Growing up in Norman, Oklahoma, Elisa Velasco ’23 didn’t see her Mexican American identity reflected in textbooks or celebrated in classrooms.
She enrolled at Pomona College with the hope of learning more about her culture. “In Southern California there are more Latinos,” Velasco says.
Chicana/o-Latina/o studies classes at Pomona opened her eyes to how little she knew about her family’s history. Her first semester on campus, Velasco took Chicanx/Latinx in Los Angeles with Professor Gilda Ochoa, and it was a revelatory experience.
“Every day, I would learn so much,” Velasco says. “I learned about why my family is here in the first place, and I was able to connect more with my family, be more secure in my identity.”
It made Velasco wonder about her high school education, “How did they not teach me this?”
As a Mellon Mays fellow, she conducted research her junior year on representation of Latin Americans in history textbooks used in Oklahoma. Her analysis confirmed her own experience: not only was representation lacking, but some history was even inaccurate.
What’s included in textbooks are the Spanish-American War and the Bracero Program but “nothing that has to do with joy or how we resisted or how we built community or how our people have done really cool things,” says Velasco.
Velasco is following up this year with research on how students experience the lack of representation. She cites a Stanford University study that showed that the implementation of more culturally relevant curriculum, specifically for students of color, increases attendance rate, probability of graduating from high school and likelihood of going to college.
“It makes sense,” says Velasco. “When school is relatable, when they can connect, they’re going to be more likely to want to go.”
Giving Back to Oklahoma
This summer Velasco will take all that she has learned back to Oklahoma. As a Napier Award for Creative Leadership recipient and a Projects for Peace awardee, she will design and implement a nine-week summer program called Sin Límites (Without Limits) for Latinx high school freshmen and sophomores in her hometown.
The Napier Award gives $20,000 to carry out a social change project, while Projects for Peace grants $10,000 to “pursue innovative, community-centered and scalable responses to the world’s most pressing issues.”
Community engagement will be one of three components of the program. Students will collaborate with various organizations in Oklahoma that are working on racial justice and equity, including Native Farming Solutions OKC, the Oklahoma History Center and Dream Action Oklahoma.
Secondly, students will learn about Latino history. Velasco is excited to expose students to groups such as the Brown Berets and Young Lords and “different groups that don’t really get that much attention in modern history books,” she says.
Lastly, the program will focus on college access. Having gone through the K-12 system in Oklahoma herself, Velasco says there aren’t many opportunities for first-generation students whose parents don’t speak English to get information about how to go to college.
Most of the funding from the Napier and Projects for Peace awards will be directed toward scholarships for students in the program as well as paying volunteers. “I really want to give this money back to the community,” says Velasco.
More broadly, Velasco wants to “grow the confidence and pride of these students.”
The opportunity to give back to Oklahoma, Velasco says, would not be possible without the knowledge she has gained as a Chicana/o-Latina/o studies (CLS) major.
“I feel really thankful for the education that I’ve received here,” says Velasco. “The professors—Gilda Ochoa, Arely Zimmerman, Martha Gonzalez (Scripps), Tomás Summers Sandoval, Miguel Tinker Salas—so many in the CLS department have made this project possible and given me the confidence I need.”
Velasco says her project is also inspired by Oklahoma House Bill 1775, which has restricted teachers’ ability to discuss issues of race in the classroom.
“Already students weren’t learning about their history,” Velasco says. “Even more so now. We have to reimagine educational spaces even more.”