Today's Topic



Response to
Marcos Aguilar

Natalia J. Garland

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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 Aztlan."

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 and dedication.

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 American citizens.

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 backward.

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.

Although Aguilar 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 again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2006 Natalia J. Garland