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Thursday March 30th

CHCCS middle school teacher Brandon Cartagena emphasizes culture preservation

Brandon Cartagena pictured at Culbreth Middle School in Chapel Hill on Friday, Oct. 14, 2022.
Buy Photos Brandon Cartagena pictured at Culbreth Middle School in Chapel Hill on Friday, Oct. 14, 2022.

Local middle school teacher Brandon Cartagena, a Hispanic dual language teacher in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system, teaches social studies in Spanish. 

CHCCS allows students to participate in the ​​Spanish-English or Mandarin-English dual languages programs from kindergarten through eighth grade. 

A Spanish dual language program is offered at Culbreth Middle School, where Cartagena teaches; McDougle Middle School; Carrboro Elementary School and Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe Elementary School.

“Instructionally, it's different in the fact that it's not explicitly teaching the language 100 percent of the time as I used to when I taught world language,” he said. “I'm teaching content in the language and using content as a means to learn the Spanish language."

As a kid, Cartagena moved from Florida to Tennessee. He explained that in Tennessee, it was hard for people to understand he was not Mexican, as his mom is Cuban-American and his dad is Puerto Rican-American. 

Leaving Florida for Tennessee made him feel more disconnected from his heritage, he said. It wasn’t until he started studying Spanish that he started to feel more connected with his culture. As a result, a lot of Cartagena's teaching philosophy is about the preservation of culture. 

Not every student he teaches has a Hispanic background, he said. 

“This year, it feels about 50/50, sometimes it's even more, and there's a strong will for me to remind them, for me, to really enforce to them that the Spanish language is good,” he said. “Having this as a part of you is good and you have to keep it.”

At Culbreth Middle School, Cartagena said he’s been able to do activities for Hispanic Heritage Month, such as a contest where each classroom decorated its door in honor of a famous Hispanic American.

"I feel like at the school level, obviously, no institution can be perfect, but the effort is clearly there and that makes my job all that much more enjoyable,” he said.

He said that in the future, he wants the county to put more effort into getting Hispanic parents more involved in the Culbreth Parent, Teacher, Student Association.

Maria Montoya Mejía, a science teacher at Culbreth Middle School from Colombia, said she connected with Cartagena because of their shared heritage.

“We connected because of his Hispanic and Latino background, and we were working together on different committees at school to help engage our Hispanic community and Latino community," she said. 

She added that one of her former students, who is now in ninth grade, described Cartagena as a good teacher who explained and taught topics well. 

Trilce Márquez, the coordinator of instructional equity at CHCCS, said she is Latina and Venezuelan. When she was in ninth grade, she joined a group of friends made up of mostly Mexican students. 

One day, after spending time with the group at lunch, Márquez said a teacher came up to her and asked to make sure she was the “right kind of Hispanic.”

Márquez said teachers like Cartagena make sure experiences similar to hers don't happen to current students. 

She said she hopes to see more conversations that center on marginalized groups at CHCCS.

She explained that when a decision is being made that will especially impact a certain community, there should be leaders from that community present to provide input explained.

“That kind of structural change might feel really difficult," she said, "but I think it's sort of the place in which the change actually begins to happen."

@DTHCityState | 

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