Ever since I was young child, I have struggled with understanding which parts of me were valid in different areas of my life. As a bilingual first-generation American of Mexican descent, I developed a system for determining which aspects of identity to present depending on my environment. At my predominantly all-white, upper-middle-class private elementary school, I only spoke English and pronounced my name the way my teachers and classmates did. I was careful not to let any of the Spanish words I frequently used at home slip out on the playground or, God forbid, in the classroom for fear of reminding my teachers or classmates that I was “the other.”
It wasn’t until I attended UCLA as an undergrad that I understood that this system I had developed for myself had a name: code-switching. As an educator, I realized this phenomenon was much more common for my students than I had thought. When I began teaching creative writing to a number of underrepresented communities, I realized that allowing students’ multiple codes to exist at the same time in the classroom improved their overall writing performance. It was as if by allowing students’ languages — in all their varied, complex and beautiful forms — to become an equal and viable part of their education, the students became self-aware and empowered in ways that were never encouraged or supported before.
I have repeatedly witnessed the magic that happens when misrepresented groups reclaim their experiences and set the narratives straight. In my work at the Veterans Upward Bound program in Los Angeles, I have seen Vietnam and Iraq war veterans work through post-traumatic stress disorder with creative writing prompts that remind them of who they are — not glorified heroes or damaged goods as our society often labels them, but as everyday people, with the same joys, sorrows and values as the rest of us.
The same was true in my work with formerly incarcerated youth, first-generation high school students, recovering addicts/alcoholics and HIV+/AIDS communities. The common thread among them was that society had pigeonholed them into certain categories that significantly impacted the way others saw and interacted with them. It started to affect the way they saw themselves, and they were tired of it.
While this ideology has contributed greatly to my philosophy as an educator, it isn’t something unique to me. Many organizations across the country are rooted in the same mission. PEN America’s “DREAM to Tell” series works with student “Dreamers,” young persons enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program who have been marginalized primarily due to their immigration status. Get Lit – Words Ignite engages many youths who come from disenfranchised communities.
There are as many opportunities as there are marginalized groups: African Americans, Muslims, LGBTQ+, native populations, victims of sexual assault… The list goes on.
Our stories live in our bodies, but when we narrate them ourselves, we birth them into existence so that the rest of the world can experience them the way we intend for them to be experienced. And while it starts with sharing stories, it also requires active listening in order for the process to be fully realized. We are all flawed individuals. We make mistakes. Things happen to us. But I have witnessed the healing power of personal narrative as tool for transformation and healing, both in my life and in the lives of my students. Many times I have witnessed the “victim” become the learner and teacher of life lessons far more valuable to the human experience. And in many ways, healing the self then leads to increased empathy and compassion toward “the other.”
I know this may sound a bit idealistic, but I can’t help but wonder how our world would look if we just took a little more time to hear perspectives from “the other” before categorizing them in our minds or deciding how we’re going to interact with them. I wonder how our world would look if we tried to understand populations unfamiliar to us instead of letting others do it for us and adopting their biases, judgements and misconceptions as our own. While the same concepts certainly apply to politics, I believe it’s far more personal, more fundamentally human, than that.
The solution is not easy, but it is simple. It involves first encouraging those whose stories don’t get told very often to share their narratives as loudly as they can, and then taking a step a back to really listen. If you’ve ever felt marginalized, misrepresented, silenced or invalidated, I encourage you to try it. You never know who might be listening. You never whom you might be helping.
Carlos Castellanos is a visiting lecturer in the Department of English at California Lutheran University.