What It Means to be Latino and Working in Education Today: Part I

Interview by R.D. Leyva


Today marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month – an annual celebration of the histories and stories of the Latino diaspora. In dominant U.S. culture, Hispanic Heritage Month is often an excuse to bring out the tacos and salsa music. It’s a time of year when we are asked to test our Latino identity through a superficial Buzzfeed quiz and a month where businesses pander to the Latino community by creating advertisements using broken Spanish as they try to “connect” with Hispanic consumers. (i.e. Hispandering).

For us at Latinos for Education, every month is Hispanic Heritage Month. We honor our heritage every day through our core values such as Leading With Identity, which reminds us to be unapologetic about seeing our Latinidad as a source of pride. As a national network of Latino education leaders, our members embody our heritage in many ways. We honor it when we speak to students about our Latino identity and we teach them to embrace their own. We also honor it by ensuring students have access to Latino role models and literature showcasing the diversity of the Latino experience.

The “Con Ganas We Can” blog is a space dedicated to our heritage and we do that by amplifying the voices of Latino leaders across the education sector. Throughout Hispanic Heritage Month (and beyond), we will share insights from our members as they reflect on their identity and what it means to be Latino and working in education today. This article is the first piece in a series about Latino identity and our work in education.

The following interview was conducted with Dr. Nancy Gutierrez, Chief Strategy Officer at the New York City Leadership Academy.


What does it mean to be Latino and working in education today?

 DR. GUTIERREZ: It means protecting our children and our community while also guiding them to stand up and speak out, to strategically challenge and resist. It is an opportunity to leverage problem-based learning, integrate current events into the day-to-day curriculum, and use the classroom as a lab for students to engage in social action. Schools are best positioned to bridge communities across lines of difference.

How does your Latino identity impact your approach to leadership in today’s climate?

 DR. GUTIERREZ: My identity has evolved over time. Growing up in a predominantly Latin@ community, I long identified as Mejicana, but after experiencing a major culture shock in college, I found comfort in identifying as Chicana. This helped me understand why there were so few of us on campus, why I deserved to be there, and why it was important to challenge the status quo. After 17 years in the field, I identify as Latin@ taking in the breadth and range of Latinidad across our country. I also strongly identify as a woman of color (WOC) which creates the space for unity and solidarity across race and ethnicity. Simply put, identifying with the range and breadth of Latinidad is not enough. We must stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of color and movements such as #BlackLivesMatter.

Given everything happening in the world today (i.e. elimination of DACA, Charlottesville, etc.), what is our collective responsibility of Latinos working in education? 

DR. GUTIERREZ: I grew up in a household of eight. Half of us spoke Spanish; half of us didn’t. I could see the way my siblings who didn’t speak Spanish were treated by our community—sometimes as if they were not “Latin@ enough.”

It is our collective responsibility to negate false binaries and embrace intersectionalities across our community. Black, gay, Spanish-speaking, non-Spanish speaking, mixed race, undocumented – We are all Latin@s.

We must create spaces for storytelling and relationship-building and make our schools and classrooms places where all ranges of Latinidad are embraced, celebrated and accepted.

What is one call to action for Latino education leaders? 

DR. GUTIERREZ: Become a teacher. It’s the greatest form of social activism in the world. And if you feel ready for something else, lead a school. We need more leaders who are representative of our students.

Dr. Nancy Gutierrez is the Chief Strategy Officer at the New York City Leadership Academy. Nancy’s previous work and commitment to the empowerment of under-resourced communities came from experiencing the low expectations placed on the children in her disenfranchised Latino neighborhood. Already personally committed to social justice, Nancy returned to her community to teach, later founding and serving as the principal of Renaissance Academy, which remains the highest performing middle school in the district and a California Distinguished School. Nancy then accepted the opportunity to lead the lowest performing middle school in the district, located only two blocks from her childhood home. Right before joining NYCLA, Nancy served as the executive director of advanced leadership strategy for the New York City Department of Education where she launched, designed, and facilitated a leadership institute for current and aspiring school district leaders that led to superintendent certification.