Norman Zelaya


1) Please explain what you do for living.

I am a special education teacher in San Francisco Unified School District. I spent 23 years in the classroom, and now I am a mentor supporting new SpEd teachers to clear their credentials. Most of my career in the classroom was spent serving Latinx students in the Mission District, where I grew up. I taught many of those years in Spanish.

2) How important is your identity is being Latino? 

I remember always being called nicaraguënse. That is what we were: nicola, nica, nicaraguënse. My family was nicaraguënse, and when someone asked me what I was I answered nicaraguënse not knowing there was a translation in English. I also don’t recall ever being called or told I was American. I knew I was born in the USA but I don’t remember being treated as such when in mainstream settings. In the neighborhood, it didn’t matter; we didn’t call each other or ourselves Americans.     

Being latino was the only identity I knew. I was defined as such by others. I was taught to live as a nicoya. And that upbringing deeply colors my writing and expression as an artist. It also deeply influenced what I decided to do with my life, where I wanted to live, and who I wanted to serve. I can imagine going into other fields like sciences or law, and I think that would have taking me to other parts of the country or state. Being an artist has kept me where I always wanted to be - in my home community.

3) Is there something that you particularly value of your nationality or being Latino?

I value the history and legacy I have inherited. Learning about my family in Nicaragua, and through that investigation, the history of resistance to the US, and wealth of impactful poets and writers, I have understood myself to be continuing the work of others. My neighborhood has been changed irreversibly by technology booms and gentrification, and so I have found myself resisting, writing the stories of the people who have worked and sustained the neighborhood culture that so many now enjoy without ever adding or giving back to the community. I value having heard my grandmother tell her stories every night and indoctrinating in the art of storytelling. That is what we do; we tell stories as a means of survival.   

4) Have you been treated differently because of being Latino (in the workplace, in public settings…etc.)? If so, can you describe a situation?

Definitely in high school, I encountered blatant and shameless racism, but as I have developed and honed my craft as a writer, I now believe that I am treated differently because I am a latinx writer of note. I have been sought out because of my success. I believe I am praised for my skill and craft and expertise, but I have also earned standing in the local latino arts community and among POC artists.