La Cultura Cura: Cultivating Ethnic and Academic Identity
By Alexandro “Salo” Escamilla
We are pleased to share with you today a piece from our storytelling series of reflections and noticings coming out of our convening in Tucson!
Please stay tuned for more writings from our team of storytellers and revisit the blog here to see them all in the coming months.
The ALP Conference concluded on February 17. 2023, and now the stories start coming in. A team of twenty-seven—including eight educators from Tucson—were a storytelling team in Tucson. For the next few months, this blog will share the stories of those folks.
Photos from Dr. José González American Government-Mexican American Viewpoint Class
One of the privileges of working for the Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Instruction Department is to visit my chantlaca, Dr. José González and his beautiful and scholarly students at Tucson High Magnet School, located in the heart of Chukson, AZ (aka Tucson or La Tusa, Ariza). This time with the company of new homies from ALP, representing communities across the United States.
Never a disappointment, these Culturally Relevant seniors demonstrated academic skill responding to and citing textual evidence from scholarly sources. Research indicates that the analytical skill demonstrated by the youth, in a setting such as Dr. González’ classroom, is a result of a cultura cura pedagogy, eliciting students to draw connections between their academic and ethnic identities.
Entering Dr. G’s CR classroom, a mescla (mixture) of cultura cura pedagogy combined with scholarly thought and dialog is evident. Like the maza at a family tamalada, Dr. G and his students work together to knead the concepts, ideas, and historical facts surrounding various topics, in the construction of their own tamal; based with their own research and unique perspectives. Students engaged with one another in dialog circles and as a whole class based on a reading from A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
One student said, “I would like to speak to paragraph 18…‘Congress passed a law very clearly abridging freedom of speech in America’, is not as equally just as we think it is. Comparing movements and protests, looking back on the January 6th attacks, I think these protests were violently and aggressively attacking…congress. Nothing was done quickly…the George Floyd/BLM protests, I feel any POC involved protest, always ends up violent when officers are involved, and I remember watching the news in 2020…arrests being made right away. You compare and contrast that to January 6th, arrests weren’t made until afterwards. I would argue it is not as equal as we think it is.”
Another said, “Paragraph 15 is basically talking about property and how…a few people had great amounts of property. Many had small amounts, and others had none. Jackson Maine found that one third of the population during the American Revolution were small farmers, while 3% of the population had large holdings and could be considered wealthy. We were just talking about how not many people owned property but the people that did had a lot of property and how it’s always been about being wealthy and about the economy and how it favors people who have more things basically.”
Following the class, a panel of five CR students engaged in a dialog with ALP participants. The following quotes represent introspection (a concept we refer to as Tezcatlipoca) about ethnic and academic identity development, a perfect way to end this story:
“I believe I am stronger in terms of academic identity, or even just having conversations about current events. I grew up in a private school and was one of the only Mexican American students. I was very far away from my culture. Even though I was doing good academically I didn’t feel like I could get to the same level of the other kids because I was one of the only [Mexican kids]. Being in this class really did teach me that I have a voice and that my academic identity has certainly gotten a lot more confident. I’ve been able to talk more in class…in terms of cultural identity, I really compared myself physically and in terms of my customs with the other kids. In this class I started to love my features…appreciate my culture and be more confident in who I am.”
- Female Identifying Chicana Student
“I have a strong academic identity…I get good grades and can get by. I always knew I had to be a certain way around teachers. I’ll just play the game and I’ll get an A. That’s how I always approached school just playing the game. There are topics in history I really get into because of video games but mostly I get into European history which is not really my culture. Everything I learned in AP World and European History didn’t help me at all for this class. I felt like I was really behind on certain topics, but I was able to relate to them. It helped me connect both worlds. So now I have a deeper sense of history, but of my culture…I didn’t expect that I was going to like it because I was like knights are so much cooler. I didn’t want to learn about these Aztecs I wanted to learn about knights. Dr. G helped me open my eyes to topics like the Mexican Revolution.”
- Male Identifying Chicano Student
*Chantlaca: Nahuatl for Homie/camarada/good friend
*La Cultura Cura: Culture cures is a concept from the Chicano Movement associating culture with medicine.
*Chukson: O’odham word meaning the Black Basin and original name for Tucson area.
*Tamalada: a family party where people get together to make tamales.
*Masa: dough used at a tamalada
*La Tusa, Ariza: Caló/Chuco word for Tucson, Arizona.
*Tezcatlipoca: Nahuatl concept meaning the smoking mirror, symbolic of memory and self-reflection.
About the Storyteller
Alexandro “Salo” Escamilla is a Chicana/o/x Studies and social justice educator of twenty-one years in Chukson (Tucson), Arizona and within the Tucson Unified School District. A key voice in the development of the Mexican American/Raza Studies Department, and the Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Instruction Department of the same district, as well as a social studies, history, government and literature teacher at the middle and high school levels; Salo has successfully developed curriculum, instruction, and pedagogy based on Chicanismo, carnalismo, and la cultura cura. These concepts led to unprecedented success in reading, writing, and math, essentially eliminating the opportunity gap in his Chicano Studies Classes. Following the attack and elimination of MARSD in 2012, he continued this work, piloting the culturally relevant history and government classes at Tucson High Magnet School. He currently serves as a curriculum and instruction specialist, for teachers implementing Culturally Relevant curriculum, and is a PhD student in the University of Arizona’s Teaching, Learning, and Social Culturally Studies Program.