In Brooklyn Dreams: My Life In Public Education, Sonia Nieto describes her experience at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, where she attended from 1958-1961.
As in elementary and junior high school, there was barely a mention of Puerto Rico or Puerto Ricans in the curriculum. I learned US and European history, American and English literature, French language and literature, art history (of course, primarily European). We learned nothing about Jews, even though Erasmus Hall’s student body was overwhelmingly Jewish, or the other White ethnics who were then the majority of the population in Brooklyn. We heard nothing about African Americans and little about immigration. At Erasmus Hall, I never learned that Puerto Ricans wrote books, created art, or did anything else of public significance. That knowledge took many years for me to discover. No surprise, then, that I felt invisible. I learned that identity was something you didn’t talk about. If you were not completely assimilated, your culture remained behind closed doors; at best, it was a source of embarrassment, and, at worst, a source of shame. This cultural invisibility surely had something to do with my sense of alienation. On the bright side, the invisibility of my culture in those years, and my ultimate acceptance and embrace of it, also had a lot to do with the focus of my chosen profession. [my emphasis]
This lack of representation caused Nieto embarrassment, shame, and alienation. Though she was ultimately stronger for it, Nieto took years to unpack and embrace her cultural identity, and other students might not succeed the way she did.
Although we might ascribe “cultural invisibility” to the era of the late 1950’s, would Nieto have a much better experience today? What attention do contemporary high school curricula give to Puerto Rico, a United States territory, or to the many other countries and cultures from which our students hail? Most schools now teach world history in place of European history, and Nieto’s critique of immigration and Jewish history may no longer apply.
Some schools adopt a critical perspective on United States history, and English novels have diversified. However, our student population continues to evolve at a faster pace than our course content. With a public school population that is already majority minority, instruction in all subject areas continues to lag behind the reality of our classrooms.
All students deserve to see themselves in their school’s curriculum and learn about their culture’s history, literature, luminaries, and accomplishments. Schools should adopt fully multicultural curricula that truly reflect the American student population in all of its diversity and prepares students to understand and participate in the world.