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Meet our guests - Carminia, Leiva and Marissa
Carminia Muñoz: Her career has focused on helping others gain vision, connecting them with opportunity and translating across cultures and experiences. She leads the alumni work at Teach For America - Phoenix. Before that, she was an attorney that focused on the areas of youth advocacy, immigration and employment law. She's a first generation college graduate and a very proud New Yorker.
Katherine Leiva: She's a Miami native who served her hometown as a 2012 Teach for America Corps Member. Leiva found her passion advocating for her students both inside and outside of the classroom. As an educator, she focuses on culturally responsive teaching while also ensuring social justice is at the core of the curriculum. As a social entrepreneur, she has founded two companies in the last three years. Her first venture is FitLit, a nonprofit that blends fitness and literature for students. Her second is Meta Mindset, which trains teachers, parents and students on mindfulness, understanding your brain, and the importance of emotional intelligence. She is also a first generation college graduate.
Marissa Calderón: She is a first generation Mexican American and an early childhood consultant. She’s worked in this sector for nearly 20 years. She's an award winning podcast host. Her podcast is called Early Childhood Journeys and she's determined to help educators support young children.
To begin, we asked our guests to describe themselves as students?
Carminia: So for the most part, in my K-8 experience I was pretty happy with who I was. I went to a school with students of color that were mostly Latinos. It was mostly Dominicans, which is my background. I thought I was pretty smart. I got good grades. I was good at math. I was a pretty well behaved kid. So for the most part, I was good. As I got closer to teenage years, the thing that I became most insecure about was being poor. I was realizing while other kids were getting their Jordans or whatever new sneakers were coming out and I had whatever Reeboks were on sale. That was the closest thing to name brand that I had. We were definitely shopping at whatever discount random stores were on 181st Street in New York, for any of the New Yorkers who might be listening. That was probably my biggest insecurity until I got to high school. And then, in high school I went to a boarding school.
I went to Choate Rosemary Hall. It just sounds very expensive, which it was, and there were a lot of White people. It was almost all White people. I was one of three, maybe four Latinos in a grade of a hundred and something students. When I got there, I had just became very insecure about a whole bunch of other things and felt like I was representing my whole culture and cultures that didn't have anything to do with me.
Marissa: I spent so much time trying to forget high school because it was awful. It was absolutely awful for me. While I knew who I was, I did not fit in. I was not Mexican enough or I was not White enough, or I was too Mexican or too White or whatever it was. I was going to school for the relationships or social aspect, to connect with my peers. And when I say my homies, for me, it was actually my gang affiliated homies. I got into so much trouble. So the teachers just, the only thing that they would call out was if I was with so and so who got arrested the other day. The bicycle cop would follow us around. So I had a really hard time. I was more in survival mode. The classes that I did enjoy were not my core classes and that was fine with me. I had absolutely zero motivation to excel in any of those because I couldn't identify with any of the material. I was constantly being called a spic, a beaner, or a wetback. So, I was in fights a lot of times too.
At one point, there was actually a really bad incident that happened. Thankfully, my economics teacher vouched for me. There was some stuff that went on and because I was already 18, there were some more repercussions that I was facing. Miraculously I was able to finagle out of that with my teacher vouching for me. That helped me switch around. I was the kid that did not even know if I was going to live past a certain age.
Leiva: As a student, I was just the all around smart aleck. I grew up in very impoverished neighborhoods in Miami. I went to very, very low income, under resourced schools. Since I was one of the strongest readers in the my class, I would literally do my work, finish it in 10 minutes, give it to the teacher, say I'm going to the bathroom and I'd be gone for the rest of the class. I was always pushing back, always critically thinking things through. In high school, my English teachers were just obsessed with The Catcher in the Rye. And I remember reading that book and everyone just loving it and just being an angry Latina in the classroom. My teacher asked me, “What do you think?” I said, “This is a story about a rich kid who's at a rich school who wasn't happy. Like he has a roof over his head, he has food, he has parents who care about him enough to pay for his school, what's big deal?”
Part of the reason I felt that way was I was an orphan by the age of 14. My father passed away when I was nine. My mother passed away when I was 14 and pretty much since those points, I was periodically homeless. We were, when I say low income, I really, really do mean low income. I started working under the table since I was 12 just to help out my family. So for me, you know, I was working at night and I would come to school to read this book about a rich White kid who was not happy and I would think, “Dude, you have everything going for you. Stop it.” And don't even get me started on the great Gatsby.
Have you ever experiencedImpostor Syndrome?
Carminia: Yes, almost every day. Luckily, I went to a prep program before I got there and we talked a lot about this. It consisted of literally sitting around a table with other Latinos and other Black students from New York and the older students who had already been through this would tell us, “Okay, here's some of the stuff that's going to go down. Somebody in your first week is going to try and touch your hair. Don't punch them in the face. Somebody is going to ask you why you don't wash your hair every single day. Here are some response.” We were doing role plays to learn how to deal with the ignorance and ridiculousness of our White peers. So we got some sort of coaching but even still, once you are there, in any given class I was the only person of color. Or the only person who spoke another language because my family is from there and not cause I was vacationing in France every year. But I had regular touch points where a core group of students met up regularly. We had our Afro Latino student alliance that met every week and that was our space to just remind ourselves that we have every right to be here. We didn't get in because they have a quota to meet. We worked our butts off to get there. That was the space where we were kind of reinvigorated regularly. I think if I had to wait until the end of my four years there, I would've been a lost cause.
Were there ever things that peers or teachers might have told you that we're damaging or potentially diminished your feelings of self worth?
Leiva: For me it was, “Why are you so loud?” I remember the first person that ever asked me that said, “You're yelling. You're literally yelling right now.” It started to become the thing that everyone picked on me for. So then I just made the decision to be that loud girl. I just ran with it. I think that for me it was just like, if you're going to say something about me then I'm going to be the best loud girl you know. I'm going to be the most entertaining one and I'm going to make you laugh. That was like my survival mechanism.
Marissa: I embraced the stereotypes and I was determined to make them vibrant. In my household it was expected that girls are in the kitchen only. You don't need to be smart, or keep it to yourself. I was told boys don't like it when girls talk too much. In high school, I took food class like three semesters just because I thought my dad would be kind of proud of me.
So I decided I'm going to be, you know, chiquita pero picosa. Fine by me. That's kind of been my journey and I’m unapologetic about it too. You get to a point where you decide this is who I am and I'm totally okay with it and I understand that it might make some folks uncomfortable. So let's have a conversation about that. Why does it make you uncomfortable?
Did teachers ever say anything damaging to your self worth?
Marissa: I remember walking into in our high school college credit resource room. I was just curious about it. I wasn't a kid that was going to be taking the SATs or anything like that, but I just was curious about learning more. I remember going into that room and this lady was just like, “Can I help you? Are you looking for your friends?” She just dismissed me and was pretty much like, you know, you don't need to worry about that kind of stuff. No, you're not going to take the SATs, that's not an option for you.
Leiva: It was my chemistry teacher. I don't know what it was about me that he just did not like. He would look at me all the time and just tell me how pathetic I was in science. I mean, it's chemistry, you know, I wasn't a science person. I was more into literature, but I also really wanted to make sure that I had good grades. I was failing consistently, all of his quizzes, all of his exams. I went to him for tutoring and, after tutoring, I ended up getting a D on an exam. He gives me the D in front of everyone and asks, “What do you want to be exactly? What do you want to do with your life?” No one had ever really asked me something like that. So I said, “I really don't know. I haven't thought about it.” He then tells me, “Whatever it is, you should honestly just drop out. Get a job at Power 96, which is our local hip hop radio station. You have the personality, everyone knows you're loud enough to have the voice. Just go and leave. You're wasting your time here. You're wasting a desk here. And quite frankly, you're not going to do anything with this anyway. So just get out.” And he kicked me out of class. And that's one of those things that to this day stills stings.
Were there any teachers who empowered you?
Carminia: Again, up until high school, I was always around other people who looked like me. Of my main elementary teachers, three were Latinas: my kindergarten, my first grade, my fifth grade teacher. In middle school I had a teacher who was very adamant about reminding us that our history was not in our history books. She was a Puerto Rican, dark skinned woman. She would tell us, “There's nothing about me in these books. And if it is, they're not saying it's about me. So if they're talking about black people, but they're talking about Black Latinos, they're not saying that. So it's not about me and they're not telling our side of the stories.” Up until that point, I hadn't realized how the things we were being taught made us invisible. My mind was blown. Nobody has said anything about Dominicans in history class. We haven't talked about civics and how it relates to Latinos in the city of New York, which is ridiculous.
Leiva: For me it was my cap advisor. She's one of the people who definitely changed my life. Like I had mentioned before, I grew up very, very poor and by senior year I had three jobs. I would work at the Miami Seaquarium, Denny's, and at a gas station with my sister. Then in the evenings, I would work cleaning offices at the University of Miami. The last thing that ever crossed my mind was going to college. I knew that I wanted to, but it just wasn't in the cards for me at that moment. I was smart and I felt like I would figure it out but my school had this 100% of us will go to college type of ordeal.
So, I got called into the college advisors office and our cap advisor was super personable and a sweetheart. I told her I was going to college and she just laughed and asked, “What do you mean you're not going?” I told her my family really needed me and that I bring in about three paychecks and it really helps us out. If I leave, what are they going to do? I don't want to feel that burden so I'd rather just stay and help them out a bit until we're doing better. She stopped everything she was doing and turned around and she looked at me and said, “Leiva, you have so much potential for you just not to go to college. What's wrong with you? Sit down. I've already picked out about three schools that I think would be great for you.” And that was it.
Marissa: I had to do some community service hours at a local Boys & Girls Club and the director of that club actually ended up hiring me. I’m so thankful she took the time to see past a little rebellious Mexican kid. She told me I could work there through the junior staff program. So I am actually part of the initial Boys & Girls Club of the East Valley at the Tempe branch. My graduation picture of that program is still there engraved in this glass case.What's interesting is that my own teenager, at one point, we were doing the Boys & Girls Club for her and I told her that, “When you get a chance, you go down in the lobby area, there's this glass case. Look at that and see if you recognize anybody.” She looked at it and she wasn’t sure if it was me and I said, “Yeah, that's me. That's me.” I was heavily involved in gangs and all kinds of activity at the time. It was just bad. That person who gave me a chance helped spiral my love for education, working with kids, advocating for them. I ended up enrolling in my local community college too and that led me to just continue my work in early education
What can teachers do to empower Latinas in their classroom?
Marissa: I want you to be patient and to listen to them.
Carla: What would I needed to hear was, you don't have to hide a single part of yourself.
Katherine: Show her her potential because she doesn't know.
Shout out to Studio 85
Many of the interviews were recorded there and every now and then you’ll hear my good friend Joe, who is the techie behind the microphones chime in on the episodes as my consistent, honorary guest. Studio 85 is a FREE community resource provided by Highway 85 Creative, a local, experiential marketing agency specializing in trade show exhibits and office and retail interiors. If you’re in the Phoenix metro area you should check them out!
Carla Rivera-Cruz (CRC) is an educator and entrepreneur committed to helping like-minded educators reach their fullest potentials.