September 2019
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Luis Javier Pentón Herrera, Independent, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

Never in my life I thought that being a teacher would be such a transformative process, both personally and professionally. Being born and raised in a developing country where a traditional view on education is still practiced, I often looked up to teachers as the individuals with all the knowledge, all the answers, and all the correct opinions. However, after having the opportunity to teach in both K–12 and at the university level in the United States, I have learned that my students have taught me just as much as I have taught them, if not more. In this article, I share vignette of an event that changed my life as a teacher and as a human being. In this article, I take the opportunity to share my story of how one of my Indigenous Latinx students, Diego, initiated a conversation that would eventually evolve into a process of complete transformation for my personal and professional selves.

Learning From Diego

I was born and raised in Cuba, oftentimes thought of as one of the most literate nations in the world. Although this fact is certainly true, looking back I can now see that growing up in such a traditional school system did not allow spaces for challenging ideologies such as western colonialism. For example, throughout the years, we learned about the history of Cuba and how Spaniard conquistadores “discovered” Cuba (and Latin America). After being taught this information, we superficially learned about Indigenous peoples from Cuba (Guanahatabeyes, Siboneyes, and Taínos) and how the Spaniards exterminated them, and then we focused on the colonial times when Cuba was still a Spanish colony and moving all the way to the present. Looking back to my years in Cuba (kindergarten to 11th grade), I do not remember learning in-depth information about Cuba’s Indigenous peoples and cultures. Cuba’s aboriginal peoples—and, by extension, all aboriginal peoples from around the world—always seemed to be history… peoples from the past.

Coming to the United States, I continued to think that Indigenous peoples from Latin America were groups of people from the past; “¡los españoles conquistaron América Latina y ahora todos hablamos español!” (the Spanish conquered Latin America and now we all speak Spanish!), I ignorantly thought. Fast forward a few years into the future, now as a high school English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher, I continued to believe that Indigenous populations and languages from Latin America were no longer alive and that all individuals from Latin America spoke Spanish. I was wrong, very wrong!

One day in 2015 while teaching the present continuous tense in my ESOL newcomers’ class, I kept explaining the concept in both English and Spanish (all my English learners where Latinx at the time) and one of my students, Diego (pseudonym), continued to struggle with the conjugations. I decided to assign group work for the remainder of the class and sat down next to Diego so I could explain to him this information one-on-one. I remember telling him, “Diego mijo, ya expliqué esto en español, ¿por qué no estás entendiendo la información en español?” (Diego, my son [endearment term/phrase in Spanish], I explained this in Spanish, why aren’t you understanding this information in Spanish?). He looked down and whispered “yo hablo dialecto Mr.” (I speak [a] dialect, Mr.). After asking more questions, I learned, in that moment, that Diego was an Ixil (Maya) speaker who was simultaneously learning Spanish as a second language and English as a third language.

Learning that Diego was Ixil shattered everything I thought I knew from Latin America. I remember asking myself, “Why didn’t I learn this in Cuba? Why weren’t we taught in Cuba that Indigenous peoples and languages are very much alive in Latin America?” More importantly, I asked myself, “Why isn’t this vulnerable group more visible in the academic literature addressing Latinx English learners (ELs)?” I remember feeling confused, guilty, and unprepared all at the same time. One thought that I could not shake out of my head was the fact that Diego was struggling because I did not know about his reality; I had not been trained to help Indigenous ELs and I had no idea how to look for academic resources in Ixil to support him in learning English. All along, I had been taught and trained to teach English to Latinx ELs using Spanish, but what about Diego? What about other Indigenous Latinx ELs?

Decolonizing My Pedagogy

I soon realized that for me to help Diego and other Indigenous Latinx students in my classroom, a transformation was needed. As such, I started to actively learn about Indigenous cultures from Latin America, their social and educational realities, as well as their history. Through this process, I realized that I began to see Indigenous peoples and cultures as beings of the present (and the future); I began to see them as the resilient and powerful individuals they are. At the same time, I became aware of the subtle displays of racism that took place inside our classroom where Spanish-speaking Latinx ELs would sometimes use the word indio (Indian—pejorative term in Spanish) to signify that someone was “less than” or “ignorant/unintelligent”. In addition, I also began to notice how my Indigenous Latinx ELs did not feel comfortable or safe enough to share that they were Indigenous because of fear of being ridiculed.

For these, and other reasons, I began to consciously decolonize my pedagogy and my practices. I began to use every incident as a teachable moment, an opportunity to learn from our past mistakes. We, as a class, began to reflect on the implications of using the word indio and what this word really entailed… how it made individuals feel. We also started celebrating everyone’s languages and cultures inside our learning environment. If my Indigenous ELs knew how to read and write in their native languages, I encouraged them to use their languages as much as possible in our classroom. Slowly, I began to notice small shifts in our learning environment’s energy. We had reached a point where we were now appreciating one another; we were celebrating each other’s heritage. Throughout this process, our classroom activities also transformed and became more representative of my students’ realities and identities, which was something they enjoyed and appreciated (see Kidwell & Pentón Herrera, 2019 for an example).

Indigenizing My SELF

Five academic school years have passed since the 2014–2015 school year and I continue to have the privilege of teaching ESOL to adolescent Indigenous Latinx ELs in a U.S. high school. However, a lot has changed in these five years. Since then, I have begun a path towards lifelong learning about Indigenous cultures and languages from Latin America and from around the world. This was the primary reason for focusing on the language and literacy experiences of adolescent Ixil ELs in U.S. classrooms as my doctoral dissertation research topic and it continues to be the reason for my present and future research. In the process of wanting to help my student Diego learn English, I have become a learner myself. As a result, I have changed my worldview about many things I had previously neglected to recognize. For example:

    • I now celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day.
    • I refuse to think of Spanish conquistadores as “liberators” or “discoverers” and now see them as inhumane, heartless individuals who eradicated languages, cultures, and civilizations for material gains, power, and control.
    • I acknowledge, celebrate, and honor the past and present contributions of Indigenous cultures and languages in our classes and in my everyday life.
    • I teach my Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) Latinx ELs why their languages are languages, not dialects.
    • I continue to use my writing and research as platforms to share the voices and experiences of my Indigenous Latinx ELs as they remain widely unacknowledged in the ESOL and Latin American Studies literatures, as well as in U.S. communities and learning spaces (see Pentón Herrera 2018, 2019).
    • I am their unwavering advocate.

    Final Thoughts

    In an attempt to learn more about Diego and my other Indigenous ELs, I found a side of history that remains superficially taught in Cuban and U.S. public classrooms. I have learned how throughout history (and in the present) colonialism continues to pursue its inhumane strategy of assimilating Indigenous peoples by eradicating their cultures and languages—best described by the words of Capt. Richard H. Pratt as “kill the Indian, save the man”. I have also become aware of how governments following colonialist principles forcefully displace their Indigenous populations, as it is the case with the current situation in Colombia and other countries around the world. I have also learned with great sadness how colonialist-minded individuals in power can and have led inhumane initiatives towards Indigenous communities, an example being the recent sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada and women and men in Peru. In addition, I have also realized that colonialist-minded governments continue to provide substandard educational opportunities and training to Indigenous children and teachers aiming to continue to diminish their options and opportunities. The more I learn about the inhumane and inhuman treatments Indigenous communities have been forced to endure, the more I understand why Indigenous peoples are the survivors of “the nexus of bio-psycho-social-cultural-spiritual intergenerational trauma” (Urrieta Jr., 2019, p. 1).

    “Why do you care about what happened in the past?”, a teacher-colleague asked me recently. “I care!”, I shared, “because the past has impacted and continues to impact the present. Learning about the history of Indigenous cultures and peoples around the world has opened my eyes in such a way that I can no longer ignore their experiences; their pains.” I know that some people, similar to my teacher-colleague, might believe that the past should stay in the past. However, I think that learning from the past and acknowledging how it is impacting the present is the only way to change our ways and begin a healing journey towards a better future. The reality is that some of my Indigenous Latinx students arrive to my classroom with intergenerational trauma caused by colonialism and colonialist practices in their countries; this fact cannot be changed or ignored. However, one thing that I can do, something that I can help change, is their future.

    I am proud to say that, after five academic years, Diego finally graduated high school with a scholarship to a 2-year community college. Success for our Indigenous ELs is, indeed, within reach!


    Kidwell, T. & Pentón Herrera, L. J. (2019). Culturally sustaining pedagogy in action: Views from Indonesia and the United States. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 55(2), 60–65. DOI: 10.1080/00228958.2019.1580982

    Pentón Herrera, L. J. (2018). Indigenous students from Latin America in the United States. Cervantes Institute at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University.

    Pentón Herrera, L. J. (2019). Advocating for Indigenous Hispanic EL students: Promoting the Indigenismo within. In H. A. Linville & J. Whiting (Eds.), Advocacy in English Language Teaching and Learning (pp. 161–174). New York, NY: Routledge.

    Urrieta, Jr. L. (2019). Indigenous reflections on identity, trauma, and healing: Navigating belonging and power. Genealogy, 3(2), 1–14.

    Luis Javier Pentón Herrera is a literacy and language educator. His research interests and areas of expertise include bilingual education, Spanish, ESOL/ESL, literacy education, and problem-based service-learning. To learn more about his works, please visit his website.
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