Ricardo “Ricky” Castro is a Spanish, Dual Language, and ESL teacher at Elk Grove High School, just outside Chicago, which is 42 percent low income and 46 percent Latino. A former teen gang member, he won the 2017 Illinois Teacher of the Year, the first Latino to do so. Ricky is among the just 8 percent of the nation’s teachers who identify as Latino, a disturbing figure considering the percentage of Latino students in the U.S. is 25 percent—and nearly double that at Elk Grove. While Ed Trust has looked closely at the experiences of Latino teachers in the classroom, we sat down with Ricky to discuss the importance of educators connecting to communities, how teaching cultural history empowers students, and what he’s doing to nurture the next generation of Latino teachers.

Why do you think you were chosen to be Illinois state teacher of the year?

I believe it was because I was thinking outside of the box in terms of creating social change and creating equity. A lot of my work is outside the classroom. It’s not to say that inside the classroom my kids are not achieving and we are not doing incredible things. But I feel like we have to connect to communities and take the education system into the community, because unfortunately, people from poverty or people who are struggling, they will not come to the school. For example, there are all these great STEM programs in our area, but there’s a fee and transportation issues. So it really ends up being all the middle-class and upper-class kids that go to these camps. So we took STEM, we took sports, we created our own mobile library, and we take it to the community and run camps that are led by students.

I have a worldview about democracy, that democracy should create leaders. A lot of times if we look for solutions from the outside, we’re going to be waiting a long time. So we need to create solutions from the inside. Whatever resources we have, we have to create leaders within the community, whether it be parents, students, or just organizations around the neighborhood. We have to create leadership because democracy … it really depends on intrinsic motivation. The beauty of democracy is that you have to win people’s hearts, you have to have initiative. That’s what’s made this country very innovative in the last hundred years, because a lot of people were inspired and they created new things. They’ve innovated in spite of the changing society. I think if we can teach our children and our communities to do that, especially those at risk, because they are the ones that need that innovation and that leadership most.

What does the narrative of being a Latino teacher in the classroom looks like?

As a Latino teacher, there is not much of a narrative. We’re not very visible as teachers, especially among males. This is unfortunate too, because among Latinos as well, there’s a narrative that you tell your mom and dad, “I want to be a teacher,” and they’re like, “No, we come from poverty, you need a career that’s going to provide for the family.” Because the narrative’s so negative, even among the culture, there’s not much of a pipeline. Even if you’re a successful young Latino, you may get into business, you may get into another profession that seems more conducive to reaching the American Dream that your parents sacrificed for. I think that’s the wrong narrative, of course, because I think that being a teacher, you’re fighting for your community. You’re a leader within your community, and we need to provide that correct narrative among Latinos and among other cultures as well.

So how do we change that narrative?

I think that in order for us to make a difference in the community, we need people from within the community who understand the problems, the culture, and the challenges. There hasn’t been a pipeline, so I’ve tried to create that pipeline. An example of social reform and recruiting for teacher candidates has been running summer camps within the communities. For example, I teach Spanish for native speakers, I also teach ESL and English. During my Spanish class, we were discussing some of this — in a democratic structured classroom, you want children and you want people to be part of the solution, to take ownership, in order to create that leadership. So we discussed this and said, yes, why don’t we start a mentoring group to mentor these kids that are coming in as wannabe gangsters or they’re coming in with no academic identity at all, and we’ll take them under our wing?

Tell us about Estudiantes Unidos.

So we started this program called Estudiantes Unidos, and we run it throughout the academic school year. High school students mentor middle school students. The adults who run the program, teachers or ESL staff, we mentor the high schoolers, who have to check in every other week. We talk about their grades, their life, their social challenges; we mentor them so they can then mentor the middle school kids. Then in the summer, we take those kids that we’ve mentored and run summer camps in the trailer parks, in their homes, in their community. This year, it was just overwhelming. We had 165 kids at our first camp, and over 100 in our second camp. We had over 100 middle school and high school volunteers that helped us administer this. From these groups of kids, we see which kids have an interest in teaching, and we start recruiting right there. We have at least 10 kids from the community who are going into our teacher prep program. We support them throughout the process and guarantee them an interview once they graduate.

So this is a Grow Your Own program of sorts.

We’re home growing our own kids, our own leaders, our own teachers. The students, they know what it’s about, they know their neighborhood. So as they become teachers they will not be as easily deterred. It’s so much more likely that the retention rate will go up and because they’ve worked with me and other teachers who have mentored them. We want to empower them early on, especially during high school and to see that this is a career for them. It’s really exciting to do this.

We bring in kids from their own community high schools to be leaders, and we reach these K-5 kids, before they become hardened. So these kids are getting exposed to different things and are meeting positive role models from within their own community, and we’re fighting against these negative stereotypes and the culture, the negative culture that always wants to creep up within the community. It’s such a beautiful thing to see. The old system of having kids come to school and sitting in a classroom, I don’t know if that’s keeping up with the changing times. We need to actually take the school into the community and change the structure of our school systems, especially with teacher recruitment.

Have you recruited any students to become teachers?

Yes. One of my students is Nelson, who’s DACA. He got a full ride to the University of Illinois, majoring in Spanish and history. Jasmine, Carina, Stephanie — we have multiple kids who are in the teacher pipeline. Another student, Roberto, he’s going be an automotive teacher. Once they get through the system, we talk to them and they tell me what their issues are. Mentors are so important.

I’ll give you an example: One of my friends, we grew up together. This guy was a hardcore gangster. He was Latino, 6’5” and he was leading an African American gang. Thank God for my church, because I was able to leave that lifestyle. Also, I had teachers, like Jorge Lucero, who were able to take me under their wing and show me a different identity. My friend didn’t. I don’t think the potential is the problem in many cases. It’s the fear, the paralyzing fear that numbs many kids from even trying to get into a teaching program or even trying to get into honors classes or AP classes. It’s because that identity’s not there. They’ve never seen it in their family, or the negative stereotypes and the culture that also surrounds them is not supportive.

What do you tell your Latino students given the current climate?

I teach my students that we deserve a place in the American Dream because we have been a part of this country for many, many years, before the European settlers. We have contributed to this country in such positive ways that the natural consequence is for us to continue to be leaders and to be a source of light, a source of good, a source of academic excellence because that is who we are. I teach Chicano history in my Spanish class. That’s really not taught in regular history, so what I teach them is, if we go way back, our indigenous culture, everyone in the Aztec empire was given free education. It was who we were — to become educated in spite of all these crazy other things. I teach my students how good we have been. I teach them during World War I, especially World War II, it’s been estimated that over half a million Mexican Americans fought in WWII because they were proving their allegiance to this country. Because they were not African, they were placed with Caucasians, and their numbers were never really counted; some estimate up to 800,000. So we have given to this country when this country needed us the most. I give them the narrative of who we really are. That we belong to this country, that we have been a good people to this country, and that we deserve a seat at the table of the American Dream just like any other group of people. That’s more academically viable than “I’m a gangster.” So it’s definitely addressing the narrative by giving them a correct view of history.

Does that make them feel empowered?

One hundred percent, because it doesn’t give them this dirty feeling anymore. You know, that dirty feeling that we’re rapists, we’re criminals. That dirty feeling that we’re a lower social class. It’s that whole negative idea that there is no prestige in some cultures, that whole negative idea where you have to hide or you have to feel ashamed like you’re carrying some kind of baggage from history.

So what’s next for you?

There were so many people shot in Chicago in just the past 14 hours. I think it was like 40 or 50. Crazy. I’ve done these camps in a lot of areas, but next year for sure, money or no money, I’m going to take these camps to the hardcore neighborhoods. I’m writing a grant. Maybe I’ll join up with a church or a school and have them send me the leaders and I’ll train them. We’ll have a police officer right there. If we take one block at a time, we could take over, strategically. If someone gives me money to hire and get the resources, and get people from within the community that are leaders already — whether it be in the church, a school, a teacher or someone — we could create sustainable change, because we need to have sustainable change.