Compton teacher to explore the influence of Mesoamerican culture on modern-day pueblos and cities

Cynthia E. Griffin OW Staff Writer
OurWeekly.com, Los Angeles

For eight days next month Compton teacher D’Anza Smith will have the opportunity to explore and see firsthand how the cultures of Mesoamerica influence some of the literature she and her seventh grade English students are studying at Roosevelt Middle School.

From an anthropology museum to archaeological sites to pueblos, she and a fellow Compton educator—Oscar Rodriguez, a sixth grade history teacher at Whaley Middle School-will study the food, music, dance, and culture of the Aztecs, Mayans, and hopefully the Olmecs in Mexico.

The pair got the opportunity to take the journey thanks to a grant they won from the Fund for Teachers, and there are 20 other teachers from 15 schools who were awarded a total of $77,000 in the L.A. area for summer education and travel.

“I found out about it through NeaToday, the National Education Association magazine, then I also looked it up on the National Council of Teachers of English website,” explained Smith about how she heard about the program. “I thought it was a unique grant where I could create my own professional development.”

Among the stories Smith has her students read are The Circuit by Francisco Jimenez and Lupita Manana, which both explore people crossing the border into America trying to find a better life.

To make this relevant to her African American and Samoan students, Smith said she plans to focus on the multicultural aspect. “I want to present to my students how African Americans (and Samoans) can appreciate different people by seeing how I was able to maneuver myself through a foreign country,” explained Smith, who has seen the tensions between African Americans and Latinos on her campus, and believes they are caused by misinformation.

Consequently, in the fall, she is planning to use the information, souvenirs, and other items she gathers in Mexico to create a multicultural faire that will incorporate all the cultures found within the Compton community.

She and Rodriguez are also planning to create a photographic record of the trip, as well as a daily written journal and will also share these with their students, faculty, colleagues, and the community.

Smith, a six-year veteran of the Compton Unified School District, also sees this trip allowing her to serve as a bridge between blacks and Hispanics.

“As people of color, I can tell my African American students we need to embrace all different groups, religions, and different people and different languages… I want them to understand where (Mexican Americans) are coming from, understand their struggle, and see how their struggle mirrors some of the struggles that African American have and are facing,” said Smith, who has previously told her classes about the people of African descent who live in Mexican cities like Vera Cruz and look just like her students. “They can’t wrap their minds around that. So to give them visible proof of the deep African roots in Mexico and other areas in Latin America is important.”

This is not Smith’s first trip to Mexico. The Palmdale resident said she has been there several times as a visitor, but this time she hopes to gain a more in-depth understanding and appreciation of the culture.