How I started researching Indigenous families
I never expected to be doing research related to Indigenous families. But one time I went to a school and they asked me to translate for that, for a mother who was from Guatemala.
And you know, I sat down, I said, "Hola, hello." And she said she was able to say "hola" and "hello" back to me. And then as soon as I started kind of like asking more questions, you know, related to academics, related to, "How can we help you? You want to talk about your daughter's academic journey?"
She was like "No, hablo Ixil - I speak Ixil." That's what she told me. And it struck me at that moment, I was like, "Oh my goodness, wait a minute, you're from Guatemala, but Spanish is not your first language." And then I thought, "Okay, this is something interesting. You know, I want to learn more about this."
And then I started reading. Through reading different articles, especially around experiences of unaccompanied minors in the area.
And I said, you know wouldn't it be important to kind of look at it from a family engagement perspective. Because I talked to that mother, right, she was at the school. Obviously she was doing some sort of engagement because she wanted to learn more about what was going on with her daughter's education.
But I thought, "Okay, there's something going on in here. These families are really living, you know, quote/unquote 'under the radar.'" Because, to a lot of us, to a lot of us in education or even within the community, the families are, like I said, from Guatemala or from other Latin America countries. So we automatically go into, "They must speak Spanish." And you know, from that first experience into now that I'm doing more in-depth research, I've learned that that is absolutely not the case. Spanish most of the time is their second, sometimes even their third language that they're learning.
Indigenous families are looking for recognition
As I've been speaking to, you know, to families, one of the main themes that has emerged from the qualitative data that I've collected is that, you know – and this is a quote from a participant that I talked to, "We're not recognized. Our identities are not valued in this country."
Some of the families have said, "I noticed that the school, you know, can translate for other families in other languages, but they don't do it for my language. And I hope they would, because I want to talk about the education of my child. I want to be able to communicate back and forth and engage with the teacher in my language so that I can understand and I can explain what I'm trying to explain with the comfort of my own language."
So you have that, when you think of the identity. You have kind of like that dilemma for a lot of our families.
Insights from an Indigenous mother about school engagement
One parent shared with me that in her culture the family structure, you know, she is the one that is responsible for engaging with the education of the children. The mothers are. And the fathers are responsible for working and providing for the family.
But she did share that she only went up to the third grade in Guatemala, which is a very common theme, the female students are the ones that end up dropping out and having to work and having to, you know, provide a work at home to help the family.
And so she told me, "I have to go to school and engage with the school personnel, but my Spanish and of course my English, it's not really high. And so, you know, I wished, you know, they would – schools would understand that so that they could think, 'Okay, what are other ways that we can engage so maybe the – a father could come along,'" right?
And she was like, "I could go on the weekends. I could – you know, I could go evenings when my husband is home from work, we can talk and he can help me translate." So that's a very unique characteristic, that makes you think of, you know, we have to really think of what the lives were like in their home country or in like Guatemala, those unique characteristics, and then how that transferred to their practice here when it comes to family engagement.
The importance of oral communication with Indigenous families
A couple of the families that I've spoken to, they've said, "I want to talk to somebody at the school about the papers they send me, because I don't understand. The vocabulary is complex." Even if it's translated in another language, even though, you know, such families have a little bit of comprehension in Spanish, they said that the text is still too high. They described it as "big words that I don't understand what they mean."
And so I asked them, "What will work for you? What would you like schools to do for you to be able to understand?" And they said, "I want to hear, I want to hear the description of whatever they're sending me. I want to talk to either somebody on the phone, or I want them to maybe show me a video telling me what this document is saying, telling me what information they're giving me, they're sending me."
Why families may be worried when the school calls
As I was doing my, you know, coding and collecting my data, one of the things that two participants share, I did talk to two brothers. They share, you know, "In Guatemala, when parents go to school or when parents are invited to go to school, it's because the children are in trouble and they did something bad, so it's not a good thing."
But they also said, "But here in the United States, they're different. They invite us for everything. They ask us to go to meetings, you know, for the Parent Teacher Association, to go to a meeting to celebrate, to have international night."
So, for that particular family unit, it was a little bit confusing as to why they were being invited to so many things. Because they explained to me, "When our child first started going to school here in the United States, and they told us to go to school, we thought he was in trouble. We thought he did something bad."
And then they were like, "Oh, but that's different. You know. If we would have known that, that here in the United States that's different, we would have gone. We would have gone more often. We always thought they were in trouble."
Building capacity for Indigenous languages
The resources for language interpreters in Indigenous languages are extremely limited here in the United States. I've heard of schools seeking and trying to find the resources, because they truly want to help our families, right? But it's extremely limited.
I hope that as more students graduate from high school here in the United States that are of Indigenous backgrounds and who have those first languages that are not Spanish, that they'd be able to have that capacity to contribute.
And I know, at least I talked to a couple of people within a school district that is actually working and having a conversation with their students that are about to graduate. So they go in and they talk to the students, and they say, "Hey, I know that you speak this Indigenous language. Let's start, you know, maybe training you or giving you those resources so that you could go to, you know, some sort of like school that trains you to be an interpreter. And perhaps after you graduate you can come and collaborate with us and work for us so that you can provide language services to, you know, the other students of families that speak your Mayan language." So that is, I think that gives us a lot of hope that there's going to be something, you know, better for our Indigenous families in the future.
Advice for schools: Get to know your Indigenous families
So my biggest advice for our schools working with Indigenous families will be, get to know them, talk to them, access their founts of knowledge. You know, know what works for them and what doesn't work for them. Stay away from generalizing because, you know, our Indigenous families have extremely unique experiences.
They have amazing stories that will give you a lot of insight of what, you know, you might be able to do at your school, to be able to engage with families better. Build those bridges with Indigenous families so that there could be that collaboration. And, you know, that is the first step. Open that door. Get to know them. Invite them in.
You know, refrain from only sending information one way. Let's have a two-way communication. Just because a lot of families are not present doesn't mean that they don't want to be engaged. There could be a list of different things, right, of why they're not – they're not present, and why they're not, you know, maybe picking up the phone if you call them, but you won't be able to know that unless you get to know them and build those partnerships.
Why hiding Indigenous identity may be a matter of survival
I think to understand this specific topic, we have to go back to the history. But let's focus, for example, in Guatemala. There was a 30-plus something civil war where a lot of Indigenous families were hurt because of that specific identity.
And so a lot of times, you know, our survival skills kick in. And for what a couple of the families have told me is that they masked their Mayan identities to be able to survive. And I've seen that kind of like transfer a little bit into here in the United States.
In the outside – for example, one mother told me, "When I go in the outside, I have to speak Spanish. I have to, you know, I have to use Spanish culture because that's what people tell me is okay here. That's what they expect. But when I go home, Ixil is our home language and we're proud of speaking that because that is the language that we've learned since we were children."
So you kind of have kind of like, you know, I think some resources call it cultural hybridity, where it's almost like, you know in language when we're speaking, I could go from Spanish to English, kind of like that code-switching with language. Well, a lot of families are doing that with culture, which is something fascinating, right? You know, you have families that the day that they go out into the community and they're speaking Spanish because they know that's how you will survive.
Why a student hid his Indigenous identity
I was a middle school ESOL teacher, and I had a newcomer that came from Guatemala. And I started talking to him, I asked questions, I said, "Tell me more about you." I knew there was another culture in there based on the name of the student, right?
And he said, "No, I speak Spanish," for almost the entire schoolyear, "I speak Spanish, I speak Spanish, I only speak Spanish." And then I decided to do a lesson in the class where I used basket weaving from Guatemala as an example.
And he was like, the whole time he was so into the lesson. He was like participating, he was into it. And then I asked him, "Do you like to do basket weaving?" And then he started like opening up: "Oh yeah, in my culture and my country, you know, we do this for work and because our culture, Mayan identity."
And so this whole school year, he was masking an identity. And I did ask him, you know, why didn't you want to tell me a little bit more about your culture? This is so beautiful, this is so unique. And he said, "Well, you know, people make fun of me. People think I'm dumb. People think that I'm not smart because I come from an Indigenous country or an Indigenous language and my identity."
And so, you know, you kind of have like that social stigma and I think it adds to the dilemma of being generalized with the general Latino population, right? So a lot of times you have this beautiful culture, these beautiful languages that a lot of schools might not know about because they want – families want to protect themselves, students want to protect themselves. They don't want to be made fun of, they don't want to, you know, kind of like be reminded of what used to happen in Guatemala just because they were so, their Mayan identities.
So that's a fascinating topic. It's very unique. But I think, you know, when it comes to schools, we have to be able to something and access that and make them feel comfortable, make them feel welcome. Make them, our families and students feel celebrated about their Mayan identities.
The important work of family liaisons
A lot of the heroes in this situation are the parent liaisons. The parent liaisons, you know, within the school, they're at the frontline of that communication with a lot of our families. And I can think of one of the experiences of one of our participants, she said, "The parent liaison at my son's school is my hero because although she cannot speak my home language, which is Mam, but I can call her and she explains to me. And she takes the time to, you know, to rephrase things, to tell me in a different way because sometimes the information that they might send home in Spanish might not be at the comprehensible level of that family."
But she said, "I can call her, she'll engage with me. She'll even talk to the teachers for me. And she was like, she values me, she knows that we're important for her and I really, truly appreciated her in that way."
So that's a really success story. And one of the themes that I'm beginning to see that is emerging.