Puerto Rico Public Schools Lack Materials for Antiracist Education

Aug 11, 2022
12:06 PM
Originally published at Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Girl attends the Manuel Elzaburu y Vizcarrondo School in Cantera. (Nahira Montcourt/Centro de Periodismo Investigativo)


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Lady Torres has been a kindergarten teacher at the Miguel González Bauzá School in Peñuelas for five years. She turns to the Google search engine in November for Puerto Rican Week as she needs images that illustrate the Puerto Rican identity to discuss the matter with her students. She also reaches the librarian to find out what stories she has available to cover the topic of “the three roots” of the Puerto Rican culture, but points out that “it would be good to have professional training [on antiracist education], to have a resource, a base, some images, a story, I mean, to have the materials.”

The resources Torres needs may take another year to arrive. The Department of Education (DE) said it has secured $12 million from the Emergency Fund for Schools to develop an Antiracist Curriculum Guide, purchase textbooks, and provide professional training, but the materials would be in schools between January and August 2023. Meanwhile, teachers will continue to be guided by a couple of memos that limit the time to reaffirm African descent or celebrate Puerto Rican roots to two weeks of the school year.

Act 24 has been in effect since August 2021 in Puerto Rico, which orders seven agencies, including the Department of Education, to take “all necessary actions and measures” to raise awareness about racism and affirm African descent. But in the classroom, teachers still don’t have the materials they need to teach antiracism. On the contrary, often, the texts or pamphlets they have at hand distort or make the African heritage invisible.

“Racism is not spoken of, or at least I didn’t handle it as such in my classroom. Education of African descent, that concept, is not discussed. There are no books per se. What we do is adapt the topics. You discuss the values, respect, and equality, with what’s in the text, in the story,” said Limary Durán, who retired this year as an elementary Spanish teacher at the Carmen Barroso Morales School in Toa Baja.

In Montessori public schools, the “Casa de Niños” level for students from three to six years of age includes cultural studies, “an ideal path to work with the subject of African descent, in which they [students] have the opportunity to get to know other countries, other cultures” from the perspective of history, geography and biology, said the director of the Academic Program of the Instituto Nueva Escuela (INE), Annabel Martínez.

Colonization, slavery, and the so-called “three roots” of Puerto Rican —Taíno, African, and Spanish culture— are first discussed with students, according to the DE curriculum, in fourth grade. The subject is not addressed in earlier grades since the last curricular revision, in 2014, merged the Spanish and social studies subjects  —in which these topics can be discussed— under the subject called “Language Acquisition,” because students did not reach proficiency levels in reading comprehension in standardized tests, former Secretary Rafael Román Meléndez told the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI in Spanish).

Almost all the texts repeat the same images of bomba and plena dances or of slaves crammed into boats, chained, without a past or context that links them to the continent of origin when discussing or illustrating African descent, according to experts consulted and the review of some books the department uses for Spanish and social studies.

“The Department of Education provides us with some standards and expectations that we have to follow regarding the grade,” said Onilda García, who has been an elementary Spanish teacher for five years at the Hipólito García School in Guayanilla. “I don’t think the books [I use for class] contain anything strange, that deride our people or contain negative things about our Black people,” she says while assuring that she would discard materials or texts provided by the agency if she perceived discrimination or racism “because I believe in the equality of the children.”

The DE Social Studies Program’s curricular offering policy was established in a 2021 memo: “The study of history and diversity among cultures in the context of the History of Puerto Rico, the Americas, and the World” between fourth and eighth grade. The same letter designates two weeks for activities that highlight national identity: in March, when the National Day for the Eradication of Racism and the Affirmation of Afro-descent is commemorated, and in November, during Puerto Rican Week.

The goal of Afro-descendants Week is to “highlight the importance of transforming the vision of students about our Afro-descendants, which has been limited to the slavery in the past, excluding the significant contributions that Black ancestors have made to Puerto Rico’s historical and cultural development, to counteract the existing racial prejudices in our society,” reads part of the memo. Meanwhile, for the “Fiesta de la Puertorriqueñidad,” “teachers will develop several artistic activities alluding to the theme of Puerto Rican culture… Celebrating Puerto Rican identity and culture is a priority of the entire educational system.”

Poster published by the Department of Education in March 2022 during the Afro-descendant Week, where only the cultural and sports contribution of African descendants is highlighted.

Another memo from the DE establishes its policy to integrate the theme of “equity and respect among all human beings” in a transversal way in the curriculum, through questions that allow students to identify stereotypes and prejudices, and promote a process of change to prevent discrimination that manifests itself through aggression or microaggressions.

The agency did not specify how it monitors compliance with the provisions of these letters.

In October 2020, the DE reached an agreement with the Division of Continuing Education and Professional Studies (DECEP in Spanish) of the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras Campus (UPRRP) for 350 teachers to take workshops on Afro-descendants. Only 38 percent (115) completed the series. The low turnout could be because the virtual workshops were held at night until 9 p.m., said María Elba Torres Muñoz, director of the UPRRP’s Interdisciplinary and Multicultural Institute, who was also part of the team of instructors.

The Professional Development Institute, which is under the DE, has not reached out to teachers to take part in these workshops again.

Re-educating at Home

Managing the indignation, rage, and disassociation of their children, and unsuccessfully trying to get school staff to consider suggestions to improve their approach to the issue of racism, are some of the experiences shared by several mothers interviewed by the CPI, who must re-educate at home every time their children come home with chores that make African descendants invisible, belittled, or minimized.

“I never saw, neither in schoolwork nor in messages, that explicit information was included to comply with antiracist education. I didn’t see any direct exercise to educate them on this subject,” said Marla Pagán, mother of a teenager who begins the eighth grade at a public school in San Juan in August. “Although I’m always present, I go to meetings, I don’t feel summoned. There’s no way that I can say, ‘Listen, teacher, with all due respect, I would like to contribute this reading for you or for your class, and if you want, I can bring these other resources to enrich the conversation.’ That doesn’t happen.”

Similarly, Lorna Robles (a false name since she requested anonymity) does not recall that her nine-year-old daughter, a student at a specialized school in Cidra, shared any specific task or an example in which they explicitly spoke to her about racism. She even asked in the school moms’ chat, and no one could remember any examples.

“To give you an idea, in social studies they spent practically almost the whole year on the Taínos,” she pointed out while acknowledging that she often helps her daughter with assignments by consulting Google when books and pamphlets fall short.

When her daughter was in second grade, she recalled that “in art, she was assigned to recreate an image of slavery and with the image was a paragraph about the history [of slavery]. We discussed [the assignment] at home and she was upset. I explained to her that there were many unfair things in the world and that it was okay to be outraged, but that beyond expressing our anger, solutions had to be found so that things change.”

Communicator, antiracist educator, and mother of two Gloriann Sacha Antonetty Lebrón felt saddened that the school environment is the first space in which children face racist dynamics and aggressions that can range from the rules imposed by schools on how to wear their hair to bullying among students.

The DE’s General Student Regulations say that “no disciplinary measures will be established for the students’ hair shape, length, and color,” in other words, style (braids, dreadlocks, afro, etc.); hair length (regardless of whether they are male or female); and colored hair. However, the regulations of some private schools do impose disciplinary measures against students for the way they wear their hair.

During the discussion of the bill that gave way to Act 24, Antonetty Lebrón proposed that a statute be also approved to prohibit discrimination for wearing natural hair in schools and at work. In August, her son and her daughter will start classes at another school after several negative experiences.

Gloriann Sacha offers an interactive workshop on representation in the media. (Ricardo Rodríguez/Centro de Periodismo Investigativo)

“In first grade, for Puerto Rican Week, he got home very excited about listening to the story about the Taínos, the Spaniards, and when it was the turn of the Africans, we had a very complex situation. I started looking at the notebooks and there was some horrible information about Africans,” which normalized slavery or “referred only to music, food, and religion,” she said.

The worst part was the graphic representation. “My child has always colored himself brown. He even says: ‘Mom, this person is brown like us, this girl is brown like me.’ Twice he was given the same image of an African person in a loincloth, with his hands chained and smiling. The two times he had that picture in his notebook, he colored them multicolored. He disassociated himself from the fact that the African person was brown. We worked on it here [at home], with ‘counter-education,’ we worked on it by talking about how we were kings, queens, mathematics, engineering, everything that has been created from Africa,” the editor of Revista Étnica said.

Three months later, the social studies teacher asked her for information on Black Puerto Ricans after telling her she didn’t have enough materials for first graders. “I told her that there’s a lot of information. I gave her a list of where they could start, and she told me that she only had information on Roberto Clemente,” added Antonetty Lebrón.

More Than $3 Million to Review Curricula

The DE is currently reviewing the curricula for all levels, which may take up to a year to complete. In a presentation in May, Beverly Morro Vega, assistant secretary of Academic Services, explained that the curricular revision is based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for the 2030 Agenda and the federal guide for the processes that require a peer revision.

The DE signed a $3.4 million contract with multinational conglomerate Pearson to review the curricula. The U.K.-based company, which also runs the META tests, has already secured $276,515,519 in Education contracts since 2008, despite being sued and fined for its handling of public education systems in Minnesota, Mississippi, Illinois, and Wyoming, among others. As recently as last year, the Securities and Exchange Commission revealed that the company paid $1 million in fines after hiding the extent of a cybersecurity breach that involved the theft of millions of student records from investors.

The significant changes to the curricula, which Morro Vega anticipated, will occur mainly in the subjects of science and bathematics. In addition, kindergarten teachers will receive a standards manual that will integrate all subjects by learning cycles, but the Anti-Racist Teaching Curriculum Guide mentions it as an upcoming curricular project subject to development.

While the teachers wait for the curricular revision and the guide, the Spanish teacher from fourth to eighth grade at the Jorge Lucas Valdivieso School in Peñuelas, Johanna Morales, suggests that African descendants and racism be topics that are discussed using “a real event in the classroom, because there is the case in which children bully others. You don’t need a book or a syllabus to take advantage of that opportunity. The life of the teacher is not based on a mere curriculum, an expectation, or a standard. It is rather to bring real life [into the classroom], everything that happens around our children. That’s the best class and the best example that we can take advantage of to teach students to be better people in our society and that they can accept different people as they are.”

In the 2020 Census, 17.1 percent of Puerto Rico residents identified themselves as white, in contrast to the 75.8 percent who had identified themselves that way in the previous decade. In turn, 17 percent of the population identified as Black, while 50 percent identified as a combination of two or more races (white, Black, and Native American).

The teachers recognize that interpersonal racism exists, which manifests itself “through practices of racial rejection perpetrated by one or more, either through subtle or underhanded acts or through explicit, conscious or unconscious practices.” But they did not mention the structural or institutional racism that “happens through veiled messages, policies or practices that appear to be neutral but privilege one racial group over another,” as defined by authors Isar Godreau, Mariluz Franco, Hilda Lloréns, María Reinat, Inés Canabal and Jessica Gaspar in Arrancando mitos de raíz: Guía para una enseñanza antirracista de la herencia africana en Puerto Rico (“Dismantling Myths of Roots: A Guide for AntiRacist Teaching of African Heritage in Puerto Rico”).

“In Puerto Rico we’re still at an elementary level in terms of understanding what race is, what racism is, and there’s a lot of confusion. We’re learning an antiracist language, from there to a practice, and recognizing experiences at a personal, family, community, and institutional level,” Franco said.

Ana Díaz, a high school Spanish teacher at the María Teresa Piñeiro School in Toa Baja, points out  that although there is no material specifically assigned to the subject of anti-racism and African descendants, “authors who discuss Black heritage are included in the curricular maps, such as the poet Luis Palés Matos, but that the subject is talked about directly or that there’s an inclusive curriculum about it, there’s not.”

Racism exists and her students confirm it. “I ask them if they believe that racism still exists. Many tell me no, others yes. When I ask them if they know people who have made racist comments or someone in their family who makes racist jokes, most of them raise their hands,” Díaz said.

Publishers Need an Antiracist Guide

Between 2017 and 2020, the DE signed 15 contracts with more than 10 publishers to acquire the textbooks used for the subjects of social studies, Spanish, and language acquisition. Although the contracts available in its comptroller’s office detail the costs per unit, the agency did not respond to the CPI about the total number of textbooks they bought from each publishing house.

Some titles were identified in the contracts to examine the materials currently used in the classrooms. The publishers for these subjects are Ediciones Santillana, Publicaciones Educativas, Require Puerto Rico, Ediciones SM, Caribbean Educational Services, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Editorial Panamericana.

The Kronos series from Editorial Publicaciones Educativas for grades four through six contains exercises to define racism and discrimination, and others on the contributions of Black authors in Puerto Rican literature, as well as a map of migrations that occurred on the African continent on the last page. However, the focus when speaking of slavery is the servile and docile description of the enslaved, barely mentioning maroonage, and the practice of those who bought their freedom.

If this series is compared with Sociales Aventura for fourth grade from Editorial Panamericana, the slavery and folklorist images are repeated. However, the book makes it clear that the arrival of the African people happened because “they were forcibly brought,” contextualizing the heterogeneity of Africa, its kingdoms, and the ethnic diversity of those who arrived enslaved in Puerto Rico.

The same publisher provides the DE with the text Puerto Rico: Formación y Desarrollo for seventh grade, which also focuses on slavery and to a certain extent normalizes it. “The slaves brought diverse fruit… they adapted well to the climate and handled the rough work,” according to part of the fourth chapter. It also downplays the importance of the resistance to the slave regime when in the description of a map that illustrates uprisings of the time it points out that, “they did not reach the proportions of the neighboring islands. Black muzzles participated in them, for whom it was more difficult to adapt to the condition of slaves.”

The Department of Education did not respond to whether it has an editorial committee or team to verify the contents of the texts before purchasing them.

The shortcomings in school literature outlined eight years ago in the Guía para una enseñanza antirracista de la herencia africana en Puerto Rico are still valid in the sample of books examined, which motivated the authors to continue investigating.

“Unlike that first investigation, whose focus was on teachers, now the focus is on publishing houses. Develop a guide for publishing houses to have a greater impact at the institutional level, because no matter how much you train teachers, if what you have as a tool is a tool that still reproduces racism, then that’s challenging,” Franco said.