Bridging the gap: developing intercultural competence among youth

School photo of a smiling Puerto Rican man, a teacher, in a navy blue button down.
Emanuel Aponte

By Emanuel Aponte | Guest Writer

Concluding Intersected’s special celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month is Emanuel Aponte. Emanuel currently works as a high school Spanish teacher in Pennsylvania. He was born in Connecticut and raised on the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. 


Exceptional educators are crucial in helping youth bridge the gap between diversity and unity. They influence the largest issue that we have faced for years — racial inequity. 

We already know that there is a lack of educators, but this is particularly true with BIPOC teachers. This disparity is problematic. As an educator, I have learned that students feel more comfortable with teachers who look like them or have had similar experiences, so underrepresentation among educators is a huge issue when we are talking about schools that are mainly populated by Black and Latino students. 

Statistics show that schools that are highly populated by Black and Hispanic students tend to fail in state tests compared to private schools. Being that most of these schools are underfunded, most of the necessary tools for students to achieve aren’t there. This pandemic has shown us how bad this can be for a public school, where as many as 36% of students did not have computers or Wi-Fi at home as of April 2020.

But these facts, though salient, are not surprising to most of you. Today I want to swivel to the inner workings of a public high school and the relationships therein, keeping in mind the role teachers play.

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Addressing Interethnic Division

When I was a high school student, a huge fight broke out between Black and Hispanic students. As an Afro-Latino I felt like I was caught in something that should never have been an issue. After experiencing such a terrifying situation, I realized that the problem was bigger than kids simply not getting along with one another. 

The bigger issue is the lack of cultural competence among high schoolers, recognizing the similarities and differences between students of varying ethnic backgrounds and respecting each other from a point of shared humanity. 

The Culturally Responsive Teaching Pedagogy can help bridge the gap between diversity and unity as it builds connections among all students. This pedagogy places education within culture, which can benefit students in learning about their identities and placing them within the larger context.

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As a high schooler, I started volunteering as a teacher’s aid for my Spanish teacher and began to see the issue of diversity from a different perspective. I will always be appreciative of Ms. Lujan and aspire to be like her. She supported all of her students, whether Black or Hispanic. Now I am following her footsteps as a Spanish teacher. 

This is my third-year teaching Spanish, and I have to say that it is a blessing. I have been using this platform not only as a way to teach students the Spanish language but also to help them understand and respect each others’ cultures.

Animosity for Latino students often stems from the popular idea that “Mexicans are only good at stealing American people’s jobs.” This is inaccurate, for research shows that immigrants tend to fill jobs that Americans do not want. The misconception only sets fire to racial issues. 

Developing cultural competence is crucial because in high school, teenagers are forming their worldviews and changing the world at the same time. 

Understanding the shared experiences of Black and Latino students can help grow that competence. I always incorporate a lot of cultural background for my new students who are learning the basics of Spanish. My students are usually unaware of how similar they all are!

Once students understand that, they start to move from grasping the beauty of diversity to being inclusive. One of them even ran for student government and used the skills she learned in Spanish class to speak to our school’s Hispanic students in their first language. That was a powerful and unifying moment that helped break down barriers in our school.

The Youth Will Save Us. Let’s Follow Suit!

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While there are big faults in the education system, there are still things we can do as cogs within it to reveal truth and engage with others respectfully. When we teach our students to break down barriers, and when we challenge them not to be identified by their setbacks but instead use them as a motivation to do better and be better, then stereotypes are broken down and our students achieve better connections with one another.

My former students used their cultural competence to push themselves forward in life. They broke certain barriers by being Black and Hispanic students educated on inclusion. They are working on becoming better people and will be the ones who stop the division between people of color. 

It is fun to learn about the delicious food, upbeat dances, and diversity within the Latin world. If you’re an educator in any capacity, consider utilizing the Smithsonian Latino Center and this resource from Georgia Public Broadcasting.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to become knowledgeable about other cultures and their languages. When we understand one another, we can achieve powerful things together. 

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