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From the playground of a Spanish immersion school to 38th & Chicago: racism in the Twin Cities

The hard truth is no matter where we live or what school she attends, we can’t shield our daughter from racism or anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The last place I expected my Mexican American daughter to confront blatant racism was at her Spanish immersion elementary school, but that was exactly where, during an ordinary playtime, a fellow second-grader and her friend came up to her and said: All Mexicans are drug dealers and they cross the border to bring drugs all the way to Minnesota.

That day, our daughter came home from school visibly agitated. It took me a while to pry out the details. “And what did you say?” I asked her. “I told her that I’m Mexican, and that’s just not true!” The hurt in her eyes was almost too much for me to bear.

With opening statements beginning in the Derek Chauvin trial, I find myself thinking a lot about race and racism in my home state, rehashing that playground incident in my mind, though as half of a biracial couple with a biracial daughter, the topic is never far from my mind.

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As a white woman who grew up in rural Minnesota, it was through my Mexican husband that I first glimpsed the realities of navigating my home state as a person of color. Though my husband is fairly light skinned with green eyes, when he speaks it’s very clear that he’s not from here. We thought that living in the Twin Cities would help him blend in more, to feel more comfortable in his surroundings, but even in our progressive, middle-class St. Paul neighborhood, wait staff often confirm food orders with me even though he’s the one ordering; front desk workers make eye contact with me and not him.

Racial discomfort

It’s not blatant racism, but what I call racial discomfort, a lack of exposure to diversity combined with a hidden bias that’s much harder to discern. He’s used to it by now, and we mostly shake it off. We don’t want to carry that bitterness around on a daily basis, but with our daughter, that’s a different story. We’re determined that she feels only pride in her dual nationality.

Ginny Contreras Sawyer
Ginny Contreras Sawyer
When she started elementary school a few years back, we had initially enrolled her in a different school. Though not geared toward linguistic and cultural immersion, the front entry showcased an enormous mosaic of civil rights leaders and a kaleidoscope of children’s faces of all colors. There weren’t many Latino students, but around 40 percent of the student body was made up of children of color. We were happy believing in our liberal little bubble, thinking that no racism could possibly exist here. A month into the school year, our bubble had sprung a leak.

We realized that our daughter was being pulled out of her kindergarten class, missing important instruction, to receive English Language services. We were not consulted by the school district, nor by her classroom teacher. We only found out because she mentioned a nice man giving her a lollipop in his special classroom (a creepy admission in its own right). After arranging a meeting with the ELL teacher, he openly admitted that she had no need of language help, but because her name was on his list, he had continued to teach her.

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Bilingual household led to assumption

Although our daughter had scored in the top tier of children tested for school readiness in the St. Paul School District, because we had checked the box that she lived in a bilingual household, she had been automatically identified as needing language services. Like her father, you can’t tell that she’s Latina by her physical appearance, but she had been racially profiled by her school registration. Instead of seeing bilingualism as a positive, instead of earmarking her application for the Gifted and Talented Program, the district chose to assume our child needed remedial language instruction. It took a phone call to the district office and filling out a special form before we could remove her from ELL classes.

Though the mislabeling left a bad taste in our mouths, we decided to shrug off the event as a misunderstanding. They were only trying to help, right? We joked that we wished she needed ELL services. Her father, a Spanish professor, had been trying to get her to speak Spanish since she was born but with minimal success.

The rest of the school year ran smoothly until the end-of-the-year kindergarten picnic. A warm and sunny June day, my husband and I arrived early to Wabun Picnic Area, a beautiful park that overlooks the Mississippi River. We had volunteered to help set up and chaperone the day’s activities. We approached the mom holding a clipboard in the picnic shelter and introduced ourselves. “Oh, you must be A’s parents,” she immediately said. We laughed nervously, saying that no, we weren’t A’s parents. It was only later that we understood the confusion. There were two Mexicans in my daughter’s class. When the mom heard my husband’s very Latino first name, she had assumed that A, a girl with more traditional Mexican coloring than our daughter, was our child. It was a quiet noticing, a kind of profiling that one could perhaps argue is human nature and which by itself meant nothing. We chose to ignore this gaffe, believing (hoping) we were being paranoid.

The move to an immersion school

As Trump’s brand of xenophobia began taking hold in the U.S., suddenly these little blunders carried more weight, especially since Minnesota, a typically Democratic leaning state, only went to Hillary Clinton by the smallest of margins. In the middle of first grade, we decided to transfer our daughter to the Spanish immersion school in our neighborhood, partly because we thought that we might find more in common with families and staff who were passionate about bilingual education, but also as a way to shield her from the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that was sweeping the country.

For a year, it seemed we had made the right decision. She was picking up Spanish at a fast rate, and we felt very much at home during school events and P.T.O. meetings, until that fateful day on the playground.

More than a year has passed, and I still haven’t fully come to terms with what happened.

I am proud that my daughter had the courage to stand up for herself that day, but I wish that my husband and I had been braver, been more vocal in sharing our experience. The hard truth is no matter where we live or what school she attends, we can’t shield our daughter from racism or anti-immigrant rhetoric — it’s everywhere, from the playground of a Spanish immersion school to the intersection of East 38th and Chicago. But the more people who share their stories, the harder it will be to ignore.

Ginny Contreras Sawyer is a writer, teacher, and world traveler. You can find out more about her on her personal blog.

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