Roots of Cultural Ways of Knowing and Being

Dr. Ralph Cordova

Dr. Ralph Cordova, Guest Writer

“Mr. Córdova, Mr. Córdova, why didn’t you become an artist instead of a teacher?”

Third grade student Campbell asked the very question I had been thinking for quite some time as he and his classmates sat in a circle on the classroom carpet while we worked on a year-long painting project with local plein air painters (Córdova, 2008). I responded to him, with classmates overhearing, that sometimes life takes you in places you hadn’t imagined, “like I am suddenly magically here, lucky to work with you,” I said. “And besides, being a teacher and a learner is like being an artist. We’re making sense of the world around us using knowledge from ourselves and of our community.” Without knowing it, he was asking about roots of my own cultural ways of knowing and being.

What I didn’t say was a harsher reality—one entailing a K-12 education where I experienced little purpose or interest in my formal schooling. I realized also that Campbell and his classmates may naturally assume that what constituted the 3rd grade they were experiencing with me, was what all 3rd graders in the world might be experiencing. And at age 34, I was ok with that, because I learned long ago that what mattered most is that I as their teacher realize we have a great deal of power, perhaps not always visible, in deciding the kind of engaging, abilities-affirming, learning community we want to co-construct with our students. I realized I was becoming the kind of formal teacher of the sort I never had.

Now from the distanced perspective at age 43, a curious theme of my educational roots, my cultural and intellectual origins, the meandering journeys life has taken me on, have become a focal point of study in my academic research. As I enter my 22nd year of teaching, looking back at the routes I’ve navigated, I see a journey of contradictions best made visible in 1992 by a statement my sister Angélica once made to me, “Why the hell did you become a teacher? We hated school, I can’t believe you want to be there.” She was making visible the harsh reality that many of us, children of Mexican migrant workers, had a less than ideal educational experience. I know she was referring to how some of our teachers openly ignored the Spanish-speaking students before them who came and went with the ever-changing harvest seasons.

We were spared of what I’ll call our teachers’ ‘benign neglect’ because my two sisters and I were living across two distinctive cultural worlds, we spoke both Spanish and English, thanks to our dad’s youngest sister, our Aunt Gracie, who babysat us. She took us to and from school, cared for us while my parents worked—dad in construction jobs or sometimes months away in a different state excavating quarries, and mom up at 4 am to work 10 hours in the field. Aunt Gracie made sure we came to school prepared to read in English, versed in the practice of patience an unnatural state of mind to a 5 year-old. We raised our hands, felt comfortable looking our teachers in the eye, and by all means, we could recite the ABC’s.

Thus we knew how to navigate the pitfalls, the invisible politics of what it means to do school. I recall vividly, at age 7 on the first day of school, running to room #9, what would be my 2nd grade classroom, and reading the class roster taped to the door. I told Aunt Gracie that couldn’t locate my name as I scanned through the list. “It’s organized alphabetically she said, look for your last name.” Little things like that. Little clues for how to navigate the norms and processes of doing school, of fitting in, of being a good American student, was what our caring aunt was grooming us all for. It is no surprise that Aunt Gracie became an early childhood educator.

So we were lucky. Outwardly we were the same color brown as our classmates. Fellow classmates, kids of migrant workers who spoke mostly Spanish, at best seemed ‘invisible’ to the teacher—often viewed as ‘unteachable’ due to the teachers’ inability to speak Spanish — and at worst were viewed with disdain because they came and went, they didn’t seem to care about their education or how missing school was wrong. This heart-breaking reality, this unspoken confusion and perplexity of looking just like them, yet having different kinds of privileges, both haunts me to today, and also compels me to never become complicit in maintaining that benign neglect, tantamount to abuse of power, abuse by not doing anything to help.

Our father, Ralph Sr., was a 3rd generation Californian-Mexican, and knew very little Spanish when he married my mother. My mother, María Magdalena, on the other hand, was a first-generation Mexican-American, who grew up in a Spanish-speaking home, learning English in brief moments in schools, countless schools, in little towns where her migrant family moved with the harvest seasons. My parents met in 1968, my dad just recently back from Vietnam, at a local burger joint where the high school kids hung out. They married, I came into the world in 1970, and my sisters Angélica and Lori Ann not too long after.

My mom tells me that the first words I spoke were in Spanish. In fact she used to record, on her portable reel-to-reel, my sisters and me telling Mexican fables, Los Tres Cerditos y el Lobo (Three Little Pigs and the Wolf). My mom’s mother, our maternal grandmother, Doña Enrriqueta acted as yet another mother. And when we weren’t cared for my our Aunt Gracie, we spent a great deal of time with our Abuela Enrriqueta, whom we lovingly called Mima. Though born in the United States (Hurley, New Mexico), she never spoke English fluently. She worked in the fields with her husband, my mother’s father and our grandfather. They ‘lived off the gird,’ we would say today, and kept to themselves, untrusting of police, city officials and any authoritative persons. I like to think they were exercising their rights to maintain their Mexican identity, their language, foods, family and customs, the only things that were theirs within a time when the turbulent waters of Civil Rights movement and César Chávez marches brought to our awareness the unfair treatment and exploitation of migrant workers. I’m proud to have emerged from people such as my grandparents.

So, we grew up in two distinctive cultural worlds; separate ones when spending times with our grandparents. In my paternal grandmother’s home, only English was spoken; where as in my maternal grandparents’ home, only Spanish was the medium of life. And it wasn’t a matter of one being right or wrong; better or worse. It just was. And because it just was, we learned to live within what Queer literary theorist, Gloria Anzaldúa referred to as Nepántla, a Nahuatl word meaning a state of in-betweenness. We learned to live within, and make sense, of the vagaries of the Spanish or English language, contrasts made visible, when switching back and forth. We could celebrate the holiday season with a Christmas tree and Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos (Day of the Three Wise Men, or the Epiphany). It’s just what we did; what no doubt many families were doing as they went about living their everyday lives. Looking back, I can see that our upbringing was curious one, one not easily recognized on the outside, for we looked like any other Mexican kids in that town.

But looking back, I can see that our upbringing afforded us what Luis Moll and colleagues describe as funds of knowledge. Those cultural ways of knowing, or complex ways kids make sense of the worlds around them, using lenses and meanings learned in one setting to navigate new settings, are human processes, as ancient and familiar as the world is old. Yet, whose knowledge counted was an altogether different matter; life-changing ones for a kid like me, in that small desert town on the Colorado River in the 1970’s.

Routes to an Journey of Coming to Know

Had it not been for the mismatch in cultural expectations between the larger official school discourses and teachers, and the large Mexican population in the schools, I would not be writing this today. In 1986, I momentarily became a statistic of one of those Mexican-American kids who would not go to college. Had it not been for what I now understand to be a blatant racist act on behalf of my high school counselor, I probably would have never become an educator. My high school academic counselor suggested that I should pursue a vocational route in a local community college when I had sought her advice about preparing for university after high school graduation. At 16, when an authority intimated that I wasn’t meant for university, it’s not too difficult to imagine the leap in reasoning that I wasn’t good or smart enough. So, I dropped out of the college track Spanish classes I had been taking (yeah, funny that Spanish-speaking kids were in Spanish classes, whereas the white kids were in French and German). My good friend had been taking German for 2 years, and I enrolled in German 1. That is when my life changed forever.

Dr. Siegel, my German teacher, realized what had been done to me. Taken under her wing, I thrived with the German language, in part that its logic was familiar, that of Latin grammar, just like Spanish. It was easy for me to navigate. And later, when I was ready to apply to university, I won a scholarship to attend University California at Riverside, where I majored in German Literature and Language. Dr. Siegel afforded me the experiences, the academic language, a worldly perspective wherein I could imagine other possible worlds for myself.

Dr. Siegel herself had experienced parallel circumstances, parallel cultural ways of knowing and being, that she saw me realizing. She was a young woman during World War II in Germany, born to a British officer and a German mother. She had been raised by a German aunt, the first female head doctor at the University of Heidelberg medical school. When I met Dr. Siegel, she must have been in her late 60’s. She told of having no alternative but to follow her aunt’s footsteps, that is to become a doctor. Upon taking a position a Columbia University’s medical school in New York City and having to lead an entire ward of doctors and nurses, she realized a terrifying mistake she had made. She left medicine and New York and joined with her friend in Arizona, Dr. Mary Cook, an obstetrician, whom she had met in medical school, and who, it turns out, would years later be the very doctor that delivered me! I still marvel at that coincidence.

Dr. Siegel’s own routes provided me with an understanding that even formally educated, accomplished people, can lead meandering lives into uncertainty, realizing lessons in the hardest of ways. “Whatever you do kiddo, always opt for grabbing the brass ring,” she would wag her finger at me. I was her protegé, and she ensured that I would learn all there was to know, do and care about when it came to German literature and language. In her 50’s she completed a teacher certification program in Arizona, during which she also met and married newspaper journalist Bill Siegel. She was a medical doctor, and was teaching biology courses at the local community college. Years later, I learned that she had volunteered to teach German at the high school so that students had more diversity of choice in foreign language.

I can now see that through helping me navigate the racist motives that had short-shrifted me (albeit momentarily) and ones I was ignorant of overcoming myself, she became my advocate. I received a full scholarship to UC Riverside, completing a bachelor’s degree in German Literature and Language. I had the wisdom, though, to realize I did not want to pursue an advanced degree in German literature and language, but wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do.

Coincidentally a friend was learning to become a teacher; I thought I’d have a go. Yeah, I know, right, like it’s that easy. I completed my teacher credential at UC Santa Barbara in 1993, became a 3rd grade bilingual Spanish-English, and taught 14 years in a local bilingual school. While teaching, I began to develop questions around culture, race, schooling and how to develop a pedagogical orientation grounded in an interactional ethnographic perspective (Castanheira, Green, Dixon & Yeager, 2007), one with a strong undercurrent for teaching for social justice. These questions pushed me to pursue and complete a Ph.D. in 2004 in education in cultural perspectives at UC Santa Barbara supervised by Drs. Judith Green, Carol Dixon and Greg Kelly. I conducted a 2-year ethnographic study into the ways in which I, as the teacher-education supervisor of teacher candidates placed in the school with the highest number of Spanish-speakers, and the teacher-candidates developed interactional ethnographic lenses to make sense of seeming jarring experiences that were different from their own upbringing.

Disjunctures as Opportunities for Learning

When I look back at the cultural, linguistic and emotional life lessons my family afforded me, I see perseverance. They planted the seeds of curiosity in me, a curiosity that embraced differences, one that made sense of the unexpected contrasts or surprises that emerge when different people, cultural or institutional expectations come into contact with each other. As I write this, for the first time I see that as an elementary teacher, and now as a university researcher and teacher I have indeed become a “Dr. Siegel” of sorts. I now can answer my sister Lica’s question about why I have entered, and remained, in a profession that marginalized many of us. I do it because we must change it from the inside. And I have co-created the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory, an organization of K-12 educators who share a conceptual understanding that all educators are culture and language workers. We view our teaching and learning settings and cultural landscapes for learning, and navigating. I now see that the CoLab is a space for helping make visible that proverbial “brass ring” Dr. Siegel alerted me to.


Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands: The new mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute.

Anzaldúa, G. (1993). Border arte: Nepántla, el lugar de la frontera. San Diego, CA: Centro cultural de la Raza, 107–114.

Castanheira, M.L., Green, J., Dixon, C. & Yeager, B. (2007). (Re)Formulating identities in the face of fluid modernity: An Interactional Ethnographic approach. International Journal of Education Research 46 (3-4), 172-189.

Córdova, R., (2008). Writing and painting our lives into being: Learning to see learning in the transformative space between school and home. Language Arts 86(1), 18-27.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 31, 132–141.

Dr. Ralph Córdova is Assistant Professor in the Department of Early Childhood, Elementary, TESOL, Special Education in the College of Education, University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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