Music artist Pitbull and I have something in common: people assume that we are not from here. And by “here” I mean the United States. When he hosted the American Music Awards earlier this year, Tweets revealed complaints that the AMAs should be hosted by an American. Both Pitbull and I are Americans, born in the United States.
Every time that I teach the second half of the Latin American History survey, I find myself coming out of the closet as a US citizen. The irony is not lost on me since I have come out of the proverbial gay closet many times. When I first started teaching, several of my student evaluations accused me of hating the United States. Teaching Latin American history means dealing with difficult topics. Students have a hard time coming to terms with human rights violations, the toppling of democratic governments, and the support of dictatorships in the name of United States’ interests. US history has largely been presented as the story of a glorious nation. Students do not want to hear that their country has betrayed its own ideals. It is much easier to think that I am presenting them with this information because I am one of them — a Latin American and an angry one at that. As long as students thought of me as an “other,” it became clear that they were going to challenge me every step of the way. And they did.
Even when I presented them with declassified CIA documents, reports by US journalists, and articles written by expert US scholars, students fervently argued with me in class. These were usually the students who registered for my class, not out of genuine interest in the topic, but rather because they lacked a general education requirement that my class fulfilled.
They way I saw it, I had two choices: stop teaching controversial topics altogether or find different ways to show that I did not hate the US. Accomplishing the former would have been the easier route. I had seen it done many times. You can easily teach about the glories of the Panama Canal without mentioning that we incited a civil war in order to acquire that territory. The latter option would be more difficult.
Students wrote in their evaluations of my bias against the United States. Was there no way to teach these difficult topics without it coming from a place of hate or resentment? Were students completely opposed to hearing about the negative side of US history? The problem was not the topic, as much as the fact that they were hearing it from Professor Ramos. In their minds, my Spanish surname automatically made me foreign. Perhaps had my last name been Smith, my loyalty would not have been questioned. I realized that I needed to demonstrate to my students that far from hating the US, I owed my allegiance to it.
As a result, I came out as a US citizen, and still do so from the very first day of class. My citizenship status should not play any role in my teaching, but the truth of the matter is that it does. Like immigration debates, it becomes a matter of us versus them and I needed to distance myself from them. When discussing Latin Americans I refer to “them” and when discussing the United States I refer to “us.” More importantly, when discussing covert CIA operations in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, I take part of the blame. We supported the proliferation of banana republics, we backed a coup in Chile, we invaded Guatemala.
Of course, I realize that by implementing this strategy I am reproducing the same “othering” framework that students use to question my loyalty and thus, my authority as a teacher. However, this approach allows students to lower their defenses and think more broadly about the world we live in. By coming out as an American I can provide students with a different model of what it means to be American. Primarily, that being a good citizen means being able to think critically about your country without having to sacrifice your loyalty to it. It is because I am a citizen of the United States that I am critical of its past actions and seek to hold this country to its highest ideals. I am also showing them that you can be a Latina and an American.
Marisela Ramos is the first generation in her family to attend high school and college. Even though she has earned a Ph.D., to this day, the most difficult thing she has ever done was graduate from college. She teaches Latino and Latin American history. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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