Sonia Nieto

Portrait Image


Amherst, Massachusetts


Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy, and Culture, School of Education, University of Massachusetts, Author

interview date


“Becoming the kind of people we want to be.”


She is the author of  The Light in Their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities; Language, Culture, and Teaching; What Keeps Teachers Going? and three edited volumes, Puerto Rican Students in U.S. Schools; Why We Teach; and Dear Paulo: Letters From Those Who Dare Teach. She has received many awards for her advocacy and activism, particularly in the area of multi-cultural education.

We meet in her home in Amherst.  She talks about her early teaching as well as what she sees teachers facing, today.


Like a lot of young teachers, when I first started, I thought I could change the world. I was quickly disabused of that idea. I taught in an impoverished school that was in the news all the time. It was in Ocean Hill/Brownsville, Brooklyn, which was a place that was very volatile in the mid-1960s. There were community control issues. Communities of color gave it a voice, and so there was a lot of contention between teachers and th teachers’ union and the communities. I walked into a school where on the first day the principle said that half of us wouldn’t be there the following year because the turnover was fifty percent. There were seventy teachers; thirty-five are new. Imagine what that does to a school. So the context itself made it difficult.

I remembered going into the teachers’ room and hearing things about the kids that were so derogatory and so disparaging. And this school was completely African-American and Puerto Rican. As a Puerto Rican myself, you can imagine what it was like for me to hear these comments that might have been said about me as a kid. Because I looked white, they assumed it was okay for them to say that, I guess, or because I had crossed the class divide. I don’t know.

So I stopped going to the teachers’ room. That kind of climate didn’t allow for the change that I wanted. I had this sense of mission. And because of my background, I think I had a sense of empathy for the students. I developed a solidarity with students of all backgrounds. I thought that I could do a good job because, after all, I was a member of this ethnic and cultural community. At least I had grown up with Puerto Ricans and African-Americans; that’s who my neighbors and friends were. It did mean that I had a leg up, that I had cultural knowledge and so on, but it doesn’t necessarily mean, just because you have the same ethnic and economic background, that you are automatically an excellent teacher for those kids. So I had to learn. You don’t learn how to teach in college. You learn how to teach on the job. I was learning how to teach, and I was becoming a good teacher.


We are all a product of our upbringing and our background and our culture and circumstances that we develop and our experiences. My father had to quit school in fourth grade to work on a farm in Puerto Rico to help care for his family. It was called La Fortuna (Fortune). He was one of twelve children, eight of whom survived. My grandfather had died when my father was pretty young.

My father came to the United States in 1929. Right before the crash. He came here to seek a better life. He got a job sweeping floors at a Jewish deli on Delancey Street in Manhattan. And he would send money back home from his sweeping the floors. He ended up being a chef at that deli. Then he did what so many immigrants do, and being the second oldest in the family, he brought several of his siblings here. At least three of them he brought over, two of them worked with him at the deli, and one of them lived with our family.

He met my mother in the late 1930s. She had come from Puerto Rico in 1934. As a single woman, that was almost unheard of. She had been an orphan since she was thirteen. She was just looking for a different life, too. She had some jobs in in a factory, candy factory, I don’t know what else. Maybe a match factory. But once she got married and had my sister right away, she stayed home. She was a homemaker.

In 1949, after my father had been at the Jewish deli for about twenty years, the deli was closed. It was torn down to make room for a bank. So he was left without a job. We lived in a tenement building on the fifth floor. We never had a car till I was ten. We didn’t have TV till I was twelve. And we certainly didn’t have a home till I was thirteen. Since he had been at the deli twenty years, luckily he had saved a little money, so he took it and bought a little grocery store,  a bodega a block away from where we lived.

It wasn’t till later that I realized that we were so-called poor. Meaning we didn’t have the same kinds of experiences as other kids. I didn’t feel like we were poor because I didn’t know the difference. When we moved to a more middle class neighborhood, I started realizing that people had things that I didn’t. I’d look at my peers and think, Oh they have such and such that I don’t have. Or they’d go out to dinner. We never went out to dinner; we never ever went out to dinner. I have an aunt who came from Puerto Rico, and she was more middle class.

I went back as an adult and saw the house that I used to think was so fancy. And it was so little and very humble. She used to sew for people who had money. Well, she came to see us in New York, and she took my sister and me out. It was the first time we had gone out to a restaurant. It was a little Italian restaurant in a basement with red and white checkered table cloths. And we had spaghetti. I still remember it. I must have been eight years old. It was huge for me. Otherwise, we didn’t go out to dinner as a family until I took my parents to a fancy Mexican restaurant for their 25th anniversary. I was twenty-three years old. I took them out! They had never done that before.

My mother didn’t graduate from high school. She got through the third year of high school, which was pretty impressive then in Puerto Rico. But I learned from her that education was really important.  Because my parents didn’t have an education, they were very clear that we needed to get one to get ahead. I would come home with my report card, and if I had anything less than a B, they’d say “What is that about?” I did really well in school. My sister, Lydia, did fairly well in school. She’s extremely bright, she’s now a writer, a poet, and a teacher for many years also. Years later we realized that she must’ve had some learning disability. People didn’t know at that point.

One time she went to see her guidance counselor who said, “You’re Puerto Rican, aren’t you? I don’t think you’re college material.” Lydia, at that point had not intended to go to college, but she became so angry that she decided right then she would go. Because of that remark.  She ended up getting her Masters in bilingual special education.


I guess the words social justice never came up in my family, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there. We learned about things that were unfair, and things that were fair.  When you’re living that situation and then you get an education, you join the middle class, and you cross class and culture lines. I became much more bi-cultural than my parents. And that is a difficult and painful process, while it’s also enriching and exciting.

In what way was it painful?

Painful because my frames of reference are different from my parents.

Did you feel like you were moving beyond them?

Across from them. Separate. Which every child has to do, but when you cross social class lines it’s even more apparent. I couldn’t talk to them about the lit classes I was taking.

Did you want to?

The way that I realized it was when I had my first child. I said I want my relationship with her to be that of a dialogue and for us to be able to communicate about other things besides everyday kinds of things. I think I’ve been able to do that.

My father unfortunately died in 1972; I was only twenty-nine years old. I felt like a baby when he died. I was so devastated. But I had started working at Brooklyn College in the ethnic studies program.   I still remember the day I went for the interview, and afterward my husband and I went out for dinner with our daughter, Alicia, who was three at the time. And I was in heaven, thinking, this is really what I always had wanted!  And I thought to myself, Pappi and Mammi, would be so proud of me. I had been able to reach some of the dreams they had for us.


How much time has passed since you first started teaching?

Forty-four years.

You are still deeply engaged, energetic and committed.

And I’m retired, you know. Supposedly.

What is it that keeps you engaged?

I always wanted to be a teacher, and I see teaching as the most rewarding and the most difficult job in the world. But I also see it as the most consequential one. It shapes generations of people. Teachers make such a difference; schools make such a difference. And once you’ve been part of it, you’re hooked.

It’s the realization that education is the only way, the only way to progress, to think more deeply. I think we’ve become so focused on preparing students for jobs and for professions that we have forgotten that the purpose of education is to develop humanity. That’s really what it should be. And of course in the process we can prepare people for particular jobs but you know I bet if you were to ask people today if what they’re doing is what they were prepared for in high school or college they would say no. We have to have broader goals, broader ends, broader means, to get to those ends. And the ends can’t just be instrumental. They have to be about becoming the kind of people we want to be.

I’m afraid that we have become very self-interested nation. Not only in our own national interest, but in individual interests. This idea that what’s good for me is good, and I don’t care about anybody else. And that’s kind of a shame, a big shame. I don’t think that’s what our history should teach us.

Paulo Freire said that education can’t change the world. But it can be a part of that change.


If you could, would you want come back in 100 years and see what people have made of your work?

Not really, because although right now I think that the work I do is important, I don’t think that in a hundred years anybody else will. I can’t think like that because there’s so many people who have worked so hard and haven’t gotten the kind of support and acclamation that I’ve gotten. I like to think that I helped set the framework for some things happening,  but I don’t know that we’ll have multi-cultural education in a hundred years. Because we may just call it education. Hopefully.  They don’t need to remember me or remember my work. They just have to do the best they can in their situation.  It is the young people who have to remake the struggle