Published: Oct. 28, 2022 By

“My soul is from Chile,” the fifth grader explained. Born in the United States, she describes herself as “kind of” American and Chilean and gravitates toward her Chilean roots.

Her description illustrates the complexities of “home” for transnational students who are U.S.-born with family ties across borders in Mexico and Latin America.

Photo of Borderless Roots group in the quad courtyard of CU BoulderPhoto of Borderless Roots group

For the past three years, an after-school cultural mentoring program in the School of Education has paired two dozen predominately Latinx fifth graders from University Hill, a diverse bilingual elementary school across the street from the CU Boulder campus, with underrepresented university students as their mentors.

Together, they explore family and community histories that are often suppressed in mainstream U.S. curricula, including ties to loved ones across borders.

“We have been holding a rare space for reflecting on cultural identity, migration and belonging, and what it means to be Latinx and/or transnational in Boulder,” said Andrea Dyrness, Costa Rican-born associate professor of educational foundations, policy and practice who developed the program with school partners when her daughter was a student there. In a recent story published in Anthropology News, Dyrness reflected on the program.

“In our program, hometowns in Chalatenango, El Salvador; Zacatecas, Durango, and Chihuahua, Mexico; in Honduras, Chile and Paraguay, come alive alongside family stories of migration, staying connected across borders, and trying to get ahead in Boulder.”

The program creates trusting relationships where mentors and mentees examine the cultural and political realities they face and honor their experiences and knowledge. Activities are designed by CU Boulder mentors, mostly education and ethnic studies students, to build community and provoke reflection and dialogue around cultural identity.

“The resulting interactions reveal a wealth of cultural knowledge, skills and abilities that are often not visible to the public or in daily life in U.S. schools,” Dyrness wrote.

In 2021, Dyrness and doctoral students Jackquelin Bristol and Daniel Garzón published an initial report called “Bilingual in Boulder” on the Chicano & Latino History Project website.

The report documents shared learning as the fifth graders revealed what it’s like to be “coming of age as bilingual children of immigrants in Boulder, where Spanish is nurtured in their dual language school but sometimes disparaged in public. . . . Students also shared their experiences with racism, fear of the police in their own community, and the militarized border.”

Even in a bilingual school that’s proudly devoted to equity, the researchers found these reflections are important for educators. Deb Palmer, professor of equity, bilingualism and biliteracy, and Dyrness’ research partner, led professional development with teachers to inspire continuous inquiry into students’ lived experiences and counter deficit views of Latinx communities.

The team continues to learn about the knowledge that transnational students bring to schools, and they hope others can learn from linguistically and culturally diverse families.

“I think parents should be proud of the cultural wealth that they are providing for their children—bilingualism, biculturalism, economic understandings, transnational understandings, etc.,” Bristol said. “While these qualities do not receive enough attention in the larger conversations about education, they are beneficial qualities, and we need to position parents as wisdom holders, teachers and leaders in this community.”

Garzón is grateful for the warm welcome from the youth and their families.

“As a researcher, the work through the cultural mentoring program has taught me how to listen and learn from students, laugh with them, celebrate with them, and sympathize with their challenges and needs,” said Garzón, who grew up in the U.S. with ties to Colombia.

“I wish I had this opportunity growing up. I could have learned to appreciate my home language and culture much sooner.”

Parts of this article were originally published in “Finding Home in the Borderlands” by Andrea Dyrness in Anthropology News, July 2022.