Neverland for making this experience possible.