by Chu May Paing
July 16, 2020

Gladys Preciado is an educator for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Maya Mobile Program. She teaches Mesoamerican art, history and culture to seventh graders within the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). She holds a master’s degree in Art and Art History from the University of Colorado Boulder.

I first met Preciado at CU Boulder when she was pursuing her master’s in Art and Art History. We came together at events that share both of our interests in community engagement and activism, including the former Engaged Arts and Humanities scholar, Jasmine Baetz’s community history sculpture project. This sculpture commemorates six CU Boulder students killed in bombings in Boulder during the Chicano rights movement in the 1970s (known as Los Seis de Boulder).

Since then, Preciado has graduated and left Boulder. I had an opportunity to virtually connect with her again and asked her about what she’s been doing these days.

Preciado’s answers to my questions sparked further thoughts and discussions. I am inspired by her dedication to community-engaged teaching. She approaches her teaching with critical thinking about racial and ethnic sensibilities and allows room for her students to not just learn from the history, but ponder upon and challenge them. As described in this interview, she shows how community-engaged work can be done ethically.

Can you explain a little bit about the Maya Mobile Program?

The Maya Mobile program has two components: the truck component and the classroom component. We stay at a school until every seventh grader has the chance to participate in both components, which usually takes about a month. The Maya truck is a trailer that has been converted into a Maya-temple-replica and classroom from inside where educators give a presentation about Maya culture, art, and how the land shapes Indigenous worldviews. Additionally, the kids work on an art project that consists of painting a motif from Mesoamerica on a ceramic tile. The classroom portion also consists of a short presentation and the handling of Mesoamerican artifacts from our permanent collection that range from 1,000-2,500 years old. We divide the class into two even groups and two educators lead a dialogic circle with each group. We pass around the objects and give the children an opportunity to practice close-looking and learn about Indigenous cultures first-hand through the primary objects. The classroom also includes an art project like the truck component. By using Model Magic®, they can sculpt anything that inspires them from Mesoamerica.

How do you initiate and maintain your engagement with the community?

Our program is attentive to the needs of the schools that we serve. As an educator I do my part by maintaining positive and professional relationships with school administration, faculty and students based on clear communication and trust. We host special tours of our objects and materials for faculty, staff, and parents upon request. This allows them to see what their kids learn and the art projects they create. Additionally, we give every class we visit a NexGen pass, which is a special pass that allows students free unlimited visits to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) before their 18th birthday, plus one additional guest.

What do you do when your research interests don't seem to benefit the community? Do you prioritize the community's needs and tailor your research according to them?

Part of my research interests at CU Boulder were to center Indigenous voices and perspectives in art history when they have traditionally been silenced by white-colonial narratives, and to challenge these narratives. I center this in my teaching philosophy as an educator. Since starting this position, I have focused on deconstructing the white-colonial perspective of the material I teach. I center Indigenous perspectives when teaching about cultures from Mexico, Central, and South America and I strongly advocate for the eradication of past-tense language, while always connecting material to the present. It is imperative to constantly prioritize the community's needs above anything else, so if I find that one of my teaching methods is not culturally sensitive, not accessible to every student, or does not support a decentralized curriculum I address it in my teaching and enact change in my methods as soon as possible.

How do you balance trying to connect with the communities you work with and the demands of your field?

Maintaining a clear path of communication between the community I serve to fully address their needs, as well as with leadership in my program has been key in balancing both. An example: I am expected to extend museum education to students outside of the museum’s walls and ensure that all students have an equitable learning experience. However, 93.4% of students that I serve are English language learners with Spanish being their primary language. When I started this position, there weren’t sufficient bilingual materials to support these students. I, along with other co-workers, have worked on creating bilingual materials such as classroom presentations, vocabulary, and activities and have also advocated for more bilingual educators in our program to ensure that we all have an equitable learning experience in the classroom. We voiced our concerns and presented this material to leadership and are now working to implement permanent bilingual materials, training, and solutions as part of our program culture.

Have you been in a position where an event you hosted went terribly wrong? If so, what happened?

I am the classroom lead which means that I am the point person for the teachers at every school we visit. I have not personally hosted an event, but there was an instance that went horribly wrong on our first day at a new school. As part of our program protocol, prior to visiting a new school, the manager of our program conducts an "in-service" where they meet with all the teachers whose students will be participating in our program. This is an opportunity for all parties to communicate to each other about student's needs and how our program works. This is also when our manager provides all teachers with schedules so they know when their students will be coming to us while we are at their school. This information is then shared with all educators so that we are all on board.

On the first day at this particular school, our first class was terribly late so I walked over to their classroom and it turns out that the teacher had no idea we were there. I came to find that most teachers couldn't make it to the in-service for this school and the information regarding scheduling and our programming was never shared with them by the principal. We were behind schedule and did not begin on the best terms with this school. As a solution, I helped implement a new system where educators need to meet with every single teacher on the first day of every school regardless of the well in-service. This builds trust and helps with communication between the community we serve and on-sight educators.

What are some of the ethical questions you face on a regular basis?

Most of the questions that I face on a daily basis are primarily about the community that I serve. Just for context, a breakdown of the ethnic demographics of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is: 73.4% Latinx, 10% African American, 8.8% White, 3.9% Asian, 2.2% Filipino, .04% Pacific Islander, .04% American Indian and 1 % two or more races. The majority of our students are Latinx, but we have to be aware of the fact that the term "latinx" is an umbrella term that homogenizes so many distinct cultures that originate in Mexico, Central, and South America. Many of our students identify as Indigenous, but they get grouped under the blanket term "latinx."

Some questions that shape my philosophy as an educator are:

  • Am I providing students, that are most likely listening to me speak about their own cultural heritage, an anti-racist and decentered perspective? What does this look like in practice?
  • Am I approaching this material with cultural and racial sensitivity?
  • Am I challenging and deconstructing the notion that Indigenous communities are a thing of a timeless past?
  • Language is powerful, am I being sensitive to the kind of language I use when discussing Indigenous communities? Am I also using inclusive language to create an equitable classroom?
  • Am I successfully embracing the diversity and differences of the community I am going into, and what does that look like on a daily basis inside and outside the classroom?
  • How aware am I of my own privilege before entering these communities?
  • How do I ensure that the curriculum I follow is anti-racist and creates an equitable learning environment for all students from all different backgrounds?

Not only are these guiding questions for myself, but I also extend these questions to the program as a whole and voice my concerns with leadership. Thank you, Gladys for your wisdom!