Real Life: Brenda Perez Mendoza

This award-winning dual language teacher is filling in the missing pieces for Latinx children.

Growing up, Brenda Perez Mendoza says she always felt something was “off,” that she was missing something. Now an award-winning dual language teacher, she’s realizing that something was her culture and language.

“I always felt like there was just a little bit of my identity missing,” says the Latina Chicago mom of five. “I didn’t have anything to fill in those holes. …I didn’t understand who I was completely.”

Now she’s seeing the same missing pieces in the kids in her classrooms, migrant children who speak Spanish with big questions about themselves. So she began a quest to find kid-friendly answers.

As she guided her own kids, Jude, 22, Aiden, 19, Luke, 16, Noah, 10, and Ezra, 3, and her classrooms of kids through the pandemic, she organized all that research in the hopes of helping all children.

The result: A bilingual Racial Justice in America Latinx six-book series (Cherry Lake Publishing) that tackles such topics as the United Farm Workers Movement, Dreamers, Hispanic heritage, illegal status and the difference between Latinx, Latino and Hispanic. She says the books are authentically written in Spanish, a challenge for her since she was forced to speak and read only English growing up in Cicero and Pilsen.

“It needed to be available right there in both languages because my students think in both languages and it’s part of their identity and their culture. And having both languages was super important to me.”

Recently, she chatted about parenting and her books.

Photo credit: TK Photography

Why are these books important, especially now?

“I feel like these books give Latino children that identity (I was seeking) because I know they’re looking for it, I know they question it, and now they have a resource where they could fill those holes, where I couldn’t even articulate it as a child. …Identity is everything. And for most people, our language, our culture, our customs, those all form who we are. So it’s super important that, even though we’re in a new country and we’re learning a new language, we don’t lose a sense of who we are.”

How is the country’s divide over immigration affecting kids?

She points to her book, “Can A Person Be Illegal? ¿Puede Una Persona Ser Ilegal?” “That was a question that students would ask. I believe the kiddos, they would hear things like illegal aliens or they would hear ‘my parents don’t have documents.’ They hear their parents talking about it. They hear it on the news. … They hear these things and they don’t know how to make sense of it. It sounds scary. So it affects them and they don’t always talk about it. I think that they do talk about it if they feel comfortable enough to share it, but a lot of times they do feel like they have to kind of live in the shadows.”

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned as a mom?

“I would say that for the first two older boys, my emphasis was so much on getting them prepared for school and helping them succeed that I kind of also forgot about including their culture.” She made sure her younger ones speak Spanish first.

“What I learned was that it was important to immerse them in the culture because otherwise they kind of lose it. And also it was important for them to understand where our roots came from.”

For instance, her mom comes from Guadalajara, the birthplace of Mariachi, and her children — all musicians — need to be proud of that, she says.

“Another thing, I allow my children to be very open to asking questions. Some people would say that I allow them to challenge me, but it’s more like I want them to be able to think for themselves. And to be able to do that eventually gets to the point where they do challenge your beliefs or your rules. It makes me dig deep into my own values and why these things are important to me.”

How do you incorporate your Belief in Whole Child education into parenting?

A member of the ASCD Whole Child Board in Illinois, she says she looks at everything she does through the five Whole Child tenets.

“I think I’m not a perfect parent. There are times where I feel like my emotions are overtaking me, and I tell them I, as a parent, need a moment. For them to see me be able to do that, then they know that it’s OK for them to do that, too.”

Fast Talk

Your to-go coffee order:

“Oh, I love Starbucks’ sugar-free vanilla iced coffee. I could live on that. And sometimes I do as a teacher because there’s no time to eat.”

Your favorite spot to play with the kids:

“Brookfield Zoo is really where we play a lot. I absolutely love that place, and they do, too, and it’s so worth being a member. … When I retire, I’m going (to volunteer) to be standing by the wolves or the bears and talking to people about the animals.”

Your can’t-miss Mexican spots to eat with the kids:

“Los Comales is the place to eat Mexican food. And the other one is Taquerias Atotonilco, which is like a cultural phenomenon for first-generation Latinos in Chicago. .. Oh, my gosh, those tacos. You will never have tacos anywhere else again.”

The most used app on your phone:

“For me, it’s definitely Instagram.”

Your secret obsession:

“I love concerts. There are people who like to go to restaurants and there are people who like to go to clubs. But me, I love to go see a band perform and that kind of takes me away for a minute and puts me in their world.”

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