In case you didn’t know, “Sí se puede” is the motto, originally in Spanish, of the United Farm Workers, an American union of farm workers. In 1972, during César Chávez’s 25-day hunger strike in Phoenix, Arizona, the co-founder of the Peasant Union, Dolores Huerta, came up with the motto.
The slogan “Yes, we can” has also been adopted by immigrant rights advocates in the United States. A small but powerful phrase that since my first year as a Spanish teacher in the United States, I have used to motivate my students, to empower them and make them understand that learning a second language is not only for a few, that we can all learn a second language. Every time during class the students felt that the activity was a little difficult, we said in chorus and aloud three times: “¡Sí se puede!” and then we continued with the class. This is how this motto has remained in the mind of each former student and will always be related not only to the Spanish language, but also to the hope that regardless of obstacles, we can always achieve our goals.
Today I will share here two stories that, although they are directly related to this beautiful motto, are diametrically opposed.
Some years ago I used to work in a public and rural school in the US Midwest and although at the beginning many students were reluctant to learn Spanish, over time and thanks to “¡Sí se puede!”, they acquired a connection with the language and with the culture. One day, during a basketball game against another school and while our team was losing by very few points, many of my students began to repeat several times in Spanish, “¡Sí se puede!””.
You can imagine the surprised face of many of those attending the game. The game continued and the “¡Sí se puede!” the slogan continued to be heard for a few more minutes, until the principal of our school approached the students and asked them not to say anything in another language because the residents of the hosting city felt uncomfortable and did not know what “those words in Spanish” meant. My students were confused because despite explaining to the principal the meaning of “¡Sí se puede!” He insisted that they should keep quiet unless they wanted to be punished the next day.
I did not attend the game, but I found out about this as soon as the team returned to town. While it was a very frustrating story, it was also a very good opportunity for my students to have a little understanding of how many of our heritage students felt when speaking their native language was not welcome. I was flabbergasted with the principal´s attitude and actions.
A few years have passed by and as in most cases, life makes justice. Today I work in a different school, in another region of the country, but nevertheless I continue to use the “¡Sí se puede!” with the same intention that I have done since the first time I used it. Last year, despite the fact that most of the time my school was face-to-face, I had to remain teaching remotely since my daughter’s school was closed all the time. For over a year I did not work at or visit the building.
This year, during our first division meeting, something happened that showed me that there is always hope, that hateful and fearful attitudes can change, that our society evolves and that as teachers we have a great responsibility to make this happen.
When the meeting started I saw that the following was projected on the screen: “¡Sí se puede!” Señor Ojeda. I looked at the principal for an explanation and with a smile she said that this was going to be her motto during the school year, that the inspiration had come from my class and that she had seen how much this motto motivates the students.
I was between surprised and moved. I remembered the incident that occurred years ago and silently thanked my current principal for her courage, her vision and her way to make me feel included .
¡Sí se puede!
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