Viewpoint: Advocating for Latino students

Sunday, September 27, 2015 - 7:13pm

Rapists. Illegals. Drug traffickers.

These are just a few of the terms used in recent months to describe people who look like me. They’re spread through social media, through talk radio, and through presidential hopefuls on the national stage. They have fueled a sometimes nasty, and often inaccurate, debate about immigration in the United States. Along the way — amid all the pain and vitriol — they have created a huge opportunity, one on which our generation must take the lead.

The current dialogue about immigration has once again put Latinos in the United States at the forefront of national discussion. And the fact that it’s not the caliber of conversation our Latino communities deserve means we have the chance to change it; it’s our chance to have our voices heard.

As a teacher in a majority-minority city in California where nearly all of my students identify as Latino, I often bond with my kids over our shared culture. We’ve swapped stories about eating tamales around the holidays and shared photos of siblings’ quinceñeara celebrations.

Ours became a true, inclusive community. I beamed with pride as my kids welcomed a new student who spoke no English with open arms, eagerly translating for her and helping her study flashcards to pick up the language.

But I also watched with a sinking heart as my kids navigated situations they didn’t deserve. During my second year of teaching, one of my students and his older brother came into school with his head down, looking shaken. Their parents had just been deported. As we scrambled to ensure they had a place to stay, the boys wondered when they would see their family again.

Reflecting back, I know that my kids’ pain and progress was part of something that extended far beyond the walls of our classroom. Across the country, Latinos lag behind their white counterparts in everything from high school graduation to reading and math performance. This has nothing to do with ability or will. It’s a direct reflection of systemic gaps in educational opportunity according to race, class and zip code. And with our country’s entire population moving toward majority-minority, unless we address these gaps, we will soon live in a country where the majority of students are behind.

When I first came to the University, I knew I wanted to work in public policy, but I didn’t know teaching would be such a foundational part of my path. Every day, as I work to advocate for the legal rights of special-education students, I’m grateful that I followed my gut. When I learned about Teach For America, the mission of expanding opportunity for low-income students and the experience of working in a high-need community resonated deeply with me. After three years in the classroom, I went to law school because I wanted to effect large-scale change in the systems that were inhibiting my students’ and their families’ pathways to success. Now, I’m a lawyer who understands the complexities, the challenges and just how much there is at stake.  

When our national conversation doesn’t do right by our communities, it’s easy to get angry. It’s easy to scream or walk away. It’s easy to fall victim to doubts that anything will ever change. But it’s also imperative that we act. We can use our education and our experiences to become leaders and shape the stories ourselves. We can help the kids that will come of age in the next decades fulfill their potential so they can thrive. My students have all now graduated from high school and are off to college. I can’t wait to watch as they help lead our country to a brighter future.

Resilient. Strong. Smart. Those are the words that describe my kids, my family and my community. It’s time for their country to know it. It’s time for their voices to be heard.

Christine Florick Nishimura is a 2006 alum of the University and Teach For America: Los Angeles. She is currently a staff attorney with Disability Rights Texas, representing students with disabilities to ensure they receive appropriate special-education services.