Visiting Room 501: Middle-Class Latino Students in the United States Negotiate Life as Transnational Citizens, Developing an Identity and a Culture That Translate Their Contemporary, Lived Experiences and Highlight Within-Group Variances

Article excerpt

If you are in trouble, if you need money, I will help you. You are my favorite cousin," wrote Sammy as part of a "friendly letter" assignment in Room 501.

Why did Sammy, a 5th grader in an American elementary school, offer such support to his Mexican cousin? "People living in Mexico work hard and there is not very much money," he explained.

Sammy was a student in Room 501, a classroom in an upwardly mobile middle-class Latino community in Southern California where students were primarily from Mexico but differed in generational status.

I spent more than two months observing Room 501 to learn how children with Latino ancestry tap into their lived experiences, history, background knowledge, and language skills--what Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo (1987) describe as cultural capital--while engaged in their classroom's literacy activities.

Students in Room 501 were exploring and negotiating their lives as transnational citizens. In a globalized world of instantaneous information and communication, Latino students are shaping, morphing, and evolving into a new generation. This study highlights one group of students who were aspiring toward middle class, which is not the typical perception created when educators and policy makers identify Latino children as "at risk." The tacit and explicit addressing of students' culture through local school practices, curriculum, and pedagogy is intertwined with students' identity and contributes to their academic expectations. This research highlights the educational importance of understanding within-group differences, as well as students' contemporary experiences, to identify and access their strengths.

The vignette above illustrates two key points from my study. The first is the distinction that students, such as Sammy, make between their current middle-class neighborhood and their perceptions of life in Mexico. Now living in the United States, they consider themselves better off financially and therefore able to help relatives who remain in Mexico and whom they perceive as less fortunate.

Second, these students maintain relationships that cross geographic borders through literacy practices that incorporate cultural, social, economic, linguistic, and political domains. In this example, Sammy displays his newly constructed transnational identity, one which he seems to embrace with remarkable ease. He demonstrates not only geographical flexibility, but also an inclination to draw on multiple cultural codes that transcend his personal history and that of his parents.

A startling, and somewhat alarming, finding by sociologists triggered my initial interest in exploring the classroom interactions of young children: The education and economic gains made by first- and second-generation Latinos are not sustained in later generations. Stated another way, the prospects for economic, educational, health, and social viability for Latinos actually decreases by the third generation. This discovery compelled me to rethink my assumptions that Latino immigrants of the late 20th century would follow trajectories similar to those of 19th-century European immigrants. After all, this upward mobility was the "Great American Dream" and part of this country's cultural narrative. My research needed to move beyond pedagogy and interactions between child and teacher. Clearly, there were other issues. Although I am a former classroom teacher and currently focused on research into children's literacy development, my curiosity drew me to a much broader landscape of sociological and anthropological perspectives and readings into critical theory and public policy.


In 2003, there were 37 million Latinos in the United States, making them the "largest minority group" (Darder and Torres 2004). Much has been said about this group's educational achievement, language issues, and identity patterns. However, Latinos are not a monolithic group. …


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