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‘Mexican citizen by birth, U.S. citizen by choice’: Carlos Barcenas works to bring translation, race talks to Grand Island community

‘Mexican citizen by birth, U.S. citizen by choice’: Carlos Barcenas works to bring translation, race talks to Grand Island community


As a “Mexican citizen by birth” and a “U.S. citizen by choice,” Carlos Barcenas said he believes in serving his community.

Since 2013, Barcenas has served on the Grand Island Public Schools Board of Education. He said that while some of his fellow board members serve by testifying before the Legislature on various educational issues, he is able to use his “assets and gifts” as a bilingual board member to serve the entire Grand Island community, including the Latino population.

Barcenas said he sees his role as a bridge of communication and as a cultural broker.

“We have many people in our Latino/Hispanic community that are wanting to be part of Grand Island and might not know how,” he said. “So I am a cultural broker helping them know what the rules are or how they become culturally competent to live in Grand Island. On the flip side, it is the same with the English-speaking, Anglo community. I want to help people understand the cultural differences that exist within the Latino community.”

GIPS Superintendent Tawana Grover said with the school district having a diverse population of students who speak more than 50 different languages — with Spanish being a main one — it is beneficial to these students and their families to see Barcenas on the GIPS board.

“I really think it helps the parents to feel that, when we say it is all about every student and all means all, when you are able to speak my language and you understand my cultural background, my differences, my uniqueness and make me feel included, that is added value,” she said.

“When you have a person like Mr. Barcenas as a leader and a member of your school board, it really gives you an extra leverage point to have someone who is a member of the very community that we are trying to serve with cultural differences and language differences. As we are making decisions, his viewpoints always brings a new perspective. There is nothing like the lived experiences of an individual to inform decision-making.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Barcenas’ role was expanded as he worked to translate all district communications into Spanish for students and families who speak only that language. He said he translated GIPS town halls, as well as a community briefing on GITV, the city of Grand Island’s public access channel, with Grover.

“When we are trying to communicate important information, it has to be done in a clear, professional way that keeps the message intact and, to me, that is very important,” Barcenas said. “If we are going to talk and communicate to all of our community, for those that speak Spanish, we need to get them a message that can be understood not only language-wise, but culturally as well.”

Barcenas said he spent a lot of time behind the scenes preparing to communicate the various COVID-19 messages to Spanish-speaking GIPS families the past few months. He said he would spend an equal amount of time preparing. So, for example, if a Facebook Live town hall was an hour long, he would spend an hour preparing to translate GIPS’ messages to Spanish.

“Many times, I might not be involved in the beginning stages of what is going to be said, but, if we are going to do a town hall meeting, I am in the planning session of what we are going to talk about and who is going to be there,” Barcenas said. “At times when we have enough time to plan, I might get the message ahead of time where I am able to look at it, translate it and make sure that I am using correct language. Other times, I am interpreting right on the spot. But it is a topic that I am familiar with as a school board member.”

Grover said she and GIPS are “very fortunate” to have Barcenas as part of the team, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when schools moved to remote learning and the district needed to communicate messages to families.

“During the pandemic, Mr. Barcenas was able to immediately help us to get boots on the ground very quickly and to get information out to our parents,” she said. “He is always there translating for us. When we needed to do town hall meetings, he was a part of that. He has relationship and trust capital that allows us to add to the value of his trust with the trust that we have with our families, too.”

With racial tensions in the U.S. increasing since the death of George Floyd in May, Barcenas said not only do racial issues need to be acknowledged, but they need to be talked about as well.

“I am happy that we are talking about it and understanding that it takes brave board members, district leaders and staff to embark in that conversation because it can be very uncomfortable,” he said.

So how does one have a conversation about race? Barcenas said the first step is to figure out what to talk about.

“Are we talking about equity? Are we talking about race? Identify the topic, then also identify who we are and why it is important to us,” he said. “Then, ask the question: why does this topic make me uncomfortable? There is a lot of self awareness and asking the question: why is this important to others? Sometimes, that is just creating empathy and building relationships.”

At the local level, Barcenas said he is a part of the GIPS equity task force that has looked at how the district can work to achieve equality and what that looks like. He also is involved with race and diversity issues on the state level by serving on the Nebraska Association of School Boards’ equity collaborative.

“It is just looking at equity, diversity and inclusion and what that looks like from the education point of view,” Barcenas said. “How can we take a deeper look into this conversation and how races plays a role? We do not just want to check the box, we want to look into having these conversations and seeing how we can make it better.”

Barcenas said the collaborative understands they are doing non-closure work and that this is not something they will do and then fix.

“It is more about how we can eliminate historical barriers through achieving student success in a way that is equitable,” he said.

In being part of the NASB equity collaborative, Grover said Barcenas not only serves GIPS and Grand Island, but the entire state of Nebraska.

“With Mr. Barcenas’ voice at the state level, he is going to be able to bring insight to the conversation where, in many districts, they may not able to understand the diversity that we have in our district,” she said. “With Mr. Barcenas, we are able to be relevant and produce meaningful actions with our families.”

Barcenas said he hopes to continue making a difference by simply showing up and making himself available for tough questions.

“I think sometimes, for example, when it is about race, we don’t know somebody we can approach and say, ‘Can I ask you these questions about race?’” he said. “I do want to make myself available to embark on that journey.”

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