The Third Space

The Third Space.

In Spanish, we have a saying that describes what the “American Experience” is for Latinos: “Ni de aca ni de alla.” Neither here nor there. One foot on either side, never wholly in one space, never wholly feeling like we belong. For many Latinos, this means being seen in American culture as–to put it bluntly–an alien.

“Oh, where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from?”

“Do you know that everyone on this show looks like you?”

And so on and so on.

Likewise, whenever I visit El Salvador I’m welcomed by my family, but I’m never really “one of them.”

“Oh, your cousins don’t want to go THERE. Take them to the mall or McDonald’s. Somewhere more American.”

“Que dijistes? What did you say? I can’t understand your accent.”

This is sometimes said of my sister, who is the most Americanized out of all of us and is treated and revered like an American for her whiter skin and Westernized attitudes. As a result, my relatives try hardest to make her happy, which only echoes what I’ve seen other Latinos do to accommodate Americans.

What does any of this have to do with the so-called “Third Space”? In my experience being in the Master in Teaching program, I find myself privy to falling into this Third Space. As a masters student, I am exposed to a constant influx of pedagogy and philosophy. Names like Vygotsky, bell hooks, Jean Anyon, H. Richard Milner–all swim through the subconscious of our curriculum like fish at sea we catch and put into our ever-growing fish tank we need to maintain and take care of. We get bombarded with social justice curricula. We attend conferences and training to encourage us to push our thinking and our beliefs. We stay up doing homework and give up precious time with loved ones to write critical memos, essays, our inquiry-driven thesis papers.

We rethink schools.

By contrast, our school lives have different expectations of us. We are asked to differentiate, to discipline, to divulge into the school’s curriculum. We sacrifice precious time with our loved ones to grade papers and plan lessons. We are asked to think outside the box, collaborate, to be on time, to give 110% even if we are already giving 100% elsewhere.

We teach.

We rethink schools.

But the Third Space–that in-between in the Venn diagram linking Masters work with School work–is always there, constantly staring at us and analyzing us like a third eye. We are called to be masters students, but also teachers. We have to find ways to incorporate both what we learn in our program and the school’s culture. We sometimes even have to balance social justice in places that see justice as equality, not equity–as colorblindness, not racism.

My experience in the Third Space made me feel like I was in the Twilight Zone. Last Fall, we were taking time out of our lesson on something we did in English Language Arts to present a PowerPoint on bullying. The high school I was in tries to bring attention to justice issues in various ways, and pushes teachers to be aware of stereotypes we may not be aware of. The school, like many in Western Washington, is also predominantly White. Unsurprisingly, so was my mentor teacher. It was therefore no surprise that the following exchange occurred when the conversation shifted toward stereotypes:

“Okay, so this is why we don’t do stereotypes. Let’s say you,” pointing toward a Vietnamese-American student in the middle of the room, “were stereotyped with always getting good grades in math. That is a prevailing stereotype, if I thought —- is really smart because she’s Asian.” My mentor never even bothered to ask —- about her cultural heritage. How did she know she wasn’t Pacific Islander?

Another time, we had an English Language Learner in a different class period. I asked my mentor where she was from, in case there were accommodations I could make to the curriculum.

“I think she’s from China,” replied my mentor two weeks into the school year, when she had time to research these things. She was also working on her ELL certification at the same time.

I checked the computer system later just to be sure. The student was from Vietnam, not China.

The reason these two scenarios put me in the Third Space was because I was torn. I was taught to never essentialise based on one person’s experiences, and here was this student being asked to represent all students who looked like her in the stereotype of being smart. I was taught to never judge what a student “is” ethnically because everyone’s experience is different, and here was a student being essentialised based on what she looked like. I was taught  to speak up for injustices, and here I was unable to say a word because I didn’t have a job yet, I wasn’t a teacher yet according to my mentor, and my enrollment in my masters program depended upon this assignment. I had no power, and I had no way to bring this up without getting blamed for being racist, or judging my mentor, or having this all be my fault in some twisted way I couldn’t fathom, as people of color are often victimized whenever these matters are brought up. As I had been victimized by bringing it up on a different occasion. I was neither here nor there.

“Ni de aca ni de alla.”

I anticipate yet another ten weeks of being in this Third Space. Like my experiences as a Salvadoran American, I have impossibly difficult expectations placed on me. But there is a strange beauty to being part of two worlds. It is the realization that I have experiences that are unique to who I am, and that can help me empathized with students like the one I mentioned, who are sometimes made to be alien and sometimes feel torn between two worlds that are each a part of who they are. I wonder, in my perceived lack of social privilege, how many teachers out there actually feel PRIVILEGED enough to understand these struggles, and how many are privileged enough to know we one day have the power to be the change we wish to see in the world, to put an end to racial stereotypes that place us in this difficult position to begin with.

I know how to be in the Third Space.

I know how to be neither here nor there.


Why Everyone Should Watch Stand-Up Comedy at Least Once

So tonight, I watched Aamer Rahman do a stand-up show at Evergreen State College. It was part of the Day of Absence and Day of Presence event that was occurring this week, which addresses race-related issues by raising the question: What would happen if we had a day in which no students of color were present? The event helps people to realize that we need each other in this wide and vast world; diversity is a very good thing indeed. Day of Absence had many students of color go to an off-campus site to engage in a retreat that addressed diversity and race issues, while the rest of the student body stayed on campus to attend talks and seminars related to race issues. Today, Day of Presence further acknowledged the importance of diversity by having both white students and students of color come together on campus. The day culminated in a stand-up comedy act given by Australian comedian Aamer Rahman, who was absolutely superb and did a fantastic job of addressing racial and ethnic issues in a raw, honest way that made me nod in agreement more than a few times.

Part of what made it worthwhile to attend a stand-up comedy act like Aamer Rahman is because of the issues that are addressed in humorous ways. I often have found that stand-up comedians–really, really good ones, at least–find ways to address real-life, political, socioeconomic, racial, national, and all-around difficult issues to talk about. They acknowledge a lot of the hard stuff that is going on in the world, and rather than turn a blind eye to it, many of them spin it off in ways that can really make individuals think about these issues, and sometimes how ridiculous they are while simultaneously serious. I call it being seriously funny.

Yet this isn’t my main reason as to why I think people should watch stand-up comedy at least once in their lives. No, my reason goes much, much deeper than that, and yet it is also the most simple reason of all.

Basically, there is a lot of @#$% that goes on in the real world, and life sucks sometimes.

I know that this is the least funny statement I could make, because it is dangerously real. However, think about it: I will have to deal with taxes, injustice, unfairness, jobs that might make me want to vomit, family members that might incite the same reaction, responsibilities, the list goes on and on and on. If I stopped to think about the many itsy bitsy, teensy weensy things that make my life hard, unsatisfying, or sad, I would become a very depressed person, indeed. Granted, my problems are not as bad when compared to other people who are dealing with genocide, sex trafficking, war, kidnappings, and so many other awful, unthinkable things that I cannot even begin to imagine. And yet, I find people who are in privileged situations, who have enough money for food and drink, who have family, who have loving significant others, who have well-paying jobs–I find such people who are still unhappy with their lives. It is absolutely crazy for me to think that people who have so much could be so miserable. It also makes sense that to pick out the little things that go wrong in life will, in time, accumulate themselves into a dark, depressing, gigantic snowball. I cannot make sweeping judgments about every individual, but I do know for a fact that there are people out there who do that kind of stuff, often without meaning to.

I myself have a lot of negative stuff going on in my life, but rather than mention all of it right now, I would like to focus on something else that was going on tonight: seeing Aamer Rahman at Evergreen State College. I found him to be so incredibly funny that he made me cry from laughing. Three times. And my face froze in a smile the entire hour he was on stage. That has not happened to me in quite a long time, and I shook my head and smiled later when I realized that I was going through so much stress in my life that it has really been a while since I have had a good, long laugh. That good cry was a long time coming, and I am glad it did come.

The night is over, but the memory of the amazing time I had still lingers. I found that after the show, people smiled more. They laughed and joked more frequently with one another, and even the Q&A with the comedian was such a funny affair that people would make themselves and each other laugh just by asking a question. It felt really, really good to laugh, and although we were discussing serious issues of race, we were doing so in a way that acknowledged the social justice work there was still left to do, but also in a way that saw a side of humor to it as well.

I do not want to forget this night quite so easily. i want to hold on to it as long as I can, and especially to the memory of laughing so hard. A lot of negative stuff may be going on in my life, but a night like this made me realize that it was not all bad. For two golden hours, I was happy. For two hours, I was laughing so hard that I felt my stress melt off and slide out of my eyes and down my face. For those two glorious hours, the negativity and struggle of living in this world was background noise; I just lived in the moment and enjoyed it to the fullest.

Everyone should see a good stand-up comedian if it means that they could find a golden spot in the midst of a sea of darkness and despair. Even if one’s life is not darkness and despair, it is still a good thing to hold on to a happy memory when the going will get tough later on. It may be a small, two-hour speck of light, but I want to fix my eyes on it for as long as it burns brightly–and realize that more of those specks will come in their own time.

Subtle Racism, or Just Curiosity?

I just finished reading an article that Dr. Silvia Mazzula, PhD, wrote about the prevalence of subtle racism in the United States, particularly among the Latino community. I don’t doubt that there are forms of racism that still continue in the U.S.; I myself was in San Francisco about a month ago for Labor Day weekend, and I recall seeing a deranged homeless lady boarding the bus in Inner Richmond on the way to the Tenderloin. Not only was she cussing terribly at people on the bus, she was pushing them out of her way and insisting that she be let out the front of the bus, despite the fact that she carried a wire wagon loaded with items and was blocking both the bus entrance and the pathway. The bus driver insisted that she leave from the rear exit because it was a rule, and she kept pushing her way to the front, exited the bus, and called the driver a “n*****” repeatedly. Literally everybody’s jaws dropped open. I was in utter shock, and I felt it was the lowest form of disrespect given to a worker who was just doing his job and making a living. The driver was acting with the utmost respect and professionalism that he could, given the circumstances, and yet the lady had the nerve to use such a derogatory racial term against him just because she didn’t want to follow the rules. 

Dr. Mazzula’s blog post does not quite touch upon such examples of racism, but she covers another aspect that is very prevalent in this country: microaggression. In her article, which is available here (, Dr. Mazzula states that forms of aggression can include things such as a person repeatedly asking a Latino person, “Where are you from? Where are you from?” like a broken record player. It can also include minor comments such as “Oh, you speak so well!” and “Wow, you’re really smart”!” She argues that such comments are seen as derogatory, given that the speaker may subconsciously believe that Latinos are not generally smart or speak well. 

But what about when young children are told, “You’re smart”? Or when one person refers to another person–be they white, black, brown, whatever–as intelligent? Every time I go to a family reunion and my family asks me how I am doing in my job, or what plans I have for the future, I usually hear from them, “Wow, that’s really cool! You’re really smart!” And I know that they give each other these types of compliments, not just me. Does that mean that they themselves don’t believe that Latinos in general are intelligent? Of course they believe that Latinos are intelligent! They are mainly just saying that they are proud of ME, and what I MYSELF have accomplished just because of who I am, and not because of what color skin I have or where my parents were born. 

I understand that Dr. Mazzula may have just been referring to comments made by non-Latinos, perhaps in kind of a derogatory tone of voice. But honestly, to me a compliment is a compliment, and if somebody thinks that a person is smart then it generally means a good thing; it means that if someone believes you are smart, then he/she believes in your abilities. And to me, ability speaks much louder than race any day. 

One last comment: Dr. Mazzula also referred to people asking Latinos repeatedly, “Where are you from?” I myself have gotten this type of comment many times, but usually only from other Latinos. Generally, the only times I have ever found this question offensive were when my answer would be, “Los Angeles,” and the interrogator would ask me, “No, where are you FROM?” It felt as though they were not expecting me to answer that I was American; they were expecting to think of me as foreign. And quite honestly, I am born and bred American; I am what many people call “white-washed”, in that I have wholeheartedly embraced American culture and speak and act and dress and behave a certain way. But why should this term even be known as “white-washed” to begin with? Why not “American-washed”? Even if someone ever referred to me as “white-washed” I will never be white, but I will definitely still be American, and proud of it. 

As far as people asking me where my parents are born, and to all of you who might ask this of someone else in the future: Please DO NOT assume that all Latinos are Mexican. Much too often I’ve heard someone ask me, “Are you Mexican?” Politely I would say, “No, my PARENTS were born in El Salvador,” but deep down I would want to blurt out, “What is it about me that makes you just assume that I am Mexican? Please realize that not all Latinos are Mexican. I myself am proud of my Salvadoran heritage and it is a part of me, but I am first and foremost an American and I would prefer to be thought of as such because I identify with it the most.” 

I do agree with Dr. Mazzula when she states that “the challenge to end microaggressions is a difficult and often painful task.” The Civil Rights Movement in this country began more than half a century ago, and yet as I witnessed on a bus in San Francisco that same Civil Rights Movement is still ongoing. We can wish all we want for racism to end, but it never will unless people decide within themselves to do what THEY THEMSELVES can do, however minor, to be better and kinder to others in society. As Dr. Mazzula wisely put it, “When we start to reflect on this question honestly and deliberately, we will begin put a stop to microaggressions.  But, it must start within each one of us first.”