The Mariachi Superintendent: A Signal of Hope for Hispanics and America

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I guess I was supposed to feel a sense of pride when I watched the newly appointed Houston Independent School District (HISD) superintendent, Richard Carranza, belt out the words to mariachi staple, “El Rey,” at the board meeting that announced his appointment last week.

Pride was there, sure. But more than anything, I felt relief and a sense of hope.

As a fourth-generation American of Mexican heritage, I see my community still fighting to matter. Fighting to be relevant in history books and in the eyes of elected officials from Capitol Hill to city council chambers.

West of us in Austin, a city councilor recently told a group of Hispanic children not to “live off others” in a public forum – questioning their work ethic and humiliating them in the process. In another situation, the state’s board of education is considering approving a textbook that has offensive, inaccurate and derogatory characterizations about Mexican-American heritage in Texas.

Then there’s Donald Trump and his rhetoric.

To see a Mexican-American appointed head of Texas’ largest school district, and to enter his post with such cultural bravado in this time, helped me cope with the climate. It’s a climate that’s persisted too long.

Twenty-one years ago, I was a 16-year old high school junior living in Richmond, TX, scribbling a speech on the back of an envelope scrounged from my mom’s purse. I was waiting my turn to address the Lamar Consolidated Independent School District board of trustees and a slew of television cameras and reporters.

A Texas Education Agency preliminary report on Lamar Consolidated High School in 1996 quoted an unidentified teacher as saying: "For Hispanics, it's better to be dumb," and "They're just animals."

I was one of three students leading a charge to get the teacher who allegedly made racist remarks about Hispanic students removed from the classroom. The unrest in my school and in the community eventually led to a walkout of Hispanic and black students that dominated nightly news in Houston.

That was more than two decades ago and we’re still fighting the same fight in governing chambers across America.

It’s deflating, but Carranza sung his way into my heart last week inflating it with optimism, because he reminded me that this country is about what’s possible.

It’s possible that in an atmosphere of hostility toward a community, you can be a member of that community and still hold the highest, most important positions. You can succeed in the face of aggression against a culture that’s yours. You can be proud of your heritage and still represent all people in the process.

You can be the leader who happens to be Hispanic and the Hispanic leader all at the same time.

That’s paramount, because America needs to understand that this singular, newcomer lens it’s used to viewing us from no longer holds true and has been outdated for some time. From the fields that grow our food to the boardrooms that define the marketplace, we exist. And despite that broad spectrum of existence, regardless of our progress or assimilation in this country, we’re all bonded by the heritage we share.

Carranza proved that true by demonstrating that underneath his suit is a mariachi, and he’s not afraid to show it.

Seeing Carranza in this leadership position - 12 years after HISD named Abe Saavedra its first Hispanic superintendent - tells me something important. It tells me that in Houston’s school district where 62 percent of its students are Hispanic, my community’s voice won’t go unheard or be minimized in a time when it is often isolated to the immigration debate or left out of major racial dialogue. At least in this corner of the country, he’ll make sure we are heard.

Still, I wondered watching that news clip of Carranza whether people saw what I saw, or did they see a Halloween costume or a Cinco de Mayo prop. I saw a non-English speaking student on his first day of school who rose to superintendent of the nation's seventh-largest school district.

I hope that by watching Carranza sing his excitement and speak about his vision for 215,000 students, people’s perception of the Hispanic community evolves. I want them to see what we are capable of, our versatility in loving our heritage and this country all at the same time – and that the two don’t threaten each other.

I want them to, like me, see an American whose duality serves as a signal of hope for a community and a country, simultaneously.

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