For students at Berkeley High School (BHS), the Chicanx Latinx History and Literature classes offered to juniors and seniors are an amazing opportunity to explore history and literature through a unique lens. Latinx students can feel a connection to the curriculum, not only helping them learn more about their identity, but also preparing them for strong political and cultural conversations.
While Chicanx Latinx classes at BHS are not new, they evolve each year. Amanda Moreno, the Chicanx Latinx Literature teacher at BHS, described how the focus and inclusivity of the class have expanded throughout the years. “I’m really trying to move the course to Latinx literature, where we’re not just focusing on Mexicans and Mexican Americans, but also expanding to other Latinx groups,” Moreno said. She emphasized thinking about indigenous people in Latin America, as well as Puerto Ricans, who have a unique identity in the US regarding voting rights and citizenship.
Additionally, the class constantly changes in response to global events, as issues around immigration, ICE, and President Trump are especially relevant for Latinx people in the US nowadays. Rebecca Villagran, the Latinx History teacher, explained, “Being Latinx is complex, and it’s also this tool that’s been used to divide America under Trump.” Phrases like “the illegals,” and, “build the wall,” have become all too familiar in the current political climate. “It’s confusing and it’s scary and students want to understand this. So that’s my approach to teaching this class: how do we understand the present moment, by going back in history?” said Villagran.
Villagran and Moreno work together to create community-based activities, which not only help to form bonds among students, but educate them politically. Moreno brings an immigration lawyer into the classroom to talk to students about complex immigration policies in the US. The class also participates in a “Know Your Rights” training session, educating students on what to do if ICE is in their neighborhood, as well as who to contact and what to say. “I’m really focused on taking the literature and making it about the community, so that students feel like we’re not just reading this book and learning about Latinx culture, but we’re actually making a difference in our communities,” said Moreno.
Abril Fonseca, a recent graduate of BHS, explained how it was difficult to process some of the information she was learning. Fonseca wondered, “How am I a part of the Latinx community, and I don’t even know this about my own people?” But Latinx culture has consistently been omitted from the traditional curriculum, making it necessary for these classes to exist. “It was a difficult process to show that although you’re part of a community, sometimes you don’t necessarily know everything. You’re always gonna be learning something new about your culture and about yourself and your identity,” said Fonseca.
“A lot of times, I get students that don’t like history; they think it’s boring,” said Villagran. Moreno added, “Some folks come into the course feeling really burned out by their English classes and English literature in general.” But Chicanx Latinx classes allow students to truly connect to the curriculum.
For some students, the first novel they read in completion is in their Latinx literature class, simply because their connection to the text is strong enough to engage them. Moreno said, “I’ve had students who failed the class, but loved the class. Being a part of the community is what they get out of the year. They’re not ready to step into academics yet, but just coming into class every day is a huge win.”
The class has also helped students like Dora Drake, a senior in Academic Choice (AC), find their voice. Drake explained, “I don’t like to talk that much in general, but this class really helped me stand up for my opinions and put my voice out there. I think it did that for a lot of people.”
Because most of the students in these classes identify as Latinx, the course content has a personal relevance for them, making the community aspect incredibly important in the class setting. For students who aren’t Latinx, though they are strongly welcomed, that jump out of their comfort zone can be a challenge. Thus, these classes offer something unique for all students.
“It’s so interesting to be able to pull all these different facets of our identity and bring them forward. I find that it creates empathy, both cross-culturally and within the context of our complex identities beyond culture,” Moreno remarked. “I love having a diverse group of students in the class and being able to talk honestly and openly.”