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Armando Pacheco: A Life Devoted to the South Bronx Struggle for Bilingual Education

Melody Madera

 

Armando Pacheco’s roots in community organizing began in his hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico as a young adolescent. He described himself as a natural leader, organizing and leading his elementary school and junior high school in parades during the week of Carnival celebrations. As a youth, he jumped at opportunities to recite poetry and participate in plays during school assemblies. His charisma and natural ability to lead a crowd grew over the years and rooted him firmly into community organizing in the South Bronx.

Pacheco arrived in New York’s South Bronx from Puerto Rico in 1967, during the height of the Civil Rights movement. “I saw the despair and sadness on the face of our youth. Those inhumane conditions led our youth to join gangs and commit crimes”, he says. In 1968 he helped an older brother recruit players to form a little league team. The team was going to play in Luis Rios Little League. They recruited young members of the Savage Skulls gang and other kids from the Fox Street, Leggett Ave. and Saint John’s Ave. area of the South Bronx. His younger brother Israel was on the team. Malavé Shipping Company which was located on Southern Blvd near Leggett Ave in the Bronx, and owned by a Puerto Rican family that donated the uniforms. After a challenging season where gang members were taught to fight with their baseball gloves, legs, arms and by hitting the ball with the bat and not the opposite players, to the surprise of everyone, that team composed mostly of desperate kids won the championship. Most of the games were played in Randall’s Island but the last game of that season was played at Jefferson Park in El Barrio, NYC in front of a large crowd.

In April of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Pacheco witnessed first hand the results of the riots that ensued, stores on many popular thoroughfares, from 125th street in Harlem to Prospect Avenue in the Bronx, were destroyed and looted. After the assassination, Pacheco began “to learn many things about injustice”. He described the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as a time where it was “cool” to be socially conscious and an activist. Jesús “Papoleto” Meléndez, a close friend from high school, organized spontaneous student walkouts that would leave the school nearly empty. Walkouts in an educational setting would prove to be an effective method of protest employed by Pacheco throughout his early activism. The walkouts in high school were in support of establishing community control of the public schools, bilingual education, pushing for fundamental Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War.

In the late 1960s schools did not have bilingual education programs, resulting in Spanish speaking children attending classes only in English. It’s hard to imagine children sitting in classes listening to teachers in a language they couldn’t understand. The establishment of bilingual education programs and ensuring all children would have the same educational opportunities is a passion for Pacheco that began as a young teenager struggling to learn English throughout high school. In spite of the language barrier, he excelled academically and graduated from high school. Soon after graduation, Pacheco identified a void in his community that he intended to fill with education:

“When I saw the abuse committed against my community, and the community not understanding that their condition is not because of bad luck, that in fact they are poor because people take their resources or limit the resources provided to them, I knew that it was my duty to provide my community with educational opportunities and resources allowing them to make informed decisions. I have a duty to help change their condition by showing them that there is another way, that through struggle, and education our community can thrive instead of continuously decline.”

After graduating from Morris High School, he attended the City College of New York. He spent two years in the military after being drafted. Upon graduation, he received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Romance Languages and a Masters Degree in Education. He later attended Fordham University where he received a Certificate in Administration and Supervision of Schools in 1988.         

Pacheco took on more leadership roles as a member of several political and cultural organizations. He described City College as having a student population that was very active in politics. Pacheco began using the tactics he learned from his old friend and poet Jesús “Papoleto” Meléndez and from his neighborhood chapter of the Young Lords––a Puerto Rican activist organization––to forcefully stimulate change in City College’s curriculum.

His involvement in various student groups helped to bring about real change in City College’s course offerings, especially in the area of Puerto Rican studies and Bilingual Education. Pacheco and his peers directly confronted the power structures at CUNY. In the early 70’s, CUNY was mandated by New York State to train grade-school teachers in bilingual education. To the dismay of the students that wanted to be trained in bilingual education, the Bilingual Program headquarters was relegated to a small trailer outside of the main building.  In spite of this new mandate, Pacheco and his classmates observed that several City College bilingual education professors had no knowledge of the subject matter and even adamantly devalued the benefits of bilingual and ethnic studies to students. While in a class Pacheco’s professor proclaimed “bilingual education is the tale of the dog”.

Furious about the lack of resources allocated to the City College bilingual education program, Pacheco helped organize students to directly confront the administration in hiring new professors; thus Students for Bilingual Education was born. After planned protests that entailed student walkouts, occupation of public spaces within the main campus building, forced meetings with the administration, and other actions that disrupted the normal flow of activity on campus, City College eventually hired qualified bilingual education professors and assigned the new program a full floor in the Department of Education building. Throughout his college career Mr. Pacheco remained very socially active in vocalizing the need for social change. When he wasn’t in class, he wrote proposals, organized student government, became involved in the student senate, planned classroom takeovers and protests that included deciding who would be getting arrested, who would speak to the crowd, and what type of demonstrations would occur.

In the 1980’s Pacheco became involved in electoral politics and was a delegate for Jesse Jackson to the Democratic National Convention of 1984. In the early 1980’s, Pacheco helped found a South Bronx non-for-profit community organization known as Educadores del Pueblo (The People's Educators). There, he taught for free GED, ESL, tutored students of all ages, organized summer programs consisting of baseball, basketball, softball tournaments and leadership training for high school students. Educadores del Pueblo employed around 50 high school students through the Summer Youth Employment Program in collaboration with Simpson Street Development Association. In the professional realm, Pacheco became the Founder and Director of the Dome Project II in School District 3 in Manhattan––an alternative junior high school for kids who were frequently absent from school––a high school Spanish teacher and Coordinator of Student Activities. He was able to have a direct impact on Manhattan and Bronx youth. Pacheco proudly affirms that the high schools in which he worked maintained and sustained their bilingual education programs.

His teaching methods often went beyond the basic curriculums provided, and included history lessons, which inspired his students to take pride in their historical roots and to actively participate in the struggles of their community. Pacheco frequently assigned readings and poetry that would be considered controversial due to the political content thus endangering his teaching job. Despite the professional risks Pacheco faced as a teacher, he continued to push the envelope to shed light on social injustices. Pacheco’s goal has always been to empower the disadvantaged, which he does through education and improving fundamental literacy levels in his community. In addition, he strives to disempower those who use their privilege to benefit themselves at the expense of the well-being of the community. When asked to describe a proud memory of community organizing Pacheco stated, “When I turn workers into revolutionaries. Like for example, after months of no heat, tenants that had taken some of the classes I offered at the community center, organized themselves, collected all the rent and paid for the oil themselves. They organized themselves into a co-op, took the landlord to court and won. It proves that once the community has the knowledge, they can empower themselves.”

Language barriers, low reading level scores and low educational levels are often cited as contributing factors to illiteracy. The provision of community GED and ESL programs like the ones Pacheco offered at his community center allows for increased access to resources ultimately improving the communities’ literacy levels. Providing people with the ability to seek out useful educational materials results in people becoming empowered to take responsibility for their own communities. Education is an important method of social justice so that our communities can move forward and hopefully close the gap on social and economic disparities.