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Perspective | Learning about my identity shouldn’t have to be so difficult

The following piece was co-written by a North Carolina student, Dariana Gonzalez-Aguilar, and her former social studies teacher, Ian Joyce.

This section was written by Dariana Gonzalez-Aguilar.

The early months of quarantine afforded me time to reflect on my identity, and with this period of reflection came an interesting discovery about my birthplace. I was born in Guanajuato, Mexico — a state once inhabited by the Chichimeca people of Mesoamerica. Through online encyclopedias, I learned about my ancestors’ commitment to protecting their silver mines, their fierce struggles against Spanish forces who sought to encroach upon their resources, and their eventual assimilation and cultural extinction.

My desire to reconnect with an unspoken part of my identity culminated in weeks spent scrolling through Nahuatl dictionaries and watching Nahuatl instruction videos on YouTube, captivated by the beautiful complexity of my ancestors’ language. I read colonial records from Spanish missionaries, hoping that they could help me assemble the few pieces I had of my ancestors’ history and relieve the growing sense of confusion that weighed on my shoulders. They did not. 

Suddenly, it struck me: Learning about my identity shouldn’t have to be so difficult. I shouldn’t have to go out of my way to learn information about myself that I should already know. Most importantly, I shouldn’t have to rely on documents from colonizers to learn about the very people they worked so hard to decimate.

For many people of color, much of our history, culture, and identity has been lost to colonization and white-washed school curriculums that dilute Indigenous stories. Much of my country’s Indigenous history was destroyed by Spanish colonial forces and replaced with Spanish narratives; consequently, many people of Mexican descent remain unaware of their Indigenous heritage, clinging to the colonial myth of a “mestizo” identity. I can only speak of my experience as a person of Mexican origin, but I recognize that there are thousands of people of color whose stories have been stolen. Erased.

Honoring Indigenous heritage and challenging its erasure begins in the classroom. It begins with conversations about the resistance of Indigenous people in the face of centuries of oppression — conversations that we do not yet have. Every day, we are reminded of the erasure of Indigenous people’s history in people’s unawareness of the tribe whose lands they occupy, in their inability to name a period in Native history beyond the Trail of Tears, in their acceptance of Indigenous culture as a sports mascot or Halloween costume.

When the education system fails to expose and discuss the grim history of oppression against Indigenous peoples that this country has refused to acknowledge, it becomes complicit in the erasure of people’s heritage and identity.

This section was written by Ian Joyce.

That desire to erase the history of oppression, resistance, and resilience of Black, Indigenous, and people of color through ignorance, silence, and the creation of a new “pro-american” curriculum is as strong as ever. Having grown up in a majority white New England suburb, I distinctly remember discussing the white Patriots of the Revolution, the Sons of Liberty, and the focus on freedom from British tyranny in 1776, without a second glance at the paradoxical tyranny of American slavery or our American founder’s many ties to the institution.

During our 2004 eighth grade field trip to Washington, D.C., the only mention of slavery was the abolition-focused Lincoln memorial, and there were no mentions of the de facto policy of genocide carried out against Native American peoples from 1492 to modern times. The powerful African American Museum of History wasn’t even in the works during our visit. What many refuse to acknowledge is that the legacy of 1776 has always defaulted to the perspective of white Americans — as it has similarly been our nation’s norm for centuries to exclude the addition of diverse historical perspectives in our social studies curriculum.

Thanks to decades of advocacy and powerful writing from Black, Native American, and other people of color, we have a unique chance for an honest and long-overdue reckoning of our nation’s historical narrative. But we will never guarantee the weaving of a truthful story if we don’t explicitly include diverse perspectives. In North Carolina, we are at a crossroads to address a more inclusive social studies curriculum. That conversation is happening now as North Carolina’s State Board of Education reviews proposed changes to social studies standards.

In light of the Jan. 6 insurrection at nation’s Capitol building, the narrative we tell about America’s racial past and present is more important now than ever. We must stay vigilant in our advocacy for the toughest, hardest narratives of our nation’s racist history being an explicit part of state standards taught by every teacher.

And we must continue to teach future generations how the cumulative effect of our history impacts Black, Latinx, Indigenous and other people of color today, while also being acutely aware of how traumatic learning that history is for students of color. So rather than succumb to a white-washed, inaccurate narrative, let us push forward loudly as we pursue teaching and learning a truer, more inclusive history — one that justly highlights, reflects, and centers trailblazing people of color as patriots who transformed American democracy into “a more perfect Union” — and who continue the work to this day. 

Dariana González Aguilar

Dariana González Aguilar is currently an International Baccalaureate Diploma Program senior at East Mecklenburg High School. She was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, and she immigrated with her family to the United States at age three. She became a GenOne Charlotte Scholar in 2019 and a Bank of America Student Leader in 2020, gaining valuable leadership skills and mentor relationships. With a passion for environmental justice and a deep-seated interest in scientific research, Dariana plans to attend college as an environmental science major and pursue a career in climate research. Her experiences as a first-generation student and Hispanic immigrant also motivate her to create opportunities for first-generation students to gain access to homework assistance and mentorship. For fun, Dariana enjoys listening to music, knitting, and watching horror movies.

Ian Joyce

Ian Joyce is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of GenOne Charlotte, which began its journey as a nonprofit organization on May 31, 2018. GenOne partners with talented, first generation students from underserved communities, helping them successfully navigate to and through college. In 2014, Ian earned two bachelor’s degrees in International Studies and Journalism from Miami University and was accepted as a Teach for America Corps Member directly out of college. He served at his placement school, Eastway Middle School, for four years, teaching world history and U.S. history. While at Eastway, Ian served on the School Leadership Team and Instructional Leadership Team. He was recognized as an Aspiring Leaders Fellow during the summer of 2016, received the Principal’s Educator Award of Excellence in 2017, was nominated as the grade-level team lead for three out of four years, and was the recipient of the Charlotte Chamber’s 2017 Young Professional Educator of the Year Award. He has a dog named Loki and a wife named Sarah, and in his spare time loves to hike, backpack, write, and exercise.