Appreciation of language, history, culture tied to resilience

What does teaching kids about their history and culture have to do with being healthy? According to research it can make all the difference. My high school age son often asks why kids in the Rio Grande Valley tend to refuse to speak Spanish at school once they get older, or even act like their Mexican cultural heritage is something bad?

I remind him of the Valley’s history of linguistic and cultural repression in the educational system. I have heard from many people who grew up here, even in my generation, they were forbidden from speaking Spanish in school and punished severely for it. To outsiders it seems ludicrous not to capitalize on this local language asset, given the marketability of bilingualism, Spanish being one of the three most widely spoken languages in the world, along with Mandarin Chinese and English.

While our local educational systems are still operating under the mentality that children need to be quickly and thoroughly immersed and assimilated into an English only environment, the wealthiest, highest achieving school districts around the country and world understand and invest in the value of good bilingual education. But what is the big deal, you might ask, about language?

Language is a core component of culture and identity and when people deny or suppress it, there can be mental and physical health ramifications. “Studies have consistently found robust correlations between positive affiliation and engagement with their culture and Indigenous young people’s well-being and resilience. Resilience consists in the processes by which people overcome life challenges to achieve their sense of well-being. Strong and positive links to their culture support young people, especially as they encounter and respond to hardships,” according to Dr. Lisa Wexler, researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, School of Public Health.

If you’ve ever had to adapt to a new culture or language, you can appreciate the discomfort and stress involved. Layering that constant stress into school and social situations creates a divide and distances kids from their identity and often their elders. Those connections to our parents and grandparents’, or any elder, in all cultures, are crucial for learning and healthy development.

I recently overheard a neighbor boy and his grandfather in a sweet exchange. The grandpa was telling the boy how when he was young he would catch fresh crab and bring them home for his mama to prepare for dinner in the tiny coastal village in Mexico where he grew up. “There was nothing so delicious, mihito, as the fresh crab with my mother’s salsa made from the tomatoes, chiles and cilantro she grew.”

The grandson, eyes wide with interest, replied, “Grandpa, did your mama really let you go fishing all by yourself? Was it really the best food you ever tasted?” The older gentleman replied, “Yes mihito, and after our bellies were full my brothers and I would bathe in the river, put on our only pair of shoes, comb our hair and walk into the town plaza to watch the pretty girls.”

I too remember my own father’s stories growing up during the Depression and working hard with his parents and siblings in the cotton fields as sharecroppers in Arkansas. He would turn on the southern drawl he had lost and tell me there was nothing a good as a biscuit and buttermilk, churned from cow’s milk by his mother. Knowing that history makes me proud of how hard he worked and inspires me to do the same.

My grandmother, descendant of German immigrants, late into her years with Alzheimer’s Disease, would describe for me over and over the pie her mother made from the rhubard she grew in her garden, with “Dutch” as she called it (meaning German) words peppered into her description. Those connections are crucial to whom I am.

There are some great models of programs and communities fostering the connection between culture and health. When Toas Pueblo in New Mexico started seeing poor health, educational and economic outcomes in their youth, they reached back to the past and focused on teaching culture and language to the little ones. Now a strong tribal identity is instilled in the Pueblo’s youngest children, as English and Tiwa — the community’s native oral language — are taught side by side as part of their preschool program. Traditional Tiwa values of welcoming family and community members and showing respect for them is at the heart of their improving statistics.

They also have a community farm and market where youth learn traditional agricultural practices alongside their elders. This community has taken great strides to improve their health outcomes, simply by focusing back on their history, culture and language.

Another example is the Lac du Flambeu Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin. In 2013, the Tribal Council declared a “state of emergency” because of the endemic drug and alcohol abuse. This set into motion a change in direction of this community and put them back on a path toward better health—which would begin by restoring the dignity and foundation of this unique Ojibwe culture.

“Health isn’t just about taking a pill or getting a diagnosis. It’s about having that strong cultural identity. It’s physical. It’s emotional. It’s spiritual,” says Carol Amour, a former teacher and now consultant at Lac du Flambeau Public School.

By resurrecting cultural teachings, tribal members say they can have the most impact now and on the next generations. This promotes pride, self-efficacy and better health in the long run, according to a report on the improved health of the community on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize website.

Research shows that when people have higher self-efficacy, and feel empowered with a locus of control over their decisions about behavior, they will make healthier choices. One way to build self-efficacy is to teach young people about their history and encourage them to identify the assets of their family and culture.

When kids can embrace their culture, and not feel forced to reject or deny it in exchange for complete assimilation to a larger mono-culture, they are more successful in life. This doesn’t mean they reject the new or dominant culture at all. In fact it can help them embrace the best of both. In reminding our kids of their immigrant heritage, their local historic ties to Mexico and all of the food, language and traditions that accompany it, they can better reflect on the changes in lifestyle, some for better and some for worse, and be empowered to make decisions grounded in the security of who they are. We need to encourage conversations with grandparents and elderly neighbors about what their lives were like growing up — where they played, worked, the plants and food they grew and ate when they were young.

Teaching language, history and connecting the elderly with the young, in schools, churches, parks and neighborhood gardens will cultivate pride in identity so kids grow up to make healthy decisions based on the best of both cultures, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)

Lisa Wexler. “The Importance of Identity, History, and Culture in the Wellbeing of Indigenous Youth” The Journal of History of Childhood and Youth Vol. 16 Iss. 1 (2009) Available at: