My students and I were sitting on a dirt-floor hut in a squatter village on the outskirts of Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Joining me were mostly white, economically privileged students who sought to learn about God from the poor. Our “teacher” was an illiterate mestiza who was patiently answering our questions (with me serving as translator).
We asked who God is to her; who is Jesus Christ; who is the Virgin Mary? Her answers, theologically speaking, were frightful. They were a mixture of superstition and popular Catholicism.
It soon became clear she lacked orthodoxy – correct doctrine. Then her barefooted boy (about 11 years old) entered the one-room hut with a few pesos earned selling Chiclets to tourists.
As she collected the money, she placed one peso aside. I asked her what that was for. She replied that it was for the poor.
At that moment, the orthopraxis – correct action – of this poor woman taught my students (and me) more about divinity than all of the academic books we have read.
Seeing the giving of the “widow’s mite” was more effective than any lecture I could have possibly given.
Effective teaching must entail a response to injustice and oppression. By forcing my students (and when possible, the readers of mywritings) to occupy the uncomfortable space of the marginalized from which to approach faith, they are provided with a unique outlook on the normative discourse, a view I believe enhances traditional curricula.
Because individuals enter the educational system with a lifetime of experiences and knowledge, I design my courses and write my articles along the teachings of Paulo Freire’s groundbreaking book, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (presently banned by the Tucson Unified School District).
This approach brings the suppositions of my students and readers into conversation with those who many may consider have nothing to offer the intellectual dialogue, i.e., the poor woman of Cuernavaca.
Only by being organic intellectuals can my students and I contribute toward the struggle against oppression, which has become institutionalized.
For this reason, my role as a scholar-activist must include participation with the least among us.
The praxis of dealing with oppressive structures within dispossessed communities is more crucial than books published by the “experts.”
I do not teach or publish just to express my views in the marketplace of scholarly opinions; rather, I teach and write to give voice to the voiceless – to shout from the mountaintop that which is commonly heard among disenfranchised people – to put into words what the marginalized are feeling and doing.
No doubt, such a methodology will usually anger those who are accustomed to viewing their power and privilege as a birthright. Still, teaching from the margins of society must be done if I, as a teacher, hope to raise the consciousness of my students.
We can never forget, as my former teacher John Raines constantly reminded me, that the (class)room is appropriately named, for it is indeed a room of class – a room where students learn the class they belong to and the power and privilege (or lack thereof) that comes with that class.
The fact that some students are able to pay sufficient and significant money to attend particular rooms of class located on prestigious campuses indicates that they will have certain opportunities that are denied to those of lower economic class, those who are more often than not students of color residing on the margins of society.
Far from being an objective, neutral educational system, students who attend (class)rooms can either be conditioned for domestication by, or liberation from, the existing social structures.
All too often, the educational system serves to normalize these power structures as legitimate.
My task as an educator, specifically as one who calls himself a liberationist, is to cultivate the student’s ability to find his or her own voice by creating an environment in which individual and collective consciousness-raising can occur.
As a scholar-activist, unapologetically grounded in a Latino/Latina social context, I create an environment within the “room of class” that attempts to perceive divinity from within the social location of marginalized people – that is, those who are usually unable to participate in the (class)room where I teach.
Such a process analyzes their reality, a reality tied to perspectives that demands a socio-political response to oppression.
A relationship develops between the disenfranchised and intellectuals aware of the structural crises people of color face in the United States.
The pedagogy I employ in my constructed room of class seeks to un(cover) social ethics through the rich diversity found among those who are usually excluded – those who are part of a multiracial and multicultural people.
Succinctly stated, what occurs in my room of class is the construction of a collaborative ethics, and the study of its impact upon the reflection of marginalized people who struggle in understanding their faith and vocation as it is contextualized in their lives and circumstances.
Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.