Jake Guth is the Middle School Spanish teacher, as well as an athletics coach. He is a New Orleanian by way of El Salvador and is in his third year teaching at St. George’s.
My journey as a World Languages teacher has made me appreciate two aspects of my job the most: the first is that the study of languages and cultures is intrinsically linked; the second is that, other than subject content, one of the most— if not the most— meaningful parts of being an educator is to teach our students ways to be more inclusive and to make the world a better place to live.
In my line of work as a Spanish teacher, maybe my biggest thrill is teaching students ways to appreciate, respect and be inclusive to the many cultures and subcultures within the Latino world (22 Spanish-speaking countries, including the United States). Spanish students at St. George’s learn about the actual significance of Cinco de Mayo (and why we have no real reason to celebrate it here, as it commemorates the defeat of the French during The Battle of Puebla, and not Mexican Independence Day. In fact, the only place in México that actually celebrates it is the town of Puebla and descendants from it.) In my classes at StG, we have an in-depth project about Día de los Muertos and learn the difference between Latino (Latinx) Heritage Month and the less inclusive term of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Before I delve into the history of it, I have a question: On July 4th, do we as citizens of the United States celebrate our former colonizers? Or do we celebrate the fact that our independence came from defeating said colonizers? You’re correct if you said that we do not, in fact, celebrate our oppressors; we celebrate our independence from colonization! The same concept and respect should be applied to all eight countries celebrating their independence during Latino (Latinx) Heritage Month.
Hispanic Heritage Month initially began as a weeklong celebration in 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson who, at the time, said, "The people of Hispanic descent are the heirs of missionaries, captains, soldiers, and farmers who were motivated by a young spirit of adventure, and a desire to settle freely in a free land." The problem with this is two-fold: first, many people in Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America (including yours truly and my entire Salvadoran family) and South America take issue with the term “Hispanic,” which is more about the heritage of Spanish colonialism and the Spanish language than it is about the diverse people within those geographic regions.
The term Hispanic can even be exclusionary against people within the countries that are celebrated under Hispanic Heritage Month, which include indigenous people, Afro-Latinos and Garífunas (afro-indigenous people that were exiled to Central America and developed their own blend of cultures and language). There are even entire countries that are excluded from the umbrella term “Hispanic,” yet serve a crucial role in the identity of Latinos, such as Brazil and Belize (the latter of which, ironically enough, is a part of Central America and celebrates its independence day in the same month that includes Central American Independence Day). This exclusive language does not sit well with me, and I make it a mission to teach students in Spanish class at St. George’s to recognize the difference and make an attempt to retire the less inclusive term.
One amazing benefit about teaching children to be more aware and more inclusive is how they discover things we were not taught when we were their age. Teaching a Romance language requires us to be more inclusive in our language. This is where the newer term “Latinx” and the more Spanish-speaking friendly version, “Latine,’’ have come into play.
A downside of teaching a romance language is how outdated some grammatical rules are, especially when talking about gender of nouns. Every noun has a gender in Spanish, and to the chagrin of my students, one male noun grouped together with a million female versions of the same noun makes the entire group take a masculine name. This is not necessarily aligned with how conscious we are now about the fluidity of genders and identities. In the 2000s, scholars in the United States, in an attempt to bridge the gap between a gendered language and its ancient rules, coined the term “Latinx.” “Latinx” was originally designed to take the gender away from the term Latino/Latino (“o” typically derives a masculine identity, and “a” typically a feminine identity). The only problem with this, as an incredibly phonetic language, a word ending in an x, with no options for conjugating, leaves native speakers at an awkward impasse. As a teacher, I encourage my students to adapt this word, but I am explicit in telling them that as a native speaker and scholar of the language, it is almost impossible for me to use this word since it has no gender or ways to apply conjugations; it has no way to be used in an academic setting other than teaching its meaning. Responding to the word “Latinx” and its awkward use in the language, it was intended for and to be more aligned with the Spanish language itself, many Latino academics have adopted the term “Latine.” This also takes away gender implications, but it falls more in line with traditional Spanish pronunciation.
A good practice is that it is better to not lump citizens of 22 countries and the many sub cultures within them, as one generic term. As a proud Salvadoran, I will always tell someone “Yo soy Salvadoreño” (I am Salvadoran). Odds are that a person of Latinx descent will tell you the country of their ancestry instead of a blanket term that was created by non-Latinx people. While I would like to state clearly that using the term “Hispanic” is not inherently a bad thing, if we want to embody the mission of the StG JEDI Coalition, show our children that we can also use the inclusive language we want them to use and model more inclusivity ourselves. Let's retire the term “Hispanic” and start using “Latino/Latina/Latinx/Latine” instead.
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