Hot Cheetos and Cultural Connections

During work time, I wandered out into the hall to check on some students who had asked to read together out there. They had all of their stuff splayed out on a table, and right in the middle of it, was a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

“Ain’t no party like a Hot Cheeto party,” I said, doing a little jig. I casually reached over to the bag, grabbed a Cheeto, and said, “Teacher tax. Standard procedure.”

My students, who are used to my shenanigans, giggled. I asked my students what they had been up to this last weekend, especially because we had had an extra day.

“Well, I went to a birthday party, and they had a piñata…” the student, who we shall henceforth call Ryan Gosling, paused. “A piñata is this thing that -”

“I know what a piñata is,” I replied. “Continue el cuento.”  Ryan nodded obediently, and continued his story about having to wait for too long to get his turn to hit the piñata, and that all the little kids at the party got extra whacks, when he only got three.

“Important question,” I said, stealing another Hot Cheeto. “Does your family spin you before you hit the pinata, or is your family of the blindfold tradition?”

Ryan’s work partner, Emma Stone (I had to) gasped and exclaimed, “you know about that?”

“I do,” I responded, “my family is a big fan of the spinning. But at this point, I’ve had to retire because I get 30 spins!”

This launched a spirited conversation about spinning (spins correlating with age or with how many letters in your name), piñata candy and the pros and cons of tamarind candy. Oh, and I had to tell them the story about how a train had once made off with my piñata on my fourth birthday.

All in all, it was about a five-minute conversation. As I snuck one more Cheeto before leaving, I heard Emma say, “Ms. Mocha, I’ve never talked about piñatas and stuff with any other teacher before. This was fun, verdad?” 

It was fun. Growing up straddling two cultures myself, I often found myself not bringing up topics or traditions that I thought my friends would find “weird,” or get the awesome question of, “so, is that a Mexican thing?” I certainly never talked about it to my teachers, save the one who asked me whether I was having a fiesta for Cinco de Mayo, because, “wasn’t it important to your people?” (no, I wasn’t having a party, and it was about as important to “my people,” as buying toilet paper).

The chance to connect on a cultural level with my Latino students is again, a privilege I scramble quickly to claim. Whenever I bring up stories about growing up in the United States and how hard it was to balance two cultures, I see my Latino students’ heads slowing nodding in agreement. How many of their teachers can reach them on that level? I was disappointed, but not surprised to find out that Emma and Ryan had never discussed pinatas with another teacher before. Not because their other teachers didn’t care; they just didn’t feel that their teachers would understand, and there was an increased risk in exposing themselves as an “other.”

So if you are not a fellow Mocha, you must be asking yourself, “but if I didn’t have a piñata, does this mean I can’t connect with my students’ varied cultures?”

First off, I’m sorry you didn’t have a piñata. Parties are always made better when there is an activity that involves smacking something and being rewarded with candy. Secondly, you can absolutely still connect with all of your students’ backgrounds and cultures. How? Tell stories. Often, Vanilla Lattes believe that they are the race without culture. But that’s simply not true. Every family has their own traditions that could be defined as your family culture. Tell the story of your family’s favorite vacation spot, and why it means a lot to you. Tell them about how your family’s favorite meals (for example, I have a colleague with a tradition of making a special kind of cake for each member of the family on their birthday. “His” cake is lemon poppy-seed. His brother’s is angel food cake with strawberries.). This opens the door for students to talk about their family traditions and not feel like they are exposing themselves or their culture to be judged.

It’s these stories that connect students and teachers together of all races. If a student brings up the fact that they always have pozole during the holidays, another student can add that their family always has to have their grandmother’s sweet potato and marshmallow casserole during the holidays. And bam, just like that, connections are made, and walls are broken down.

Stories truly are wonderful things. And so are Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

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