• by Anita Tijerina Revilla, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • February 1998 • 

Being bicultural in a society that advocates a “common culture” is not easy. There is an emphasis in the United States toward a common culture that some people believe holds the country together and makes it stronger. While some praise diversity, others contend that the country will be separated by difference.

Likewise, biculturalism often is viewed in schools as a deficit. Thus, educational reform initiatives often attempt to eliminate differences. Antonia Darder states that while many people “in essence, recognize that inequity exists in American society, they seek solutions that will work to prepare (change) the bicultural student so that she or he will be able to compete better in the (unequal) system” (1991).

Unfortunately, for students of minority or poor backgrounds, this is overwhelmingly true. The challenge is to create a democratic environment where the “lived cultures of bicultural [and all] students are critically integrated into the pedagogical process” (Darder, 1991).

This article discusses the challenges of living on the borderlands, the Effective Border School Research and Development Initiative conducted by the Texas Education Service Center in Region I, and the need for schools to become communities of learners.

For many people who live along the border between the United States and Mexico, there exists a blending of identities that others may not understand. The proximity to a country foreign in language and culture that is highly popularized (often times negatively) creates a historical context that can result in a clash of emotions and perceptions. Many Mexican American and non-Mexican origin people have written of this experience and described it as the existence of “border people,” that is, people who are engulfed in two cultures that are co-existent. The dual identity of a person who lives on the border captures the essence of biculturalism.

People in border regions are witnesses to diversity every day of their lives. They partake in the grand cultures of, in this case, the United States and Mexico. In doing so, they also inherit the history of both cultures and the hostility that aligns that history. For some Mexican American children and adults, the border can represent family, culture and belonging. For others, it can signify pain, shame and danger. It is important for educators to recognize that both situations can be true for many Mexican-origin students. The history of the border affects students’ perceptions of themselves and the world around them.

Thus, in schools we should find ways to address the negative outcomes of national and class prejudice. National prejudice is a reality in the United States because “Americans” are often encouraged to feel superior to people of other nationalities, especially those of so-called “Third World” countries. U.S. citizenship is considered a privilege, and those without US citizenship are treated as second-class, inferior beings.

Yet, Mexican American families who have been US citizens for generations, often are viewed as newcomers and a lower class of people. This is evident in schools and institutions across the nation.

Dr. José A. Cárdenas, IDRA founder and director emeritus, responds in his book, My Spanish-Speaking Left Foot:

    The preservation of a cultural heritage should not be confused with national loyalty nor political allegiance to the mother country…Multilingual and multicultural backgrounds need not be a liability in education. They can be an asset, if these assets are recognized and capitalized on by the individual, the family, the teacher and the school (1997).

There are other educators in south Texas, the “Valley,” who recognize these realities. They also recognize that there are many things that schools can do to counter the negative effects of border conflicts.

For example, Texas Education Service Center in Region I collaborated with the University of Texas at Austin to develop the Effective Border School Research and Development Initiative. This initiative studied schools along the Texas and Mexico border. The purpose was to gather information that would provide educators and administrators with a framework for developing exemplary programs and practices and to help schools improve their overall school programs. The overriding mission of this initiative was to “develop schools along the Texas-U.S. border with Mexico that are among the finest in the world” (Harris and Ovando, 1996).

The research utilized to embark on this project was gathered over a three-year process. The findings led to the formation of six basic concepts that set the framework for searching for and creating effective border schools. These community-of-learners concepts include the following.

  • Vision. There is a clear, compelling, shared image of what should, must and can be provided to promote learning at the highest levels for students.
  • Leadership and Governance. Highly creative and imaginative decisions are encouraged. Coordinated efforts from school board to parents, teachers and students exist with optimum level of involvement of all concerned.
  • Responsive Pedagogy. Creative and imaginative classroom teaching programs and practices effectively utilize relevant curriculum, state-of-the art instructional methods, and materials and assessments that clearly support a positive learning environment that meets the needs of individuals, builds upon the culture and past experiences, and addresses the development and “readiness” stages of students.
  • Family and Community. Parents, businesses and community agencies are actively involved with school affairs, providing support and special services and networking to assure coordination.
  • Capacity Building. Ongoing utilization of knowledge bases and unique cultural contexts guide staff development, aggressive program design and appropriate resource allocation.
  • Schooling Practice. There is concerted, orchestrated use of only the most effective programs and classroom practices supported by research, professional wisdom, and unified campus and district commitments.

Essentially, these six concepts can be utilized by any school in the nation and be proven effective. They work especially well in border regions because they target a holistic approach to school reform and promising practices. The most important aspect of these concepts is that they involve family, community and culture. Without those key elements of involvement and the complementing pedagogical and management practices, schools will not be able to achieve effective schooling or exemplary status. Harris and Ovando state:

    The school can be thought of as a community of students, parents, teachers and others who are all teaching, learning and caring for each other. A community of learners can be fully effective over time only as it maximizes opportunities for all stakeholders to engage in the lifelong process of learning (1996).

The project creators further accentuate that a school is not a “factory.” It is a place where children and families go to foster the learning process. It becomes a unique community that encompasses not only students, teachers and school staff, but also embraces parents and community members as key stakeholders of the educational process. As such, children should be encouraged to learn about the history of their people and their community in school. Education can and should integrate the historical and social realities of students and their families in order to create a democratic education in which students lives are valued in the classroom. Harris and Ovando further point out:

    Widespread citizen understanding, support and active involvement in the life of the school community appears essential in the development and persistence of the finest kinds of education for all students (1996).

IDRA is a strong supporter of the collaboration between educators, families and communities. We know that there are strong links between valuing a child’s family and personal identity and their success in school. Many children who live along the U.S.-Mexico border deal with controversial social issues that may affect them or their peers in negative ways. It is up to schools and the community as a whole to work together to create better situations for all students.


Cárdenas, J.A. My Spanish-Speaking Left Foot (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1997).

Darder, A. Culture and Power in the Classroom: A Critical Foundation for Bicultural Education (Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey, 1991).

Harris, B. and M. Ovando. Effective Border Schools Research and Development Initiative (Texas Education Service Center in Region I, University of Texas at Austin and Texas Education Agency, July 1996).

Anita Tijerina Revilla, M.A., is an education assistant in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 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.]