When 16-year-old Roger Sanchez first arrived in Washington from the Dominican Republic, his peers weren’t always quite sure what to make of him.
“I’m Afro-Latino. … I look African-American, but I speak Spanish,” he says. “They had lots of questions.”
In his school and in his neighborhood, there weren’t many other Afro-Latinos or students from the Dominican Republic.
But Sanchez sees his heritage as a gift. “Because I speak both languages, I was accepted by everyone,” he says, “and I can mediate between groups.”
He says he found himself in that role frequently at his middle school, which was majority African-American, and also at Bell Multicultural High School, a public school with a focus on social justice and foreign language in the District of Columbia, which has large populations of both African-American and Hispanic students and where Sanchez is currently a junior.
When he entered the U.S. public school system as a 5th grader at Brightwood Elementary School, Sanchez spoke almost no English and didn’t receive much support in learning his new language, he says. “There was no one to sit down and teach me. I learned some words,” he says.
At his next school, Takoma Middle School, he was enrolled in an English-as-a-second-language program, and by 7th grade, he had exited the program and transitioned into regular classes. The language is not a barrier for him now, he says, and neither is the culture. Life in the United States is “different” from what it is in the Dominican Republic, where he moved between the city and smaller towns, he says, but movies and North American culture were common there, and he didn’t feel totally unprepared. Through sports and clubs and making friends, he settled in.
At Bell, Sanchez has made himself omnipresent. He is vice president of the National Honor Society, a member of the school’s Global Kids program, and a member of the Future Business Leaders of America. He loves his history and English classes and plays on the football and baseball teams. His family has hosted exchange students from France and Mexico, and he has traveled to Mexico through one of the school’s programs. He will visit Indonesia soon through the same program, which focuses on environmental sustainability. When he can, Sanchez also stops by the school’s environmental club. The 11th grader has found his teachers at Bell, many of whom are young, to be supportive and easy to talk to.
Even so, he sees peers who have not made the transition so easily. Many Spanish-speaking students at the school are not as motivated to learn English, according to Sanchez. Students find distractions and some cultural barriers, he says, like “a stereotype that some Latinos are lazy.” He says he tries to encourage his friends.
Sanchez’s mother moved to the United States five years before her children, who remained in the Dominican Republic with their grandmother. Sanchez moved to Washington with his older sister, who’s currently enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia. His father and brother are still in the Dominican Republic.
His parents did not attend college, but Sanchez says that they support his educational goals. He and his siblings always attended school in the Dominican Republic, though the family had to pay to send them.
For now, Sanchez has set his sights on college and, eventually, a master’s degree in foreign policy or international relations. He says his life experience has made him interested in “my place in society and issues about my community and current events.”