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Low-Income, Latinx Youth Are More Than Their Oppression

Validating the brilliance of Latinx youth while disrupting their oppression.

Key points

  • Low-income, Latinx young people find creative ways to overcome structural barriers in educational and social environments.
  • These youth engage in behaviors—such as "language-brokering" for others—that show the love and care they have for their communities.
  • It's important to challenge the oppression many young Latinx people face, but also acknowledge and celebrate how they advance their communities.
thewet nonthachai/Pixabay
Source: thewet nonthachai/Pixabay

“Ella no entiende las instrucciones, maestra! She doesn’t understand the instructions, teacher!” yelled the little girl in my niece’s first-grade Zoom classroom. Other Spanish-English speaking bilingual students joined the chorus of translation, as they accidentally muted and unmuted their microphones with laughter.

My niece attends a school that serves predominately low-income Mexican American students who are bilingual Spanish-English speakers. The majority of teachers speak only English with teachers’ aids speaking Spanish. On this day, the Spanish-speaking teacher's aid was not in class, so the responsibility of translating class instructions was left with the English-speaking teacher.

As I made my breakfast behind my niece’s computer screen, I was contemplating whether I should intervene, since I seemed to be the only other adult in the “room” who could translate the instructions. My internal questioning was immediately stopped when a group of bilingual students started translating the instructions in Spanish, helping one another when they couldn’t find the words. These first-grade students (6- and 7-year-olds) didn’t need my help. They didn’t need their teacher’s help. Without prompting from adults, these bilingual, Latinx children quickly attended to their peers’ needs without question. This is a form of community care and love.

The need to translate and interpret documents and conversations for immigrant peers, parents, or family members who don’t speak English, or language brokering, is a common practice among children of immigrants, including Latinx young people (Morales & Hanson, 2005; Suárez-Orozco et al., 2015). Language brokering is done in order to navigate educational, legal, and medical contexts and everyday life experiences, such as grocery shopping (Morales & Hanson, 2005).

Language brokering is no small feat: translating and interpreting conversations and documents from English into Spanish (and vice versa) can be emotionally, psychologically, and physically taxing for young people (Nesteruk, 2021; Valdivia, 2021). In fact, some people frame language brokering as “risky” or “dangerous” for positive youth development (Dynamic Language, 2021), implying that young people’s involvement in language brokering is “sad” or “unfortunate.”

I argue that bilingual children shouldn’t have to language broker for their peers or family members, and that we should live in a country in which bilingualism and speaking solely in native languages, such as Indigenous languages or Spanish, is accepted and supported. U.S. schools should be well resourced and equipped to support Spanish-speaking students and other students who don’t speak English.

However, the reality is that many bilingual children—like the Latinx children in my niece’s classroom—have developed skills, such as language brokering, in order to survive in educational and social spaces that weren’t designed with them in mind. The ability of the children in my niece’s classroom to show up for their classmates’ needs is not sad. It’s a form of community care that they learned in order to navigate and resist educational spaces and other contexts rooted in white supremacy, classism, and xenophobia (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2015).

In fact, young people’s involvement in language brokering and other behaviors that advance the well-being of family and community members can be considered forms of civic engagement, which are prosocial behaviors that support the positive development of communities (Jensen, 2008; Stepick et al., 2008). Involvement in prosocial behaviors, such as helping classmates, is associated with more positive academic outcomes among Mexican American early adolescents and children living in low-income neighborhoods (Armstrong-Carter et al., 2021; Carlo et al., 2018). Such helping behaviors during childhood are the foundation for involvement in behaviors that challenge social injustice during adolescence (Bañales et al., 2021; Lozada et al., 2017).

We—as adults, psychologists, parents, educators, and community members—need to hold systems, such as schools, accountable in order to promote the well-being of marginalized children and youth. We need to be critical of the very real disparities in which low-income Latinx youth who don’t speak English face (Martinez & Oliva, 2019).

At the same time, we need to remember the children and youth behind these statistics—and the beauty, care, love, and joy that fill these kids’ lives. Marginalized children are more than the oppression they face (Bocknek, Anderson, Lozada, & Mims, 2021). They are community members who positively contribute to the lives of their friends and family members, while also laughing at each other while their mics are muted during Zoom school.

References

Bocknek, E.L., Anderson, R.E., Lozada, F.T., Mims, L, (2021, April 7-9). Resilience reconsidered: The brilliance of Black children and families as axiomatic. In Bocknek, E.L (Chair), Society for Research on Child Development. Online biennial meeting.

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