By: Mirelsie Velázquez
In the Fall of 1980 I began not just my educational journey as a Kindergartener at Richard Yates School, but became intricately tied to a long history of school oppression and subsequent school activism within Chicago’s Puerto Rican community.
I contended not only with the mispronunciation of my name (what kind of a name is Mirelsie!), but a misunderstanding of who I was as a young, Puerto Rican child. What was not misunderstood was the (mis)education that many of us would face on a daily basis, nor the way our history within not only the city but also city schools continues to be ignored. But as I entered Moos Elementary the following year I inadvertently became part of that history, as in front of me stood the first of many Puerto Rican educators who would influence me in ways not understood by the other teachers that I grew too accustomed to ignoring me.
While there, for first time, I had a teacher who looked and sounded like me, who knew how to pronounce my name (¡que nombre bello! she would tell me), but more importantly, who did not seek to erase who I was. She taught us the importance of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, while at the same time organizing a group of us to march in the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Ms. Navarro will never know this, but she was the first educator to fill me with hope, inspiring a love for learning and reading that helped carry me through the most difficult of times (I attended four high schools in four years), my attending a predominantly white institution of higher learning (which I dropped out of but later returned to complete three degrees), but more importantly, to believe in myself. So I set out to reclaim that history that I became part of in 1980.
How did I even come to have a Puerto Rican teacher in a city so hell bent at erasing us? How did we even have a school named after one of the greatest Puerto Rican baseball players who ever lived? It was a 1966 Puerto Rican uprising on Division Street that allowed the community a voice, especially in terms of the education of Puerto Ricans (and other communities of color) in Chicago schools. For decades, Puerto Ricans and others have fought (and continue to fight) for equal access to education in city schools, but as evident here, Chicago schools never really understood their long history in creating discrepancies in the education of its students.
In 1953 the Chicago Board of Education welcomed the help of outside agencies in dealing with issues pertaining to Puerto Rican students. According to the Board, “The problem for the school is particularly acute with those children who have no knowledge of English. The unfamiliarity of their parents with continental, and specifically Chicago, ways of life complicates the problem of the children’s adjustment in the new school situation.”1
Little attention was placed on the fact that for decades, many of these new migrants (whose population in Chicago surpassed 30,000 by the time of the 1960 census) had experienced American educational practices prior to their migration, under U.S. terms. Because of U.S. colonial rule of the island following the Spanish American War (1898), as Sonia Nieto reminds us, Puerto Ricans have been attending U.S. schools for over a century.2 Educational policies on the island in the early 20th century focused on Americanization practices targeting teachers and students alike, so much so that Puerto Rican students on the island were much better versed on U.S. customs and history than their counterparts in mainland schools. But upon entering Chicago schools these same students were now forced into schools ill-equipped in teaching them or uninterested in their lives, or both. Schools and the city quickly focused on language as the sole reason for the “Problem of the Puerto Rican” as it came to be referred to by city officials.
In an inter-office memo dated January of 1954, the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago recognized “there is the problem of education for children who know no English.”1 Although language difficulties were indeed important, schools were not offering viable solutions to the learning of English for these students, but similarly, schools were not addressing the racial politics within the city that permeated school walls, and thus the lives of these children. This (mis)education however did succeed in one thing if it at least united the Puerto Rican population in Chicago to confront their schooling concerns.
Puerto Rican newspapers such El Puertorriqueño regularly documented the need for school reform and involvement within the community. The newsletters of the Young Lords Organization chronicled the experiences of Puerto Rican youth in city schools. Researchers and writers in the 1960’s and 1970’s also brought attention to the sometimes feeling of defeat that students felt, as was the case in the phenomenal collection The Me Nobody Knows. As 13 year-old Victor wrote in the collection, “When I first get up in the morning I feel fresh and it seems like it would be a good day to me. But after I get in school, things change and they seem to turn into problems for me. And by the end of the day I don’t even feel like I’m young. I feel tired”.1 So what the community had by the late 1960’s was a generation of tired children, and something had to be done.
Following the uprising in 1966, the education of Puerto Rican students became the focus of many in the community. Mirta Ramírez and others brought Aspira Inc. to Illinois in the late 1960’s, Maria Cerda became the first Latina (and Puerto Rican) to serve on the Chicago Board of Education, and then the community saw the building of a new high school to replace the aging Tuley High School (and name it after Roberto Clemente). But through all its small victories, also came to realization of much more work needing to be done as is documented in a study conducted by Dr. Isidro Lucas in the early 1970’s: a 70% drop-out rate of Puerto Rican students in Chicago.
As Lucas argued, “in general, schools were not found to be geared to Puerto Rican students,” with students dealing with “an acute self-identity crisis…prevalent among Chicago Puerto Rican youth.”1
This is where my life becomes intertwined with this history, as Ms. Navarro, and other Puerto Rican teachers like her, maneuvered their way through a school system historically not geared towards Puerto Rican youth, but almost geared to fail them. The schooling of Puerto Rican children, has been, and will continue to be, a community affair.
Mirelsie Velázquez, Ph.D. moved to Chicago from Caguas, Puerto Rico, and attended Chicago schools. After completing a PhD in Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she is now a faculty member in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where she is completing a book manuscript on the History of Puerto Rican education in Chicago.