Spanish Classroom Chronicles: Elles, Muxes, and Identities.
“Without a sense of identity, there can be no struggle.” (Freire)
A lot has happened, really a lot: the pandemic, social unrest, fighting for racial justice and liberation… You’re probably aware of all this. Your social media timelines are likely filled with fast-paced information and notifications. When you see what’s trending these days, whether you’re an NPR podcast listener or an avid consumer of TikToks that summarize valuable necessary ABAR (Anti-Bias/Anti-Racist) reminders in 2 minutes, you might want to take a break from all of that and read a very personal, vulnerable story.
This testimonio was written in Spanish about 5 years ago, slightly before the pandemic. I’ve brought this story to you in English as an act of love and resistance directed toward my past, current, and future non-binary students and colleagues.
Ready? Set? Testimonio!
The first class of the school year always brings excitement — or anxiety. There was a time, many autumns ago, when I was studying for an undergraduate degree in Teaching Spanish as a Second Language. I vividly remember one of my college professors telling me:
“The first 15 minutes of your first class will determine how the rest of the year will go for you.” And there it was, the voice of Jiminy Cricket softly whispering that reminder to me every time I was about to start the first class of the school year.
Someone once said that you don’t always get a second chance to make a great first impression. That has always been — and continues to be — extremely important to me as a tool for self-reflection. It becomes even more critical when you enter the classroom and position yourself in front of the entire class, with all eyes staring at you. It’s as if they were scanning me, searching for a QR code on my guayabera, in a small, old, 1930s rural New England classroom.
Once upon a time, I waltzed into the classroom on a cold morning in late September. I had a triple shot espresso in an insulated mug, ready for the warm-up activity before starting the classes. The fall foliage was at its peak, well, almost! Oaks and birches nearby competed to display their beautiful foliage. Where did the summer go? It felt like it had disappeared!
Class time, and we were starting on time, well, almost! Putney time! Introductions, names, likes, dislikes — you know, the drill: small talk here and there, finding out who they are and where they’re from.
No! Sorry! Where is home for you these days? Why did you choose this school, perched on a hilltop in the middle of nowhere, Vermont? Why are you taking Spanish?
Then, it was their turn to speak.
This person was actually a bit late. I remember their dark outfit, complemented by a stunningly beautiful and colorful handwoven scarf. They had short, dark hair, and you could quickly notice something different in their eyes. There was fear and anxiety.
The student noticed the only empty spot left and quickly sat down. We looked at each other for a moment, and finally, I asked the first question:
“Hola, ¿cómo te llamas?”
The student said their name and proudly said: “…y mis pronombres son elle/elles.”
That was the first time many students had heard someone using the singular “They/Them” alternative in Spanish! It reminded me of my journey of learning, unlearning, and relearning during that exchange.
Ready for more storytime? Are you following? Here we go!
I’m a Mexican national, an immigrant, cishet — very much the stereotypical Latino portrayed in the media, according to many of my white colleagues. I arrived in this country at 23, not knowing how to speak or write the language. I learned English out of necessity. I was given a full scholarship to pursue my master’s degree at a school in Ohio. I took that opportunity very seriously and made the most of that life experience.
I’m lucky to have learned English through immersion outside of the typical ELL/ESOL (English Language Learners/English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes. Fortunately, most of the graduate courses were conducted almost entirely in Spanish. I took many risks, learning new idioms, and slang, carrying a pocket dictionary, and enduring many embarrassing moments of speaking with an accent. However, there’s something you should know about me before I immigrated to this country.
My adolescent years were filled with stereotypes and jokes that would earn me a free pass to the famous circles in my hometown in Cuernavaca, Mexico. To be the cool guy often meant cracking a sexist joke or making fun of anyone who didn’t look or sound like you.
I also remember listening to stand-up comedy, where people would mock gay attitudes or make fun of the gender roles prevalent in my society. For better or worse, if those jokes were full of curse words, you’d be like, “Bruh, that’s dope!” They were the epitome of macho culture.
Back in those days, social media wasn’t a thing for me. Instagram what? Snapchat? TikTok — what the heck is that? Facebook and WhatsApp were utopian concepts in those years when the internet was still accompanied by that horrible dial-up sound before connecting.
For me, those were survival times centered around street food. I was an “estudiambre”: a hungry student making the most of Dorilocos, with plenty of lime and salsa Valentina, pouring una Coca, the quintessential and adored “Mexican Coca-Cola” into a plastic bag with a pink straw.
Back then, concepts like sustainability didn’t exist for me. My constant use of plastic-wrapped street food was the least of my concerns as long as I could taste the shockingly good taco sudado — a ridiculously cheap, greasy 50-cent taco.
I’ll admit that when things got better, I used to buy recorded tapes with hours and hours of stand-up comedians in the “fayuca” — the black market. They were recorded illegally from live performances using cheap interview recorders. I even played them on my cheap yellow Walkman. Consciously and subconsciously, my mind absorbed hours and hours of those sexist, misogynistic, racist, and homophobic jokes.
I didn’t know it back then, but those stand-up comedians were making fun of minorities, underrepresented groups, and racialized people who didn’t fit their standards of normalcy. The dialogues were filled with examples of colorism and classism, and there I was, laughing, implicitly and explicitly normalizing these behaviors because, well, that’s just how our culture was.
I even remember how anxious and excited I felt whenever I had the chance to tell those jokes to my friends and family or to fit in at gatherings and parties. It felt like a rite of passage, a way to elevate my social status. That’s what I felt. That’s how I remembered those memories.
Back to the classroom. Remember this student introducing themself in Spanish? Well, at that moment, I said out loud to them:
“I want you to know this is a safe space for you. As you know, Spanish is a highly gendered language. Even if the Real Academia Española does not accept the singular ‘They/Them’ in Spanish, and even if there are many linguists and educated voices making fun of or dismissing alternatives like ‘elle/ellx,’ as long as I’m a teacher in this place, you and everybody else should feel completely empowered to use the ‘-e’ whenever you feel it necessary.”
Now, I want to acknowledge my privilege for a moment. I’m fully aware of the controversies and debates surrounding the use of “x” or “e” in “LatinX/LatinE” and the pushback from not only some Spanish teachers but also native Spanish speakers.
There was a part of me ready to jump in, energized, and rant about everything surrounding the evolution of our highly gendered languages. However, for a brief moment, I could only think about centering the story around this new non-binary student and their identity, ensuring they felt seen as a human being and valued as an individual.
So, I continued:
“If he is ‘alto’ and she is ‘alta’, you can say you are ‘alte.’ If he is ‘bueno’ and she is ‘buena’, you are ‘buene’ or ‘buena persona’. If he is ‘paciente’ and she is ‘tolerante’, you are ‘valiente’, ‘inteligente’, ‘perseverante’, ‘admirable’, ‘respetable’…”
The class clearly understood that those first 15 minutes of the class would be a safe and affirming space for all identities present. This new student understood that they could feel safe, secure, affirmed, and valued by me. They seemed to realize that my purpose at that moment wasn’t to challenge the Real Academia Española but to create a meaningful and safe space where conversations about identity and gender could naturally happen by simply adding a third option: ‘-e,’ right alongside the traditional masculine/feminine endings of ‘-o’/’-a.’
Believing in a completely “pure” Spanish language is not realistic. Attempting to maintain linguistic purity is an impossible task. It is better to focus on expanding our understanding of language by recognizing the importance of idiolect, geolect, and dialect. If gender-neutral language is already used in English, why can’t we apply the same approach to other gendered languages such as Spanish and French?
Later, we had a unique opportunity to talk about a group of people from my country: the Muxe community.
This individual, and many other students, had the chance to hear, in Spanish class, at Putney, more stories about folks who have defied for centuries the gendered norms and the binary constructs in a small town in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. These communities existed long before the Spaniards arrived and colonized what we now call México.
Representation is crucial in our classrooms today. Listening to stories from Lukas Avendaño, a Muxe anthropologist, and seeing the cover of Vogue Mexico featuring a Muxe model, Estrella Vazquez, and one of the most beloved street taco vendors, Marven, was not only a powerful and affirming moment for this non-binary student but for every person who still held onto the idea that Mexico was reduced to stereotypical tropes depicted in many classroom materials such as piñatas, mariachis, and sombreros.
As an educator and native Spanish speaker, I understand my limitations. The “generic masculine” is the norm in the language. Still, I adapt to speak “average Mexican Spanish” with my family and discuss decolonization with my colleagues. However, I find it challenging to engage in these conversations with former teachers and some close friends whom I respect deeply.
Thanks to many former and current students who are trans, non-binary, genderfluid, and many more wonderful members of the LGBQT+ community, I’ve learned to choose my battles. I know deep down that I can only control what I can control.
As a teacher, we must continue actively working to create safe spaces and oases. The world is harsh and cruel, and my students know this journey is filled with ups and downs.
Life is full of highs and lows. As you have come this far, take a moment to consider a few questions. Instead of assuming, why not ask? Let’s make room for underrepresented identities in our teaching materials rather than solely focusing on the standards of the Real Academia Española.
Let us view using, affirming, and validating identities and pronouns for trans or non-binary individuals as an act of love rather than a grammatical error. Putney has taught me that in my 12 years of teaching here. I prefer to love our students first rather than forcing a binary convention of the language I teach and speak and the assumptions one can make based on what we see. This is more than just another ending to the masculine and feminine adjectives. Es un acto de amor y de solidaridad.