Creating space to explore identity with students

This post was written by California educator Jorge Pacheco Jr. 

I’ve always known that I was different. When I started kindergarten, I learned pretty quickly that school wasn’t the place for me. I was classified as an English learner and a special education student and a lot of stigma came from those labels. After the first day of kindergarten, when my dad came to pick me up, I said something really shocking to him. I said to him, “Don’t talk Spanish to me, don’t speak Mayan to me. You’re embarrassing me.” I ran home by myself. I don’t know what happened on that first day of school that led to me saying that to my father at five years old. I even told him, the man who I was named after, to stop calling me Jorge or Junior. I told him to call me George, which is what I was called for the next 17 years.

This moment and the feelings I felt then had long-term consequences in terms of my own identity, self-awareness, and understanding of who I was as a person. I didn’t have the language to decipher my own identities and understand the complexities of being multi-ethnic, multi-racial, first-generation American, indigenous, and queer. I didn’t understand that what I was experiencing was internalized racism. How does a person understand all of that when they’re so young? How does a person even navigate the world when pretty early on the explicit and implicit messages we all receive is that people like me do not belong in academia or at school? 

How does a person even navigate the world when pretty early on the explicit and implicit messages we all receive is that people like me do not belong in academia or at school? 

Jorge Pacheco, Jr.

My mother is from El Salvador. My father was born and raised in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, descended from Mayan and Korean parents and great grandparents. When I discovered my Korean heritage as a 3rd grader in the midst of so much internal struggle, I told all the kids at school that I was only Korean. I’m not Salvadoran, I’m not Mayan, I’m not Mexican. I’m not anything else. I’m only Korean because even as a kid of 8 years old, that seemed like a “better” option. Of course, it backfired and led to so much more internalized turmoil. I didn’t know it at the time, but my identities were weaponized against me. I couldn’t focus on learning because I had so many internal battles raging within me. I had neither the language nor the understanding to comprehend the social structures that created this internal turmoil.

When I was a kid, I tried so hard to just make friends. I didn’t have any friends. The Latino kids didn’t want me because they didn’t see me as Latino. The Asian kids didn’t want me because I wasn’t Asian enough. There weren’t any indigenous kids for me to hang out with. I was just alone. I was ostracized by the racialized and segregated social structures so common on school campuses. So I naturally developed an omniscient perspective that looked upon all of it, trying so hard to analyze and understand people. Against my will, being ostracized actually created an organic anthropological lens. Over time it became clear: I’m different and I don’t know why and I don’t have the words for it. But if I weren’t different, I’d have friends. If I weren’t different, I’d have better grades. If I weren’t different, I would have more success and more teachers believing me instead of failing me, suspending me or expelling me. I would have had a different experience.

The first time I discovered there was use for this lens was in my final year of high school when I took an AP art history class. I wasn’t what people thought of when they thought of a great student. I begged the teacher to let me in. She didn’t want to because I had nothing but bad grades, and I was at risk of not graduating. But I just wanted to prove to somebody – to anybody – that I could do something academically rigorous. While still doing terribly in all my other classes, for some reason the books she would give us, the readings we would do, the analysis we would practice, I realized that no one would say the things I would. No one else would think the way I thought. The teacher celebrated me for it. I suddenly knew all those years of being an outsider provided me strengths that no one else had. I started to realize that all those years of thinking I was stupid was nothing more than a lie. Feeling it in my bones and mind, the healing had begun.

Identifying as a queer man took some time for me to learn to embrace layered with the other identities I was navigating. There was a lot of pressure to be straight – the torchbearer that will carry on the name of my family. My mom left El Salvador in the 1980s seeking asylum during the Salvadoran Civil War. My father left a small indigenous village – undocumented – crossing the border into the U.S. They are now both legal citizens of the U.S., but getting to this point was a struggle for them. So with four sisters and being the only boy, me being queer was seen as the worst thing possible for my family. At one point I felt like it wasn’t worth it to be out because of the pain it caused my family. It took a long time for my family to accept that I am gay, but I am now a proud out educator who advocates for the LGBTQ community as much as possible. I try to normalize queerness for my students and make sure to be inclusive within the curriculum I design. Of all my identities, I think my queer community serves as a force field over all my other all of my other identities. None of my other identities can be divorced from my queer identity. 

I went to De Anza Community College for two years after high school, and I started to apply the same energy I showed in AP Art History to all my classes. I also started getting involved in student government. There I found a new community – a bunch of strangers from many backgrounds, countries, communities, families, and experiences. I built up my weak social skills really quickly. I was also realizing that I could use my unique lens to build better relationships and to make change at the student government level. I started organizing people from the undocumented community, from our AAPI community, and from the LGBTQ community. I started running for elections and then eventually got elected to senator and then to vice president of our student government at the community college.

Then it was clear. Everything I had been learning had application. I could use it to create impact for my fellow student communities. Then I decided to just major in anthropology and legal studies and got into UC Berkeley. There I became even more involved in policy change and community organizing. Some of the work I led made national news because people always look to UC Berkeley’s student government as a leader. I understood the connection of the power of education, anthropology, and utilizing one’s identity to make change. At the moment when I held my parents’ hands on the graduation stage, that’s when I knew the next step for me was to become a teacher. I wanted to give students the same opportunity to have those same life-changing experiences that I had. I wanted no student to ever believe that they are stupid or have no future as I had. I went back into the classroom – the most traumatic place for me – to become an elementary school teacher so I could heal my own lasting wounds from school, while also impacting other young people like me.

Over time, I started to learn a language to understand what happened to me. I started to understand what identity was, how to structure my own identity, how to understand the relationships between them, how to give them terms, how to organize them, how to strengthen them. As I began to do that, I started to love myself. I began to heal. Over time I began to protect and advocate for my indigenous identity more than ever, which is my most important identity, all of which inspired me to become a native studies teacher. I now teach students to learn to respect indigenous communities and the earth. We all have indigenous roots. How can we start to discover what those are? I mean, they can be from Europe, they can be from Africa, they can be from Asia. How can we connect with not only our own indigenous roots but support all indigenous peoples across the planet? My indigenous identity is the one that I protect the most because it empowers me the most, it most reflects my values and my morals, it is the lens with which I approach the world, and it helps me also protect my other identities, which for good or for worse, are all linked through the history of colonialism and imperialism. Embracing my indigenous roots is how I negotiated and reconciled all of my identities. It was my key to healing.

Over time, I started to learn a language to understand what happened to me. I started to understand what identity was, how to structure my own identity, how to understand the relationships between them, how to give them terms, how to organize them, how to strengthen them. As I began to do that, I started to love myself. I began to heal.

Jorge Pacheco, Jr.

Knowing what I know now, I have some advice for educators who want to provide a welcome space for an exploration of identity for all students.

Know your power. 

I want teachers to recognize that in many ways, they have great power to influence their students to be accepting and loving of themselves and of others. When a teacher says something to a student, more often than not, it can carry more weight than when a parent says the same thing. It can truly be a delicate balance for students who are struggling to make sense of their own identities within environments that weaponize those very same identities, and teachers can be the first line of defense for their students.

Create an environment that embraces strength & complexity.

Identity formation processes can have life or death implications for students. How many times have we heard of stories of LGBTQ kids committing suicide simply because their families or communities rejected them? Teachers should recognize how complex identity is, but not be afraid of the complexity because as teachers, we must learn to help students who are trying to make sense of their place in a world that is not always welcoming of them. Just as my own discovery of my identities’ gifts strengthened, empowered, and quite frankly – saved me – our students need us to illustrate for them how their identities are also strengths. Our identities can become swords and shields rather than weapons against ourselves. Doing this helps all our students accomplish their goals by building them up with necessary life skills and emotional intelligence necessary to succeed in school and beyond.

Acceptance and love begins with educators.

Teachers have the ability to help a child love themselves, to love the color of their skin, to love who they are, love the way that they love, or all the complexities of who they are. Acceptance starts with the adults. Adults can teach young people how to accept themselves by modeling it for them as well as amplifying people who have done it or are doing it also. 

Our choices matter.

Teachers can choose books, curriculum, and materials that can remind students of the power of their ancestry. For example, when it comes to some of our Mexican students, we want them to know that their ancestors – the Aztecs and the Mayans – were genius scientists, astronomers, mathematicians, and so many other things. They need to know that history, because so often those youth may not see themselves as mathematicians; they may think, “Math isn’t for me.” That was my personal experience. I think it would have been so different if somebody just told me my own ancestors, the Mayas, were knowledgeable and powerful. But none of my teachers had the knowledge or awareness to lead those conversations in the classroom.

There are so many forces that seek to divide us. But we need to put more effort into working with each other. We are at a point in history where we can truly unite to organize together, to amplify voices that need to be amplified, and to fight for justice. Let’s build a better and more sustainable world that our kids will inherit, a world that will make them and the next 7 generations proud.

Jorge Pacheco Jr. is a 2021 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, a classroom Native Studies and bilingual teacher, a trustee and president for the Oak Grove School District Board of Education, president for the California Latino School Boards Association, and an ethnic studies professional expert, co-leading California’s only ethnic studies county initiative. He recommends the following resources for educators who want to learn more about the complexities of identity and the power of education – 

Liberated Ethnic Studies

Xicanx Institute for Teaching and Organizing

Learning for Justice

3 thoughts on “Creating space to explore identity with students

  1. Such an incredibly powerful story and meaningful strategies for teachers to take back to our classrooms. Thank you Teacher Pacheco Jr!

  2. This post is an absolute gem. It is true that we can know our strengths by moving outside our comfort zone. It will be accomplished by motivation by teachers

Leave a Reply