My family crossed the border from Guatemala to Mexico in the ‘80s following the purposeful destruction of our indigenous village. My abuelos led their small children across the border where their names were changed to Spanish and their culture was dismissed as basic and barbaric. Our gods were said to be wrong and our clothes were improper and we were forced to assimilate. We became Catholics with Spanish names who wear the clothes expected of western society to gain the respect that those with more European blood are given at birth. I say this not because we deserve pity, but because we deserve to be heard. Throughout the past few weeks, I have sat in a classroom for a conference with mostly white students; I have been lectured at about my culture by mostly white people who specialize in primarily other subjects. I find this to be deeply disheartening. I have been expected to read texts about the systematic and intentional genocide of my ancestors and then come to conferences and discuss them as though these events are a thing of the past. These events are not in the past — they are now; as the few who survived we are responsible to advocate for the voices and the people we have lost.
As classes started and I began to read the course materials and watch the prerecorded lectures, I was excited to be learning more about my ancestors in an academic environment to which I had not previously been exposed. However, with the progression of the classes, I found myself avoiding these textual sources as they left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I continued to listen to the lectures despite the lack of a specialist speaker on the subject and was continually let down by the way the material was presented. Even the art used in the current curriculum was interpreted with a heavy western Christian lens which was not only culturally insensitive but had no academic backing for the assumptions made about our gods. Then there were lectures in which professors speaking with presumed authority mispronounced the few indigenous words included in the course and times when our art was called “scary”. And as though that weren’t all enough, there was racially charged music playing in the intro of a lecture which now lingers in the back of my head on a daily basis. Is this what people think of me? Is this how they feel about my culture? Are we so barbaric to you that we deserve so little respect? I hope the answer to all of these questions is no, but following this unit I am unsure.
Over the past three weeks, I have voiced my problems with the Hum 110 curriculum as it is currently being taught in the conference, and while being acknowledged there is no change in motion. Lecturers have not apologized and students in my class still lack the ability to think through potentially triggering statements. I have sat quietly, respectfully, and listened to people discuss the ways in which my culture was intentionally wiped from history at a great cost for my emotional and mental health. This is not a problem for later or something to be brushed under the rug like our culture was. Learning about another culture does not mean we learn just about their trauma. In choosing to primarily focus on the texts of colonizers we have once again let indigenous voices be actively silenced. In not bringing in indigenous speakers to teach this section of the course we are allowing indigenous voices to be actively silenced. This is problematic because in a school with a primarily white student body, brown people are often talked over or ignored in favor of their white classmates who are uneducated in the subject and then allowed to cross an ethical boundary while talking about the intentional eradication of my people.
Despite all of my qualms with the current curriculum, I see potential. It has always been my adamant belief that our history should be taught. I believe that it can be done in a positive way in which we learn not just about our traumas but also about our miraculous works. Through work with specialists, the integration of guest lecturers as well as pre colonial primary sources such as art and artifacts we can learn much more about these cultures in a way that is non-problematic and non-triggering. I believe that with the help of more brown and indigenous staff on the Humanities board and a reexamination of the current curriculum with indigenous people there could be a positive change so that people like me who have descended from these awe-inspiring cultures can feel comfortable in a classroom setting along with their white peers. I know that this is not only possible; it is our right. If we want Reed to be a diverse place where people of color feel comfortable and safe, it is the job of the white faculty and students to not rely on us to see that something is harmful. It is not my job as a student to teach the faculty with far higher levels of education about the ways in which their own ignorance has come at a great personal expense which has caused problems in not only this class but others as well. It costs three thousand dollars to hire a guest lecturer for the amount of time we are in this unit. The most basic board plan at Reed is about the same amount of money, are you really going to tell me that we don’t have that money? Is that not the best use of money, to make people of color comfortable in the same way we prioritize the comfort of our white students?
In hopes that my words will have an impact, I have decided to include cited sources that detail the ways in which the current curriculum can be triggering and emotionally exhausting for some students. Before I dive into the more analytical side of this I would like to highlight that this information should not be valued more than indigenous opinion, knowledge, and feelings. Included in this curriculum we have learned about the ways in which the majority of our documents were destroyed. As a result, indigenous people are all too often told that they do not know what they are talking about when it is their knowledge simply because there is no textual backing. This brings us to the intrinsic trap of indigenous voices not being heard in academia as the academic community is based in western systems which all too often require sources that have been accepted by the westernized colonial agenda. This makes it incredibly difficult for indigenous people to not only live their lives but to help the world as we have always tried to do. Because of this, I know that my voice will not be heard without the backing of what our community thinks of as credible sources.
One study published about psychology in indigenous communities in The Annual Review of Psychology noted “Indigenous communities have suffered the imposition of Western strategies to promote social change and development that disparage or eliminate Indigenous ways of acting. That is, institutions and contexts that foster social change are shaped by Western norms that, ironically, undermine Indigenous peoples’ confidence in speaking up and taking part in social progress.”(Gonzalez 431-459) Highlighting one of the most prominent issues with the curriculum as it currently runs. Despite the curriculum’s effort to be inclusive and proactive in representing communities that are all too often left behind, we lose the most important part of doing this work; making sure these cultures are properly represented. Promoting non-western cultures through a western scope is not better than ignoring them and in some ways, it more significantly harms those who may feel the weight of these choices. It is not difficult to gain an indigenous perspective on a curriculum before misinformation and microaggressions are taught to hundreds of students. People of color deserve to feel like they are in an academic environment in which the curriculum of the one required class does not promote harmful conversations and interactions not always properly monitored by conference leaders. The brown students at Reed deserve more respect than what is currently being given. I am well aware that this is not the only unit that has been problematic but I feel at this point it is my responsibility to intercede as it is now a culture I am directly tied to.
Generational trauma is a beast that hides in the shadows and plagues us all and the harm of generational trauma on indigenous communities is more complex than we may ever understand. The endurance of culture through genocide is difficult and more still is the endurance of our spirits, our souls are all too often lost to hurt and fear. I am plagued with visions and dreams of things that I never saw. I wake up with images of dead bodies and burned homes. I see the things I can only imagine my dad witnessed himself, and it haunts me. I carry the weight of knowing that I could be living a very different life in which we still retrieved honeycombs from the woods and swam in crystal clear water to catch fish with our bare hands. This is the life I was meant to have, one in which I was free to enjoy the wonders of the jungle, the plants, the animals of my people. I was robbed of this by the colonizers that came to our village and burned it to the ground less than half a century ago. This is the burden that my Abuela carried on her back as she crossed the border into Mexico with her small children, this is the burden that my dad carried when he crossed the border coming into Los Estados Unidos, and now this is the burden that I carry as I walk around this campus. It is ours to carry and ours to heal. Because as stated in an article in the Native Social Work Journal “If we do not deal with our trauma, we inadvertently hand it down to the next generation.” (Menzies 67) This trauma is too recent for my family and potentially for many and it does us a disservice to require a course in which we are repeatedly reminded of the blood that was spilled and the sacrifices that were made so that we could be afforded such comfortable lives now.
We have walked so far from where we began and we will walk farther still. We have left pieces of our hearts littered across the North American continent, each chipped off as we lost pieces of our culture — pieces of ourselves — to colonization. As people of color on an individual level, it should never be our job to teach white people about our culture. The assumption that we will call out problematic lecturers, impartial texts, and uneducated white students is a blatant disruption of power dynamics between POC; regardless of age or educational level it systemically puts brown people at a disadvantage and enforces racism as it is enacted in western culture. As a school, it is our job to make learning spaces feel safe and comfortable for not only white students but also students of color.