“It was a terrible year, but today we heal with music, dancing and singing.” This was how our school director opened the children’s talent show this past Friday. As many start their summer vacations, my boys are still in classes in a dragged-out, miserable school year that attempts to force in all that was lost and missed because of the 2017 hurricane season. We lost 5 weeks total. My kindergartener also lost his two teachers that never returned. His new teacher had to deal with his attitude, his even hitting or spitting other children in school. At home we dealt with his Lego houses onto which he built tormenteras (storm shutters) and his elaborate drawings of cities “destroyed by the storm.” Today thankfully, he loves “his kids,” as he calls them, and never leaves at the end of the day without wrapping his little arms around his teacher’s thighs for a hug.
Their kindergarten graduation is at the end of this month, a month later than usual. He knows all the sounds of letters in English and Spanish, sounds them out, but can only recognize and read few words. Not enough to read a sentence. He is the only English speaker in the class. I know if he cannot read in English, no one else can either. It is easier for him to sound out Spanish syllables than English. Moments like this you remind yourself how effing complex the English language is with all its silent letters and homonyms. Moments like this you know that the storm took more than people realize. Moments like this you know that you too are to blame for his not reading yet because you relied on that school to give you peace of mind, to teach them, to provide your kids light, water and warm meals when you had none at home, to show your kids some fun because all was too serious, too grim to let lose at home. The school sent a memo saying that due to the varied state of children’s homes (no light, no water, no roofs) all homework assignments and special projects would happen in school. Then months later, began a flood of assignments, but it seems like no one has caught up. It seems we all drag on through these make-up days, driving our kids to school while other kids play at the beach. Most schools are out of session already. I wonder what their catch-up routines looked like. Worse, I wonder if they have caught up at all. Social promotion is live and well.
It takes drastic measures for the collective gaze to be directed at what most deserves our attention. Drastic, like fiscal oversight boards and hurricanes-on-colonialism-turned-catastrophic. Now with the announcement of almost 300 additional school closings in Puerto Rico, (almost 200 were announced before the storms), it is time to focus on the colonial classroom, the empire’s primary battleground. The threat goes beyond school closures. It includes the continued attack on the one public university system in Puerto Rico. It is embodied by a white North American secretary of education with an inflated salary, while her school children constituents are sacrificed at the austerity table of odious debt. It resounds in the arresting, pepper spraying and tear gassing of people protesting injustices like these, some of them children and their parents themselves. That was May 1st, but ultimately the colonial battle is waged daily on the minds and on the psyches of the colonized, with schools cunningly crafted for the conformity and conditioning of the colonial subject.
Schools should serve as a second home to our children. They are sites of stable communities; an extended family of adults and caretakers; a network of peers; the security that enables parents to pursue their careers and provide for their families. They provide warm, free meals to thousands of children who wouldn’t otherwise have them. To announce the closing of almost 500 schools all within a year’s time and in the post-traumatic stress and displacement post-hurricane is a declaration of war on our communities. Not only did the reopening of schools allow families to return to work, for over four months, we sent our own sons to school where they had access to running water and electricity, something we still did not have at home. Still others await the reopening of their schools, damaged in the storms. For all the school closings announced, few speak of the countless children that roamed the streets bored each day because the government hadn’t yet fixed and reopened their schools’ post-hurricane.
Every day more children, together with their parents, grandparents and teachers are on the news, protesting the closing of their schools. Children who have attended the same school since Kinder, anticipating becoming seniors and graduating, being told their school will close. What of the rupture in our communities? What of the institutions that are not institutions because they come and just as easily go? What of going back to visit your teachers or to mentor those younger than you? What of the countless schools that stand empty and abandoned versus being repurposed by the government to serve the communities they steal amenities from? Thankfully there is a growing movement to occupy and squat these spaces for living and for community programming. The colonial chaos in Puerto Rico, while its puppet governor speaks of a blank canvas to lure crypto colonials, is hell bent on teaching the people of these lands that everything is fleeting. Nothing is lasting, secure, safe. Not your home or community in a hurricane. Not your school or community in the yoke of colonialism.
They substantiate these closings by citing low enrollment due to migration. They cited this very reason before last year’s hurricanes. They milk the shit out of it post Hurricanes. They convince you that there are not enough children to fill the schools. They mark schools on country mountain tops that if they close, students would have to travel miles to get to the next. They blame the victim, they blame those that leave but they never ever speak of the government’s responsibility in the decline of its own population. Our puppet pro-statehood colonial governor welcomes less Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico, lures in and incentivizes foreign investors and business people. When European nations began to witness a decline in their population, they began to incentivize their citizens. Some governments pay you and supply you with all you would need in the first year or so of having a child. Universal health insurance and day care subsidies were put into place to protect a nation’s most valuable resource: its people. They recognize their capacity to thrive is intricately interwoven in the replenishing of their population, in the development of future generations to drive it. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico becomes a nation of elders, that although mark a wealth of resources cannot sustain the future of this nation. The master plan that is at work here is the deliberate decline of our population coupled with the miseducation of those that stay so that Puerto Rico diminishes in presence and the US deems it not as a threat but as a desirable state to incorporate. With today’s reality, many of us liken the statehood dream to believing in Santa Claus.
When we moved to Borikén from New York in 2014, our rush was to arrive in May when school was still in session. Our oldest would be starting kindergarten and we wanted to arrive in time to find him a good school. Not speaking much Spanish, we needed a bilingual school, but in Aguadilla with nearby Ramey Base we needed a school that would not push Americanization. It was bad enough to learn that bilingual schools here aren’t really. They offer English instruction with English books. The only class offered in Spanish is Spanish. We managed to find the perfect school, with the perfect administration that was perfect for our family and for our nene. The situation felt so perfect that when I was offered a position as an art teacher at the school, I took it, hoping to expand on this new community we had built.
Of course, nothing is perfect. I arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed, expecting to draw from over 20 years’ experience as a teaching artist at museums and cultural arts institutions where I specialized in teaching on Puerto Rican, Latinx, African American and Indigenous art and culture. A good part of my high school students did not get why I was talking about Puerto Rican art. Beginning with the island’s indigenous art, one student demanded to know how Taíno culture could possibly have to do anything with art class. This was not the response I got from North Philadelphia and New York City youth who did everything but cartwheels when they realized the workshops would celebrate them and their history and heritage. This was not a reflection of the perfect administration that represented this island and the Diaspora with Chicago, New York and Hartford under its belt. This was me seeing in the flesh the product of more than a century of colonial education seeping self-loathe into the minds of generations and flowing from many students, many parents, even some teachers. The many of us trying to teach alternatives are scattered, watered-down within a greater system still set up to teach that everything related to Puerto Rico is undesirable and inferior and everything related to the US is desirable and superior. Entering conversations around heritage and race was another shock that left me in need of therapy virtually.
My little one’s preschool teacher grew up here in Aguadilla but also spent significant time living in Ohio. When the school changed administrations, she is the one who gave me the heads up about their choice to work with a book system called A Beca for Pre-K. My eldest’s Kindergarten books made me cry. A beautiful brown girl with a fro on the cover and lessons on “who we are” that spoke of Puerto Rico’s diverse heritage. A Beca books however, come from a Christian College in Pensacola, Florida. This was not a Christian or Catholic school by the way. She warned that the books were heavily Christian with biblical verses on every page. Another parent who had temporarily placed her son in a Christian school spoke of their disappointment with dinosaurs being omitted from the science book. Her son loved dinosaurs!
Leaving the first school was an extremely difficult but necessary decision. A change of administration, a too long commute with two little boys, the reality of teacher salaries in this colony, the need to return to my art… Kinder, 1st and 2nd Grade my son spent it with the same 12 children. I knew these kids. I even taught them. I knew their parents. The school had been our one stability in the chaos and trauma of repatriation, amid having left most of our family and community back in New York. To have removed them was to uproot them yet again. But we did it. We pulled them out. Found a school that felt just as intimate, just minutes from home. My husband was in love with the new school. My heart was resisting, emotionally attached to the school that had been my boy’s home away from home. Still, for however difficult, it was a choice. Imagine having the choice taken away in learning that your kid’s school will close, and you haven’t got a say. In the states people protest and lobby, petition politicians till one gets on their side. In Puerto Rico people protest however politicians and even the governor have a limited capacity to do anything and ultimately the colonial junta and the US president have the final say. What reigns here is this sense that whatever happens, happens. You’re not consulted with. You aren’t asked and the general sense looming over most is that there isn’t shit you can do to change it.
I have vowed never to teach at my boys’ school again. I like the ignorant bliss of maintaining a healthy distance. In fact, I don’t want to teach in schools again. It was my NYC rule, cultural and community organizations only. No schools. I broke that rule here. All rules go out the window here where each day living in a colony becomes a battle to safeguard your dignity and integrity. I’m not a teacher in that sense. I am ever committed to learning. I am ever committed to passing on information. I however am not cut from the same stuff as teachers, teachers by choice, by heart, by profession who work miracles daily. People whose egos and hearts are broken daily, and they still manage to report each day with their hearts overflowing love for their students. I wasn’t cut out for that shit. It broke my spirit every day to the point that I was no longer effective. I don’t want to know the teachers’ bochinche. I don’t want to see the lack of space and breaks and how overworked, tired and jaded the teachers are. I don’t want to know how condescending and disregarding to teachers and families administrations can be. I don’t want to know the bureaucracy that worries schools sick. All I want to know is that the teachers are doing a phenomenal job at shielding my children from the bullshit. It would allow me the necessary space and health to deal with the greater problem and work to elevate the reality of our teachers, of our nation inside and outside of the classroom. Shouldn’t classrooms provide a safe space for our children to learn in wonder, in amazement, to learn about themselves, their communities, their home, the world?! To build skills and emotional health to change this fucked up world we birthed them into?
I tried to view the new school with an open mind. To my dismay I learned that the school used the A Beca book system. I had to weigh my options. What were all the positives about this school versus the book system? We went ahead and made the switch anyway. The books arrived late. School started and my 3rd grader was still missing books. Meanwhile I took to reviewing those that had already arrived. One, entitled Read & Think Skills Sheets 3 caught my attention. Before the first day of school I may have revealed myself as his teacher’s worse nightmare. It went a little something like this: Hi, I know school has yet to begin but I need to request that a book be removed from the curriculum. I have included Post- Its with notes (about 2 dozen) detailing my concerns. I will be meeting with the director but wanted to bring it to your attention first.
Among the sentences I underlines were:
“All the while the missionaries encouraged the Native Americans to give up their false religion and to follow Jesus.”
“When Robert went to Cape Town to marry his sweetheart, Mary, he took Afrikaner with him. Everyone was amazed to see how the savage chief had changed.”
The book went on to present a whole number of cases of “godly” missionaries saving indigenous people; of Chinese people threatening to kill missionaries; of Indigenous warriors who killed the missionaries who were only saving them by bringing the gospel. Another story even told of how the American flag, hung over the home of two missionaries saved them from perishing in a local war. Ultimately the book, which is supposed to teach reading comprehension, presents two Gods, Jesus and the American flag. According to the book, non-Americans are ignorant, savage, aggressive assassins unless they accept the gospel and the American missionaries.
I delivered the book with a rainbow of Post-its detailing the sections deemed unacceptable along with reasons why. I included a letter to the teacher with the following statement: “There is a difference in educating confidant, informed children, who respect all people and value the contributions of all races and cultures, versus miseducating children by passing on fears, ignorance, stereotypes and prejudices.”
In addition, I consulted with the bookstore owner who gave me a copy and asked that I please detail my concerns with book. He explained that he had trouble with the A Beca system because it often arrived late. He then stated that that system is primarily used in the North West of la isla grande. American representatives arrive at the Ramey military Base in Aguadilla each year, early to sell the books at bulk discounted rates. He was outraged to hear of my complaints in the book. He said he would personally take it upon himself to challenge school administrators to remove the books and would offer suggestions/ alternatives for more quality books produced here in Puerto Rico.
Hurricanes Irma then Maria hit just a few weeks later. Between both hurricanes the boys lost a total of 5 weeks of school. Getting them back at school was a necessary step towards establishing a perceived normalcy for the boys. Moreover, with no water and light at home, having them in an air conditioned, school with running water and electricity was necessary. The first week however there was not enough food to be purchased in bulk, so they had half days as no lunch could be served.
One day, after electricity had been restored, we were sitting around the dinner table when my 6-year-old asked excitedly, “Do you know who George Washington is?” It was the day after Puerto Rico commemorates the March 22nd, 1873 Abolition of Slavery. My appetite disrupted, I answered with another question. “It seems like you do. Why don’t you tell us?”
“George Washington was the first president of the United States.” He happily hops out of his chair, announces he will be getting something from his bookbag to show us. He comes back with a dollar bill and a penny, sets them on the table and says “See! This is George Washington, he’s on the dollar, and on the penny is Abraham Lincoln”.
I’m not that mom. I’m not that mom who needs my kindergartener reading at a 3rd grade level. I’m not that mom who thinks that counting money at 5 years old is a necessity, or to identify who’s on the bill for that matter. Moreover, I’m that mom who left NYC and moved to Puerto Rico when this lil guy was 2 so that, unlike me, he would not grow up with an identity crisis or inferiority complex. For years I did art and liberation presentations where I would say “Puerto Ricans are more likely to learn about George Washington than Ramón Emeterio Betances.” Here I was witnessing it in the flesh with my own child. As during hurricane Maria, the urge to throw up rose up from my gut.
As we all take our dishes into the kitchen I turn to my then 8-year old and say, “Do you understand why mami is so upset?” He responds, “If I were a school director I would be sure to get books from Puerto Rico about Puerto Rico.”
I continue, “I have no problem with students learning about the United States. I want you to learn about the United States as much as I want you to learn about all the countries of the world, of all continents, of North, Central and South America, of Africa, of Asia and Europe and Australia. I want you to know them all, appreciate and love them all. My fundamental problem is when you are systematically taught about one nation only and even before you are taught about your own nation, your own selves, your own history. The only way to love and appreciate other people, other cultures is to practice on yourself first, know yourself first, love yourself first.”
This phenomenon has been escalating, fixing to cause me a heart attack. Scenes like my 8-year-old bringing home a construction paper snow man in March while his dad and I marveled at growing mangoes. Two weeks before he had arrived from his third-grade class with a grammar assignment. He had to write a few sentences on why he was proud to be an American and why the United States was the best country in the world. Again, I must have shot up to the roof and bounced across several walls before landing in yoda wisdom back in my seat. I have no interest or intentions to indoctrinate as we are by the colonizer.
Damn you artist/ writer in me! It is this huge part of me that has me clinging to schooling to free a few hours in my day to create. Damn you repatriation that removed us from our community that makes our family depend on the socialization that a school provides. Damn you colonialism for corrupting the book selection and education system here. Damn you weekly calendar that doesn’t allow me enough time to set aside what I must do to homeschool my children. Their father and I maintain that what they need is exposure to other adults, other children. They play Puerto Rican games I never even heard of. Even if some of them are colonial anglicisms like frizao, the freeze tag their dad and I played in NYC Board of Ed schoolyards back in the day. They are exposed to aspects of their culture that were lost on me having been born and raised in Brooklyn and certainly lost on their father, born and raised in Queens to Colombian parents. But at what cost does this socialization come?
To add insult to imperialism injury, the grammar assignment questions were accompanied by an image. It included the Statue of Liberty, who my children have never seen. She was next to the American flag, which they know because the pro-statehood neighbor across the street waves it each day. But across the flag in this school book image are a series of fighter jets. I asked my son to identify those UFOs there. What were they?
Correct. “What are they used for?”
Correct. “How exactly is it that this country has become the ‘best in the world?’ Via force perhaps? Gabriel what do war planes have to do with a grammar assignment? You are in third grade.”
I continued. This assignment, versus teaching you critical thinking has already told you what to think. It assumes that 1. Every student is an American, 2. Every student is a proud American 3. Assumes that you believe this nation to be the best in the world and in case you don’t believe that it is basically, as a book, taught by your teacher, an authoritative figure, letting you know that you SHOULD believe that it is the best nation in the world.
I wanted to protest the assignment, go back to school with the book like I did before classes started and I was that mom who read the book before the teacher and discovered all sorts of racist, imperialist, colonizer garbage in it and had it removed from the curriculum. But we instead thought to make it a teaching moment. Hello! Shouldn’t all school assignments be?! We couldn’t tell Gabriel what to write. Our nene, peaceful and wise as he is, came up with a most clever opening statement about being proud to have been born in New York City, a city with people from all over the world. His next statement said something about how he believed all people and countries to be amazing. Then he spoke about how his family were proud Puerto Ricans who chose to move here. And it ended on how his family was also from Colombia and that maybe we would live there too one day. Never did he speak to being a proud American or how it was the best country in the world. He created a beautiful, truthful assignment that neither bought into the garbage of it or was reactionary to go on a rampage. It elevated past the bullshit, transcended it to present pure wisdom that can only flow from the mouths of babes.
Of course, we as his parents must be involved enough to see such hideous assignments in his book. We must steer him in the direction of self-love and love of others. We must be savvy to identify this miseducation; this indoctrination aimed at teaching colonial inferiority and self-loathe. But what about countless parents here that are not proficient in English? That have placed their children in these schools because they were told that to succeed they must know English? Do they see these assignments? Can they navigate these conflicting messages with them or do they take these messages as law since they come from school books assigned by the institutions we charge with educating our children?
I write these reflections in English so that those in the United States, Puerto Rico’s Diaspora and allies who have organized to send water, food and supplies, consider initiatives to save our schools and to hold the government accountable for the education of our children. So many speak of a seeming docility, indifference to the political situation in Puerto Rico. Where it does indeed exist, it is misread. It is not a lack of caring. Even the exaggerated grandeur with which anything “American” is viewed is not from the minds of the people themselves. These are all strategically orchestrated outcomes from a colonial education experiment that has been underway for over a century. We cannot criticize the current crisis in Puerto Rico, the historic colonial crisis in Puerto Rico, nor a perceived lack of action around these issues in Puerto Rico without examining, addressing and providing solutions and alternatives to the colonial miseducation. To blame a sea of Puerto Rican Day Parade spectators as ignorant is to blame the victim. It is time we organize collectively to bring down the institutions that carry out this miseducation. It is time we develop liberation schools and liberation curriculums to share widely through on-line networks and take as hard copies to community schools and centers.
Let us stop trusting the same people who take our children from us at the border. For all the US-passport-wielding Boricuas who view immigration as a separate reality, we don’t have to cross borders. There are no borders. They have their hands all up in all we are. They come into our communities, destroy our schools and teach our children to turn against us. They also convince us our homeland is uninhabitable, they render it as such so that we leave, stay away and leave room for the investors.
Thankfully some things are fleeting, like empires. They all fall. If everything in this universe must evolve and progress, there is no way imaginable that such a primitive system of brute force that preys on innocent people, children, and their access to education can stand the test of time. I don’t believe in hell, but I believe that the earth is equipped with a special process to handle karma right here, right now, in our lifetime.