Brown is Beautiful: Cultural Empowerment in Oxnard Schools

Martín Alberto Gonzalez

 Cesar E. Chavez March on Sunday, March 24, 2019 in Oxnard, CA. All photos courtesy of Dr. Gonzalez.

A few years ago, I was invited to present at a middle school in my hometown Oxnard, CA—a city that is predominantly Brown, where Latinx students make up 92.6% of the overall student body in the K-8 school district. The Latina school counselor who invited me strategically assigned me, a then-doctoral candidate, to present to students who were in a college preparatory program. When I arrived at the assigned classroom, a White teacher greeted me by saying something along these lines, “You can come speak to my class, but you can’t talk about Oxnard. You can only talk about college.” 
The response from this White teacher wasn’t surprising to me. I’ve had to navigate a lot of covert and overt resistance from teachers, primarily White, in Oxnard schools. Coded language like “you can’t talk about Oxnard” meant don’t talk about anything that might radicalize my students. Perhaps this White teacher was already told that I speak extensively about social injustices to inspire social action and change amongst students. But this wasn’t always the case. As an undergraduate student and in my first couple years as a doctoral student, I would tokenize my own self and talk extensively about the importance of pursing higher education, and I tried my best to motivate students to do the same using my own family history. This is a narrative that teachers admire because it perpetuates the idea that if I, a low-income, first-generation Brown student, can get his doctorate, then so can any other low-income, first-generation Brown student. There are no excuses. It’s a prime example of the meritocracy myth we are sold at an early age. The idea that if you work hard, then your work will be rewarded, and you will be successful. We hear our own community retell this mentira through dichos like, “échale ganas y todo se puede.” I guess this is what the White teacher meant when she told me to “only speak about college,” which was to tell the Brown students how hard work alone will lead them to successfully graduate from college. Yet, this centuries-old meritocracy myth doesn’t take into consideration how racism, sexism, classism, and other systems of oppression prevent Brown people, and other People of Color, from being rewarded for their talents and hard work.
In recent years, I realized that my approach to inspire Brown students who look like me to go to college (or pursue a career they’d enjoy) was awfully uncritical and ahistorical. Now, when I visit schools in Oxnard, I rarely talk to students about college. To agree to only speak about college and not talk about Oxnard is to deny the disgraceful, yet important history of racial discrimination and segregation that resulted in the hyper-segregated schools I attended. 1 It is to ignore the detrimental effects of culturally irrelevant and unresponsive curriculum and teaching practices.2 It is to forget that until recently, the high school graduation requirements were not aligned with university admission requirements, so students could graduate high school without having the required classes to be eligible to go to a 4-year university.3 It is to be oblivious of the fact that Oxnard schools track students into specific career paths and pretend that all classes are “college prep.” The list goes on and on.  
I cannot visit a classroom without talking about Oxnard. I cannot visit a classroom without telling the students that Brown is Beautiful.4 In fact, I focus most of my time and energy talking about how beautiful Brown is. I remind students that Oxnard is filled with beautiful Brown people who want what’s best for their community, friends, and families. And although these beautiful Brown people must overcome numerous systemic barriers, they remain hopeful and resilient at times of despair. So, rather than adhering to the stereotypical reputation of my city as ‘bad’ because of its Brown people, I suggest that it is filled with beautiful Brown people who are readily marginalized, misrepresented, and misunderstood. This is a lesson I wish I had learned as a youngster. Growing up, I never heard the phrase, “Brown is Beautiful.” Brownness was often associated with negativity, which I had implicitly internalized.

Once I realized that Brown is Beautiful, my life changed. Such realization was not easy. Throughout the years, I had to unlearn the oppressive stories I was told about Brown people, specifically Xicanxs who do not want to assimilate into a White supremacist society. I had to unlearn that I am not bad simply because my skin is Brown, or because of how I dress, or because of how I speak. Instead, I challenged these stories and went out of my way to discover stories of empowerment told and written by Brown storytellers, including Brown storytellers from Oxnard, who made it clear to me that being Brown is something I should be proud of. This was when I understood that I am valuable and worthy, and that I come from greatness. There is nothing anyone can tell me that will discourage me from being prideful of who I am, where I’m from, and what I have to offer. I believe this life-changing lesson can also be true for Brown students in Oxnard. I am convinced that once I can persuade a Brown student from Oxnard to wholeheartedly believe that Brown is Beautiful, then their life can change, too. If not already, then suddenly, they will see themselves as having a lot of potential. Brown students’ newly discovered self-worth will result in them demanding more opportunities, information, structural support, and resources to fulfill their potentials and goals. Because they can imagine Brown being beautiful in a White supremacist society, they will be able to imagine themselves doing things they never thought they would be able to do.

This is not a far-fetched idea or argument. After all, how can we expect Brown students to consider the idea of going to college or pursuing a reputable career, if they are unable to imagine themselves beyond the negativity that is associated with their ethnicity, skin color, culture, or city? How can we expect Brown students to realize their talents and potential, if they have yet been convinced that they are beautiful and worthy of fulfilling their talents and potential? How can we expect Brown students to thrive in school, if they are not valued and validated for who they are? For these reasons, I will not show up to a classroom to only talk about college without talking about Oxnard. I must talk about Oxnard. I must talk about the racism and other systems of oppression faced on an everyday basis by the beautiful Brown people of Oxnard. I must talk about the successes of the beautiful Brown people of Oxnard. Because at the end of the day, Brown is Beautiful, and no one can tell me otherwise.

Martín Alberto Gonzalez, PhD
Martín Alberto Gonzalez, PhD

Martín Alberto Gonzalez, PhD (he/his), is a Xicano raised in Oxnard, California. He is currently an assistant professor in the Chicano/Latino Studies Program at Portland State University. His research utilizes collaborative research methods, concepts such as community cultural wealth and funds of knowledge, and counterstorytelling to highlight asset-based explanations for Latinx student success. As a teacher-scholar-activist, he takes pride in telling stories that challenge stereotypes and empower his community and communities alike.

Note: Shout out and special thanks to Dra. Cristina Herrera for her thoughtful feedback and words of encouragement.

[1] For an in-dept analysis of the history of racial segregation in Oxnard schools, see García, David. Strategies of Segregation: Race, Residence, and the Struggle for Educational Equality: University of California Press, 2018. 

[2] For more information about culturally irrelevant and unresponsive curriculum and teaching practices, see Martín A. Gonzalez, review of We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be, by Cornelius Minor. American Studies 60, no. 2 (07 November 2021): 34-35. doi:10.1353/ams.2021.0015.

[3] Since 2015, Future Leaders of America Oxnard youth researched education inequities at their schools and they found that only 22% of Latinx students attending Oxnard Union High School District (OUHSD) schools completed the college readiness courses known as the A-G requirements.

[4] Although in the context of Oxnard, California, “Brown” is generally understood to mean Latinx or Mexican, the “Brown” in “Brown is Beautiful” doesn’t just entail one’s racial/ethnic and cultural background, identity (Latinx, Xicanx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, etc.) or skin color (having dark skin). It also encompasses one’s pride in their cultura and histories. “Brown is Beautiful” means that it is beautiful to embrace your dark(er) skin and express your cultura unapologetically in whatever ways their communities like. In a historical sense, “Brown is Beautiful” means to resist White supremacist notions that deem dark(er) skin as less than and non-Anglo culturas as inferior. For a relational and spatial examination of Brown, see critical geographer Laura Pulido’s Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.

Leave a Reply