The Contemporary Latino Experience

An Upper School Spanish Class Reimagined

For students wanting to immerse themselves in Spanish while getting hands-on insight into a range of Spanish-speaking cultures, Friends’ Central Upper School’s Contemporary Latino Experience is a unique curricular opportunity. The class has shifted its focus in the last two years to the experience of Latin American immigrant groups in the United States. Cristina Pérez, Chair of Friends’ Central’s World Languages Department, is the creative force behind the revised yearlong Upper School Spanish offering which is open to all juniors and seniors who have completed Spanish III. 

The class, as it was originally taught, touched on various cultural traditions – such as music, dance, and local cuisine – of several Latin American countries. “The objective of the reimagined class,” Cristina explained, “is for the students to have, by the end of the year, a nuanced understanding of four or five different Latin American immigrant groups who are represented in the United States in large numbers. Students learn about the history of each of the countries and about the current relationship and foreign policy between the United States and those nations. They also discover what’s happening with many of those immigrants, now that they live in the United States.”  

Being herself an immigrant from Colombia and the daughter of a Cuban immigrant, Cristina is well aware on a personal level of the vast difference between the two experiences and the perspectives that have been shaped by each. “I find it immensely frustrating when people consider Latino immigrants to be one giant monolith.” 

“I find it immensely frustrating when people consider Latino immigrants to be one giant monolith.” 

Cristina Perez, World Languages Department Chair

As the culmination of each country’s unit, Cristina invites a visitor originally from that region to the class to answer the students’ questions and provide valuable first-hand insight into the immigrant experience of someone from the particular place.  

“Last year was the first year I taught this newer class,” Cristina shared. “We begin with Puerto Rico, taking in a very broad history, from its being a colony of Spain, to its independence, to how it became a territory of the United States. We look at how, beginning in 1917, the US started giving citizenship to Puerto Ricans primarily so that they could fight in World War I. Then we study Puerto Ricans in this country – Why do they come here? Where do they tend to live? – We study the recent hurricanes, the 2006 budget crisis.”

Suzzette Ortiz visiting the class in October

At the end of the unit on the Puerto Rican immigrant experience this October, Cristina invited Puerto Rican pianist, composer, choral conductor, and educator Suzzette Ortiz – friend of FCS music teacher Michele Zuckman – to the class. Along with answering questions in Spanish, Suzzette had the entire class performing a lively rendition of a Puerto Rican song, with students drumming and singing in unison. 

By the time the representative from each immigrant group visits, the students are prepared with informed questions. “We study, for example, the politics of Puerto Rico, which are very much about whether to become the 51st state, to become an independent country, or to keep the status quo. There are three political parties, and each party represents one of those movements.” The students are able to draw upon what they’ve learned to formulate their questions for the visitor, which are always in Spanish.

“Last year, we had a fantastic visitor for our Mexican unit, Cesar Viveros, a Mexican immigrant and Philadelphia-based mural artist who has spent over 15 years creating public art in the United States and his native Mexico.”

Cristina Perez

“Mexico is the next country we study,” Cristina said, “and it’s in such a different situation, of course, from Puerto Rico. We learn about the historical relationship between the United States and Mexico, and we explore the current situation on the Mexican/US border. We get a sense of what a Mexican immigrant’s experience in the US might typically look like.”   

“Last year, we had a fantastic visitor for our Mexican unit, Cesar Viveros, a Mexican immigrant and Philadelphia-based mural artist who has spent over 15 years creating public art in the United States and his native Mexico. Prior to his visit, we studied his work,” said Cristina. 

“The countries we covered last year were Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela. Having taught this for a year, the material is now pretty much set, so I’m hoping to cover at least one or two additional countries this year.” 

The variation in each country’s immigrant experience and historical relationship with the United States makes for rich and complex learning opportunities.

“When we study Cuba, students learn about Batista and then Castro and the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Students have a sense of how special the Cuban relationship is with the United States,” Cristina said. 

For the Cuban unit, Cristina’s mother, Oria Pérez, has been the class visitor. Oria came to the States in 1960 as a Cuban refugee and lives in Miami among a large community of Cuban immigrants and their descendants. Oria fielded questions from the students about the Cuban revolution and exile.

Oria Pérez visiting the class

The next area of focus is Venezuela, where the relationship with the US is, yet again, entirely unique. Upper School math teacher Greg Klein came to teach a class in English on economics, providing an understanding of economic factors affecting Venezuela such as hyperinflation. Last year, the Venezuelan class visitor was Friends’ Central’s own Upper School Spanish teacher Alejandra Socorro.

With the exception of Greg’s visit, the class is entirely in Spanish. “All of the materials we read and study are authentic and contemporary, including CNN in Spanish, BBC Mundo, France 24 en Español, and El País (the global Spanish newspaper),” Cristina explained. “We watch newscasts and reports in Spanish, and class discussions are all in Spanish.” 

At the end of each unit, the students’ culminating assessment is a presentation they research for two weeks using only authentic Spanish sources. Examples of this year’s Spanish oral presentations about Cuba are: The Peter Pan Refugees, Cuba Today, and The Role of Cuban Immigrants in American Politics.  

Along with providing a Spanish-immersion experience that puts into practice the previous three years of Spanish study, the new class straddles social studies, history, and politics and is a wonderful addition to Friends’ Central’s rich curricular opportunities. And the cross-cultural connections and understanding that arise from interactions with the visiting members of each immigrant community bring an invaluable dimension to the learning.  

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