De Donde Vengo Yo, The Reason Why I am Here
In the United States, I am Michelle Rendon. In Colombia, I am Michelle Rendón Ochoa. I feel the need to introduce myself this way because these names embody my complex identity and my story. I am Sandra’s daughter, una mujer fuerte y perseverante, who embarked on an arduous journey to the United States at the tender age of eighteen. She left her home with a small backpack and a big dream to better her parents, my mamita and papito’s lives. Although the United States was her new home, my mother made sure to keep my brother and I grounded in our Colombian roots. She ensured that we were well versed, not only in our home language, but our culture as well (Gracias mami <3 ). The context of the two places I call home served to shape my social and educational experiences.
Belén Rincón, mi barrio, where I established my first lifelong relationships con mi gente, who taught me solidarity, humility, compassion and the beautiful feeling of being in community. Although our immediate family is small, mi mamita always made sure to buy and cook enough food that would also feed our neighbors, people that became our family. Mi gente en Belén Rincón, mostly poor and working class, have been historically marginalized. For as long as I can remember, the Colombian government has invisibilized the educational, health and financial needs of our people. En mi barrio, we have had to say goodbye to many friends way too early due to violence caused by deep socio-economic oppression. It was during difficult times that we were most present in each other's lives. As much as we have had to overcome difficulties together, we have always found joy en nuestra comunidad y cultura. When I go back home to visit, we still gather outside of our houses to reminisce about our childhood stories while enjoying un tinto, a small cup of strong, black Colombian coffee. There is also joy in the sounds of our music, cumbias, porros y gaitas, mi mamita 's favorites, which always lead to long nights of dancing and laughter. The next day we divide peeling the vegetables amongst each other to make a sancocho en leña, our traditional stew over wooden fire. Belén Rincón, te amo. Gracias por todas las enseñanzas y los valores que cargo en mi alma donde quiera que vaya.
Freeport, a town on the South Shore of Long Island, is where my mother decided to settle in the early 90’s. Freeport became our other home. I experience common reactions when I share that I grew up in suburban Long Island. People, mostly city folks, find it very surprising that a first-generation Latina like myself is from the suburbs. Some also assume that I grew up economically privileged. They cannot imagine that there are low-income housing apartment buildings outside of New York City. There is a common misconception that leads most Americans to associate suburbia with whiteness, from the picket fences to the demographics. Suburbia is also often correlated with middle-class or more affluent households. However, within recent decades there has been a growing number of racially and linguistically minoritized, immigrants, and low-income individuals residing in the suburbs. Most immigrants, including my family, have settled within the small number of majority-minority towns on the island. Freeport is included in that number. My first day of school in first grade as an ENL student was scary. Then I started making friends that were also like me, children of immigrants from other parts of Latin America. Yes, in Long Island, white middle class is the norm but in Freeport, we embraced our Latinidad. Growing up in Freeport was special because although very different from Belén Rincón, there was also a deep sense of community.
Being a product of a socio-economically disadvantaged barrio in Medellín, Colombia and raised in a racially and ethnically minoritized, segregated suburban community in Long Island, exposed me to diverse forms of societal oppressions and inequities in my own education. Growing up in a very traditional Colombian home, where only Spanish was allowed to be spoken, and being able to travel back to Medellín every summer really kept me culturally as well as linguistically grounded (Again, shoutout to my mami for this. I can’t thank her enough). In my household and within the Freeport community, I learned to love my culture and language but school made me question its worth in the United States. From elementary school to my undergraduate studies, I always felt different, and sadly many times inferior compared to some of my classmates and teachers. However, I was unable to attach a name to these feelings. Now as an educator, I understand that these feelings prevailed because my Colombian identity was marginalized by Eurocentric curriculums and predominantly white educators who lacked culturally sustaining teaching practices, making me question my “American-ness” while neglecting the wealth of my diversity. Being disciplined and responsible helped me survive, but I was held back from thriving academically because my voice, my multilingualism, and my ancestral history were never empowered.
Ironically, it was these traumatic, disempowering academic experiences that influenced my motives for returning to my former high school in Long Island, N.Y, this time around as an educator. Today, I observe and listen to my more vulnerable students as they share stories about nuestra comunidad, nuestra escuela that feel far too familiar. My cultural intuition as well as testimonios (Delgado Bernal, 1998) drive my work as a critical pedagogue and researcher. As a Spanish Language Arts educator working with bilingual and emergent bilingual youth, I aim to empower my students' identities while facilitating critical consciousness development through critical dialogue, literacy, and art. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to co-construct liberatory educational spaces with my students as well as contributing to research that centers young racially and linguistically minoritized students’ voices, something that I know would have positively affected my life. My story, students and community are my why. I see myself in my students, who too are being deprived of an equitable education; an education that should be grounded in love, joy and liberation.
My longing to be a well-rounded Spanish language educator and embrace a deeper understanding of my Colombian identity, led me to teach and study in Medellín. At the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana and with the help of my students at Colegio San Jose de Las Vegas, I discovered qualitative research. These experiences influenced my commitment to a doctoral program at a private institution in Long Island, where I uncovered a passion for critical pedagogy and interest in youth participatory action research. After my first year at this institution, I became aware that the structure of the program would only fulfill a portion of the academic experiences and growth I was so eagerly craving. Nonetheless, I am grateful for the knowledge and skills acquired that year because I believe it prepared me to apply for admission into the graduate center.
I came to the CUNY Urban Education PhD program longing to be part of a racially ethnically diverse intellectual learning community that would contribute to my desire to grow as a person, learner and researcher. I was drawn by its interdisciplinary approach and the critical, decolonial work being done by the Urban Education community. I am so grateful to be part of Cohort 20! Although the pandemic prevented us from being in mutual physical spaces, we have learned so much from each other. Thanks to my professors and cohort, I am at a stage in my journey where I am thinking about my research questions through a decolonial lens. As stated by Patel (2016), “decolonization requires radical dismantling and disruption” (p. 93).
Right now, as my first year as a PhD student is coming to an end, this is where I stand:
- What do I aim to dismantle through my work? The white supremacy embedded in our educational system that continues to disempower and oppress racially and linguistically minoritized students.
- What do I aim to disrupt? The inequities the growing number of immigrant students face in suburban school settings.
- How do I aim to do this? Through youth participatory action research with young immigrants in my community, Freeport, Long Island.
- Why the suburban schooling context? There are problematic monolithic framings of suburban schooling (white, middle-class) that have encouraged researchers to focus on issues in urban contexts, overlooking the inequities students of color experience in the suburbs (Lewis-McCoy, 2014). Between 2000 to 2018, the top five education research journals published 164 articles on explicitly urban schools in large cities while only 24 on suburban schools (Diamond & Posey-Maddox, 2020). What is the field assuming about suburban schools?
- Why engage in this work? My story, my students and my community are my why. My research is rooted in my own previously discussed experiences as a product of immigration and a student turned educator in the suburbs. My aspiration is to keep working towards educational transformation within my community.
I share these ideas knowing that they will evolve. As I flow through this journey, wherever it is that it takes me, I will keep my purpose y mis comunidades muy cerca.
Delgado-Bernal, D. (1998). Using a Chicana feminist epistemology in educational research. Harvard Educational Review, 25, 555- 582.
Diamond, J. B. & Posey-Maddox, L. (2020). The changing terrain of the suburbs: Examining race, class, and place in suburban schools and communities. Equity & Excellence in Education, 53, 7-13. DOI: 10.1080/10665684.2020.1758975
Lewis-McCoy, R. L. (2014). Inequality in the promised land: race, resources, and suburban schooling. Stanford University Press.