• by Rebeca Maria Barrera, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • April 1998 • 

Vente Mi hijita, say hello to your grandmother first. Now give your tía a big hug.”

I remember the Sunday rituals so clearly. Sunday was family day, and we visited relatives. It was always this way, with the younger members going to the older one’s home – never the other way around. Of course, we were visited occasionally, but never for the Sunday gatherings.

I looked forward to playing with my 10 cousins. We would walk in the front door and smell caldo cooking on the stove or carne asada being grilled on a fire outside, and our cousins would call us into the kitchen to taste the first hot corn tortilla, sprinkled with salt and rolled into a flute. We never made it past the living room before the tías caught us for the dreaded ritual – one hug and one kiss per aunt, or neighbor or friend of an aunt. They were no ordinary aunts. They were the five great aunts of the family, the sisters of my grandmother. Greeting them first was obligatory, and it took forever. In Spanish, we had to detail how we were doing in school, whether we were giving our parents the respect they merited, why our hair was in a pony tail instead of braids, or why we had fought with our brother. They always knew everything, and the interview made me squirm every time. Tía Elia was the best, though. She usually had a plate of her special muffins, and she always told me I was pretty.

Finally allowed to go outside, we would cluster around the men at the barbecue pit and listen to their stories about cattle, farming conditions and wildlife around the ranch. If it was someone’s birthday, we broke a piñata. Before we ate, everyone sampled the food, snitching a taste here and a tortilla there. Lavish compliments were declared of all the cooks, and everyone helped set the table, including the little ones who carried napkins to each place.

Looking back on these events today, I realize how they capture the essence of our Mexican American heritage. Beginnings and endings are ritualized in our very large families. When a child is born or is baptized and when a wedding or birthday takes place everyone gathers. The family members bestow their blessings and good wishes personally. Each person has a stake in the life of the celebrated member. This tradition follows throughout life.

Culture is a Family Portrait

These memories, while not obviously early childhood related, are in fact the core of living in a Hispanic family. The interdependence of family members is so essential to family living that, without it, individual members will not thrive. Today’s barrio youth coming from unstable families need to feel they belong. They join gangs in unprecedented numbers to find the bonding they long for. The need exists also in the preschool environment, where rituals are necessary for children to feel they are welcome and belong.

Culture may be superficially represented by holidays, food and music. But the deep culture is the one that really counts, and it is the most difficult for a non-member of the culture to understand. My family’s rituals at mealtime, the greetings and good-byes, are all distinctly Hispanic.

Ideas for the Classroom

Making the classroom a comfortable place for children requires incorporating their culture – some of their family rituals and traditions – into the classroom environment. Here are some ideas.

Learn to pronounce Spanish names.

Help children develop pride in their names and their Spanish meanings. Many Hispanics allow others to change the pronunciation of their names because it is easier than having to correct mispronunciation. Experience shows that persons who readily give up the correct pronunciation of their own names generally have become acculturated and have lost their identity with their home culture. It is important to maintain a balance between Hispanic and dominant U.S. cultures. Overacculturation separates children from their elders to whom they can no longer relate comfortably. Mispronunciation of the name is a sign that this has occurred.

Establish rituals for greetings and departures.

Ask children how to acknowledge persons who come to the door, especially older persons. In my family, children would always greet each other’s parents and each other.

Begin the morning each day with a review of home activities from the night before.

Talking about common family experiences is an excellent self-esteem activity.

Let the children work in cooperative play most of the day.

They are accustomed to being in groups. While Hispanic children need some time for individual work, many will consider it a punishment to be separated from the group.

Establish clear boundaries for learning centers, but do not be surprised to find several children in a small space.

Hispanic families are usually large, and space is always snug. Do not be compelled to force one child into one space.

Create opportunities for multi-age groupings.

Children in Hispanic families have roles and responsibilities for younger siblings. They are not accustomed to being separated by ages, and the interaction between age groups is essential for normal family care. In multi-age classrooms, older children develop caring skills for younger children. The younger children get more personal attention and look up to role models. Modeling becomes a practical strategy for learning new skills. Family interdependence and responsibility for each other is reinforced.

Plan longer mealtimes.

Sitting at the table and talking is an essential social skill for families. Without an opportunity to practice, children lose the patience and interest needed to sit after finishing their meal.

Set up nap mats so that children can whisper to each other until they fall asleep.

In large families children sleep several to a room, sometimes two or three to a bed. They need to be able to reach out and touch each other at naptime. Sometimes teachers confuse this with misbehavior. By emphasizing separation, the teacher may be inadvertently creating anxiety problems.

Teach children to maintain the classroom together.

All Hispanic children are responsible for each other’s activities. When a child leaves blocks on the floor, instead of demanding to know who left the blocks and standing over the culprit until the task is complete, ask several children to help clean up. Another day, that child will help the others clean up. Eventually they will monitor each other.

Expect children to want to be involved in “your business.”

At home, they participate in most activities. They are accustomed to attending adult dinners, sports events, weddings, funerals and even going to work with their parents. At the end of the month, many children accompany their parents from the telephone company to the doctor’s office to pay bills. They will feel discounted if they are told something is for adults only. Handle this gently but set limits.

Keep discipline issues between you and the child unless you absolutely must have parent intervention.

Telling a parent about each little pecadillo embarrasses the parent. The interdependency between parent and child is such that the parent will fee personally responsible for the child’s action and will be humiliated by your report that their child misbehaved.

Use storytelling as a tool to change behavior or teach a lesson.

To get a point across, Hispanic family elders usually intersperse dichos and stories in their conversation. Dichos, or sayings, are found in most cultures and carry vital messages about social behavior, values and societal rules.

Gather materials from the home to incorporate into classroom activities.

Some examples are: wooden molinillo for whipping hot chocolate; tortilla press and rolling pins for cooking activities; molcajete to grind corn or mash avocados into guacamole; herbs and spices for smelling activities; tiaras, hats, flower bouquets and quinceañera veils for dramatic play; guitar, maracas, conga drums and other rhythm instruments; Mexican coins for sorting; family photos; records and tapes with contemporary Tejano, salsa or cumbia music; piñatas, baleros and other toy items; ceramic tiles and tile patterns to match or assemble like a puzzle; straw baskets; and arpilleras, weavings and other traditional artwork.

Ideas for Working with Families

Working with the whole family is essential when working with Hispanic children. Building bridges between home and school is necessary in order to understand the uniqueness of the culture. Here are some suggestions.

Plan for the whole family to come to parent night. Child care is essential if you want adult-only discussions, otherwise expect the children to want to sit with their parents. Grandmothers or other relatives will accompany parents.

Interview parents to explore their deep culture. Ask about special days or traditions. Find out how parents guide behavior. Discuss rewards and how the family recognizes special achievement. Inquire about rites of passage such as taking the first step or losing the first tooth. Inquire about family events. Children will talk about an event for weeks before it occurs. This is part of the normal family preparation for a birth, celebration or holiday. Also expect a repeat of the story after the event occurs.

Always plan food with school events. Family box suppers or pot luck dinners are ideal. Failure to plan for food will indicate poor hospitality and create an unwelcome feeling.

Be very conscious of age. Remember that older persons are revered in Hispanic culture. A grandmother visiting the school has more “presence” than the mother. Never make conversation that does not include both persons.

Expect the unexpected. There are many things that are personal to families and their ancient cultures. A comment about curanderos (herb healers) is not a suggestion of witchcraft or satanic worship. In past centuries, there were no medical doctors, and the scientists of the village were the persons who understood the medicinal value of certain tea leaves or spices. Avoid making judgments about home remedies.

Use storytelling to build bridges. Ask family members to tell stories about their families. These adventures will be much more relevant than some contemporary picture books. Children need both. Do not be surprised if some of these include how the family arrived in the United States or how the family’s land was acquired by the expanding United States. There may be painful legends and stories in the family’s history.

¿Cuál Idioma?

Although this article focuses on the cultural issues, the question of language must not be separated from culture. Teachers and directors who are bilingual will know that there are formal and informal ways to communicate with parents and that the use of one form implies intimacy and the other implies distance.

There are different words for the same item among Cubans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Spaniards. The variations are even greater when Central American or South American indigenous languages are mixed. Speaking Spanish may not be enough. Learning the regional differences will become more important as we move toward a global perspective.


While it is important to teach children about other cultures, this is not the same thing as a culturally-relevant classroom. Other cultures are frequently introduced as a theme to be studied – like plants, transportation or rivers. But, a teacher who incorporates words and culture from the child’s home into the classroom environment is doing much more.

The acceptance of the child’s heritage builds a comfort zone; and it releases the talents, skills and knowledge hidden by the blanket of another culture. The culturally-sensitive environment empowers the child to succeed in ways we hope will reverse the high dropout rates among Hispanics.

We can all benefit from the freedom we gain as we explore our deepest feelings and values and use the positive energy in our classrooms. As we pass culture to the next generation, we know that some things are lost in the wake of technological advances and mobility. Perhaps the children will remember them through the stories they hear from us. Rebeca María Barrera, M.A., is president of the National Latino Children’s Institute, a national non-profit organization that promotes the healthy and complete development of Latino children and a better understanding of Latino heritage, culture and history and of the issues and challenges facing young Latinos in the United States. This article is reprinted with permission from Child Care Information Exchange (March 1993), PO Box 2890, Redmond, Washington 98073 (1-800-221-2864).

Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]