Grand Rapids — Javier Cervantes has a message for young Latino students.
“Be true to who you are and own it,” said the Grand Rapids Public Schools communications coordinator during a recent Manhood Monday Hispanic Heritage Month virtual discussion. “Your education is important, no matter when you get it, so never give up.”
Cervantes joined Grand Valley State University professor Raul Ysasi and Manhood Monday host Maximiliano Velasco for a conversation on identity, education, community and to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.
“We’re Hispanic all year round, so we don’t have to wait to celebrate our culture,” Cervantes said.
Velasco, who is fatherhood coordinator at Strong Beginnings, a community partnership dedicated to improving the health and well-being of African American and Latino families, hosts Manhood Mondays on Facebook Live to “engage in conversation with the community about what is going on in our lives from the perspective of men,” specifically men of color.
“I am a single full-time dad myself, and have worked through barriers in that role,” he said. “Being able to hear fathers talk about their situations and to let them know they’re not the only ones going through this is very fulfilling work, and I am always educating myself through these conversations.”
As GRPS’ first Latino communications coordinator, Cervantes believes it is the district’s role to “pave the path for Latino, African American, Asian, Caucasian individuals” to celebrate their cultures while receiving their education.
“We’re celebrating 150 years and seeing how we can transform the next 150, 200 years,” he said, referring to the GRPS sesquicentennial. “We’re being true to our rich history and sharing our stories with our students and community. When we stop sharing our stories, that’s when our stories end.”
The three participants discussed their experiences forming their own identities and how they learned to balance their Latino heritage with American culture during their early years of school.
“A lot of kids changed their name when they went to school, but I didn’t do that,” Ysasi said. “My mother gave me my identity at a very young age and a name that went with it: Mexican American.”
Ysasi credited his father for “always playing Mexican music” and allowing him to grow up around the culture.
“My dad taught me everything he knew. He would say, ‘We’re Latinos growing up in West Michigan and your life matters. Don’t you ever forget that.’”
Added Cervantes, “Our name is our identity. If you don’t know where you’re from, it’s hard to know where you’re going. Celebrate American traditions but don’t forget your roots, your culture, the music and food.”
A 2009 Central High School graduate, Cervantes feels fortunate to be able to communicate with students and families from different cultures, who speak different languages.
“I’ve been very very blessed to be in a role where I can talk to students who look like me, who can see themselves in me, and communicate with our families in English and Spanish,” he said.
‘Disrupting the Status Quo’
Ysasi spoke about his experiences as a teacher learning about identity and culture in the world of education.
“People in power like to give the whitewashed version of history, oppression and marginalized populations in schools, and it’s important for students to know their history,” he said.
When he began teaching, he recalled, he saw more Latino teachers than there are in classrooms today.
“Today, it seems like most of the teaching force is made up of white females,” he said. “We can’t teach what we don’t know; our students deserve better than that. We need teachers who look like our kids.”
Ysasi called on the community to “be disruptors,” and “not just go with the status quo” when it comes to recruiting diverse teachers. Cervantes wants to encourage youth to come back to GRPS as educators, maybe even the next superintendent, he said.
Velasco said he hopes people like Ysasi and Cervantes “feel heard” and viewers “listen to the messages” in future Manhood Monday episodes, under the Strong Fathers/ Padres Fuertes initiative
“We only know so much; I don’t know everything and can only talk about my experience,” Velasco said. “We never stop learning and growing, and I hope we’re doing something important that people find value in.”