Interview by Flora Wright
Name: Elizabeth Pricilla Perez
City you were born in: Toppenish, Washington
City you currently reside in: Seattle, Washington
Ethnicity: Chicana (Latina)
Elizabeth Perez is a Spanish teacher at Flora Wright’s high school. Flora was in her AP Spanish class this past year, and it inspired her how much she talked about social justice issues related to being Latinx. In this interview, the womxn discuss community support, resilience, disproportionate resources, breaking gender stereotypes, the value of being an educator, and visibility.
// What work do you do and why do you do it?
I’m a [high school] Spanish teacher. I’ve been teaching here for a while, this is my third official year.
// And why do you choose to do that?
I choose to do that because I’m really passionate about making an impact on the youth, and I think teaching is a powerful tool to connect with many, many communities. There’s a whole other story I could share about why I became passionate about teaching.
// I mean – if you want to.
So, I was at UW [the University of Washington]. I was completing my first Master’s program and they gave me a TAship [teaching assistant position] in order to pay for my tuition. It was mainly freshman and sophomores, and they were just so nice. And then I realized at some point that I was connecting really well with students. I felt at that moment when I was doing my TAship that I had found my calling. I had considered law and medicine –– but I had never found an area or a subject that I felt so connected to. Now with teaching, I taught two years at UW, and I taught those intro-level Spanish classes. That’s when I really realized I had found my passion –– or a calling as I say it is.
// Tell me about your childhood and what it was like being a woman in your childhood town.
I was raised in Grandview, Washington: a town of about probably 10,000 people. I’m the daughter of farmworkers –– migrant farmworkers. My whole family finally settled in the late 80s in the small town in Grandview, so that’s a little bit about my childhood. Throughout my life, my family went through a lot of struggles. More specifically, we experienced poverty while I was growing up because obviously my parents didn’t have an education, and I’m one of six siblings. As a woman and more as a person of color, a Latina, I feel that there weren’t the same opportunities for people like me in that small town as there were for other people that were white and who had more access to resources and were of a middle-class background. So I felt that I had to grow up really fast when I was young because I saw my family experiencing hardships. My father was working in the hops, and I was probably about ten years old when he fell off a ladder and broke his back.
I realized that life wasn’t easy because my mom was trying to provide for the family while working in the fields. I come from a traditional Mexican household where the values are –– it’s the patriarchy, right? So my father was the main breadwinner, the provider, but my mother had to fulfill that role at some point when my father became injured. I became more aware of myself as who I was. I started to realize that I didn’t necessarily want to fulfill the traditional role of being a woman in the kitchen who was cooking and was doing all of the traditional domestic roles in the house. I wanted something more for myself. Not only that, I think that I realized at a very young age that I wanted a better quality of life for my entire family. It was a town almost half Latinx, and then the other half was white. I was seeing the majority of all girls. They were just finishing high school, and they weren’t moving on to higher education. So I was shocked by that, and we weren’t being encouraged by our teachers there.
// The disparity.
There was a huge disparity in that. I think I knew early on that I had that desire to improve my life and show the world that I could be an empowered woman. I could make a difference, and that could set a precedent for coming generations of other women like myself that had undergone similar struggles.
// So connecting to that, can you think of a time you felt particularly aware of your gender and how it led you to be treated?
I think I was very aware of my gender since I was very young –– but I think it's because there were very traditional roles going on at home... I grew up in a community of mainly farmworkers. I think [in] the majority of the immigrant population the women play very traditional roles, so I was very aware of gender from the very beginning. Because even in the church, the majority of the roles that women played were very subservient roles. Women were the ones cooking and preparing everything. They had no voice whatsoever, even in the church, which was a huge part of my life. It was a Spanish-speaking church, and women had no voice. They couldn’t go up to the altar, well, for the majority of my life. They weren’t allowed to like to have a leadership role in anything. So I just knew right there and then that I wasn’t gonna do any of that.
// You said, “There’s no way!” [laughs]
There’s no way! No. Exactly. There was just no way I could allow myself to go through with that. And so, I wanted more for myself. And then I think you could see it in the clothing too. It was very traditional growing up because of the church, and I think [it] was connected to my church that women had to dress a certain way and women had to behave a certain way and the men ––
// Could do whatever they want.
Exactly, so that’s a pretty specific example.
// Thank you! So tell me about a time you empowered yourself.
Well, for me, I empowered myself when I left for college. I felt that I finally let go of an identity that I had held onto for so long, but I think it was due to my upbringing. I’m not saying I’m not thankful for my upbringing and the experiences that I had. But I think that I felt liberated when I moved away from home because these are such small communities. And they’re so tight-knit that you feel you have to keep playing that role even though you know you ––
// You can't!
You can’t, right? And so I think that’s why a lot of our communities, like our LGBTQ communities, all move away because they feel that they’re not supported.
// So your education empowered you?
Oh yeah. My education definitely opened doors for everything. I think that was the key to everything in my life and to the success that I think I have now in my life. I come from a part of Washington where people are not educated. It’s sad to say, but I think that the statistics show that. Communities that are marginalized don’t have that access to education ––
// It’s a cycle.
Yeah. A cyclical pattern, and so my education definitely made the biggest difference. I’m one out of a lot of cousins –– a lot of family. There are only two of us out of a family of 70 plus who has received an education. I’m really thankful I had that opportunity. But I feel so bad because I was telling someone recently that I feel that I always end up being the token child. It’s like this example of like “Oh well if she did it then everyone else can,” but that’s clearly not the case.
// Do you have any advice for girls who are also trying to empower themselves?
My biggest advice is that you have to find strength in your pain. You have to find strength in that because I think it's what teaches you the biggest lessons in life, and it helps you grow. It allows you to [have] a new life with a different mindset. I think that would be my biggest advice because I feel like a lot of people can relate, whether it’s death or you know discrimination. And so, I think that you have to find power in your pain and also in your strength too. And you have to find power in everything.
// Your survival.
Exactly. In your survival, you have to always look ahead and gather support from the community. We have to work together collectively to support one another. I regret not finding strength and power in my community when I first arrived here at UW. I didn’t empower myself. I didn’t find strength in the community right away, and I think that that led to a lot of trouble and problems. I was telling that to one of my students who was talking to me about how she planned on moving away for college. I was just encouraging her that wherever she goes –– she has to build a connection and a series of networks because otherwise you just fall through the cracks, and then the system forgets you. It just sweeps you away. So that’s really my biggest advice.
// [A] support system.
Finding a support system. If you don’t find a support system, then you’re gonna struggle.
// Yeah. [laughs] It’s hard alone.
Yeah, you have to work together. There’s a phrase –– “el pueblo unido jamás será vencido” –– so you must work together as a village, right? It takes a village to raise somebody because in order to overcome obstacles –– and I think that comes back from my culture that we have to work together.
// Can you repeat that?
“El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.” It will never be defeated –– the united village.
// That’s like a chant I’ve heard at rallies.
Yeah, it’s a common chant for a reason. Because people come together, and they have the capacity!
The power to make a change and impact –– we all have to find strength in our community. Gather strength from that. Ever since I started reaching out to my community, I have found an enormous amount of support from everybody. It's a pretty amazing feeling that you don’t have to feel alone.
Right? You don’t have to feel alone. And especially now, the rate of suicide is at an alarming rate, and I think we have to raise awareness about how much we need to work together as a people. We need to be more connected and more open to talking about our stories, sharing our stories and our experiences. I think that that brings out our humanity. I think that’s important.
// Who taught you the importance of empowerment and how did it affect your life? So sort of mentors [that you have had].
Yeah, I had a lot of role models growing up. Well, if I look back, I think that my community and my parents taught me the importance of empowerment. [They] told me to believe in myself from the very beginning. Although you know there were these traditional roles, my father never stopped believing in me. That I’ll never forget –– and my mom [too]. I think that I learned through their experiences and through their suffering because they had been placed in a system where it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy for them. They had to carry out the role of a person in their system in society. I think that their work ethic and the way that they carry themselves like my mom does bring the family together regardless of the struggles that we were going through. We went through a lot. I think seeing that strength and that resilience in them and that desire to succeed and still fight a system that, unfortunately, wasn’t meant for them. I think that I saw a lot of strength in that. I saw a lot of strength in how hard they were working even though they weren’t seeing results.
And so for me, there are my parents and then community leaders. When I was at the University of Washington, there was a lot of Chicanas. There were a lot of Latinas growing up, and for me, they were great role models to follow. One of my majors was American Ethnic Studies, and I found my professors, my Chicano professors, were amazing. They really, really taught me to believe in myself because they taught me about my history. They taught me about why I did belong in this country and why our stories do matter. That major was really, really inspiring. I think that that’s what really uplifted me from a place where I felt defeated –– and I felt that people like me had no place here. Growing up, my history teacher would just pull the textbook out and just write the pages on the board. We never learned anything about our history.
// Right, and you didn’t get to come into yourselves.
Very basic. So for me, that was very, very eye-opening. That was really what changed my life, and it inspired me to become an activist –– to think about it in my own community. That’s what’s inspiring me even now. Maybe my growth has come later in life, but I feel that you know there’s a lot I can still do for the community. Right?
// More access to that.
More access to role models and leaders and people who cared about me and wanted to see me succeed. I was never asked whether I wanted to go to college or not.
// Is there anything you’d like us to know so we can share it with our Global Girlhood community?
I do think about my girls every day –– my students –– I’m referring to them. I think about all of you and how much I want to be able to provide the tools to help each and every one of you succeed. So I did my student teaching here. I’ve been here for four years, and I notice that women are the leaders in almost everything. It’s just an observation of something I’ve noticed –– women taking on leadership roles and being the ones playing advocacy roles –– and it’s just beautiful to see. But then, I also saw the reality for a lot of girls of color too. I did see that they yearn for more representation. They yearn for having a voice in different spaces, and I feel for them. Because as a woman of color, I think about myself and my experience and how growing up I didn’t have a voice in my community as much as I should have, I think. So that’s why I found the need for the Heritage class too. I was wondering like how do I create a space for a group of students to finally feel that they see themselves in the readings or in the curriculum and their stories are heard?
So I always think about the girls in Razas Unidas, the [Latinx] club. I think about them. I think about how much they aspire –– and maybe they can’t articulate it and say it –– but how much they want to succeed –– and how much they want to learn and showcase their abilities. I want to encourage a space for them to be represented. … Because for so long, they’ve been unrepresented in so many, so many spaces! Mr. Lopez doesn’t work for [our school], he works for Upward Bound. He works one on one with me, with Razas and Heritage, and we both agree that they need a space where they can talk about these issues as Latinas, as women of color. I think that there has to be a space for that dialogue. And for them to ––
// Feel comfortable.
Feel comfortable. The thing is that they don’t hold any leadership positions, for example, here in the school yet –– most of them don’t. How do we put them in more positions of power so that they have a voice and that they are represented? I think that’s what I would want to bring ––
// To communities.
To communities –– about how we can advocate for a variety of communities?
// In our Spanish class, you often talk about current events in Latin American countries, social justice, and the experiences of Latinx immigrants in the US. Why is it important for you to discuss these issues in your classes?
I think it goes in line with my values of culturally responsive teaching. Our standards do include culture. We’re supposed to be teaching about it –– but there’s a difference between a teacher that’s meeting requirements and a teacher who cares about making sure that it’s inclusive and that it plays a central role. And I think I’m one of those teachers who really cares because I’m connected to many of these communities. In order to create powerful change in the classroom and impact our students beyond the classroom –– we have to be talking about social justice, and we have to talk about other cultures than that of our own. That’s how you expand your mind beyond a dominant way of thinking.
I think that for me growing up –– I always had the dominant discourse in class. We learned about one side of history, and I wasn’t being taught other discourses. So, I think that that’s part of ethnic studies teaching and non-violent thinking. Even as educators –– we have to be willing to challenge the status quo and challenge the way things are nowadays. I think it’s really impactful to bring in different stories because it just allows for higher critical thinking. It allows students to delve deeper than their own community. They go beyond their community. They think outside of the other communities in Latin America because, at the end of the day, we’re a global society. We work together as a whole. And I mean, I can’t understand the way things work in Guatemala unless I ––
// You pay attention.
I pay attention and look at current world issues. How, at the end of the day, the reality is that our country is responsible for a lot of the injustices that are happening in other countries.
// Specifically, Latin America.
Latin America especially, and I think that’s kind of what drives that passion because I never learned that before when I was in high school. No teachers cared about teaching me that. I think that if I had known that, I would have had a different global perspective. I just think that with social justice, for me and the work that I’m very passionate about, it has to be at the forefront. It has to be like the heart of teaching. That’s one way in which you bring in representation. That’s one way in which you bring validation to the stories of all of your students, and it validates everybody. You bring people from invisibility into visibility. You bring students whose stories were never even thought about because they’re not a part of the traditional education system, unfortunately, right?
// Like they’re not deemed important enough.
They’re not deemed important enough, and therefore, they’re invisible. We have so many people and so many students who are invisible in our school. It’s really our responsibility as educators to bring visibility. I think that, for me, it’s like how do I create that culture of inclusivity? You just have to be reflecting consistently. It’s like a constant reflective process. You can’t grow stagnant. You have to be willing to flow, and you have to be willing to learn as a teacher. I feel like that’s what motivates me as I said, and I think it comes from my own educational experience. I didn’t have the best educational experience. I always go back to that. I think that as human beings –– we always want better for our future generations, and we want what’s best. We always rethink, well, I hope we rethink the errors of the past and we want to improve.
And so I think that as a teacher, I look back to when I was a pupil –– I was a student. I realized, like wow, I didn’t have the best education. I wanted to create a teaching environment where students are challenged, and I think that there was a lack of that. But I think that it’s because the problem with the educational system is that for so long there’s been the dominant narrative where certain groups of students want to learn, but these other groups of students, well they don’t want to learn. They don’t care about learning. They’re not paying attention, so we’re just going to ignore them. And so, I have worked against that current, and I think I am an activist in my own role as a teacher because I’m going to work against that current.
// Yeah, absolutely!
It comes from the world of Spanish, but I think it still has an impact. I think that at the end of the day it still achieves some kind of success. And with the Heritage class, I think that’s a way in which activism began. I envisioned a different setting where students could learn the Spanish subject –– but learn through language and culture in a way that meets the needs of a specific type of learner. I thought why not create a heritage class? Why not create a space for those students who end up in Spanish I and speak Spanish at home? Why not give them more voice –– so that they not only graduate from high school –– but can they see themselves moving on to higher education? So that’s what the heritage class is doing, and it comes with a large responsibility if I’m honest with you. But I think that that’s where my passion is –– in helping communities. Helping all of my students and seeing different worlds come together. Even in AP Spanish, that is the goal for me to see all of my students connecting with the world from a global perspective and challenging themselves.
// Thank you! That was really good!
Do you think so?
// Yeah! It’s also important because, as you were saying, a lot of times people assume that –– if a student isn’t succeeding –– it’s because they don’t want to learn or don’t care about the learning. It’s good that you’re providing that support and empowering people because oftentimes, they’re forgotten. They’re punished rather than trying to understand why they need help or why they’re not succeeding or why it’s not a good space for them. And then that promotes so many other bad systems –– like the school to prison pipeline.
It really promotes that because I’m teaching Spanish I right now, and you would, you’d just be shocked to see how many students are just surprised that there’s a kind person talking to them. And it just breaks my heart! It really breaks my heart because they’re shocked that I believe in them. They’re just shocked that I’m providing the support that I should be offering to any student. These are freshmen, a lot of them. They’re coming from middle school. I don’t know what their experience is like exactly, but it kind of reverberates. I sort of feel that they’ve been stereotyped and that they’ve been oppressed for so long, that when they have a teacher that truly cares.
// It comes with a shock.
It’s a shock, yeah.
// It’s good that you’re proving that space.
Yeah, I’m doing the best I can. I mean, you saw what’s going on. It hasn’t been easy this year [due to budget cuts]. I just do the best I can to be present in their lives, and I think that as educators and culturally responsive teachers, we have to go beyond just the curriculum. I think that for me, that’s how I bring both worlds together. It’s always about making connections because everything’s so intersectional. Everything‘s so connected.
// Yeah, that ties into your story too. Because you’re trying to give people that empowerment, both as people of color and as women, that you didn’t see.
I think that I know I’ve already told your class, and I think part of that empowerment for me is that there’s never been one moment that’s defining. I think there are always so many different moments that change your life and change your perspective, and I think that they give you so many more layers of resilience. They really inspire you to achieve a change, so I have my story of when I grew up, but then throughout my life, I was –– I think that there have been many moments that have been very defining and changed my perspective. And I think that all influences the way I teach. I think that that’s part of being human. As I think about what a classroom should be like, I just think about how you have to be willing to show your humanity. I feel like you have to be willing to be open to students about everything in order to really make that impact that needs to be made in the world. And I think that Florita –– Flora. Sorry.
// It’s okay!
I think that with me, it’s even the loss that also really solidified my passion for teaching and what my purpose was in my life now.
// And that’s empowering as well. Finding your purpose.
It is. Finding my purpose through so many different experiences, and I think that mainly, for me, it was the loss of my brother. I felt lost when I lost him right at the end of grad school. I only had six months left. It was in January when he passed, and I was about to finish my Master's in Teaching. I just remember I felt that I had lost everything, and I could have given up. I could have just let everything go –– but I was the matriarch. I am the matriarch right now of my family if I’m honest. I play a very powerful role in my family. I lead my family. I lead my parents. They’re getting older, so I’m taking over for them.
I think that the loss of Caleb triggered so many emotions. I was able to just delve deeper into understanding why he had passed. You always look back, and you just think, and you think [until] you realize so many other different things. And I realized that the system did not serve Caleb –– people like Caleb. So I just realized that I wanted to do something to help the youth. He was young. He was 21. And so for me, that really inspired a change in knowing that maybe I can help this generation not to feel so alone. Maybe I can help this generation not to feel as though they have lost everything. I feel like there’s a sense in this generation of hopelessness. I can sense it a lot. I’m not too far from your generation, but I can just sense it, and it’s just sad. After that, I think that also elevates or empowers my motivation for supporting all of the community. Supporting the youth, you know? Supporting and allowing students to just find strength because times are tough today. With the way things are in the world. I mean, I have my opinions about the way things are in government. I just feel like I want to inspire that change, and all of those different sad experiences have really motivated me. They’re part of the motor of what keeps my own passion moving forward. That goes back to see how there’s been so much systematic oppression of different communities. Just seeing that cyclical pattern and knowing that it’s repeating itself so much. That if you go back 50 years, it’s probably the same.
I heard the story from a Latina engineer. She came into my class, my Heritage class, last year. We had a[nother] guest speaker come in [who] went to UW. She was the only Latina soccer player, Amanda Perez, who played for UW I think a few years ago. She’s in Sweden right now [and] plays for the Mexico team. She was like, “I was the only Latina playing for UW, and I’m not proud of this! This makes me sad. This hurts me because things haven’t changed clearly, right?
As I hear these stories, I’m creating a space where we can talk about this. Then the woman engineer, she was also Latina, she was like, “It’s true!” She’s probably in her mid-40s. She's like, “I still have to explain myself to people." When she’s at work she has to tell people, “No, I’m not the custodian! No, I’m not the cleaning lady because I’m actually an engineer!” Because people tell her, “Oh what do you do? So do you clean here?” This is something –– like these kinds of microaggressions –– they’re going to repeat throughout your entire life. And it’s true because I’m constantly –– as a woman of color thinking about my identity and how it doesn’t really change. It just doesn’t change.
// Are you hoping to start the change in your classroom?
Yes, I am. It’s triggered by that –– I think. That’s what gives me the courage to start that change, and why we have that class. That’s why I’m more outspoken in my classes about what I feel and what I think –– whether it’s the right thing all the time or not...I think it’s time to set a precedent. It’s time to make a change, and we really are. We can. We just have to have that passion and be willing to experience struggle too –– because there’s going to be a lot of struggles as the change takes place.
// And see that change in ourselves too.
See that change in ourselves, and I definitely think it’s contagious, like that drive to motivate change. I think that we as women –– that’s something that brings us together. We have in common the strength and the motivation to see some kind of change. Because for so long we’ve been underserved and underrepresented in everything, I think that we can find strength in that. I think that should be what motivates and launches us forward. I think we have to be mad. You know –– the stereotype of the angry woman.
// We have a reason!
We have a reason to be mad, though. We have to be upset. You know?
// Yeah, get fired up!
Get fired up and fight the power! We have to fight it. I think that’s the only way you can really charge your inner strength –– your inner warrior.
We’re ready to fight this. We can make a change. I think that it definitely is a collective work of all our communities coming together and working. I’m definitely grateful that I’m in this position, but I do think as I said, I’m the token. I don’t think it’s the same story for most people that come from a similar ethnic background as me. I feel like I have a responsibility to educate people about that, tell them, and also make a change. And allow my students to have a voice. Not only leading it but allowing my students to actually lead it and have more of a say, which is why I’m making more of an effort now in my classes. I just think that I need to prepare the leaders of tomorrow.
// That’s beautiful.
Yeah, I think it’s part of leaving a legacy, and it’s not my legacy, it’s our legacy. It’s a community legacy that we have to leave behind and the impact that we have to make. -GGH