Voices of Preservice Teachers in the Borderlands: Exploring Cultural Identity through Language

Article excerpt

"I am proud of my race and culture because that makes me be what I am." --Manuel, 22-year-old Latino preservice teacher (1)

"It is very important to me that my children understand their Mexican culture and be proud of who they are ... I want ... to help them learn the language." --Carmen, 38-year-old Latina preservice teacher

"As a future teacher, it is important to learn how to make students feel comfortable with the language they speak and with the language they are learning." --Pamela, 22-year-old Latina preservice teacher

For most individuals, including these Latino/a preservice teachers, culture is a source of pride. Culture has been defined as "social[ly] shared cognitive codes and maps, norms of appropriate behavior, assumptions about values and world view, and lifestyle in general" (Delgado-Gaitan & Trueba, 1991, p. 17). All individuals are members of several different subcultures or microcultures that are interwoven and interrelated. Some of these micro-cultural groups form around race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic class, religion, geography, sexual orientation, exceptionality, language, and region/geography (Gollnick & Chinn, 2009). The interrelationship of membership in these various subcultures determines a person's cultural identity. Reber (1995) defines identity as "a person's essential, continuous self, the internal, subjective concept of oneself as an individual" (p. 355). Banks (2006) adapted Reber's definition of identity to propose a definition of cultural identity as an "individual's subjective conception of self in relationship to a cultural group" (p. 132).

It is important for preservice teachers to have an understanding of their own cultural identity (Zeichner, 1993) and examine their personal beliefs as they relate to cultural diversity (Cochran-Smith, 1995; Delpit, 1995). The "first step in developing culturally sensitive pedagogy is to discover one's own cultural identity in order to appreciate the similarities and differences that exist between oneself and others" (Schmidt, 1999, p. 335). Preservice teachers can begin to explore and understand their cultural identities by narrating their cultural autobiographies during their teacher preparation program (Carpenter-La Gattuta, 2002; Chang, 1999; Ladson-Billings, 2000). According to Chang, a "cultural autobiography is a reflective, self-analytic story of [one's] past and present" (p. 1) and includes narration, analysis, interpretation and reflection. The cultural autobiography encourages preservice candidates to examine their cultural identity by writing narrative essays about experiences in their lives that have influenced who they are and how they view the world (Cochran-Smith, 1995). This is critical because "people often do not fully understand their own experiences. Nor do they realize that they don't understand that they don't understand" (Barclay-McLaughlin, Kershaw, & Roberts, 2007, p. 224).

As a teacher educator, I use cultural autobiographies in my undergraduate class in multicultural education at a southwestern university located on the Texas-Mexico border to help candidates explore their cultural identities (Linn, 2010). Although some Latino/a preservice teachers talked about gender, religion and socioeconomic class, the subcultures of ethnicity and language permeated many of the narratives. The manner in which the Latino/a preservice teachers constructed their ethnic identity has ben previously reported (Linn, 2011). Within these preservice teachers' narratives, several themes about the construction of their ethnic identity emerged, including culture as a new discovery, culture as a normal phenomenon, and culture as a source of pride. Additionally, preservice teachers talked about the importance of loyalty to their cultural/ethnic heritage and how living in a Latino monoethnic setting [i.e., a predominately Latino community] offered shelter from a world of difference outside of the border city. …