Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 2011 Issue »

    Youth Voices: My Canción

    ALMA HERRERA-PAZMIÑO, 11th Grade, City Arts and Technology High School, San Francisco, California
    HER Fall 2011 SmA B C D E F . . . I can’t believe I have to do this. Practice my freaking alphabet? But I have to if I want to be “normal.” This is for my papá.

    I’m sitting behind a desk that has probably been used by ten generations of kids and looking at an old, dusty chalkboard with unknown words on it. It’s like I’m a little kid again; pretty soon my mom’s going to have to start changing my Pampers. If I were back in Guatemala, I know that I’d be out playing soccer with my friends and practicing our scoring dance after we’ve made a goal. I can hear everyone yelling and laughing, “¡¡¡Pásame la pelota!!!” Now, I’m sitting here in this room with seven other kids that don’t know English either.

    “What is your name?”


    This is the first conversation I ’member having with a teacher at mi middle school. There standing in front of me was an old, wrinkly, tall prune. He wore long black slacks that made it seem like he was a scarecrow with a live dinosaur head that talked. He would lean over my desk and breathe heavily, like a truck braking in front of my face, letting the smog take over my air. His heavy, hot, coffee breath made me put my face down on my desk and shake my head so he would go away. Every day I traced the letters F-U-C-K T-H-I-S S-C-H-O-O-L-! on my desk. Good thing I started practicing my alphabet. It was bad enough that we had to smell the teacher’s hot breath, but there was also a whole bunch of kids in one classroom that didn’t know what deodorant was. It smelled like someone had just finished playing a game and had hung up their soccer shoes right next to the fan after a cat had pissed on it.

    I remember the first day of school. It was just un big blur, tú sabes . . . Everything was huge; era enorme. The school was so big and I was so small, even though I’m tall for twelve. It was like twenty of my houses in Guatemala could fit in there. Yo me sentia bien chiquito like a . . . how do you say it . . . aunty . . . no, ANT!

    “DO U KNOW WHERE U R GOINGGGG?” A secretary yelled in my ear. I am Guatemalan, not Stupid! I don’t know why people think that loud plus slow equals Spanish. Sometimes it feels like I’m repeating history because in Guatemala they would teach us these things twice as fast. I think you call it “deyavu”? Algo así. Like Christopher Columbus—I already knew he didn’t discover America. Well, at least it gives me more time to focus on my mamá.

    Focusing on my mamá always reminds me why I’m in this class. It reminds me of my papá too. I need to learn English to take care of my mom because I’m the man until my papá comes to take care of us. It’s not safe here, and people don’t care about other people. They smoke in your face—even in babies’ faces—and when they talk to you their breath stinks really bad. But they don’t care. I wish I were back home in Escuintla. The community would always make sure you have food and would have your back. If you needed to go into the city, they would give you a ride. One time I lost my soccer ball in the trees and my neighbor Santiago climbed up there to get it since I was so small.

    I still remember leaving Guatemala. That day went by as quick as flipping a tortilla. I remember. I felt my stomach turning like it was a continuous carousel inside of a Ferris wheel—Ay, qué náusea. My father just wants it to be better for us because he can’t provide if there aren’t any more jobs there, even though I had no problem with my life there. There I was a jaguar, and Escuintla was my jungle, my playing field, my comfort. In America I feared I might just be a leg on a centipede and fall into the shadows of the nobodies.

    Every night I look at the moon and I know my dad is looking at the same moon. It lets me know my dad is still coming. He’s on his way, traveling by land every day and every night until he sees our faces again.

    Flashback to the day I left Guatemala and my father.

    “Quiero que cuides y protejas a tu madre. Ella es bien fuerte pero quién sabe cómo son las personas allá y lo qué pasara cada día. Los estudios son muy importantes porque no quiero que gente piense que no somos inteligentes solo porque no hablamos el lenguaje. Por eso también es importante que aprendas el inglés, así puedes ayudar a tu mamá con las compras y contestar el teléfono. Así pueden comprar comida y contestar cuando les llamo de aquí. Luego tú le puedes enseñar el inglés. Ponte sabio porque la vida está llena de sorpresas. Nos vamos a ver muy pronto. Protegese y no se preocupe. Nos vamos a ver pronto. Te lo prometo,” dice papá.

    “Pero a mí me gusta nuestra vida aquí muy bien. No hay problemas y aquí tengo a mis amigos y mi escuela. No quiero irme,” le digo con tristeza.

    “Ya sé pero no podemos vivir aquí, ya no hay más trabajos. Tengo que agarrar otro trabajo para soportar a ti y tu mamá. ¿Que no quieres ir en el avión? Me dijisteis que eso era tu ilusión. Mira, cuando llego vamos a comprar una casa y no vamos a estar pobres. Vamos a poder vivir nuestra vida tranquila. Te voy a poder comprar todo de lo que quieres y vamos a seguir nuestra vida como familia sin problemas. Ya vas a ver, recuérdate que una sonrisa cura el corazón. Nunca seas negativo porque siempre hay algo mejor que te espera en el camino. Te veo en un ratito. No te olvides que te amo.”1
    I haven’t seen my papá for three months. The last words he speaks replay in my head every night antes de dormir, and I pray to God he’s safe and always keep faith in my heart. That’s why I smile.

    Not knowing English is a struggle. I am learning the language in school, but I can’t just go to the store yet because I don’t know what to ask for or what it’s even called. It’s hard. And it gets me frustrado, como si me quiero jalar los pelos de la cabeza, when I can’t say what I want in English. Soon enough I will be able to go the store and ask for a coka without getting cheated out of my money. Soon I will accomplish my goal and help my mamá with groceries and answering the phone. This is what I will do to make my father proud. Little by little I’ll learn. Baby steps, u know?

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    This piece was written in 2006. The author is currently attending college at the University of California, Santa Cruz, majoring in Latin American and Latino studies and sociology and minoring in theater arts.

    1. Translation: “I want you to take care of and protect your mother. She is very strong, but who knows how the people are over there and what will happen each day. Your education is very important because I don’t want people to think we are not intelligent only because we don’t speak the language. That’s why it is also important that you learn English. Like that, you can help your mother with the groceries and answer the phone. Like that, you can buy the food and answer the phone when I call you from here. Then you can teach her English. Be wise because life is full of surprises. We will see each other soon. Protect yourself and don’t worry. We will see each other soon. I promise,” my father says.

    “But I like our life here very much. There are no problems and here I have my friends and my school. I don’t want to leave,” I tell him with sadness.

    “I know, but we cannot live here. There are no more jobs. I have to get another job to support you and your mother. Don’t you want to get on the plane? You told me it was your dream. Look, when I get there I will buy a house and we won’t be poor anymore. We will live our lives peacefully. I will be able to buy you everything you want, and we will continue our life as a family without problems. You will see. Remember that a smile cures the heart. Never be negative because there is always something better that awaits you in your path. I will see you soon. Don’t forget I love you.”

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    Fall 2011 Issue


    Immigration, Youth, and Education
    Editors’ Introduction
    Soojin S. Oh and North Cooc
    The Power of Context
    State-Level Policies and Politics and the Educational Performance of the Children of Immigrants in the United States
    Alexandra Filindra, David Blanding, and Cynthia Garcia Coll
    Growing Up in the Shadows
    The Developmental Implications of Unauthorized Status
    Carola Suárez-Orozco, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Robert T. Teranishi, and Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco
    “Because We Feel the Pressure and We Also Feel the Support”
    Examining the Educational Success of Undocumented Immigrant Latina/o Students
    Things I’ll Never Say
    Stories of Growing Up Undocumented in the United States
    Undocumented to Hyperdocumented
    A Jornada of Protection, Papers, and PhD Status
    Whose Deficit Is This Anyhow?
    Exploring Counter-Stories of Somali Bantu Refugees’ Experiences in “Doing School”
    Toward a Pedagogy of Acompañamiento
    Mexican Migrant Youth Writing from the Underside of Modernity
    Elementary Forms of Cosmopolitanism
    Blood, Birth, and Bodies in Immigrant New York City
    Maria Kromidas

    Book Notes

    Immigrants Raising Citizens
    Hirokazu Yoshikawa

    Balancing Acts
    Natasha K. Warikoo

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.