As a third grader, I remember re-creating the first Thanksgiving, making teepee and wigwam structures. It was fun and lighthearted. We even had a special day for us to excitedly share our creations with our parents.
In sixth grade, I participated in ‘Latin American Day’, where the whole grade dedicated a day to holding a market. Students brought in stereotypical market items, like god’s eyes, ponchos, and other small arts and crafts items to sell. We were given pesos and went around bargaining for knick knacks.
In high school, I was taught about Reaganomics, briefly learning about American Indian warfare, and the positives of the United Fruit Company. The scary part is that I didn’t see a problem with this until several years later. If I had not chosen to study Latin America and human rights in college, I might have lived my life remembering those days as fun, cute, and pleasant. How do my classmates remember these days? Will they grow up to be the majority of Americans — white, upper middle class, privileged people blind to the realities of our history? Suddenly, the America I know makes a bit more sense. We grow up to be what we were taught to be.
When I reflect on this education now, I feel sick. I constantly and intentionally have to unlearn things I was taught and find ways to rethink learning. I have always been told to question everything, but how do you question your entire education and its validity? Was I taught to be racist without knowing it? I am confident there were racist aspects of my education, not only in history classes, but in the books we read in English classes, the art and music we studied, and the expectations of having a computer, clothing, money to pay for books and AP exams, and more.
How should third-graders be taught about indigenous history? Is there a right way to tell a seven-year-old that their country is founded on a colonial genocide? At some point, regardless of whether we are seven or seventeen, students here in the U.S. should learn about the bloodshed and atrocities committed. Perhaps third-graders should not learn all the details, but they also should not be deceived and taught cultural appropriation.
How do you teach and learn about genocides that are not even called a genocide in that country? If Guatemala cannot call what happened in the 1980s a genocide, and cannot bring those political leaders to justice, how should that be taught to students? Colonial genocides were centuries ago, but the genocides throughout the Americas that the United States government catalyzed are still pertinent today. Survivors are alive, and human rights trials are ongoing.
Who decides what to glaze over and what to stress in the curriculum? How can students further their own understanding and determine the questions that will actually matter? Although I could ask 50 more unanswerable questions, I’m not sure that would be productive.
Latin American history is almost entirely left out of the K-12 curriculum. The role of the U.S. in Latin American political history goes unknown to most Americans, and one only finds out about it through more specific undergraduate and graduate studies. President Reagan, a key figure in the military coups and the corruption of the United Fruit Company, only is taught as “bellicose” and through his economic progress made. The revised curriculum for AP (Advanced Placement) classes in U.S. History removed that specific term from the curriculum, but still did not include any of his racist policies or problematic interventions in Latin America. Some criticize the new framework proposed as “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects”, but the new curriculum still lacks discourse on the true meaning of colonialism.
If I were to play the word game in high school, and someone said “colonialism”, the first thing I would have said was, “Native Americans.” For students to learn the true meaning of colonialism, curriculum, teachers, and administrators need to change. Teachers have the power to shape their students’ perspectives. To teach about colonial history, creativity can be brought into the classroom — perhaps an art, writing, an independent research project, or through geography and mapping its history.
All too often students are taught a hegemonic perspective on Latin American history, further widening the gap between the Global North and South. This increases the nationalistic mindset in America, and inherently results in a politically divided country. The question therefore arises, how should students be educated on different truths of American history? History is subjective and up to the writers, so who gets to decide what to write and how to teach future generations? My education was determined by white, American historians who thus shaped my perspectives on history as well.
If reflecting on your own education raises similar concerns, maybe you can start by looking up the Ponce massacre in Puerto Rico, the burning of the Spanish embassy in Guatemala, and the burning of the Hogar Seguro Virgen de Asunción.
Clare Meehan is a senior at Lafayette College studying international affairs and psychology, with a specific focus on human rights in Latin America. Beyond academics, she loves art and music and works to apply both to social justice issues.
Manno, M. (n.d.). Latino Penn Staters reflect on their K-12 education, lack of
Latin-American representation. The Daily Collegian. Retrieved March 12, 2021, from https://www.collegian.psu.edu/news/campus/latino-penn-staters-reflect-on-their-k-12-education-lack-of-latin-american-representation/article_19a76ebc-01e9-11eb-a1c8-4b94 7f0e19ea.html
Peak, C. (2019, November 13). Latina Student: What About Our History? | New Haven Independent. http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/latin-american_history _curriculum/
Schlanger, Z. (2015, July 30). Newly Revised AP US History Standards Take Softer Tone on Racial History of America. Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/newly-revised-ap-us-history-standards-take-softer-tone-racial-history-america-358537