the door every day, welcoming them to our class.
Daniel’s teacher was standing at the door all right,
but she was conversing with the kindergarten
teachers on either side of her classroom. Instead of
actually greeting the students, they were holding a
grade-level meeting first thing in the morning.
As I watched, my son attempted to get his
teacher’s attention, but she did not even see him.
Frankly, it broke my heart. I am a mother first, and a
Daniel was raised in both the United States and
Mexico. He was taught to greet adults when he first
saw them during the day. Although he was shy, it
had been ingrained in him that he had to make that
traditional contact just once, and then he could go
back to being a kid. When the teacher did not return
his greeting or look at him, he must have believed it
was because she did not like him.
In Mexican culture, the saying is El saludo no se
le niega a nadie—which translates to “The greeting
is not denied to anyone.” In other words, no matter
what you think or feel about another person, you
must return his or her greeting. It is the “educated”
thing to do. At home, one has to give el saludo every
time someone drops in, or walks by—even the
people who live with you. At school, the exchange of
el saludo with the teacher marks the daily transition
to being a student.
Daniel’s kindergarten teacher was not a Latina, but
she was brought up in Tucson, and she had learned
the Spanish language. She loved working in the
Latino community. When I told her the problem I
had observed, she was mortified. She had not known
about el saludo, and she thanked me profusely for
opening her eyes to a part of the culture she was not
familiar with. She feared she might have offended
other students along the way simply because she had
not known about this gesture.
I never checked up to see whether Daniel’s teacher
had changed her behavior at the classroom door, but
by the end of the week, my son loved school again.
Later on in the school year, he even starred in the
A Cultural Disconnect
kindergarten play. He never mentioned not liking
In Latino culture, traditional etiquette is passed
down by parents and the community, not through
schooling. But the expectation is that schools
support the social etiquette standards of the
I have worked with Latino students from preschool to university levels, and I’ve observed that
when teachers do not take the time to greet their
Latino students (or students from other cultures
with similar etiquette rules), many of these students
conclude that these “un-greetful” teachers are not
proper authority figures. As a result, some Latino
students may begin disconnecting themselves from
school because they feel invisible to the adults
around them. Some even become involved with
gangs as they look for a community that accepts
them—a culture where they are visible.
I was brought up within both the Mexican and the
United States cultures. I greet everyone, including
young Latinos, when I meet them for the first time
each day. Some seem surprised that I acknowledge
them. Some do not return the greeting, perhaps
because they have been hardened after not having
been greeted properly for years. But most young
Latinos return the greeting respectfully and with a
smile. My daughter Melisa says she loves to greet
a group of Latinos because, even if some of them
would like to appear cool or aloof, they usually
respond in unison.
A friend who volunteers her time working with
homeless people told me that most of the homeless
people she meets are surprised when she looks them
in the eye, greets them, and extends her hand to
shake theirs. She spoke of one man who asked her,
“Are you speaking to me?” while looking around.
He told her, “I didn’t think you could see me. Most
people just walk by as though I was not here.”
I imagine many Latino youth and young people
from other communities and cultures in which
exchanging greetings is important feel the same way.
They must lead a double life—learning to keep their
distance with adults at school, but becoming con-
nected and cross-generational again when they go
back to their home communities. And it simply
stems from el saludo. EL
Analizabeth Doan Woolfolk is assistant professor at
University of Arizona Santa Cruz, Nogales.
““As I watched, my son attempted to get his teacher’s attention, but she did not even see him.