i saw you once more

by Paola Ruval

Illustrations by Sarah Belle Lin

I saw you once more

under the hot blazing

unforgiving sky

standing behind those

blooming iron diamonds

whose shadows fail to hide you

Your eyes pierced out from behind

the dark cool lines

that cut your face into pieces

they whisper “Mírame”

I want to look away in shame

By then, the folds of my hands begin to unwind

blood drips deep from my fingertips

painting virgin roses on the floor

that glimmer bright without remorse

Smiling the roses rise from the dirt

fighting cruel sun rays,

they climb the traces of my veins

thorns against my knees I stand

as they sway away to familiar sounds

They dance my mother’s native tongue

I know every gentle syllable

I jump between their world of words

to understand my Tata’s laughter

to guide strangers under harsh fluorescent lights

to tell my grandmother I’m alright

Now I know you

you are a part of me.

we live among divided lands

you lie beyond the parted grounds

grounds lined with shiny rusty iron diamonds

that grew strong and tall from fear and hatred

I’ll never fully comprehend you

you’ll never fully know me

But we shall meet on crowded humid church afternoons

singing “Paloma Blanca”

on summer days watching Pedro Infante, Cantinflas

Tata’s favorites

under Cielitos Lindos

rushing for Piñata candy

unaware of its cultural difference

Until realizing that parts of us

in some of us

Chicanx’s or just Mexicanos Americanos

hold remnants of those virgin roses

those glimmering pieces of our culture

So I’ll walk with these thorns

soft petals, and lovely skies

to keep you close to me

Because although

I may never fully

be you

know you, or

understand you

You will always be a part of me.

The Not So Tall Tale: My Mother’s Escape from Communist Vietnam

by Sarah Belle Lin

Published Spring 2017

When I read my first tall tale in elementary school, I was fascinated by the fantastical descriptions of larger-than-life lumberjack, Paul Bunyan. Many say he created the Grand Canyon by dragging his ax across Arizona. He was an exaggerated, yet classic, representation of vitality and extraordinary strength. You can guess how in awe my little five-year-old self was. My imagination was one of my greatest pals during those years. That fact has not changed to this day. Even so, nothing could have prepared my mind for the story of how my mother came to America.

“I grew up in a war zone. I had to escape from my beloved home in the darkness of night with nothing but a set of clothes.”

I always knew that my mother was born and raised in Vietnam. I was not, however, aware that she was a Vietnam War refugee.

Saigon was her birthplace, Cho Lon her home. She had grown up and lived in a war zone until the age of 19. The day that North Vietnam became victorious over South Vietnam was also the day that Communism stole my mother’s childhood.

In Communist Vietnam, the poor class rose and attained financial status equal to that of middle-class landowners. This was so everyone could achieve “equality.” There were many families living on less than $50 a day. My mother’s parents were simply not able to support their six children on that measly of a budget. Before they could decide what to do with their situation, the Viet Cong threw them out of their house so that five other families could live in it.

“The Viet Cong were so fierce. One day they shot my grandmother in the leg. She survived, but became permanently disabled.”

Despite the horrors she witnessed, my mother decided to stay in Vietnam after finding a French woman, named Francoise, to act as her guardian. Their plan was to move to France. My mother bid her family farewell when they left to seek refuge in America but as the situation in Vietnam got progressively worse, her father told her to forget the deal with Francoise and leave immediately.

On a dark night in January of 1979, my mother fled from Vietnam with her uncle’s family. They put their safety and security in grave danger. Had they had gotten caught, they would have all been thrown in prison. By the grace of luck, they made it onto the harbor where a boat was waiting for them.

“It was terrifying because we had no idea if there were police waiting for us around the corner, at the end of the dock, or on the boat. Nothing was ever certain over there.”

They made it onto the boat and were transferred to a massive oil tanker. There, she found more than 2,000 other people — many of which included hundreds of families with their children and babies in tow. The destination: Kowloon, a city in Hong Kong more than 930 miles away. The cost of the trip? 10 gold bars…per person. The deal was brokered by an anonymous group of people who negotiated with the oil ship that was making its way from Taiwan to Hong Kong. It would take them around three days to get there from Vietnam.

“We sat down next to each other and when I mean sit, I mean there was not even room to lie down. The only time we could get up was to navigate through the crowd to go to the bathroom. People barely spoke. Our meals: crackers and water. We were never told when we would get to our destination. It was just a waiting game.”

Danger was still not kept at bay. My mother tells tales of Thai pirates who roamed the seas waiting to come across refugee boats such as the one my mother was on. The thing is, they were not like the tall tales I knew, they were real.

“One of my former schoolmates was killed because her boat was robbed by the pirates. We all pretty much knew what happened to my schoolmate after the pirates abducted her. It was so saddening to hear the news.”

After arriving in Kowloon, the boat was not able to dock. So they waited on the boat. For another seven days. The moment the refugees set foot on solid ground, they were hustled to a refugee camp. The camp was a four-story building secured and patrolled by armed soldiers. Still, it was heaven on earth. My mother would have a bed.

People were allowed to come and go as they pleased but the rule was to return before the midnight curfew. After it, the gates would close and stay that way until the morning, no exceptions. While she was in Kowloon, my mother felt obligated to spend most of her free time working a job that she had found in the city.

“I found a job as an assembly line worker in a factory. My daily work was to solder wires onto motherboards for computers. I worked every Monday through Friday from 8am-5pm for six months. I was paid minimum wage. I was allowed one one-hour lunch break and would go out to buy food, mostly chicken and vegetables. At night, I went to English class at a school that I enrolled in. I was expecting to meet with my parents and siblings who had already went ahead to America before me.”

After half a year of living in Kowloon, my mother’s parents beckoned for her to reunite with them. They had made enough money in America to sponsor a trip for my mother to travel over the seas. She would be able to call this new and foreign country her home.

“I was very excited to start a new life and reunite with my family when I found out that I was coming to America. I did not know much about America beforehand, except for the fact that everyone spoke English and ate hamburgers. When I actually arrived to America, I saw that there was a huge difference between America and Vietnam. I did not see anyone on the streets when I got here and wondered where everyone was. Back home, everybody is out on the streets!”

My mother likes to say that Hope brought her to America. When she reunited with her family, she saw around her a place where she could breathe and feel as liberated as she pleased. No longer did she fear speaking freely in public. Gone were the feelings of panic upon seeing the infamous green helmets terrorizing her streets.

“My family and I came here to America looking forward to building a better life. We should not prevent people from living out their dreams, especially if they cannot live in their own countries.”

In a way, I almost wish these events belonged to a tall tale. I would not wish what my mother went through on my worst enemy. Yet, these circumstances brought my mother here, to her family, to a new life, to freedom. This country isn’t perfect (who or what actually is?), but if the American Dream still rings true (and it should, as it is protected by the Declaration of Independence), then the opportunity for others to come and start anew MUST still exist. But is it still alive and well? Will we, as a nation, uphold these innate values?

“…they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”

I pale at the thought: what if my mother was turned away at the doors? My heart pangs for those standing at the gate, their bones exhausted from a journey that they did not sign up for, whose fingers wrap around the bars of fascism rooted in fear mongering, misunderstanding, and hatred. Their eyes, scarred with images of ravaged homes and fallen loved ones, plead. They have nowhere else to run to. The threads of Hope fray with each day the bars stand in place.

“…among them are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…”

American is just one way to describe my mother. She carries pieces of Vietnam with her every day. She still knows a fair amount of French (from the French colonization of Vietnam dating back to the mid 1800s) and is beautifully fluent in Vietnamese (ordering Pho was never a struggle with her by my side). I’m not quite sure what else I’ll hear the next time I beg her for more of this story. But one thing is sure as hell– Paul Bunyan has got nothing on my mother.

Top left: My mother at the age of 16.

Right: My mother’s old  house in Vietnam, circa present-day.  

Bottom: My mother’s graduation from Cal Poly Pomona in 1989.


A Student’s Call to Action


by Anastasia Magaña

Published Winter 2017



An estimated 3.3 to 4.6 million people rallied across the globe together for the highly anticipated Women’s March in a not-so-subtle response to the inauguration of Donald Trump and his repertoire of unabashed misogyny, racism and uncensored bigotry. Political scientists coined the event, “the largest day of protests in U.S. history” but, was it enough to get Trump’s administration on board to support the causes represented in the march such as women’s rights, environmental rights, indigenous rights and transgender rights?

Trump’s response: a slew of  authoritarian-style executive orders and promises that range from cutting federal funding for “sanctuary cities” to banning muslim immigrants and refugees from entering the country.

Sadly, it appears as though what could be the largest demonstration in U.S. history was largely ignored and further shut down by the new administration with executive action, in what feels like a massive “white-lash” against the nation-wide rallies demanding basic human rights.

To make matters more divisive, vice president Mike Pence attended the “Pro-Life March” in Washington the Friday following the Women’s March where he declared on the national stage, “We will not rest until we restore a culture of life in America.” This comes days after the President signed an executive order which bans federal money being allocated to international groups that perform or provide information on abortions. Thus, the administration has made it clear that they will embark on the path towards enforcing federal action against the rights of women, immigrants, indigenous communities and all people, regardless of how many of us come pounding on the White House door.

So, what does this mean for those who feel like we’re fighting an uphill battle? Upon returning home from the Women’s March in D.C., I felt an incredible amount of hope and solidarity with people across the nation, knowing they, like myself, do not comply with the oppressive regime that’s come crashing down on not only the people of this country, but people all over the world.

However, it’s become increasingly difficult to remain positive when, every hour, there’s a new headline about Trump’s next move towards restoring America’s “greatness” by taking executive action to actively move progress towards regress.

Yet, that feeling of people united — hundreds of thousands gathered, indivisible to hatred — the feeling of true power of the people, is something that will neither be forgotten nor ignored. Now is the time to take note from the great pioneers who fought to incite change in this country during a time when no one conceived it possible — people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, and of course, Santa Cruz’s very own Dr. Angela Davis.

I saw Dr. Davis speak at the Women’s March on Washington and feel her words offer some guidance to those who feel uncertain of the future to come under this new wave of political instability, “Over the next months and years, we will be called upon to intensify our demands for social justice, to become more militant in our defense of vulnerable populations. Those who still defend the supremacy of white, male heteropatriarchy had better watch out. The next 1,459 days of the Trump administration will be 1,459 days of resistance—resistance on the ground, resistance in the classrooms, resistance on the job, resistance in our art and in our music. This is just the beginning. And in the words of the inimitable Ella Baker, ‘We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.’ ”

To those who don’t believe that we, the people, can create change, or that we are bound to lay victim to the legislative pen of white men, know that a resistance unlike any other is emerging, and that only with action and reflection can we begin to write the history we wish to see unfold. The power of people is not one to be underestimated — love one another, protect one another and most importantly, resist. Resist the temptation of ignorance, resist those who act out of hatred, resist from silence and resist from fear, for fear is the emotion which our oppressors pray to incite.

Our power as people comes not from what we do out of fear, but what we do out of love for one another through unification and solidarity. To all of those who fear for the future, you’re not alone; but as students it’s our job to remain critically conscious of the socio-economic and political environment in which we live and to use our knowledge to strategize against the most inhumane atrocities committed by our country’s reigning administration.

Together we must act, together we must resist and together, we will prevail in the face of adversity.



by Isabell Retamoza

Published Winter 2017

Making whole pinto beans makes me feel like the part of a ribbon that is closest to the edge.

Gently wash beans with warm water.

When I lived at home, to me, beans were comfort food. Warm, brown beans with bits of meat and onions mixed in. My father smiled a little bigger; my mother laughed a little harder; and we all sat a little closer at the table.

Pour beans in a large pot with twice as much water.

Like coins in a box—tithing to my ancestry.

Let beans soak until the beans touch the surface.

My mother taught me to make beans before I moved out. It was the last thing I needed to learn. I asked her to write the instructions down. She shook her head no. Why? I asked. Because, she sighed, making beans is a knowledge that is experienced and taught. Watch and listen, she said.

Once the beans rise to the surface, turn the pot to a low simmer.

Making beans grounds me. I feel my toes stretch out through the tile, concrete, and soil. I feel the women before me, who labored for my existence, who hold my feet, who run their hands up my legs and rest their hands gently on my hips and shoulders. I feel their small, tender fingers pull my hair down to my hips in braids with red and green ribbons.

Spoon out the foam that floats to the top.

I spent my childhood in Oaxaca. Our house had a warm orange light that swarmed through the cracks in the curtains that shined in people’s brilliant golden eyes. I walked to school everyday by myself in a navy blue skirt with a coarse button up shirt. I would scour the dirt looking for colorful bottle caps and use them to handcraft necklaces for all the women in my house.

Leave the lid off the pot.

Everything that was done in that house was loud; cooking, cleaning, talking, gossiping, dancing, eating, sleeping, fighting, drinking. The women rousted in the kitchen with their bright, ornate aprons and drank coffee out of miniature red mugs. We moved to Minneapolis when I was eight and everything got quiet.

Add hot water as needed.

Everyday I lose my language more and more. I feel counterfeit. I feel the fire from my ancestors kicking at my throat when I can’t find the words to communicate. I meet white people who speak better Spanish than me. My parents stopped speaking Spanish when we moved to the states. I lost it.

Add lard.

My father used to have long, thick, black hair. I remember breaking hair bands trying to wrap his hair more than twice. He cut his hair when we moved to the states. My mother used to wear chunky, gold earrings that shined through her hair. She stopped wearing those earrings when we moved to the states.

Add salt.

Being both Mexican and Native manifests a reflex of anger. Not anger in the traditional sense but a severe loyalty; an intense love. It is a red, hot aggression to be alive, to love, and to prove myself worthy of such blood. Blood that has been shed, shared, and consumed.

Test beans for color and tenderness.

Last summer, my father called me on my way home from work in San Diego. His words stumbled out quickly and loud. He hung up. His instructions were to head to the Jack in the Box a mile from the border fence between San Ysidro and Mexicali and find Manuel. I felt my hands slide and slip on the steering wheel from sweat. My father picked people up all the time. Our home was a safe house for many years. But I was never directly involved.  I took the twenty minute drive from downtown to the border and pulled into the Jack in the Box parking lot. I walked inside. Manuel and his wife Lucy were huddled in a corner with backpacks and orange dirt on their legs. I walked to the table and barely whispered, Estás Manuel? They barely nodded. I sat down. Dónde tienes que ir? I asked. Manuel handed me a torn piece of notebook paper, crumpled over and over again that it rubbed soft on my hands. I stood and turned to my car, motioning for them to do the same. Manuel grabbed his hat off the table and took hold of Lucy’s hand. I felt the little girl in the school uniform, the shades of women between her, and the woman with long braids interwoven with red and green ribbons. I felt all these women beat through me in full form like an exorcism. I want to go home, I thought. So do they, I said.


An Endless Desolation

by Lorenza Figueroa

illustration by Nenetl Mojarro

Published Winter 2017

“Why do you cause so much pain? Why have you been stalking us for over 20 years? Why do you consume my father, taking every minute of his breath? Why are you slowly taking him away from me? Why do you intoxicate our life with the poison of anger, madness, sadness and despair?”

As I lay here, I can taste the memories of an endless expedition. An agony that I’ve learned to silence as each year of my life passes, a mask that numbs every inch of my sorrows.

As I turn to my right, I can see the reflection of my mother. I memorized her internal hurt. Her eyes covered in disappointment, suffering, and a silent cry for help. Her frown carved permanently after so many years of disillusion. Her fragile body no longer resisting a pointless battle. Her harmless soul screaming, “I’m tired! Stop.. Please….”

As I turn to the left, I can no longer recognize that man who sits under that tree, surrounded by empty cans of infatuation, of addiction. Who is this man with forgetful eyes and an unpleasant odor of intoxication? I do not recognize him for he is not the one I’ve learned to admire. He is not the one who showed me strength and resiliency. Who is he? For he does not remember me when I speak to him, “Look who you’ve become! It hurts…” Wishin he’d come back, I watch him disappear like a mist disappearing between the fingers of my hand.

As rivers flow rapidly over the humps of my cheeks, I ask again,”Why do you cause so much pain? Why have you been stalking us for over 20 years? Why do you consume my father, taking every minute of his breath, why are you slowly taking him away from me? Why do you intoxicate our life with the poison of anger, madness, sadness and despair?”

Does Media Influence Perception of Identities?

by Erik Patino

Published Spring 2016

“You’re a ghost”, I say, “or I guess I mean the images people have of you-what they, and me, and even you, say you represent-those are ghost. And I’m a ghost, too.”                                                                             -Davis Miller, Approaching Ali

In early 2011, my friend and I were sitting in a parked car in a driveway drinking a bottle of whisky. We were listening to music, talking and reminiscing. Between conversation and songs playing, I turned on the car engine and drove around the city. Before I knew it, I saw red and blue lights flashing in my rearview mirror. “Damn” I said, “I messed up”. I halted the car. A police officer walked to my window. “One of your lights is out.” He observed me. “I want you to blow on this breathalyzer.” I blew into the gadget and he viewed it. “I’m placing you under arrest for D.U.I”. I complied with his request, stepped out of the vehicle and placed my hands behind my back. He squeezed the cuffs on my wrists and placed me in his squad car. Inside the car I fell asleep. Upon entering the station the officer pulled me inside a room where he and others began kicking and punching me until I blacked out. I woke up the next morning. “What the hell, did this really happen?” I stood up and peeked through the door window frame. My friend was resting his head on his hands sitting down on a chair. I turn to observe the cell and see a bathroom and a bench. I sit down. “Fuck! I could have got him killed”. I felt guilty for having decided to drive and put him through this. In that moment I decided never to drink alcohol again. As I was sitting down thinking, a police officer unbolted the door and walked in with five officers behind him. “Immigration is coming to get you right now”, he said.  I felt anger stir up inside me. “What, you feel superior?” I replied. His face flushed red with anger. “Shut the fuck up”, he said, then locked the door and vanished.

Eventually I was released and began walking down the street, puzzled and in disbelief of the incident; being assaulted and threatened with deportation. I wondered how many underrepresented people in vulnerable positions were abused by police officers like him. When I had time to reflect, I thought about what his threat meant. His anger stemmed from his thought or assumption that I was an invader, an undocumented immigrant. I became a symbol of an identity. There was attached beliefs and attitudes towards his concept of who he thought I represented. He assumed I was outside of the law and at the same time defenseless. Threatening to deport me and attacking me indicates that he thought I had no one, no justice system to turn to or navigate.

While I regret my actions and have deep sentiments for people whose family are victims to drunk driving accidents, I still wonder about the police officer’s brutality. For, though I committed a crime I am first and foremost a human. I also think about people who are treated unjustly due to authority figures’ emotional attachment to a distorted image or idea that they think represents a person; a presumed identity that dictates how they treat them. That moment makes me understand the forms of racial hierarchy, and how divisions are created by predetermined and constructed identities. Hence, what ticked the police officer off was the definition he had of me. His attitude reflects that people are being influenced into categorizing and defining who people are in order to “understand” them, where to place them and how to treat them. The meaning behind the symbol I represent is one that I would argue has been fabricated and spread throughout society by a medium that reaches the general public such as the media, where there are images created throughout society intended to condense people’s identities. Placing a label on someone dehumanizes them, for they are not seen as they truly are but through a perceived notion which affects whether a person is treated with human integrity.

I want to consider why there are prejudices about racialized groups, specifically misrepresented people and how misconceptions are created. How stereotypes and perceived identities become formed in people’s consciousness. But also how viewing others through discriminatory identities manifest into harassment, police brutality, alienation, and social divisions.

I hold the argument that to construct a worldview is a natural and innate part of being human. People seek to understand the meaning of things, concepts, actions, symbols, words, and occurrences. As a result, humans are “meaning makers”—giving significance to experiences (Garland and Fredrickson, 38). By making sense of events and giving meaning to the world, they create beliefs about what is considered  “reality” and are able to interact with their surroundings. For example, people are not born knowing concepts but rather they learn them. Therefore, they construct how they see reality based on the meanings they have been taught. However, if people’s reality is oriented by meanings, then the definitions of concepts and what people hold as “truth” is subject to contextual transformation. For instance, an illustration of ‘meaning-making’, is that people in the old ages thought Earth was the center of the universe and this idea affected their perception of “reality”. However, it was discovered that that statement was false, and in effect, how they made sense of existence changed. In short, what people consider “truth” is liable to transformation and is not set in stone.

Knowing that meanings are susceptible to change, the media takes advantage of this fluctuation to allow viewers to create prejudice notions of different racial groups. One of the main ways media attempts to engage viewers is by creating an emotional association with an image. Through images of racialized groups, they adopt an attitude, which creates a constellation of characteristics based on a single representation; this increases the discrimination a racialized group encounters.   The construction of identities of racialized groups is done so that the viewer knows how to identify with an individual before actually getting to know them. Thus, people are being manipulated by pseudo-realities, and pseudo-identities, targeted at underrepresented groups, which the public mass takes to be real identities. The general public constructs the belief that those identities are genuine representations of a racialized group as a whole.

Using this framework allows us to understand that being exposed to mediums such as television, radio, school, and/or religion, will have an effect and influence our meaning-making decisions. People are vulnerable to any form of influence from mediums that reach them.  The majority of discourses influence people’s perceptions so as to create racial divisions and form an identity to represent a people. This is done so in subtle, yet discrete forms but upon analysis reveal a structure and characterization of racist ideology. For example, in the late night news  there are  constantly  showings of  underrepresented groups that have committed crimes, which misconstrue the image of who a racial group is. Once in my high school class, we were discussing an incident that aired on the news about a group of Mexican-Americans who assaulted a person. A student speaking about the incident and indirectly about Mexicans said, “They’ll stab you.” I was puzzled. I didn’t know any person in my community or family who had stabbed anybody. The only way he could have built up such an image is through associating criminal behavior with underrepresented people. Such a display of images in the media pushes the idea that if one person from a group acts in criminal ways, then that behavior is an attribution of all people from such a targeted group. In effect, this constructs an identity of stereotypes that are associated with underrepresented people.

In a study conducted by the National Hispanic Media Coalition, an online survey was given to 3,000 non-Latino Americans. In this study, it was discovered that media portrayals about Latinos influenced their perception and beliefs held towards Latinos. The participants were asked to watch videos, listen to clips and read articles where one group viewed positive and the other negative portrayals. Thereafter they registered a questionnaire. The questions ranged from: “are Latinos less educated?” “do they use welfare assistance?”, “are they oriented with culture of crime or gangs?”, “do they take jobs away from Americans?”, or “are they undocumented?” Groups who saw positive representations agreed at lower rates. Whereas groups that viewed negative depictions agreed with the questionnaires at higher percentages. The survey concluded that media portrayals of Latinos affect the opinion of the recipients and in effect sway the stereotypical opinion of the viewer.

When I read this study it confirmed my belief that the media has an influence on how people view underrepresented groups. Thus, people are conditioned to think that the images depicted are true and stable representations of marginalized individuals, but rather these associations to an identity are being inserted from an outside force such as the news. In other words, I am more confident in asserting that the meanings behind concepts utilized to  “understand” people are vulnerable to media manipulation, rather than being based on ground or solid facts. The formation of identities through media portrayal controls how humans view others and the world. That is, what people call reality is actually an accumulation of skewed images.  The consequence of  viewing others through false representations is that it affects how people are treated and are not seen as authentic identities.

While this study highlights how people’s understanding of underrepresented groups are swayed by media depictions, it is important to note the umbrella term used even within this study; Latino as a nationality includes multiple races, but using one label gives the misconception that the study is speaking about one, and particularly, the same identity. For example, it can be argued that most of the participants generally thought of the term representative solely of a, more or less, similar identity. Whereas there are different Latino races and identities.

To attribute someone as violent, gang oriented, or undocumented immigrant is to assume that racialized groups have fixed identities. Holding an image or umbrella term ignores the complexity of people’s experiences and identities. When people are viewed through a fixed identity it does not allow the viewer to question the causes of the other’s situation, or circumstances, but rather to blame based on the surface level of what they see. It creates a superficial dynamic where people think things could be solved if a group would act other wise. That is, it does not explain or show the factors that play out in people’s lives. As cliché as it sounds, when one believes a narrative about a people it doesn’t allow a person to understand another’s humanity or their experience. Being persuaded to believe this myth makes it easier for people to stereotype, harass, target, brutalize, and seclude others in a grander scale.

After learning that media influences people’s meaning-making perception I became aware that repeated images about underrepresented groups become greater than constructed identities. The symbolization of people translates into events such as police brutality, alienation and political practices. I became concerned that despite racism already existing , media manipulation could inflate into something greater. I would like people to remember that behind a label there is a human experience. Also, to be aware of how meaning making is taking place throughout society and to be in control of one’s perceptual awareness. A label does not decipher a people’s authentic experience, political relations, and factors that play out within societies.

Liberal Do Good Idealism Saves America from Persistent Inequalities of the U.S. Education System: The Case for Teach For America (TFA)

by Melissa Leung

Published Spring 2016

Editor’s Note: In line with TWANAS mission, we want to provide a space for students to discuss issues affecting underrepresented communities.  This is a perspective piece based on the opinions of the individual author.

All children in this country deserve an education that prepares them to reach their full potential. By joining Teach For America, you join remarkable people from all backgrounds and professions who rise to the challenge to do what is right for kids. You’ll teach for at least two years in a low-income community, where you’ll show students what’s possible when they work hard and dream big. And as your students thrive, you’ll grow in ways you never imagined.

Caked with paternalistic icing and delicious, flowery, liberal feel-good fluff, such as “rising to the challenge” to “do what’s right” enabling youth that attend the nation’s most underfunded schools and impoverished communities to reach their “full potential” by “working hard and dreaming big,” and seeing the world as “filled with possibilities,” the Teach For America (TFA) pitch is bound to make any young, wide-eyed, idealistic “twenty-something” recent or almost-grad drool dreamingly at the prospect of finding a sense of higher purpose through combating social inequality, along with a prestigiously polished line on a resume and an additional bonus of relieving student loan debt. And why wouldn’t they? They will, after all, plunge forward into the anxiety-ridden sea of existential uncertainty and dismal economic prospects that is so-called “post-graduate demise”…er I mean life.

So what it’s going to be? “CAKE OR DEATH?” Cake represents the tangible promises, rewards, psychological satisfaction, and ignorant bliss that comes with the uncritical participation in blind idealism (i.e. “eating the cake”). Death represents, well…the death to all of those wonderful things. Therefore, it is far too easy and predictable for the overly idealistic millennial to essentially…eat that shit up. I mean, realistically, can we fault someone for choosing cake over death? Cake is sweet, scrumptious, rewarding. Death, however, doesn’t provide any of those rewards, let alone a psychologically discomforting concept to confront. “Ignorance is bliss,” “the truth hurts” or whatever cliché you want to slap on it,  unravelling deeper meanings and hidden agendas can be discomforting when all is tasty and sweet on the surface.

Given the nature of reward-seeking brain circuitry behind human behavior and the all-too-real circumstances facing twentysomethings, young idealists are flocking towards TFA booths infiltrating U.S. colleges and on-campus job fairs in epidemic proportions. TFA continues to expand their empire of over 33,000 alumni and a hefty endowment of over $300 million, which is generously financed by America’s biggest, well-known foundations and corporations. The very foundations and corporations that support neoliberal ideologies and the privatization of education by advocating union-busting and charter schools. These corporate behemoths include The Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart), Wells Fargo Foundation, and Goldman Sachs, to name a few of TFA’s biggest funders. Now wait a minute, what is it about TFA, a seemingly harmless do-good non-profit, that is so deserving of such scathing criticism?

First, let’s take a look at a brief overview of TFA. In 1989, Wendy Kopp, a Princeton alumnus, wrote a thesis arguing for a national teacher corps, modeled after the Peace Corps, and first found and branded TFA as “the emergency response team to our nation’s crisis of experienced, qualified teacher shortages” and “America’s great savior from the perils of public education.” The “TFA emergency response” team mainly comprises of recent graduates, predominately upper-middle class and White, that are thrown in urban communities of color to teach for only 2 years as “fully prepared and qualified teachers,” after an intensive 3-month summer boot camp training.

More like a 3-month slap in the face to teachers who train and work hard for years to earn their veteran status, experience, and qualifications. And even another 3-month slap in the face to teaching as a legitimate profession of value, implying that it’s a disposable, volunteer service that anyone can just do after 3 months. Ill-prepared and overwhelmed, culturally mismatched and disconnected to communities plagued with issues they are inadequately equipped to handle, TFA corps members have a high turnover rate. High teacher turnover rates disrupt the public education system and hurt the students that TFA supposedly aims to serve. Moreover, research has found that students fare better academically with professionally-trained, credentialed, or experienced teachers than 3-month corps members. Professionally-trained or experienced teachers are more competent in effective teaching methods, behavior management, and relationship building. In fact, a major factor in predicting students’ academic success is their strong relationships with their teachers or adult mentors. A strong, stable teacher presence symbolizes care and commitment, not a 2-year “gig” that recruits get in and out to “bigger, better things.”

Katherine Merseth,  Director and senior lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) shares a pertinent piece of wisdom, “There’s more to teaching than just standing and imparting knowledge…there’s also a very big relational piece.” A 2-year contract with a notorious turnover rate isn’t nearly enough time to develop the mentorship, caring relationships, and stability that these students need.

In fact, after the two-year contract, 63% of recruits work, as Teach For America puts it, “full time in education,” yet a 2010 study found that 80% of Teach For America recruits quit after about 3 years. Two to three years of experience are sufficient enough to translate into a polished, pretty line on a resume that leads to “bigger, better things” than being an actual teacher. While TFA recruits can’t seem to handle the classroom, they do feel they can handle educational policy reform and foundation management, controlling what goes on in classrooms without being able to handle the classrooms in the first place. Paternalistic dynamics, such as this, are often deeply embedded within the “relationships” (or capital, entrepreneurial interests) between corporations or for-profits and the low-income communities they claim to serve, yet they do not have the direct, adequate knowledge or experience gained from working with these communities to actually do so. Despite a “non-profit” status, TFA continues to parallel corporate dynamics and relations

Unfortunately, this has inefficient and unfavorable consequences. TFA alumni have consistently come forward to the public about the ineffectiveness of TFA’s 3-month teacher training program, and how underprepared and overwhelmed they felt being thrown into difficult classrooms burdened with issues beyond the scope of education and learning resources.

Jessica Smith, a former corps member, gives their personal account:

   “I’ve struggled with behavior management…I didn’t really have the training to know how to give consequences consistently. “Yes a commitment matters,” Jessica wrote, “but staying isn’t necessarily helpful to your kids or anybody…” and later said they would have to “personally deal with remorse and regret.”

Veteran educators have also spoken out against TFA’s training program:

“It’s wrong to put teachers in the classroom with no experience,” says Ms. Jones, a veteran public school teacher, “I went through a teaching program, and I taught in four different classrooms before I ever had these kids on my own.”

“I mean teaching, if you think of any profession—say, would you go to a doctor who had five weeks’ training? He wouldn’t be a doctor! You wouldn’t consider a lawyer who had five weeks’ training.”

If TFA intended to respond to teacher shortages, then let me reiterate a compelling question posed by Chicago teacher Kenzo Shibata, “Teach For America wanted to help stem a teacher shortage. Why then are thousands of experienced educators being replaced by hundreds of new college graduates?” This problematic trend has even found itself in the tragic aftermath of post-Katrina New Orleans, where 4,500 public school teachers were fired district-wide, when public schools were privatized by charter-school takeovers. They’re largely staffed by TFA or TFA-like corps members, instead of adequately trained educators. TFA is advocating educational “reform” with a committed alliance to charter schools, at the expense of key players (i.e. public school teachers) that serve the educational institutions TFA is trying to reform in the first place. How can you say you are for educational reform or combating social inequality, when it hurts the very teachers that make up the community, the teachers that students of that community depend on?

Despite their liberal do-good idealism, TFA is not about revitalizing public education, supporting public school teachers, or even producing a new generation of educators committed to civil service, but driving a very opposite force. Through its policies and practices, TFA is essentially advancing a hidden agenda of neoliberal, corporate “reform” that advocates for the corporate dismantling of public education and the privatization of education. It serves to elevate the prestigious career development of TFA corps members, which reproduces an elitist structure under the guise of “liberalism and equality,” and is made evident by their stream of alumni working in policy-making, foundation management, and political organizing that advocates and consolidates TFA’s corporate vision of educational “reform.”

For decades, research has shown that anti-poverty and social welfare policies help public schooling. Pushing trained educators aside for idealistic, energetic young college students does not solve the persistent, structural inequalities of the U.S. public education system. Comprising of over 50% White and 75% middle to upper-middle class and freshly out of summer camp training, TFA corp members are ready to implement their white savior complex  by swooping into poor, overcrowded classrooms within urban communities of color and voila become Hilary Swank from Freedom Writers. Better yet, TFA sounds a lot like voluntourism except on the homefront. “Voluntourists” pass through the most impoverished schools that desperately need stability and commitment. Perhaps they get a glimpse of social inequality, but in the grand scheme, only will they benefit in the end, as structural inequalities of the U.S. education system continue to persist in their absence.

Folks, this was not meant to sound overly cynical or undermine the passion and idealism behind social justice work, nor was it to generalize TFA corp members under. This was more of a PSA, especially for those about to join the “real world” and/or interested in the world of nonprofits or social-justice based work, to not fall in the trap of idealism that obscures your ability to critically think. Skills that you’ve developed all this time throughout your Bachelor’s degree ought to be exercised throughout life. Also, we shouldn’t fall in the trap of political binaries equate non-profits as honorable, liberal, reformative, do-good-for-all organizations, which is evidently not always the case.

Know your own values and goals and that of others in order to  assess how you fit in the movements you want to join before blindly participating in one. Mercilessly confronting one’s ego in an attempt to critically question how your “help” can progress or hinder a movement is key.

That’s all folks. Keep questioning, stay ‘woke, slugs.

Building Nests

by Annette Semerdjian

Published Winter 2016

“Why do you talk like that?” It was a question that I often heard, but seldom understood. It wasn’t my English-speaking friend who questioned me for speaking a foreign language. It was my Armenian classmate who asked me why I was speaking Armenian in a manner foreign to her understanding of it.

I am an American born Armenian and when I was a kindergartner in an Armenian private school in Fresno, my classmates ostracized me for speaking the language differently. At the time I did not understand it. All I knew was that we spoke Armenian one way at school and then a different way when I went home.

As my Armenian started to mold into what the other kids spoke in school, my grandma would “correct” me by forcing me to speak Armenian the way we did at home. One time she refused to bring me any water or lunch after school because according to her, I was not speaking Armenian correctly. After a few frustrating trials, I asked in the Armenian spoken at home and she finally brought the water and lunch to the table.

It was not until I grew older that I learned these different ways of speaking Armenian were my community’s two main dialects. As the years passed, I began to understand the political division between Armenians in the diaspora who speak one dialect and recent Armenian immigrants who speak another.

“Oh! Armenian people, your salvation lies only in your collective power.” Almost every Armenian knows and recites this quote proudly. The famous quote by Yeghishe Charents, an early 20th century Armenian poet and activist for Armenia’s independence, is often used in discourse about villagers who united against Ottoman forces in the Battle of Sardarabad during the Armenian Genocide. Generations of Armenians also reference that this historical collective power can be used to unite the people in the diaspora with the Republic of Armenia. Yet, the issue of collective force goes beyond this nationalist sentiment, as the internal politics of East and West Armenia refuse to hold each other in the same regard within the community.

Eastern Armenians were born and raised in Armenia when the country was still under the Soviet Union, so almost all Eastern Armenians speak Russian fluently. When the Ottoman Empire took over Ancient Armenia (now modern-day Eastern Turkey), the eastern region was all that remained. Therefore, Armenians who originated from the western part of Armenia were displaced when the Ottomans occupied the region. Most of the displaced Western Armenians moved to other Middle Eastern countries and also commonly speak Arabic or Turkish.

My family found refuge in Syria after the Armenian Genocide in the early 1900s. My mother’s side of the family was from a town called Kessab, which was highly populated with Armenians. My father’s side was from the city of Aleppo.

Both sides of the family went back to Armenia when the Soviet Union allowed immigration into the country even though there were still restrictions on entering and leaving the Union. What they returned to, however, was a new Armenia – Soviet Armenia. Russia colonized Armenia, and even today, much of the Republic of Armenia remains under Russia’s influence, despite the country’s independence in 1991.

Older family members still carried their culture from Syria, never truly embracing a Russified Armenia. After settling in Armenia in the 1940s, my family lived there for generations, and as a result I speak the Eastern dialect spoken in the Republic of Armenia. Yet, because many family members carried their former culture in Syria with them to Armenia and then America, I grew up with a mix of Arabic, Turkish, and Russian words with my Armenian.

Fresno, which is known for its strong Armenian presence, was the original settler destination for Armenians on the West Coast. Most of the Armenians in Fresno have lived there for generations and their culture differs vastly from that of recent Armenian immigrants.  Living there allowed me to see the differences between families of recent immigrants, like my own, and multigenerational Armenian families in Fresno that grew up in the culture of the diaspora.

Technically, we did not even speak the same language. Western Armenian is the language spoken by Armenians who lived outside Soviet Armenia and did not conform to the change to modern Eastern Armenian. The Republic of Armenia’s official language is Eastern Armenian due to the reform made by Russian forces in order to make the language easier. Most Armenians in Fresno speak Western Armenian, so I learned both dialects because I also spoke Eastern Armenian with my family.

Unlike Fresno, Los Angeles has one of the world’s largest Armenian communities with mostly recent immigrants who are Eastern Armenian speakers.  It wasn’t until we moved to Los Angeles that I realized not everyone spoke both Western and Eastern dialects.

Many people I encountered in Los Angeles regarded the Western dialect as another language entirely and argued about which dialect was the correct one. I was even often asked why I said certain phrases in Western Armenian by my friends in Los Angeles. Armenians do not want to go to an Armenian-run bakery in Los Angeles only to have the baker tell them that their Armenian is spoken incorrectly, when all they want is some fresh baklava.

Also, within different dialects, many of the words commonly used are not actually Armenian in origin. Many words in the Eastern dialect are Russian words whose Armenian translation have been forgotten. For instance, the Armenian word for tomato is lolig, but to buy tomatoes in Soviet Armenia they would ask for pomidor, which is the Russian word for tomato. This is because Russian Communism ruled the Soviet Union’s market and created a homogenous Russian-speaking culture within its states.

Now, decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian is still a huge part of the Eastern Armenian language and culture. Even as a child, I would call a tomato pomidor when speaking Armenian. But I would also substitute Turkish and Arabic words for Armenian words since I knew both dialects and had family members who spoke Turkish and Arabic as well. And it wasn’t until I moved to LA and went to high school there that I picked up on a lot of Persian-influenced Armenian as well.

Yet, my knowledge of these cultures did not bring me closer to my own, but instead left me on the fence between each Armenian identity. When I meet another Armenian, they often ask early on what kind of Armenian I am—Russian Armenian, Lebanese Armenian, Iranian Armenian, etc. I am technically Armenian-American, but that’s not the answer they care about or are looking for. They want to know which dialect I speak and what other languages I know—Middle Eastern tongues or Russian.

Just as many Eastern Armenians do not align themselves with Middle Eastern identity, many Western Armenians do not align themselves with post-Soviet identity. Each one sees the other on the outside striving yet failing to assimilate to their respective visions of Armenian identity.

Armenian poet and activist Yeghishe Charents.

Yet, in order for unification within the Armenian community, nationalist ideas of what it means to be Armenian must be put to rest. Armenians are complex and include many identities that create their individual Armenian profiles. We must relinquish allegiance to ideas of Soviet versus anti-Soviet that prevent one another from regarding each community respectfully and equally. The differences among the Armenian people should not divide our communities further than displacement has already caused.

I think an openness to other cultures and languages tied to Armenian life is the key to a more collective culture. Although years of historical and political turmoil have hindered internal relations among Armenians, Eastern and Western Armenians should not be seen as competitors of one true Armenian identity. This generation of young Armenian-Americans has the opportunity to incorporate Middle Eastern and Soviet influence in our culture for a cohesive community. If our collective power is in fact our salvation, as Charents once wrote, this generation of Armenian Americans holds that power in order to influence later generations.

All I know to be true, no matter what my Armenian peers say, is that no Armenian is less or more of an Armenian than the other. To be Armenian is not a degree. It is an identity that people claim even if they are one tiny part Armenian. It is the reason why so many Armenians across the world gather on the Genocide Commemoration as one community. It is the reason we try to spot an Armenian last name with its distinguishable “-ian” or “-yan” ending. It is the reason we connect so deeply to another Armenian we just met.

Thus, the idea should not be a collective identity, but a collective society that embraces all backgrounds and adapted identities of being Armenian.

Armenian poet Ghazaros Aghayan wrote a poem in 1890 called “Remembrance. The lines translate as, “the swallow was building a nest, building and singing, and as she put each twig together, she remembered her previous nest.” This poem is an allegory of the Armenian people.

As we move to a new place we remember our home before it and create our new home in its image. If we are born and raised in Beirut and move to the U.S., our parents create their own Armenia in Beirut and we create our own Lebanese Armenia in the United States. If we are born and raised in Los Angeles, we build our home, our language, and our environment with the Armenia our parents remember.

Armenians have become accustomed to the effects of displacement, but we do not forget the country from where we originated. Thus, even though I have yet to visit Armenia, I take it with me every new place I go. It remains forever resonant as a part of our identity. Armenians are all like that swallow, who builds her nest in the image of her previous home, and continues to build the next one and the next the same.

Taking Up Space

by Taylor Huang-Boutelle

Published Winter 2016

For the first couple of hours after I was born, I was “Baby Huang.” My parents weren’t married and my dad wasn’t in the room, so they just identified me with my mom’s last name. The way my mom tells it, he was watching the Tonight Show in the waiting room, and my dad becomes reasonably humbled. Sometimes, I think that was the first and last time I was unquestionably legible as an Asian-American.

Whining about being mixed race is one of my specialties at this point, though this will not be an exercise in that vein. Legibility in society is something many people, particularly people of color, face on a daily basis. Whether it is attempting to be legible to a society that views you as only one thing, a checked box category, or trying to be seen as a person, are all issues of being seen and read how we truly are. Usually there is one space where you can be recognized with your own people, but I rarely feel that sense of belonging.

I have never felt very comfortable in AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) spaces. I get the squint and the unsaid ‘why are you here?’ at the same moment that eyes flicker to the jade on my neck and question whether I am a sinaboo1 or something more offensive. However, I decided to take several steps and a plane ride outside of my comfort zone when I took the opportunity to intern for an AAPI non-profit organization in Los Angeles and work in Washington, D.C. for ten weeks last summer. 

I was afraid and unsure how I would fit into these spaces, and whether I might be an interloper once again. When I was accepted as a Leadership Academy Intern for the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment (CAUSE) to intern with the Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership (CAPAL) in D.C., I learned a lot of acronyms and more about myself and my community than I could have anywhere else. There was not a singular event that allowed me to come to terms with and live in my skin, but an entire journey which allowed me change my mindset.  From being readily accepted by my peers and the leadership to being part of a pan-ethnic organization, I was not only able to learn about the AAPI community in all parts of the country, but from the people who were most affected by these issues. In addition, I had the luck and privilege of a mixed race AAPI supervisor who I came to see as a mentor and a friend.

The sense of welcome, and an excitement for any AAPI to be interested in public service, allowed me to come into my identity as Asian American in ways I never would have expected possible. Just last year I was unable to think of anything good about being mixed race, as I often had the feeling of not belonging to any community. Personally, the comfort I have been able to feel in my own skin as a result of the opportunity to help uplift and create change in the AAPI community, even in the smallest ways, has been one of the most valuable experiences of this internship. For example, during my internship one of my main roles was working on an annual Career Fair. One of my duties was to order tables, at the time it seemed like an insignificant task, but every table used contributed money to my organization, to support future interns, and to allow AAPI access to networking opportunities they may not have seen otherwise.

For me, this is the reason affinity-based internships are so important. Even for people who may not have my exact experience of racialization, it is important to be able to discuss issues within the community. This is particularly true in the AAPI community, which is already heterogeneous, encompassing a continent and several islands, and a multitude of different experiences of diaspora. Some argue that these spaces are not necessary, that there should not be organizations dedicated to a particular identity, however there is no way I can see this as a logical argument. These organizations, whether they are non-profit or parts of the government, exist to fill a space that was once blocked to us, to tell a different story, and to show us that we can be leaders too. That even if our faces aren’t on television, or if we’re assumed to be a monolith of a racist caricature from decades ago, we need to take up space, and claim the space we’re owed.

This is particularly poignant in a place like Washington, D.C., where gentrification has hit multiple communities of color. From the Chinatown which includes an Urban Outfitters and only three hundred Chinese Americans still living in the area, to Dupont and U Street, which have become homes to high rise apartments and whole foods, but was once a historically black area.

In some ways, we must critique our own participation in the disenfranchisement of people of color from their homes. The center I lived in hosted many interns, and was in the middle of new land developments. We need to push past representation for representations sake and move towards representation as a modality for change. I cannot rally behind a person of color in leadership if they are espousing the same rhetoric and beliefs as dominant powers. We need to use our space, and even our tokenization to get a foot in the door, to be a part of a conversation we may not be included in otherwise.

For these reasons, I believe affinity organizations, whether they are in the Capital or on our campus, are key spaces for organizing and understanding goals as a community. It is impossible to mobilize something which has no name or direct values. Working within one’s community can do more than lift one person of color up, it can create a framework of people who help each other. My greatest understanding of this came from the White House Initiative on AAPI Youth Forum, where there was a panel on “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling.” The glass ceiling is a more well known phrase, that attempts to name the blocks of advancement for women and people of color; sometimes, in AAPI spaces, it is somewhat jokingly called, “the bamboo ceiling”. It is not my favorite term for a couple of reasons, most particularly, it argues all we struggle against is an achievement gap. This is the kind of the thinking that forgets that we need more than representation. We need resources and we need to remember every part of our community, particularly those who do not fit the model minority myth. From undocumented AAPI (currently 10% of undocumented persons are AAPI identified), to high school dropouts and incarcerated individuals, and persons suffering from mental health issues. As an AAPI leader in mental health stated, “It should not be our goal just to get past the ‘bamboo ceiling’, but to prevent anyone from falling through the cracks in the bamboo floor”.

This summer I realized it matters less how I look or how I am perceived, what I have power over is what I do. And for me, that is supporting and empowering myself and my community to do the best it can for those most vulnerable to powers outside our control.

The author (right) and co-intern Samantha Gomes (left) at the White House Initiative on AAPI Youth Forum 2016.