Two teachers explore heritage, homeland, and more
During LatinX/Hispanic Heritage Month in late September through early October, Mirman’s community celebrated and recognized the rich cultural traditions spanning the LatinX/Hispanic diaspora in a few ways. Some of these opportunities for celebration included lessons in various classes across the curriculum; curated reading lists and collections in the Library; and a vivid assembly full of LatinX/Hispanic Heroes, movement activities in Spanish, and show-stopping performances by the Concert Singers and a troupe of Upper School dancers/choreographers.
But one story in particular resonated with our Upper School students, faculty, and staff: the immigration stories of Assistant Art Teacher Giovanni Zelaya’s parents. Along with Assistant Teacher/Yearbook Coordinator Justin Granados, Mr. Zelaya’s parents were interviewed for a short video in which they discussed their childhoods, their sense of identity, and their immigration journey.
You can watch the video below, and read on to learn more about Mr. Zelaya’s family!
After the students watched the piece in an all-Upper School assembly, Mr. Zelaya and his mother hosted a question and answer session where they unpacked more detail about the Zelaya family, their journey, and what it means to be Latino in America (Editor’s note: Although the term “Hispanic” has been used broadly to refer to people or nations that have a link to the Spanish language, the reality is that there are a multitude of ways to identify oneself more specifically and fully. Mr. Zelaya identifies as Latino). We’ve asked some of those same questions here to act as a companion piece to the short film.
Editor: Your parents have such different stories, even though those stories do have some commonalities! When talking to your mother now, what does she consider to be her homeland?
Mr. Zelaya: My mother has lived in America for pretty much her whole life, but she always talks about Mexico as her homeland. That’s where all her family is. In Tijuana, there’s one block where a majority of our family lives, and it’s kind of centralized in one place there — but in reality, if you put all of us together including extended family, there are about 400 people.
Editor: Why did your mother and her family leave their town in Mexico?
Z: The area where they lived didn’t have very much — certain resources were scarce. So my grandparents moved here so that their family could have a better opportunity. And it worked. My grandfather, by the time he retired, had become the head chef at the American Jewish University right down the road. He started off as a busboy and he worked his way up. And my grandmother started a business here; she made wigs. I remember as a little kid going to her house and seeing these styrofoam heads with hair pieces on them, and I would see her threading and threading.
Editor: And your father, why did his family come here from El Salvador?
Z: His journey was a lot longer. He crossed into Panama, he crossed into Mexico. He got to Tijuana and was stuffed in a cabinet in a camper and was driven across the border. Eventually they were let out on the side of the road and they walked two hours to San Diego. Even as he was in the camper driving up, he was able to look outside the window and see buildings, houses, business...he said that when he got there, he’d never seen anything like that. It was an opportunity for him, too.
Editor: At the beginning of their journey, your parents did not have documents. Have they been able to get those documents?
Z: Yes. My dad has his VISA and his Residency status. My mom has dual citizenship — she is both American and Mexican.
Editor: Can you talk a little bit about the difference between heritage and culture?
Z: The way my mom thinks of it, your heritage is based off of your ancestry. Your culture is what you’re living in the moment. So my culture is different from my parents, because I was born and raised in Los Angeles. And my heritage is Mexican and Salvadorian, because that’s where my bloodline goes. My mom actually just found out that the Mexican side of our family isn’t Aztec; they were Mayans. So that’s pretty cool.
What are you hoping viewers and students take away from this story?
Z: I’ve been in education for six years, and every time [LatinX/Hispanic Heritage Month] comes up, I feel like it’s very surface-level: people dress up, eat some foods, and then we kind of move on. We push it aside. I felt that if students actually had a story to connect with, they’d see that this is bigger than clothes and food. Maybe it would spark something. And from what I heard, it has.