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Testimonios: The Personal is Political

By January 28, 2018February 22nd, 2022Resources, Teaching Social Justice

Dan Thalkar

Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA

Dan lives and teaches in Los Angeles. Over his nine years in the classroom, he has taught 4th through 8th grade, and in his free time he probably watches more cartoons than most of his students. He also enjoys poetry, critical race theory, and Kendrick Lamar.

Q: Are you proud of me? A: I am proud of you.

I like to argue. It’s part of why I love teaching history — the entire course is an examination of the slippery notion of truth. We get to ask big questions, like “What makes us human?” and never have to settle on a right or wrong answer. It’s liberating. When dealing with the Big Questions, 13-year-olds can be just as right as any of the books we read or thinkers with whom we argue. It’s all uncharted territory. History is dialogical in that way; it’s a free-wheeling conversation about the point of it all.

Of course, entry into the conversation isn’t always free. Voices are erased, altered, oppressed, or ignored. It happens at family dinners, and it sure as hell happens in the wider historical narrative. My students and I wrestled with this truth during a recent Voices of Resistance unit. The content was Westward Expansion, the Mexican American War, and early anti-immigration laws. The conversation was inclusion, importance, existence. We spend so much time talking about the power of our voices, constructing our arguments and perfecting our narratives, that it’s easy to overlook how much wisdom surrounds us. More importantly, we spend so much time looking for wisdom that we often miss the breadth of knowledge that surrounds us. So, my students and I asked ourselves, what stories need to be heard? What stories need to be told?

What happens when we listen?

In order to answer these questions, we joined the rich tradition of testimonios. Testimonios originally emerged out of struggle, when people in Latin America began speaking out after war, violence, and suffering in their countries. Though often based in suffering, they are actually grounded in hope and triumph, and their power comes from the telling of the story.

A testimonio is a narrative of enduring and overcoming oppression.

Testimonios speak truth to power and, in the face of oppression and potential devastation, sing. The telling of the story is a way to regain power. Crucially, the narrator’s testimony represents the experiences of all of the others who lived through or experienced something similar, finding the universal in the particular. The individual is the collective. A testimonio could be the story of a family’s immigration journey. It could be the story of a woman fighting traditional gender roles. It could be the story of a single father. It could be the story of living through the LA Riots. Of working multiple jobs. Of becoming a citizen. Of joining the Gold Rush. Of escaping a life in slavery. Of us.

Our guides were Rigoberta Menchú, the women of Testimonios: Early California Through The Eyes of Women, 1814–1848, and myriad speakers from Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Together, we examined history from the bottom-up. We discussed how the grand sweep of movements pales in comparison to the miraculous perseverance of the individual. And we wondered what stories had been lost to that great sweep of time.

From there, of course, we had but one option — we had to ensure that our stories, our histories, were not lost. We had to record the testimonios of our communities. Students interviewed grandparents, parents, siblings, family friends, admired entrepreneurs, and others, and wrestled not just with what to ask them, but how to honor their voices. Do we keep the interview in Spanish, or translate it to English? Do we “correct” grammar and diction, or leave it as is? Do we record a Q & A, or weave together a story? I, happily and unhelpfully, answered none of these questions. We honor their voices and we make intentional choices. The form those choices take, I said, is up to you.

The result was a dazzling collage of voices, perspectives, and experiences. None of the testimonios were the same, and yet a common, proud thread wove through them all. Every speaker, while recounting stories of heartbreak and triumph and triviality, demonstrates pure, unabashed love for the child interviewing them. In so many, you can hear the children asking for validation — say that you’re proud of me, so I can record it forever. Read these all at once, and the weight of their love will break you.

We’re not reading them all at once. I set up a class blog and am posting a new testimonio each weekday. We now begin each class by reading a testimonio. At the end of the first week, I asked each class, if someone from rural Pennsylvania was reading these, what would they know about us? One student raised her hand and said, “They’d know that we have things in common and that we’re people, too. They’d see past the stereotypes, and maybe we would connect.”

Sometimes, telling a story is the most political act you can take.

In these posts I’m usually railing against something or exhorting teachers to take some sort of political action. This time, I humbly ask, read their testimonios. Listen. And if you are so moved, encourage your students to do the same. There is so much brilliance around us. What happens when we listen?

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