Less than a month ago, my sheepish face graced the cover of the High Life, the newspaper for the high school where I teach psychology and sociology. I stared at its front page, the headline “Poly Teacher Calls Out ‘Pendeja’ and Sparks Social Movement” hovering above my close-up. The article offered enthusiastic support of my critique of American Dirt, a novel filled with stereotypes of Mexicans, and the movement it inspired to call out racism.
Still, I sighed.
I recalled the chilliness and aggression some white teachers and administrators had been displaying toward me since I had criticized the book’s author, Jeanine Cummins, and the publishing industry’s white gaze, criticisms that were echoed by other writers of color across social media. I looked up from the paper, at the Mexican and American flags sagging above my desk, and thought, “I wonder who will use this paper for target practice.”
Little did I know that three days later, I would be escorted off the campus where I teach by several administrators, security guards, and an armed police officer for a different, yet related, incident. As I’ve learned again and again, if you speak out against racism, there are risks you must take on.
In December, I wrote an essay that later went viral titled “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature,” which strongly critiqued the schlock-fest American Dirt, about a middle-class Mexican bookseller who, along with her son, flees from cartoonish cartel violence. Their journey north is so absurdly stereotyped, it surprised me that Cummins didn’t include a scene of a mother and son trotting to the United States on a donkey.
In addition to critiquing the novel’s many pendejadas — a word that has no English equivalent but connotes a person with both foolish and cruel characteristics — my essay also held Big Publishing to account for this fiasco. Cummins set the protagonist Lidia’s story in a fantasy version of Mexico meant to satisfy the gringo market for Brown exoticism. Her prose traffics in one-dimensional representations that Flatiron Books, its publisher, claimed it was attempting to dispel. Furthermore, American Dirt reeks of patriarchal white saviorism. It misrepresents the United States as a safe harbor for women fleeing violence. Instead, four women a day are shot by their partners in this country. Femicide is a public health crisis on both sides of the US-Mexico border.
As the student who covered my article in the High Life noted, after “seeing [Gurba] express her anger, people were inspired to express their own discontent.” Writers like Roxane Gay and Wendy C. Ortiz spoke up on social media about the erasure of Brown people in the publishing industry and under the hashtag #DignidadLiteraria, a social movement emerged. Dignidad Literaria aims to promote racial dignity within the publishing industry by pushing for systemic change through grassroots organizing. Young people of color, including my students, were also inspired to translate their anger into direct political action as well as the written and spoken word.
One of the topics I cover in my classes is the psychology of anger. We feel rage when injustice pricks our conscience, when we feel that circumstances are unjust and that the ability to correct that injustice exists. For these reasons, anger is preferable to despair. Anger produces hope and incites action.
Many of my essay’s loudest detractors — a veritable chorus of white men — accuse me of writing with excess anger. When they demand to know why I’m angry, my mind flashes to El Paso, Texas, where a white man perpetrated the largest massacre of Latinos in modern United States history this summer. I think of the white driver in Iowa who hit a teenager with her car because she looked “Mexican.” I think of the white women who beat a mother and daughter in Massachusetts bloody for speaking Spanish in public.
I think of the white person who texted me to stop discussing Poly’s problems with racism. She told me that my social media posts regarding a faculty member accused of calling a student the n-word were “blowing things out of proportion,” and to have “respect.”
When we hear from students that a teacher calls a student the n-word, it’s a big deal. Racist teachers should be fired, racist administrators should be fired, people who protect racists should be fired. Racism has no place in education. Neither does physical abuse — the teacher accused of racism has also been accused of duct-taping students to their desks.
(Chris Eftychiou, spokesperson for the district, told Vox that the teacher who allegedly said the n-word was placed on leave pending their investigation into recent complaints, but “the school district is not at liberty to provide details of such investigations”; the Long Beach Post confirmed the police department was also investigating the alleged abuse, but the police department did not provide Vox a comment. When asked for comment, the teacher in question told Vox her attorney advised her not to because the case is pending. “However, when the truth comes out, it will establish that I am innocent of any misconduct,” she said.)
Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire wrote that “the educator has the duty of not being neutral.” Under this reasoning, everyone demanding neutrality in the case of the accused teacher fails as an educator. The job of a teacher overlaps with the job of the cultural critic. What I and my students who reported these incidents wanted was justice and to right the wrongs they were experiencing by “turn[ing] the light of truth upon them,” as Ida B. Wells said.
The students believed that their complaints weren’t being treated with sufficient gravitas, and they brought their complaints to the public. They self-published a declaration of abuses they allege their teacher committed and ultimately; their most interesting accusation is that the teacher in question failed to meet the legal standard of “in loco parentis.” I offered my support to their voices.
A few days later, I was informed I would be put on administrative leave from campus. I was given no reason whatsoever, but later was sent an official letter saying I had “intentionally disrupted the educational environment.” Given the timing, as well as the lack of reasoning beyond “disruption,” I believe my critique of American Dirt, and my critique of the school district’s poor job of handling the students’ accusations, is the reason the district placed me on administrative leave.
"Justice for Gurba!" Poly students yelled during protests today in support of Poly teacher Myriam Gurba. She was placed on paid leave after tweeting sharp critiques of the district. Read more @lbpost : https://t.co/qQ0oFGsdGH— VoiceWaves (@LBVoiceWaves) February 24, 2020
: Briana Mendez-Padilla#longbeach #education pic.twitter.com/xN5XopHBmj
(Eftychiou told Vox in an email that “the school district is not at liberty to provide further details [of the leave] because of confidentiality rules affecting personnel matters, but the safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is our highest priority.”)
At the end of the week, once I had finished teaching, an administrator arrived at my classroom. She ordered me to vacate and hand over my keys, stating that I was “disruptive.” The degrading spectacle of being escorted off campus felt like a “perp walk,” and the crew marched me to the curb. A police officer took out her phone and took pictures of me while scowling. An administrator ordered me to stop talking. And thus, I went from cover girl critic to critic on the curb in the span of one week.
I believe that the district forced me out of my classroom to demoralize and silence me. It has had the opposite effect. I want to speak more and louder. Black feminist Audre Lorde asked, “What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own ... ?” In spite of the pain, I am committed to purging the numerous tyrannies I’ve been made to swallow rather than allow them to destroy me.
Myriam Gurba is a writer. She is the author of two short story collections and the true crime memoir Mean. Along with Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, she is a founding member of Dignidad Literaria.