CHICAGO — Like millions of children across the country, last week I went back to school.
After 10 years of being away from the classroom, I’m teaching high school students the same age as my own children. Lots of things are the same as when I last taught, and others are quite different — such as the technology used to teach, plan lessons, give assessments and enter grades.
But what is most surprising by far is something I hadn’t anticipated: the diversity of the Hispanic students at my school.
In 2012, the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project reported that about a quarter of all pre-K through 12th-grade public school students were Hispanic. But I hadn’t seen with my own eyes what that really looks like.
I’m teaching in a middle- to upper-middle-class community in a suburb of Chicago that saw an approximate 30 percent increase in its Latino population since the 2000 census. And within the cohort of Hispanic students, most of whom have dark hair, olive skin and parents of Mexican descent, there are large numbers of kids from Hispanic and non-Hispanic white (and black and Asian) families who seem to come in two types: the semi-visible and the hidden.
Though the school is about 43 percent Hispanic, my classes include semi-visible Hispanic students. What I mean by this is that they have names such as Kevin Gonzalez, Todd Chavez, Madison Vargas or Kaylee Escobar (these are not real names) and have a wide variety of features — sometimes even blond hair and blue eyes like the actress Cameron Diaz — and speak little, if any, Spanish.
The hidden ones have names like Tyler Warner and Jenna Lee who are half-Hispanic. But because they may have features associated with other races and don’t have typically Hispanic-sounding names, they go through life with deep cultural ties to the Hispanic community, yet no visible ones.
The misperception about what a majority-minority school district looks like was silly of me. Of course, not all of the Latino students are brown-eyed Diegos or Marias — I should have known that from my own family.
Like myself, my two cousins are half-Mexican, half-Ecuadorean. One married a woman from the Philippines and their two boys take after their mom’s side of the family. My sons look like my husband’s white family and carry clear-as-day Scots-Irish first and last names. My other cousin married an African-American woman, and their daughters are mixtures of both their backgrounds.
I imagine all our kids’ teachers’ eyebrows went up when they looked at our clan’s demographic data. I know mine did when I compared my rosters to the kids sitting in my classrooms.
For a decade, I’ve been writing about how America’s racial tensions will ease as the children of interracial and interethnic marriages become a larger share of the population. The Pew Research Center says that in 2010, regardless of when they married, the share of intermarriages reached an all-time high of 8.4 percent. In 1980, that share was just 3.2 percent.
It’s obviously not that simplistic, but it’s still neat to see such a transition play out in real life. There will always be social stratifications in high schools, but when groups of young people who have parents from a mixture of ethnic and racial groups gather, they seem to tend toward being able to relate to each other’s similarities, not their differences.
Throughout the course of the day, kids who look like they might be purely European break out native-level Spanish language skills when immigrant parents walk into the room.
When we talk about news items involving racial issues, students will chime in with tidbits about their diverse demographic family constellations that inform discussions that might otherwise veer into taking sides or us-versus-them mentalities. Even the cafeteria tables are pretty well integrated.
This is all unscientific observation, but it’s still uplifting.
Demographic shifts often are characterized sensationally — news headlines typically shriek about rising minority populations with thinly veiled terror about reverse-supremacy and “The End of White America.” But if the rest of the country’s shift to majority-minority is as cosmopolitan as it is in just one American suburb, things are looking up.
• Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
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