My name is Robert Castro-Terrio, and I am Guatemalan, Italian, Spanish, Yucatan Indigenous, Cameroonian, Malian, Ghanian, Portuguese, and Irish American. What does that even mean? I can tell you that it has been a long journey to figure out myself.
My journey mirrors the same challenging work that all people of color must do to figure out what it means to be American and live in the United States: it is navigating a complex history and society, and we are still learning. My story and experiences are different from many other people of color in America. There are points that relate, but my background is unique, so my story needs to be told in another way—just as the narratives of other American People of Color require an alternate narrative. Schools make this difficult because for decades, textbooks have presented Black History as a single story, and as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie taught us, there are dangers to a single story. So how does one include all the narratives? To do it right, the focus needs to be on the journey.
History textbooks portray the Black experience as one master narrative: there was slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and then…Obama became president. This is absurd. Black history is U.S. History; it is far deeper and richer. This year, our class decided to search for those deeper and richer stories in our own backyard. Finding them, however, has been difficult because much of Black history remains buried, forgotten, and/or erased. Uncovering Black history is critical because doing this makes it possible for people of color in America to find themselves in our country’s past. But first, let’s back up the timeline to discover the origins of my identity before I take part in the search for others who have been forgotten.
My journey started in Guatemala. This fact alone already makes my experience different from most people of color in this country. I was my mother’s fourth child, and her circumstances were such that she couldn’t take care of me. I was fortunate enough to be adopted by my current parents, David and Mayo, and they gave me the confidence to find my unique self. I needed that push because the task of finding out who you are is infinitely more complicated when you can’t even define what you are. My extremely curly hair reflects that I am partially Black. The “Castro” in my name leads people to assume I’m Hispanic. It’s confusing! To make it more complicated, one dad is white while the other is Latino.
I was more easily able to relate to my Hispanic side because 50% of my family is from Guatemala. Exploring my African side has been more complicated because I do not have anyone else in my immediate family who is of African descent. With no one to share Black culture with me, I had to learn independently. This meant finding rap music in 2009 on YouTube (thank you, Drake, L’il Wayne, and Dre) and watching The Boondocks on late-night TV even though Christopher Emdin had not yet written about “reality pedagogy”, positioning the emotional connection to art and aesthetics as central to teaching and learning.
A program in my middle school—Bridge to Bridge—helped students like me find their place in a predominantly white institution. But it was not enough. In New York City, I was in a highly competitive system of progressive education. The curriculum taught me how to “do school” by teaching me the processes that are necessary to get into a good college, but it didn’t allow me to connect myself with what I was studying. I was one of seven Black students in my grade for many years. Even in high school the number of Black students only doubled to around 15-17 students in a grade of 150 students. This lack of diversity made it difficult for me to discover who I am.
I ended up leaving that New York school and traveled to the northwest corner of Connecticut to continue my new journey at Salisbury School—a rural, all-boys school. I bookmark this moment as one that shifted my whole philosophy on life. Freed from the pressure of avoiding embarrassment in front of girls, the single-sex environment allowed me to be vulnerable enough to truly explore and define myself. I realized how extraordinary my life is and how I could use my journey of self-discovery to teach and help others. I became more open and confident. Similar to my Middle School, there were still microaggressions, but as 2020 rolled around, I decided to take a leadership role to educate my classmates. I started a student-run diversity club to talk about topics in a safe setting where opposing opinions were not frowned upon. I felt empowered.
My new school opened my eyes to avenues that seemed closed while I was in Middle School. My parents always said, “do well in school for the sake of your future, so you can support your family, and make a difference.” Yet, as I’ve matured, I’ve come to realize that education is not only about providing or making enough money to be philanthropic. True education is not only learning about others, but more importantly, it is learning about yourself, so you can have a positive impact on others.
While many Black Americans are descendants of the enslaved, they are not simply victims. They contributed to this country from the very beginning. The first Black people arrived on the shores of North America in 1619—a year before the Mayflower docked! These African captives had agency. They contributed. They educated their enslavers about how to farm cotton, rice, and sugar, and this would form the basis of the American economy for centuries. They also resisted: they escaped, they rebelled. They endured. They existed. While the institution of slavery was unspeakably evil, they were still actors in their own lives—educating themselves, practicing religion, and in the best scenarios, gaining freedom. A descendant of a Black Revolutionary War veteran, Katherine Overton, shared with us: “Without Black History, there is no American History. We built this country, physically, and if you take this narrative out of the story, you don’t have the whole story.” There is beauty in this narrative. There is strength. There is resilience. The journey didn’t end after slavery was abolished; the journey still continues.
But learning stories is not enough. It is necessary to share them with our broader community. That is why my class, Coloring Our Past, is so excited to partner with the historic Troutbeck in Amenia, NY, to host the first Troutbeck Symposium. We’re working with seven other schools in our area—public and independent, middle and high school—on an open event to share our research. Our goal for this symposium is to rediscover the history that has been lost, buried and forgotten. The work that is done in our class and the symposium is not only important for my personal growth and identity search, but also for my peers’ personal growth, and the growth of this nation. America still has trouble grappling with its racial history, but we can learn from the past and share these lessons with our community. That way we can learn from those mistakes to build a better future.
Robert Castro-Terrio is a student at Salisbury School (CT)