SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2011       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Yaskara Aguirre

Being Mexican American in Arizona

Why me? This was a question that ran through my head like a repeating record when I was constantly tested on my English. I did not want to stand out as being Mexican; I wanted to fit in with my white friends or even the Chicanos that were born in the United States. To me, I was no different than they were. My English was just as good as everyone else’s. Growing up in north central Phoenix, I was surrounded by different cultures. As a child I played with kids from all the different racial groups out there. My best friend during my childhood was a white girl named Emily. Emily would come over and play at my house all the time, my family loved her. Nothing out of the ordinary about this ran through my mind at that time. To me I was like Emily, an ordinary kid living an ordinary life.

After a few months of my first grade, a lady, who worked at the school, came into my classroom and asked to borrow me for a while. I remember thinking of all the possibilities why this lady might want to see me. She took me away, she took me to her office, this lady whom I had never met. She had an audio recorder and posters with pictures on them. I was a little first grader, young and scared; I simply did not know why I had to leave my classroom to come to this cold, empty room. A table, which would later be filled with her testing supplies, was the only thing in the room, along with a pair of chairs. The lack of decoration on the walls made me feel intimidated.

I sat there and stared as the lady unloaded her box with picture books, posters and her yellow notepad and put all the testing supplies on the table. I remember wondering why the lady had not spoken to me since she picked me up from my classroom. I wanted to speak and ask her why she had brought me to that room, but my shyness, plus nerves, wouldn’t allow me to say anything.
The lady brought a Hispanic woman in to the room, and the Hispanic woman started speaking Spanish to me. I then realized that this Hispanic woman was brought in the room to translate from English to Spanish. I was confused on why the lady assumed I did not speak English. I then started to talk to the lady in English and told her I understood what she was saying. An expression of shock appeared on the lady who had pulled me out of my classroom. She quickly told the Hispanic woman that she did not need her anymore.
I remember believing that I was in trouble because I had no idea why I was in that ugly empty room. I started to get more nervous and anxious. It was a room, which only now I can describe as a conference room. To a little child, it was a grown up's room with nothing for a child to grab attention to. All I could do is sit there as my body shivered from what could have been either the cold temperature or my nerves.
The lady took a sip of her coffee once in a while, and placed it just far enough for me to smell it. The whole room soon smelled like coffee; it was all I could smell. I hated the smell; it would become a smell that I would grow to highly dislike my whole life. Sometimes I wonder if I dislike coffee and the smell of coffee based upon this incident.
Once again, it was just me and that lady, who I had started not to like. She sat me down and asked me to listen to the audio recordings. It was a story that I had to repeat back to her. I remember feeling confused because I didn’t understand why I was the only one from my classroom having to perform this specific exam. The story was very easy and I repeated it exactly how I heard it. Once again, the lady was shocked that I knew what the story was about. Upon question after question, I figured out that the purpose of this test was to measure my English speaking level.

I came to the United States with the same dream any Mexican mother comes with, the dream of hoping her children will have a better life and more opportunities than she did. I came to Arizona with my two daughters, Karol age 2, and Yaskara six months. Yaskara has grown up in the States. She learned both English and Spanish simultaneously.

One day, when Yaskara was in elementary school, I noticed that she would not speak Spanish around the house. Since this was very unlike her, I asked her what was bothering her. She then told me that she didn’t want to speak Spanish because it made her feel different from everyone else. I did not understand where this was coming from, until I spoke with her teacher.

The lady who had pulled me out of my classroom knew nothing about me, except that I was Hispanic and had a Hispanic last name. Moreover, when the test was over, aside from feeling as if I were dumb for having to take this test, I felt confident that I had shown her that I was fluent in the English language. When I returned to my classroom, my classmates were curious about where I had gone. For the first time I felt different from my peers and ashamed of being Mexican American. Being Mexican American, meant Mexican came first and that is all that mattered to some people. It meant I was different from all my Caucasian friends; it meant I was different from my best friend Emily.

What baffled me was, if Yaskara clearly passed the exams, why did the school keep testing her? It was a question that neither Yaskara, nor the teacher, nor I knew the answer to. I went looking for answers to the school’s principal Mrs. Clark. It was obvious that Mrs. Clark did not know much about these exams; however, just that they were mandatory every year for every ESL (English Second Language) student. My first reaction was shock because my daughter did not belong in ESL, since she practically learned English at the same time as Spanish.

As each school year passed by, the school continued to make me take test after test, testing my English speaking abilities. To me, English was my first language, and then came Spanish. I did not understand what else I had to do for them to stop quizzing me on whether I knew what a bird was or a comet. Each year until sixth grade, the school officials made me feel different from my peers. My mom, dad, and even teachers at the time, all tried to stop the testing.

I fought every year for the school to stop the testing. Then when Yaskara was in sixth grade, the school sent a letter saying that they were going to place her in ESL classes for middle school. This made me go over the edge! Yaskara had just taken a placement test that put her in advanced English and Math, and for the school to ignore that fact and still want to place her in ESL classes was not okay with me. After several phone calls to both schools (Elementary and Middle school) and even the Washington School District, I was able to have my daughter Yaskara removed from ESL classes and placed in the classes she was meant to be in.

I was young and did not recognize the struggle of Mexican Americans in Arizona and all over the United States. All I knew was what happened to me. I did not know what racism really was, or anti-immigration sentiment. In 1996 the Legislature passed a law requiring proof of citizenship to get a driver’s license. This bill initiated a string of anti-immigration legislation in Arizona, showing the constant battle between Mexican Americans in their efforts to try to prove their citizenship in this border state. The belief that the majority of Mexicans are illegal was high when I was a child, as it remains today. The impression that immigrants are less smart than whites is not a notion that started when I was in school; it has been around for several generations. I learned possible reasons why my elementary school tried so hard to place me in ESL classes and separate me from my “normal” classes. Although I do not agree with it, I no longer wonder why this incident happened to me; rather now, I can understand why it occurred.

Ironically, this incident has shaped me into the person I currently am. I have always strived for excellence in school, in a way, to show everyone-- teachers, society, friends, myself-- that my ethnicity does not define my intelligence or limit me in anyway. Over my years in middle school and high school, I always maintained a 4.0 GPA. I always received academic achievement awards for my excellence, now I see that I was trying to prove something based on my incident as a child. I hated being regarded as different in elementary school; I hated being classed as inferior because I am Mexican. But I am proud to be, Yaskara Aguirre a Mexican American.

My mother couldn’t have said it better: I came to this country for one sole reason, and I will not let anyone or anything limit my daughter’s potential based on her race or ethnicity.

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