By João Chaves
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Most of us have heard the story of the lion that thought he was a sheep. Yes, that one we hear in motivational speeches that try to awaken the metaphorical lion that is supposedly sleeping inside of us. The story goes sort of like this: a lion cub gets lost from his family and is adopted by a flock of sheep. The lion grows up among sheep and, therefore, he thinks he is one of them. He bleated instead of roaring; ate grass instead of meat. The lion was a vegan—how hip—and that made him weak. The lion had forgotten who he really was.
You may, of course, feel free to use this story in order to try to awaken the beast that may be sleeping inside of you; that is, in order to recast the suspicious notion that you as an individual have full control over your destiny and that, if you only act right, all will be fine and dandy. My sociological commitments question the motivational-speech approach to the story, but you are welcome to give it a try.
The reason I am mentioning this well-known story, however, is because despite its shortcomings, it illustrates well the epistemological dynamic that became an increasing concern of mine on my ongoing development as a minority teacher who teaches minority students. We may not be able to change our destiny by bumping up our self-esteem. But we can, no, we must be able to tell our own story. In order to better serve our students, our community, the people we lead, and ourselves, we must understand and pay attention to the interdependence between memory and identity. In a very deep way, we are what we remember and, in turn, we remember the stories that we are told. That seems like a fairly innocent observation, but it is one with deceivingly complex ramifications. Let me illustrate parts of this dynamic with a personal story.
When I was in seminary, one of my professors, asked a question in class: “when you think of a Latino person, what comes to mind?” There was tension in the air! I was the only non-white person in class and they already knew I was less than shy. A friend of mine, now a pastor in a mid-size church in Texas, had courage and took the lead. He said: “I think of janitors and cooks!” Most of the other students—all of whom had at least one college degree—had similar opinions. A number of questions came to mind at that moment: how about Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, or Cachao? Had they ever heard of Paulo Freire, Oscar Romero, Gabriel García Márquez, Frida Kahlo, or Gloria Anzaldúa? Have they never read Pablo Neruda or Isabel Allende? Surely they’ve heard of Rudolfo Anaya, right? There is, of course, nothing wrong with being janitors or cooks. I have cleaned houses for money and I worked in the restaurant industry—and those aren’t even the less prestigious jobs I’ve had. The issue is the implicit (and sometimes explicit) essentialization of Latinas/os as a pathological sub-class; a widespread practice in contemporary U.S.
I know, reader, what you may be thinking: “well, Disney is coming up with a Latina princess. Look how far we’ve gotten,” or “Didn’t you see Eva Longoria speaking at the Democratic National Convention? She’s my favorite housewife.” Yes, I’ve seen that and much more. So don’t say I don’t recognize a level of improvement. Despite the fact that I am not impressed by the commodification of Latina/o image as businesses discover the Latina/o market or politicians cater to the Latina/o vote, I get that we may be doing better.
But the issues surrounding the image and history of Latinas/os in this country have deep structural roots. The fact that my college-educated seminary colleagues knew next to nothing about Latina/o and Latin American role models is a far-too-common reality. This reality thrusts us inevitably to the production of knowledge and, as some of us may know, the production of knowledge thrusts us to the dynamics of power. “History has its own story,” said Michel Foucault, and he was right. Save a few exceptions, U.S. schools and colleges do not teach about the value and richness of Latina/o culture and history. Just ask yourself: “outside courses taken in Latina/o studies departments, what books written by Latinas/os were assigned to me in my high school, college, and even graduate school education?” I suspect the numbers will—to use a British-like understatement—not be very high. That illustrates, among other things, that the lack of awareness of the richness of Latina/o and Latin American contributions to American culture and history is, to a great extent, sustained by institutional practices.
Awareness that Latina/o and Latin American people may have internalized a distorted narrative of their heritage is important. It is important because our stories are an integral part of who we are and the stories of our ancestors are inseparable from our biographies, both for us and for those with whom we relate.
As Latinos/as who may have been trained under the shadows of the very disseminators of distorted narratives, we must constantly question the canons of our disciplines in the name of expansion; in the name of inclusion. We must include into our educational and leadership models creative ways to raise the awareness of the richness of the Latina/o heritage. A former Mexican-American student once told me she was so much more proud of her heritage after I taught, on my way towards explaining the invention of modern racism, about the former greatness of Tenochtitlan. How much prouder would she be had the story of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Geronimo, and José María Morelos not be stolen from her memory?
If we are leaders concerned about the subjectivity of those we lead and who indeed appropriate the vision of valuing our heritage, then we must embrace the challenge of rescuing formative stories that were neglected along the way. In this qualified sense, there are many lions to be awakened from their sheep-like slumbers.
João Chaves, BUA adjunct professor, is a Brazilian-born historian of Christianity. He loves trying to catch up to his marathon-running wife and playing board games with his two American children. João is the author of Evangelical and Liberation Revisited (Wipf & Stock, 2013) and of several peer-reviewed articles and book chapters.
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