Natalia J. Garland
There appear to be only two basic internet resources on Marcos
Aguilar, the Principle Director of Development and Operations at
the Academia Semillas del Pueblo: an interview with Aguilar in a
2003-2004 issue of the Teaching to Change L.A. online journal
from U.C.L.A., and a webpage apparently posted by Academia after
a recent incident involving a radio reporter who attempted to
interview Aguilar. This webpage was changed on 06/06/06 and a
school website is now posted.
Aguilar stated that
the school's name translates as "the house of higher learning
for the seeds of our people." Otherwise referred to as
Academia, it is a K-8 charter school under the Los Angeles Unified
School District. Academia's teaching methods emphasize positive
relationships between students and teachers, cooperative
learning, and portfolio development. There is an academic focus
on foreign language learning and native language retention. The
languages are English, Spanish, Nahuatl (an Aztec language), and
Mandarin Chinese. Aguilar stated, "It's not only learning
reading, writing, and English, but being able to analyze the world
in several languages."
Aguilar wants to
provide an alternative to "commercialized curriculum
programs" for the immigrant children and others whom he
considers underserved. He objects to "...outsiders teaching
the community's children, with no regard to the community
itself,..." This includes an objection to teachers commuting
to the Los Angeles inner city area in order to work in those
schools. Aguilar seems also to have some disagreement with
Brown vs. Board of Education, the Civil Rights movement, and
generally what he refers to as white culture and white supremacy.
According to the
Great Schools website, 96 percent of the students at Academia are
Hispanic, 2 percent are Native American or Alaskan Native, and
2 percent are African American. The enrollment is 253 students.
Regarding teachers, 8 percent are fully credentialed, 42 percent
are pre-intern or intern, and 42 percent are emergency
credentialed or waivered (an emergency credentialed teacher is
usually a substitute teacher who is hired full-time due to a lack
of fully credentialed teachers). Twenty-five percent of the
teachers are in their first year of teaching. The average is 4
years of teaching experience with 2 years in L.A.U.S.D.
Academia was founded
in 2002 by Marcos Aguilar. Academia is funded by the Seventh
Generation Fund for Indian Development, the National Council of La
Raza, the Raza Development Fund, and the California Department of
Education. According to World Net Daily, Academia is also backed
by the Pasadena City College chapter of M.E.Ch.A., or Movimiento
Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan. It seems that M.E.Ch.A. is in favor
of non-violently reconquering the southwestern United States in
order to restore Atzlan, an area which they consider the birthplace
of the Aztecs and which others consider fictitious.
My concern is with
Aguilar's philosophy and focus, rather than with his teaching
methods. I would like to address Aguilar from a common concern
for the children and the people. My preference is that
these children have the opportunity and option to learn to live
productively and happily within mainstream American society. My
fear is that Academia promotes a counterproductive separatism.
Specifically, I will question the teaching of Nahuatl, the
objection to "outsider" teachers, and the disagreement
with Brown vs. Board of Education.
What does "the
house of higher learning for the seeds of our people" mean?
Who are our people? The American people? The Hispanic
peoples? The Mexican American people? The Mexican people?
Perhaps it is only a coincidence, or perhaps the answers can
really be found in a M.E.Ch.A. document known as "El Plan
Espiritual de Aztlan." Regarding the word academia:
"Education must be relative to our people, i.e., history,
culture, bilingual education, contributions, etc. Community
control of our schools, our teachers, our administrators, our
counselors, and our programs." Another document, known as
"Philosophy of M.E.Ch.A.," states, "M.E.Ch.A. is
committed to ending the cultural tyranny suffered at the hands of
institutional and systematic discrimination that holds our Gente
captive." Also from the same document: "We recognize
that without a strategic use of education, an education that places
value on what we value, we will not realize our destiny."
Regarding the word
semillas: "We are free and sovereign to determine
those tasks which are justly called for by our house, our land,
the sweat of our brows, and by our hearts. Aztlan belongs to those
who plant the seeds, water the fields, and gather the crops and
not to the foreign Europeans. We do not recognize capricious
frontiers on the bronze continent." Regarding the word
pueblo: "Before the world, before all of North America,
before all our brothers in the bronze continent, we are a nation,
we are a union of free pueblos, we are Aztlan." Both the
above quotations were taken from "El Plan Espiritual de
Aguilar was an
Education Committee Coordinator for M.E.Ch.A. from 1989 to 1991.
He participated in and was arrested during a 50-day student
takeover of the Faculty Lounge at U.C.L.A. in 1993. The protesting
students caused $50,000 worth of damage which U.C.L.A. absorbed.
The students were demanding that U.C.L.A. offer a Chicano studies
major. Aguilar graduated from U.C.L.A. in 1994. Again, maybe it
is just a coincidence, but Aguilar's philosophy of education seems
to reflect M.E.Ch.A.'s principles, goals and objectives. The
people could be the indigenous peoples of Mexico, parts of
America, and other followers who adopt the principles of the
Chicano movement: they consider themselves sovereign, they are
against assimilation into mainstream American society, and they
claim the southwestern United States as their territory.
A little more
detective work might help to further understand the educational
program at Academia Semillas del Pueblo. There is a focus on
foreign language learning. Obviously, students must learn English
to function in America. If Spanish is their native language, then
retention of Spanish could enrich their cultural and academic
experiences. If they are also studying Chinese, then this might
give them a global advantage in today's troubled economy. But why
learn Natuatl? Aguilar states, "They will be able to
understand our own ancestral culture and our customs and traditions
that are so imbued in the language." Is this not an
assumption that all children attending Academia are descendants of
the Aztecs? What about the non-Hispanic children?
The Natuatl dialect
complex is spoken by approximately 1.5 million people in Mexico.
These modern dialects have been influenced by Spanish, and none of
them is exactly the same as Classical Natuatl. Most Natuatl
speakers in Mexico also speak Spanish or another indigenous
language. Natuatl has contributed some words to English: tomato,
chocolate, avocado, coyote, chili, tamale, and chiclets. Beyond
this interesting fact, what usefulness does Natuatl have for
American children? In Mexico, some speakers of the varieties of
Natuatl cannot understand one another. Classical Natuatl was used
only for administrative issues in the Aztec empire. So, which
dialect is being taught at Academia and why?
There are other
ethnic groups in America which maintain their ancestral identity
and language without the use of tax dollars. Among immigrants of
the Eastern Orthodox religion, for example, native languages were
often taught at Saturday Schools conducted in the church hall.
To this day, some Greek Orthodox offer instruction in the Greek
language and culture to children and adults on Saturdays.
Likewise, some Russian Orthodox continue to teach Russian and
Slavonic (a liturgical language, similar in use to Latin in the
Roman Catholic Church) to the next generations.
Unless it can be
shown that learning Natuatl has a significant impact on students'
study skills or adjustment to immigration, then this language
should be passed on in a manner similar to that of other ethnic
groups. Hispanic students are provided with opportunities to
excel in English and Spanish. Most high schools offer a few
foreign languages and some colleges offer many. It may be
advantageous for children in Mexico to study Natuatl, but
American children need to learn other languages and subjects which
are essential to their continued education. This is not
commercialization but an expectation of scholarly performance and
the ability to function in the larger society.
This specific and
narrow focus on Mexican or Aztec identity might be the underlying
reason that Aguilar objects to "outsider" teachers.
Good teachers love to teach. They love kids. No teacher can be
exactly like the students if only because the teacher is older and
comes from a different generation. Today's teachers are trained
to appreciate diverse student backgrounds and to use appropriate
teaching methods. In fact, there is concern nowadays that the
teaching profession has gone too far in its attempt to understand
and accommodate various student behaviors and cultures. There are,
of course, bad apples in every school. Some teachers lack energy
It is a reality in
America that most teachers are white females and from the middle
class. Some children in Los Angeles possibly experience hardships
which the average teacher has not: immigration, racial prejudice,
poverty, gangs, and broken education systems. Some new teachers
will start their careers in these difficult systems because they
cannot get jobs anywhere else. Some will learn to love it, and
some will find it intolerable and move on. A few will choose to
remain in these systems because they are dedicated to making a
positive difference for these kids.
Nobody should blame
teachers for wanting what they consider a better job. Teachers
also have a right to find the American Dream for themselves. If
teachers work in an inner city area but live in a nice suburb and
commute every day, there is nothing wrong with this.
Self-sacrifice should not be a part of the job description, and
teachers should not have to feel guilty because their standard of
living is higher than that of their students. What about public
school teachers who teach in Beverly Hills? Do they live in
mansions like their students? No, they drive home at night in
average cars to average houses and apartments.
Aguilar seems to
want more than cultural identity; he seems to reject American
history and American law pertaining to education:
If Brown was just about letting Black people into a White school,
well we don't care about that anymore. We don't necessarily want
to go to White schools. What we want to do is teach ourselves,
teach our children the way we have of teaching. We don't want to
drink from a White water fountain, we have our own wells and our
natural reservoirs and our way of collecting rain in our aqueducts.
We don't need a White water fountain. So the whole issue of
segregation and the whole issue of the Civil Rights Movement is
all within the box of White culture and White supremacy. We should
not still be fighting for what they have. We are not interested in
what they have because we have so much more and because the world
is so much larger. And ultimately the White way, the American way,
the neo liberal, capitalist way of life will eventually lead to
our own destruction. And so it isn't about an argument of joining
neo liberalism, it's about us being able, as human beings, to
surpass the barrier.
[End of quote.]
If Aguilar rejects
Brown vs. Board of Education, then ironically he rejects the right
to education and equal opportunity. He rejects the achievements
of blacks, and the ability of blacks and whites to live in
harmony. Brown vs. Board of Education was not only about
education, but also about equal access to public transportation,
restaurants, hotels, and yes--water fountains (literally and
metaphorically). Brown vs. Board of Education is an example of the
evolving pursuit and practice of liberty and equality for all
Brown vs. Board of
Education cannot be dismissed as insignificant simply because it
originated from the pain of a minority and because it involves a
relationship with the majority. It is this relationship that makes
us better people and a better society. Again, this is ironic,
because Aguilar talks about Natuatl as a way for children to
understand their relationship with nature and their ancestral
culture, and to realize that they are a part of something larger
than the individual . Brown vs. Board of Education accomplished
something similar for blacks. To dismiss this is to take America
A basic fallacy
in the Chicano movement, and which dismantles the vision of a
physical Aztlan, is the claim to sovereignty and to the territory
of the southwestern United States. There are indeed sovereign
Indian nations within America. They have their own government and
culture, and some continue to speak their own language. If they do
not want to have social contact with other Americans, that is
their prerogative because they are sovereign. Most Indian nations
struggle with internal problems. Those nations which now operate
casinos have been able to improve the financial status of their
members, and to begin developing programs to restore their
spiritual and emotional wellbeing. Aztlan, however, has no such
sovereignty in terms of lands, treaties, or a truly definable
culture and people.
and others may reject assimilation into American society, the
fact is that immigration changes people. Even if Aztlan became
a geographic reality, the people effecting that reality would be
different for having immigrated to America. Aztlan would bear
both the success and frailty of modern America. Aztlan could only
be built upon and within American democracy, which negates the
very concept of autonomy and underscores American largesse. If
this were not true, then the process of Aztlan would have begun in
Mexico and by the indigenous Mexican citizens. At present, Aztlan
is a mentality. Hispanics or indigenous peoples who do not
possess tangible sovereignty can keep and empower their identity
by controlling and directing their own assimilation, rather than
by emphasizing victim status and partitioning or balkanizing an
existence in America.
According to the
Great Schools website, Academia "...did not make adequate
yearly progress in 2004-2005; however, because it made adequate
yearly progress the preceding school year, the state department of
education did not identify this school as 'in need of improvement'
for 2005-2006." On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the
highest, the school's Academic Performance Index (A.P.I.) ranking
was 1. Aguilar states that an independent audit found that
"79% of the total number of Components across all Building
Blocks were rated as meeting or exceeding expectations."
Also, "...the percentage of Components rated as meeting or
exceeding expectations is highest (93%) in the first tier where
the greatest impact on student achievement resides."
My concern is for
the future of America's children. If Aguilar has found a way to
reach Hispanic youth, I hope he will discuss this in detail with
other educators. Perhaps he would consider writing a paper or
book, or offering teacher training, or making a video of a typical
day at Academia. To do so would be to create relationships of
professional sharing and caring with "outsiders."
Communication, which is the exercise of a democratic freedom,
could help all educators and set a good example for the children.
[NOTE: This essay
is an attempt to piece together available information for the
purpose of analyzing and understanding an educational approach.
Certain M.E.Ch.A. documents were selected because Aguilar's
remarks bear resemblance in content, because of Aguilar's past
student involvement with M.E.Ch.A., and because M.E.Ch.A.
reportedly backs Academia Semillas del Pueblo. It is recognized
that "El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan" is a historical
document and that the "M.E.Ch.A. Constitution" is the
official guideline. However, M.E.Ch.A. websites continue to post
"El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan" which could give the
impression that it has not been entirely superseded. I did not
find any M.E.Ch.A. websites which renounced "El Plan
Espiritual de Aztlan" as obsolete. This essay is therefore
subject to error.] (Written 06/08/06: bibliography available.)
Until we meet