Yesterday I had a special experience. I was invited to speak to a group of Latino students at W. R. Coile Middle School. The invitation came from a pilot program organized by the University of Georgia's Institute for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACSI). The program's name is Affirmation of Cultural Identity. Speakers are chosen "for their content knowledge related to bicultural identity and because they served as top-tier Hispanic role models for the children or otherwise had significant interaction with and knowledge of the local Hispanic community."
It was touching for me to return to Coile after many years. You see, my three children went through their middle school grades there. I found a school with changed demographics. In the period of 1996-2002, when Gustavo, Carolina and María Teresa were at Coile, the number of Latino students was exceedingly small. Today, about 20% of the student body is Latino.
The students that participate in this LACSI program had been told that I study telenovelas. Therefore, they wanted to talk about these shows from the beginning. They even told me about the ones they watch (Triunfo del Amor-Univision, and some of them watch La Reina del Sur-Telemundo). I started the session, however, by asking them questions. I wanted to know their origins and personal stories. Most of these students were either born in Mexico or are the children of Mexican parents. (This is one of the explanations of their loyal consumption of Televisa telenovelas in Univision).
I asked them if there is something that they don't like about living in the U.S. They answered "when we're treated bad just because we're different," and proceeded to give me examples of the times they've felt excluded or segregated in their everyday lives. I decided, then, to show them videos of Micaela, the protagonist of the latest telenovela I've studied in-depth, La Mujer Perfecta. Micaela has suffered from exclusion because she has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism. In particular, I showed the scene in which Micaela delivers a speech on World Autism Awareness Day:
Día Mundial del Autismo-Micaela-LMP from Carolina Acosta-Alzuru on Vimeo.
Micaela's words had a magical effect on these students. "I'm not inferior, I'm just different" generated a group in-depth reflection about why we exclude those that are different from us. We talked about how exclusion is a two-way street. Sometimes we're the excluded ones, and sometimes we exclude others. To divide the world into "us" and "other" is particularly bad when we assume that "we" are somehow superior to, or better than, "others," and we don't welcome our differences. This is how intolerance and exclusion begin.
For me, it was certainly a sentimental trip to return to Coile and a great privilege to be chosen to speak to these Latino students. More importantly, yesterday afternoon showed me, one more time, how the universally melodramatic telenovela can be more than a "simple" love story delivered in daily installments. Telenovelas are entertainment. But, there's an undeniable transcendence in a genre that partly defines many Latin Americans and Latinos who live around the world. Telenovelas are a also a business enterprise. And, even though network executives and other decision makers could care less about what happened yesterday at a middle school in Athens, GA; for those students, these telenovela scenes could be a flashlight illuminating the thorny path of belonging to a social, cultural and ethnic minority.