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Armand Cuevas, Queer Filipino DC High School Math Teacher, on Representation & Social Justice




Armand Cuevas is a DC Public School teacher. He teaches ninth grade Algebra 1 and General Education. He was born and raised in the suburbs of Southern California. His teaching journey began overseas as a public school teacher through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. He then went on to receive his Masters in Education at Johns Hopkins University of Education in conjunction with an Urban Teachers Residency program.


Armand in front of Dunbar High School in Washington, DC. (Photo by Faye Saechao/SEAT)

He talks to us about being a 1.5 generation Queer Filipino being raised in the suburbs of Southern California. He shares his exploration of college majors from wanting to do film or Japanese and then finally settling on Sociology at UC Berkeley. He finally found his calling to enter the education field and become a Math teacher to equalize the playing field especially for Black and brown students to excel in Math, which is often a hindrance to reaching graduation.

 

How do you identify yourself (ethnically or culturally)?


I identify as Filipino American. I was born here, but my parents were born and raised in the Philippines. They came over to the United States when they were in their late twenties/early thirties around 1984. I identify as Queer, cis-gender male and in terms of what generation I am it’s a debate actually on how to label that, because for me, I was born in the states but a child of immigrants. I am like the 1.5 generation. My educator background is also a very strong part of my identity. Even though for some people they say it's “just your job”, for me it's beyond a job and I really value education.


When you were growing up what did you want (or still wish) to be? Did you always know you wanted to be in education?


When I was younger, I want to say there was, of course, like the dreams you have when you're in elementary school. I wanted to be a superhero or a writer. In high school, I really considered becoming a filmmaker. And I made a lot of films in my classes and I applied to schools that had a strong film program. I remember my parents, especially my mom just being very unsupportive of it. Because it's, “an art?, that's in the arts. You're not going to make any money. It's unstable.” Once I got to college, I ended up straying away from that, just for my own interests. I realized, “I don't really want to do this anymore”. Then I wanted to major in Japanese because I love taking Japanese classes. I had an interest in Japanese culture. And then my mom was like, “if you major in Japanese, I'm not going to pay for your college. I was like, okay, fine.” I also had an interest in sociology. I ended up majoring in sociology and my mom was okay with that.

"It’s very common for Asian-American parents to have anti-blackness and think that their ethnicity (whatever it is) is better than other ethnicities. Whether it be black, let's say for example, and even other Asians."

When it came time to choose a career, I ended up leaning towards education. And by that time I had my degree, and I had more freedom. So she (my Mom) couldn't really stop me. I ended up doing education and it wasn't until maybe four(ish) years ago, where my mom really said, “I really support you now in education.” I remember she sent me a magnet and a card and the magnet said, “teachers are amazing”- something to that effect. And in the card, she had like a short message about that. I forgot what experience changed her mind, but I think she just talks to other friends about education or hears from the media. So eventually she came around to education. Beyond that, I think she had a hard time with the students that I teach. It’s very common for Asian-American parents to have anti-blackness and think that their ethnicity (whatever it is) is better than other ethnicities. Whether it be black, let's say for example, or even other Asians. It really helped when my mom visited DC. She visited my classroom, had a chance to talk to my coworkers, and talk to my students. That also opened her up to valuing not just my job, but who I work with at my job.


How did you decide to teach math specifically? From sociology to film and your interest in Japanese?


In high school actually, starting in sixth grade, I was an accelerated math student. I took Algebra 1 in my sixth grade year. And then from that point on, I was always “ahead”. I don't like using that term, but I was taking advanced math at earlier grades. So I always felt kind of strong with math when I got to college. I think my first semester I took Math 1A and I was thinking, “maybe I could do math as my major”. As soon as I took that class, I thought “nope, this is not interesting. That's not it.” I stopped taking math classes in college and then I ended up deciding to go into math teaching because I felt like I was really good at math out of all the subjects.


Math is also one of the biggest barriers for students, especially for students of color, to succeeding and get their grades to get into college. Currently there’s all of this talk about removing Algebra 1 as one of those remediation classes in Cal States and UC's (California State Universities and University of California schools). I acknowledge and I'm very aware of that, but I think because of those facts, I still support that removal while also staying a math teacher. Then when I went into the teaching program through Urban Teachers, and I was given the option to teach secondary English, secondary math, or elementary school Given those three options, I thought, “okay, might as well do Math.”


What social, economic/financial or cultural barriers did you encounter? And how did you overcome them (if at all)?


The biggest barrier I overcame was my sexuality. Of course living in a heteronormative society that we're in or in the Asian culture where being gay or queer is just a death sentence. That often made it hard for me. To feel comfortable in spaces or talk about who I really was interested in or certain things that are coded as gay or straight - liking certain music or movies or genres or whatever things are coded. I think that was one of the biggest barriers for me. I think it hurt my mental health a lot, especially in high school when I was still coming to terms with it as well as early in college. Now I'm pretty open about it. It's not really a problem for me. I'm very open with my students, my coworkers, everyone in my life (family, friends, et cetera). I'm pretty lucky that I also had a lot of support groups. When I finally came out in college or amongst my family and friends, everyone was very supportive. Even my family and siblings were totally fine with it. My mom was like, “that's fine”. I guess she wasn't enthusiastic, but she wasn't going to kick me out of the house. I know that happens with some families. I was pretty lucky with that.

"The biggest barrier I overcame was my sexuality. Of course living in a heteronormative society that we're in or in the Asian culture where being gay or queer is just a death sentence. "

In terms of other barriers, I think sometimes also being Filipino specifically, and whenever people talk about being Asian, the first image or identity they think of is Chinese or Japanese. In my high school it was mostly East Asian. Even though I was coded as Asian, I was also Filipino, which is different from the other Asians. Then when it came to going to UC Berkeley, even though UC Berkeley has a high representation of Asians that is a really false umbrella term. I know that Filipinos are underrepresented. I remember due to joining the Filipino organization and learning about how Filipinos only made up something like about one percent of California, but are less than 1% of the students at UC Berkeley and so on and so forth. Moving into other spheres to us, like in general, Filipinos are even more under represented in politics, higher education and so on and so forth.


Did you have any like queer role models that you looked up to that helped you be more comfortable besides the support groups?


Hmm, no, not really. I feel like growing up there wasn't any openly gay or queer actors, and actresses- I guess famous people. And if there were, they were always white. So there was also that extra disconnect. Um, and I guess I was in college, like there wasn't really any role models, but there were other people who were like openly gay or openly like Bisexual, queer or whatever. And that was helpful for me to see. I joined a lot of organizations that happen to have a lot of like queer Asian Americans. So that was also like an extra push towards feeling comfortable in those spaces to then become open and come out.


What resources or role models/ representation did you wish you had growing up?


100%, representation would definitely be helpful growing up. Even now, I'm looking for representation and I think now, getting involved like politically or in like organizing spaces- where do we see Filipinos or queer Filipinos in those situations? Even in education- education it is mostly a female dominated space for some reason. I'm not saying we should have more men, but like the representation is also not there. And I think about that as well. I think the ideal role model is if I could have some kind of role model growing up in the late nineties, early two thousands that would look like another Asian American.

"I think the ideal role model is if I could have some kind of role model growing up in the late nineties, early two thousands that would look like another Asian American. Asian American is like someone born and raised in America who has the understanding of what it's like to be here in this country, but still has some connection to whatever their home country that their parents came from."

Asian American is like someone born and raised in America who has the understanding of what it's like to be here in this country, but still has some connection to whatever their home country that their parents came from. Again, like LGBT representation is great. There is also a more limited representation, because there's an over representation of men. I think also just open acknowledgement of racism, patriarchy and imperialism, like all those things I said before. Like I feel like I didn't really see that . I mean, not that I had to learn that through college, you see that everywhere you talk is all about bringing up these issues to light. So it would be great if we had that in the nineties. That would be awesome.

You are involved in the social justice movement, could you talk to us about the importance of fighting social injustice and the importance of speaking up and fighting for the black community?


I am always constantly questioning, “why I'm doing”, “what I'm doing.” When I first entered schools with students furthest from opportunity a lot of it came from me wanting to join the teaching program that appealed to me. And it was like a really good model where like the first year you're basically a student teacher and then the next three years, they slowly scaffold you in like releasing support. So that way you're able to function as a teacher by yourself. That was part of the program that I really enjoyed. But again, the focus was on racial justice, racial equity, and fixing a lot of inequities in the system. Well, fixing the system through training future teachers to be really good teachers. Also a lot of this was spurred by my sociology background. So I remember going into college my freshman year thinking, “oh yeah, like racism, sexism, that stuff is like in the past”. I was one of those people. And then once I started taking all of these classes, I was like, “oh no, this is far from over”.


The older I get and the more I learn, the more I get pushed towards the left- I guess you could say that on so many problems, inequality exists everywhere.

"Inequality permeates every system and every person's body. The more I learn, the more I get pushed to want to work in certain environments to support. And I don't wanna even say fix anymore. Because it's not like I haven’t experienced some of this myself being a person of color and being in a majority POC schools and spaces."

Also coming from my family who are from the Philippines, which is a country that is a product of imperialism, colonization, racism, patriarchy, and all sorts of -isms. And I could say now the reason why I keep working in anti-racism work is a combination of those past experiences. And also now it's just a lot of fun. I enjoy my students, I enjoy my coworkers. Even though sometimes we are different in the sense of different race or age or background or gender there's a lot of shared experiences too, that we have, and I tend to gravitate towards those as well. And it's just so much more fun for me.


What would you say to young girls, women and LGBTQ+ individuals such as yourself that you wish you heard growing up?


I think the first thing I think of is there was a cliche campaign back in the day called, “it gets better.” As cliche as it was, it is true. The older you get, you end up entering spaces that are more accepting of your sexuality. In high school, you're very restricted to the small community that you don't have freedom to move about in certain ways and people are a little bit more close-minded in how they like and look at things. When you get to college (or if you don't go to college) and begin to go into workspaces you'll have more freedom to be who you are, express yourself in your gender, your clothing, and your romantic and sexual preferences. Those things will get better as you get older and if you have parents who are not supportive when you turn eighteen you could say, “bye, I'm leaving this place where people are not saying negative things to me.”




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