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Latinx Diversity Emphasized in KZ Zapata’s BHS Classroom

Born in Berkeley and raised in Albany, KZ Zapata is “Bay Arean” through and through. “My father is from Peru so he’s from South America, and my mom is from here. So I grew up really around … a bicultural, biracial experience,” said Zapata. Her father moved to the US when he was eighteen, at a time when there were a lot of misconceptions about Latin America. 

“[People] would always say, like, ‘Is that part of Mexico?’ or ‘Where in Mexico is Peru?’ There was just so much misunderstanding that he felt he was protecting [me] by not speaking [Spanish] to us. [I had a] very assimilationist upbringing,” said Zapata. “Growing up, I went to Peru. I went and met all my family there. I started to learn that I had these two sides of myself, and these two experiences with the culture and the language that were both really important to me.” 

Zapata has been teaching for twenty-four years, eighteen of which were spent at Berkeley High School (BHS). Initially, she taught at a bilingual school in San Francisco. “I saw it as a way to help young people feel proud of their first language. If they spoke Spanish at home, [I wanted them] to feel that their culture was being recognized in the school system,” said Zapata. “I think of my teaching as healing the wounds that were kind of created in my life and in many young people that sort of grew up with old-school parents that were ashamed of their culture.” 

At Berkeley High, Ms. Zapata teaches English to sophomores and seniors in the Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS). She educates students on how to use language to promote public health, social justice, and service for the good of our society. “What I teach about is that there are lots of different ways we dehumanize one another and oppress one another… My goal in my classes is to connect [to English the] stories we tell ourselves to justify the treatment or mistreatment of others,” said Zapata. 

In addition to her AMPS English classes, Zapata teaches a writing elective for a small group of freshmen. She also expressed her hopes to create a Latin American Film course. “I have to write the course and get it approved, but I’ve been wanting to teach it for years now,” said Zapata. She has spoken about the film class with Amanda Moreno and Rebecca Villagran, two other Latina teachers at BHS. 

In light of Latinx Heritage Month, Zapata has dedicated her class time to educating students about Latin American culture. However, few teachers at BHS are spending significant amounts of time talking about Latinx Heritage Month. “All my students tell me, ‘some of my teachers don’t even talk about it or acknowledge it [at all],’” said Zapata. Every day last week, she spent the class period teaching about a different Latin American country, really focusing on the cultural diversity between them. Zapata has been showing videos and talking about the different foods people eat in each country and the words that are used in some countries but not others. “My entire focus this month is that each country is different,” Zapata said. “So this, like, ‘Oh we’re all Latinos’ is great, but it’s also entirely a United States construct.” 

By compressing all Latin American people into one group, the term Latinx doesn’t fully represent the diversity of all the people who fall under it. These labels can mean a lot, especially because they are used primarily in the US. “We come to the US, and we’re given this label Latino, or Chicana, Chicano, or Hispanic. But at home, we’re Peruvian, we’re Honduran. We’re Mexicanos, we’re Chilenos. We are not Latino. Like, sure, we live in Latin America. But like, I don’t eat tortillas, I never have,” said Zapata. 

In class, Zapata’s students have been coloring maps of Latin America. She joked about how coloring is “kind of fun,” and stressed how vital it is for students to be familiar with the geography of Latin America. “We need to understand that the map is really important… Look at the map, know the map. That’s what the people in the United States struggle with so much. … For me, it’s a responsibility we have, to understand how diverse we are,” said Zapata.

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