Supporting Indigenous Latinx Students’ Success in U.S. Schools

By Luis Javier Pentón Herrera, Ph.D. (2021)

This article first appeared on and is linked to the Colorín Colorado website, a bilingual site for educators and families of English language learners.

Learn more about the ways that schools can better identify and partner with Indigenous students from Latin America who speak languages other than Spanish and bring diverse educational experiences with them.

On this article

  • Setting the Stage: Indigenous Latinx Students and Formal Schooling
  • Improving the Intake Process
  • How are we welcoming students?
  • Language Support for Instruction and Translation
  • Language Resources in the Community
  • Video: Family Engagement with Indigenous Families from Guatemala
  • Closing Thoughts
  • About the Author

Latinx are the largest minority group in the United States. Although this population is often classified as homogenous, the reality is that the Latinx community represents the rich, heterogeneous mosaic of diversity found through Latin America. Within the Latinx community, we can find individuals representing a wide range of groups, including:

  • Afro-Latinx
  • Asian-Latinx
  • European-Latinx
  • Middle Eastern-Latinx
  • Indigenous-Latinx.

However, when immigrants from Latin America arrive in the United States, their diversity is often assimilated into common traits.

For example, it is often assumed they only speak Spanish. In U.S. schools, educators may assume that students from a particular region or country have all had similar educational experiences. These misconceptions mean that educators may be missing out on important opportunities to tap into students’ cultural and linguistic assets, as well as their personal experiences, in order to support their learning.

Indigenous communities in Latin America

This is particularly true for Latinx Indigenous students. Presently, Latin America is home to over 800 different Indigenous groups, representing a total population of over 45 million people (CEPAL, 2014). In some countries, like Bolivia and Guatemala, it is estimated that over half of their population are Indigenous and/or speak Indigenous languages. There are also many Indigenous languages still spoken in Mexico, and immigrants from Mexico may speak an Indigenous language as their primary language rather than Spanish.

In recent years, the number of Indigenous students from Latin America arriving in U.S. classrooms has steadily been increasing. One key indicator of this increase is the latest report from the U.S. Department of Justice, which shows a healthy growth of Mayan languages being used in immigration court cases.

In the Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, the list from the Department of Justice’s top 25 languages used for translation included Mam, Quiche, Konjobal, and Akateko, all Mayan languages primarily spoken in Guatemala, placing ninth, eleventh, fourteenth, and twenty-first places on the list, respectively. Yet, the silence surrounding the increase of Indigenous Latinx populations in the U.S. shows that we have much work to do in recognizing the diversity of incoming Indigenous student populations.

Although there are many challenges facing Indigenous Latinx students today, in this article, I will focus on the impacts of misconceptions about students’ language background and educational background. I also propose practical solutions teachers and administrators can use to create a welcoming school environment for their Indigenous Latinx students and serve these students more effectively based on my teaching experience and subsequent research.

Unaccompanied children

Many of the unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border are Indigenous and speak Indigenous languages.

For more on this student population, see Unaccompanied Children in Schools: What You Need to Know.

Setting the Stage: Indigenous Latinx Students and Formal Schooling

In order to provide more effective instruction for Indigenous Latinx students, it is helpful to understand more about their educational background.

Continue reading the article on the Colorín Colorado website.


NML Interview with Luis Javier Pentón Herrera, Language Educator

This blog post first appeared on the The National Museum of Language (NML) Blog on December 12, 2017.

This month, we feature Luis Javier Pentón Herrera, a Spanish and ESOL teacher and doctoral candidate in Leadership: Reading, Language, and Literacy from Concordia University. Luis has made several presentations and publications on both the studying of languages and the state of language learning and ESOL in the United States. Here’s what he had to say about the current state and future of language education.

Please tell me about your educational and professional background.

I started my education back in 2007 while serving in Japan as an active duty military member in the United States Marine Corps. Once I completed my tour in Japan, I came back to the United States, fulfilled my military service, and completed my Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from University of Maryland University College. After working in the administration field for a couple of years, I realized I was not passionate about it and one day I just quit. After quitting, I decided to volunteer as an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor at night and I quickly became passionate about teaching languages and helping people become successful in the United States. It did not take long for me to enroll at Strayer University’s Master in Education program, with a specialization in adult education and development.

Right after completing my M.Ed. at Strayer, I realized that I needed to continue learning to become more knowledgeable and better serve my students. For that reason, I enrolled simultaneously at two master degree programs: (1) M.Ed. in Bilingual Education with a Graduate Certificate in ESL at American College of Education and a (2) Master of Science in Spanish Language Education at NOVA Southeastern University. After completing these three master degrees and the graduate certificate program, I realized that, additionally to teaching, research was also my passion. As a result, I looked at many Ph.D. programs that gave me the flexibility and opportunity to learn about language learning and education. I did not want to be boxed in as a “Spanish educator” or “ESL educator”, I wanted to have the flexibility of being a language and literacy educator. I was blessed to find the Ph.D. in Leadership: Reading, Language, and Literacy program at Concordia University Chicago, and I have been a doctoral candidate since 2014. I am currently in the last phase of my doctoral program, and I am currently writing my 4th and 5th chapters, which are the last chapters of my doctoral dissertation.

During this time as a graduate student, I have had the privilege of teaching at different schools and at different grade levels. I have taught Spanish and ESL at all grade levels, including K-12 and undergraduate and graduate classes at colleges and universities as an adjunct professor. I have also served at different language and education institutions in diverse leadership roles such as TESOL International, Maryland TESOL, Greater Washington Association of Teachers of Foreign Language, and University of Maryland University College Alumni Association, to name a few. I have also been blessed to receive different awards, honors, and recognitions from many educational institutions such as the Alumni Achievement Awards from the American College of Education, the Outstanding Educator Award from Prince George County Public Schools, the Emerging Leader in TESOL recognition from TESOL International Association, and the Teacher of Honor Award by Kappa Delta Pi, to name a few. In addition to my active role at different institutions and teaching roles, I am very involved in research and presentations. My research interests and areas of expertise include Bilingual Education, Spanish, ESOL/ESL, Adult Education, Literacy Studies, and Hispanic Pedagogues. Currently, my primary research focuses on the language and literacy experiences of Ixil and indigenous Hispanic ESL students in American classrooms. I hope to be able to share my findings and lessons learned from this relevant topic very soon.

Did you use your language skills in any other profession or capacity before teaching?

While living in Japan, I became very interested in learning more about the Japanese language and culture. I had the opportunity to learn Japanese in an informal setting with friends and co-workers who are Japanese and I would teach them English. Thinking back to that time, I think it was a very interesting exchange because they would teach me Japanese and I would teach them English without curriculum or a guide, it was all about getting the message across and being able to communicate.

What made you want to start teaching?

As I mentioned in the first question, having the opportunity to volunteer at a non-profit program made me fall in love with teaching. Prior to volunteering as an ESL instructor, I did not know the big impact I could make in my community by teaching ESL and by serving as a guide and a mentor for my ESL students to be successful in the United States. In addition to the teaching component, I saw the ESL field as an advocacy opportunity where I could make a difference for those who need it the most.

What are some of the systemic challenges you find trying to promote the learning of language?

As a Spanish and ESL educator, I have had the opportunity to experience the challenges and opportunities for each field first-hand. For Spanish, or any world language studied in the United States really, the challenges come down to motivation and perception. The reality is that none of the 50 states require foreign language courses for graduation in high school. Currently there are only 34 states that offer foreign language classes ​​as optional credits for graduation, but students have the option of choosing between languages, art classes or vocational/technical classes to complete this requirement. There are even some states that are now adopting programming and coding as language credits, which hurts even further the world languages field. When students see that foreign language is not required and they do not see an immediate applicability for becoming bilingual, then learning a world language becomes unimportant to them.

On the other hand, ESL learners are often motivated to learn English because they know and understand the many benefits of becoming fully bilingual in the United States. However, one of the biggest challenges in the ESL field is finding and keeping qualified staff to teach classes of all subjects to ESL students. Particularly in K-12 environments, teaching such a linguistically, culturally and academically diverse population of English Learners (ELs) is challenging, but even more challenging is finding educators and staff who can teach different subjects and grade levels and have the necessary training to teach ELs. In addition to this, if we look at bilingual education programs, many of them are experiencing teacher shortage and many school districts have to look for qualified and bilingual educators outside of the United States and Puerto Rico in places like Spain and Philippines to name a few.

What is the biggest challenge facing educators of world languages today?

In my experience, the biggest challenges world language educators face today are appreciation and acknowledgement. World languages and language educators are not appreciated and recognized enough, neither in K-12 nor in higher education. The push for standardized testing and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has changed academia’s perception of and interest in languages. It is not uncommon to find that language professors at universities and colleges have a disproportionally lower salary than their STEM counterparts. It is also not uncommon to see that language majors continue to be eliminated from higher education institutions due to low enrollment. In K-12 environments, world language departments are often less acknowledged and recognized because their classes are not requirements for graduation and students do not take standardized tests in world languages, therefore, schools are not impacted by their students’ knowledge of languages. All of this plays into lower salaries for world language educators, a noticeable lack of motivation in both students and language teachers, and little appreciation from an academic and administrative standpoint.

How do you see your non-native students using their language skills in the future?

As we all know, our world continues to become more globalized. There are now many opportunities in the United States to interact with people from diverse cultural backgrounds who speak different languages. It is my hope that my non-native students use their language skills in the future to communicate with cultures and communities they have not interacted with before, either inside or outside the United States. The goal for learning languages is to broaden our minds, to think differently about our world, and to see new perspectives that we could not see with just our native language. I hope that my non-native students see the importance of language learning and become bridges and advocates for the teaching and learning of world languages.

What about your native speakers? What do you see as your role to them as an educator?

When I think of native Spanish speakers I feel that my role to them as an educator is to help them understand how valuable their culture and language is in the United States and around the world. Many native speakers who arrive to the United States think that learning English needs to come at the expense of losing their native language, but this is not the truth. I am a strong advocate for bilingualism and for advocating for my students’ native languages and cultures. If I can help my native speaker students understand the importance of maintaining and preserving their native language through the generations, then I have done my job.

What are your thoughts on the roles of technology in the language classroom?

Technology is a wonderful thing and it does provide many benefits when used in the language classroom. However, I do think that languages are meant to be spoken and learned through human contact. Language is a manifestation of human experiences and realities, and it should be learned and practiced in an environment with people who can recreate those experiences and realities. I think it is great to use technology in the language classroom as a resource, but not as the primary and only means of instruction.

What are your thoughts on the Seal of Biliteracy being adapted in Maryland and other states nationwide?

The Seal of Biliteracy is an amazing initiative that recognizes our bilingual students for their skills and abilities. In 2016, I wrote an article where I shared my reflections regarding the impact the Seal of Biliteracy has in the state of Maryland and in the United States. I believe we need more initiatives like the Seal of Biliteracy to revitalize the passion for language learning nationwide. I invite all of you to read more about my article here.

What do you recommend to those considering entering the field of language education?

For those considering entering the field of language education, I would like to exhort you to learn and research more about the wonderful impact you can have in your community and school by just teaching and learning a new language. As language educators, we have the privilege of teaching a language to our students and by doing so we also, and inadvertently, become advocates, translators, activists, and mentors of the language, culture, and population we serve. Become passionate about your language and culture, and teach those around you how wonderful language education is!


Three Reasons Teaching is More Satisfying for Career Changers

Originally published on Kappa Delta Pi Blog, March 3, 2016

Teacher shortage and high teacher turnover rate are two of the most challenging realities that the public school system in the United States faces today.

Low morale among teachers, lack of respect and appreciation, excessive paperwork, and continuous funding cuts continue to be the most profound reasons as to why many professionals in the teaching field decide to switch careers and have a fresh start. These eye-opening statistics for teacher desertion and shortage continue to be the focus on the news. However, little attention is paid to a lesser-known group of individuals who are successful professionals in other fields and,

knowing the challenges the American public education system faces today, decide to become teaching professionals.

For this article I interviewed three professionals–a former dentist, a former lawyer, and a former political science major student–who switched careers to become educators. The purpose of these interviews was to better understand the reasons behind their choices of becoming schoolteachers and how the feel about their decision. From these interviews, there were three main reasons that seemed to be prevalent in these professionals’ decision on becoming educators and in how they feel today about the choice they made many years ago. These reasons are:

  1. Calling. Some would say that teaching is an art and a science, and only those who understand the balance between these two can truly educate. This statement is very relatable to the three teachers interviewed, as they believe they always knew teaching was their vocation. They were aware of all the challenges and extra hours of work the teaching field required prior to switching to education, but that did not stop them. As a calling, they feel fulfilled in front of the classroom and they state, that above all, teaching is the driving force for them personally and professionally.
  2. Impacting students’ lives. Impacting the younger generations is of utmost importance for most individuals in the teaching field. All interviewees agreed that they decided to move from their original field of study because they could not directly impact lives in a way that was personally meaningful to them as individuals. Particularly, one educator stated that when he became a teacher, he experienced that the relationship with his students was symbiotic and he felt fulfilled by affecting the learning and growth of his students while his students seemed to truly benefit from his instruction.
  3. Their children’s education. Having children is a powerful reason for wanting to be involved and learn more about the public education system. For our interviewees, becoming an educator was just an innate part of being a parent. One of the interviewees stated that the main reason why she became a teacher was because she did not like how her children were being taught and the information they were being taught. For this reason, she became a schoolteacher, with a hope of better understanding the information their children were being exposed to and with a vision of bettering the public education system from the inside out.

When we think about educators, we think about individuals who value, above all, the impact they have in their students’ present and future lives. For the career switchers interviewed in this article, their students are the number one priority and teaching has become an opportunity for them to become more actively involved within their community and help shape the new generation of thinkers. Even though there are some aspects of public education that they do not agree with, such as excessive standardized testing, teacher disempowerment, low pay, and lack of appreciation, they have found that teaching is where they belong and they do not plan to leave any time soon.

These seasoned professionals have found that staying humble and focusing on their students have been the most important lessons learned throughout their lives as educators and they would not change that for the world.

Currently, KDP is spending time collecting (and will soon be sharing) stories from around the globe about how teachers are making a difference and changing the world. Share yours today!

Luis J. Pentón Herrera is an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Prince George County Public Schools in Maryland. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Leadership: Reading, Language, and Literacy at Concordia University Chicago. His research interests include language acquisition, bilingual education, teacher education, and immigrant education.