Teaching to Change LA: An online journal of IDEA, UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, & Access: Equal Terms in LA: The Struggle for Educational Justice, 1954: Vol.4, No. 1-5, 2003-2004
Equal Terms: A Los Angeles Dialogue

icon: interview

Interview with Marcos Aguilar,

TCLA: Where did you grow up and go to school?

MA: I was born in Mexicali, Baja California Norte in Mexico and I attended schools on the border in Calexico, a farm worker community. There was the Mexican town and the White town was like 10 miles away and another one 20 miles away. We grew up with the knowledge that in Arizona, in Yuma, Arizona, everything was Black and White. The dogs and Mexicans drank from one spot and the White people drank from the other one. I think growing up amongst Mexicans, you get values and manners at home. One of my grandmothers raised me and taught me those values.

TCLA: Did the educators at your school demonstrate that they valued your language and culture?

MA: No, they demonstrated that they did not. They demonstrated at times apathy and at times hostility towards the languages spoken that are non-English. I never witnessed an act of respect to the students’ culture.

TCLA: Have the educators you have observed here in Los Angeles acted in a more culturally responsive way?

MA: Sure, some teachers do, the majority don’t. The majority of teachers consider their position a 9-5 job which they execute as quickly as possible, and for which they expect a high level of compensation. We basically have a situation where outsiders are teaching a community’s children, with no regard to the community itself, with no regard for the ultimate outcome of their actions with the children, with no regard for anything past that one year that they are with them. Teachers step into this role fully expecting a three-month vacation or expecting tons of extra pay when they are off. They fully expect to be separate from the students so they want to commute to get to the inner city.

TCLA: How do you explain these relationships?

MA: Communities as a whole just don’t control education. The system creates this political economy—a role for teachers that alienates them from the children that they are working with. Public education really is a space for the education of workers for private industries. The role of teachers is simply to perpetuate what those values are in the workplace.

TCLA: How have you tried to create a different sort of schooling experience at La Academia Semillas del Pueblo?

MA: Like anywhere in Los Angeles there’s a lot of bridges to cross and we feel that through teaching our children and giving them a good foundation of culture they will be able to understand other people’s cultures and other people’s points of view much better. One of the ways we do that is teaching them several languages. That has to be the most important element of our education. It’s not only learning reading, writing, and English, but being able to analyze the world in several languages.

TCLA: How does learning different languages impact your students?

MA: By learning Nahuatl, they will be able to understand their relationship with nature (because language is based on our human relationship with nature) and be able to understand themselves as part of something larger, not as an isolated individual. They will be able to understand our own ancestral culture and our customs and traditions that are so imbued in the language. The importance of Nahutal is also academic because Nahuatl is based on a Math system, which we are also practicing. We teach our children how to operate a base 20 mathematical system and how to understand the relationship between the founders and their bodies, what the effects of astronomical forces and natural forces on the human body and the human psyche, our way of thinking and our way of expressing ourselves. And so the language is much more than just being able to communicate. When we teach Nahuatl, the children are gaining a sense of identity that is so deep, it goes beyond whether or not they can learn a certain number of vocabulary words in Nahuatl. It’s really about them understanding themselves as human beings. Everything we do here is about relationships.

TCLA: Do you view La Academia Semillas del Pueblo as a response to the problems in our school system?

MA: No. It’s not a response because there is no way we can replace it. It’s an alternative for 150 families out of how many--a million? That’s not much of an alternative. It’s an alternative for a few people in the community. We consider this a resistance, a starting point, like a fire in a continuous struggle for our cultural life, for our community and we hope it can influence future struggle. We hope that it can organize present struggle and that as we organize ourselves and our educational and cultural autonomy, we have the time to establish a foundation with which to continue working and impact the larger system. This is the work of a parallel institution, a very liberal one, whose autonomy is very delicate. It is very easy to disorganize and destroy.

TCLA: What do you recommend to students and parents who are frustrated with schooling and want to create change?

MA: If we want anything we have to organize ourselves. We should organize with other people who share that frustration and see what we can do to solve the problem. The people have to change from an attitude of asking for things to a practice of organizing things for ourselves. We have to get away from the welfare mentality and the welfare society and more and more develop self-reliance and resolve our problems by organizing our own resources.

TCLA: Finally, what do you see as the legacy of the Brown decision?

MA: If Brown was just about letting Black people into a White school, well we don’t care about that anymore. We don’t necessarily want to go to White schools. What we want to do is teach ourselves, teach our children the way we have of teaching. We don’t want to drink from a White water fountain, we have our own wells and our natural reservoirs and our way of collecting rain in our aqueducts. We don’t need a White water fountain. So the whole issue of segregation and the whole issue of the Civil Rights Movement is all within the box of White culture and White supremacy. We should not still be fighting for what they have. We are not interested in what they have because we have so much more and because the world is so much larger. And ultimately the White way, the American way, the neo liberal, capitalist way of life will eventually lead to our own destruction. And so it isn’t about an argument of joining neo liberalism, it’s about us being able, as human beings, to surpass the barrier.