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How integration helped a little girl find herself

The New York Times recently ran the second piece in a series called A System Divided. The series aims to "...examine the changing racial distribution of students in New York City's public schools and its impact on their opportunities and achievements." The article, "Why Don't We Have Any White Kids?" is a great piece that among other things informs the reader that integration has been shown to have positive effects on young children. From my own personal experience, I believe that is true.

I grew up in a West Texas town with a large Mexican population. In 1977, when I was set to enter second grade, the state began a program of integration of public schools, and in this case it took the form of forced busing. In my neighborhood most of us walked to school, and I vividly recall the first day when a dusty yellow school bus pulled up and let out a group of children who quietly followed the principal into the cafeteria. After school, when my mother came home from work, the first thing I said to her was "Mommy today all the Mexicans came to school." My mother looked at me and replied, "What do you think you are?" Without speaking to the family pathology behind that exchange (it's a long story) what I can say is that I was raised in a home where Spanish was not spoken and race was rarely mentioned. My seven-year-old self received a good little shock. My curiosity about the group of children who came on the bus grew.

I ended up becoming friends with a few of the children, and I still remember them well. I went to their homes, homes where no English was spoken. I ate their food and played with them and through them and their families I found my Mexican heritage. I still remember their names: Ana, who had five older sisters. I loved to watch them brushing or fixing each other's hair or arguing with their grandmother about staying out late; Benny, a shy slight child whose father dropped him off in a beat up red Chevy pick truck. Once, there were chickens in the back, and Benny dragged us over to see them. Those moments stayed with me all these years.

In childhood identity can be a mutable thing. Through play, children take on and off roles in ways adults can't or won't. How do you instill acceptance of differences and pride of self? Get them while they're young. By not acknowledging a Mexican identity, my parents did me a disservice. Thanks to integration I cobbled together a greater sense of myself.

Last modified on Tuesday, 22 May 2012 10:12

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