Where to begin… what has led me to the circumstances to investigate the nuances of cultural identity? Cultural meaning is the very thing we give value to and how we use or integrate these meanings, for what purposes, and at what levels of representation is what drove me to understand myself better. Words, images, emotions bind and classify the values we place on cultural meaning, the phrase quoted above is an example of a type of association. This saying, using Mexican slang, a language of my childhood, Spanish, is from growing up in my hometown of Nogales, Arizona, to which I attribute my identity, ethnicity, and culture. This is where my understanding of people and place were fashioned into a melting pot of what it is to be an American from the border from a family of Mexican-Americans. I grew up as multi-cultural as one might expect a city kid would, with a perspective of diversity, flexibility, and cultural sensitivity. Sure, Nogales lacked the ethnic variety of a big city. Nevertheless, my “Ciudad” was my cornerstone.
However, when those cultural meanings and our identity are questioned, and who we are and with whom we identify is suddenly challenged, everything is thrown into chaos. Such was my case the moment I left Nogales, I faced considerable scrutiny- “I am Mexican,” you look white, puzzled looks on both faces, “White?” Where are you from? “I am from a small town on the border with Arizona and Mexico.” Here follows a line of conversation that must have happened a thousand times over the course of my life. Now that I am older, and my cultural meanings have been produced and renewed over the course of my understanding of them, my responses have become more refined. I am from Nogales. I am Mexican-American. I am from Tucson. I am from New York I am from here. It took a long time for my identity crisis to collapse entirely. That is, my culture for a moment was placed in a secret vessel and cared for because of the value I put on it, but others did not validate it, and due to that factor those cultural meanings were lost for far too long. Therefore, my research is as much as it is a scholarly analysis of an emotional journey of the self. My culture, my traditions, my status in America is constructed rather than found and given meaning as cultural identity is continually being produced and exchanged in every personal and social interaction in which I take part. May every second, third, and even fourth immigrant generation fill their vessels with the meaning in which they produce and ideally share these with the rest of us.
I believe that history helps us to understand the ways of life in the past. If the past is a part of a knowledge base, then looking back can inform our understanding of the present and the future. Similarly, we can look at human behavior and the consequences of that action from history.
One final acknowledgment, or rather, a dedication of sorts for a student of mine- George. I had the privilege of being this child’s 5th-grade teacher, and I mark our serendipitous association as the catalyst for becoming a pedagogue. It was during this time, my earliest years as a teacher, in which I awoke to a greater awareness of class conflict, inequality, and hegemony. Working with George and students’ like him, presented me with challenges which I have spent the greater part of my life trying to explain. The limits and possibilities for students like George and the complexities surrounding second-generation Dominican-Americans’ living in upper Manhattan, one of the largest Dominican settlements in the United States, a neighborhood called Washington Heights, are multiple. We know that immigrants and their offspring contribute a full 70 percent of the country’s population, and the obstacles along their path can render their successful adjustment, economic and educational advancement uncertain. George reminds me of why I have fought tirelessly for public education, sought models which were educationally inclusive, and tried to change the social context that receives immigrants. Through George, I witnessed the fragmented environment discussed extensively by Portes and Rumbaut (2006) of second-generation youth who faced a pluralistic and often concurrent wealth of opportunities and threats- I dedicate my work to you. You helped evoke my true calling, to never stop fighting against the persistence of racial discrimination, injustice, but more than anything to remain hopeful for the future. Thank you