This curriculum teaches Latin American literature to middle school students. In place of treating as prerequisites the history of Latin America, her religions, ancient and modern, and the complex literary styles of magic realism and the fantastic, these and other strands are presented sequentially through examples first of literature which is familiar and then Latin American literature. Although these and other themes are always present in Latin American literature, it is not necessary to be an expert to recognize them, and learn about the specific references in any given work.
I teach Spanish I in middle school. My students are ages eleven to fourteen, grades sixth through eighth. I have a few Hispanic students and a very few whose roots are Asian. The majority are Americans of African and/or European descent. My curriculum is Spanish: the language, customs and culture. Behind this lies the all important goal to expand the horizons of the young, to help them come to accept that different is not inferior.
I have chosen to use Latin American literature for my curriculum unit, as distinct from Latino or Spanish literature. Latin American literature is written in Spanish or Portuguese by people who live in countries where those languages are spoken: in the Caribbean Basin, in Central and South America, and in Mexico. Latino literature is written in English, or the bilingual idiom sometimes called Spanglish, by people who trace their heritage or identify themselves as Hispanic with roots to Spanish speaking peoples and countries, but who live in the United States. Spanish literature refers to that which is written in Spanish by Spaniards. Spanish Language or Hispanic literature is sometimes used to refer to literature written in Spanish by people from any Spanish speaking background who write in Spanish. My students often find this confusing; they tend to equate language, culture and race; hence “Spanish” comes to mean Latino, particularly Caribbean-Hispanic American. They ask how Picasso can be Spanish if he is white. I will return to these issues in my discussion of cultural clash and racism.
Our understanding of America is changing from the 19th century melting pot to a 20th century cultural pluralism. Instead of “E pluribus unum (out of many one)” we are recognizing that we are a nation of many heritages, and our diversity provides understanding unavailable from a narrower base. Perhaps in the 21st century our identity will become more global; as nations extend their economic radii to include neighboring countries, as in NAFTA and the European Common Market, we will begin to understand ourselves as citizens of the world. For now, I am eager to teach my students to be citizens of the new world, the world that hosts immigrants from every part of the globe, from the first arrivals 40,000 years age to those arriving today. We share a history of leaving behind a mother culture and adapting what we recall to fit where we have come. Some of us believe that we have forgotten more than we remember. Some of us are struggling to recall, to hold onto our ancient roots. All of us are learning how to live with others whose ancient memories are different.
Learning about those differences has always fascinated me. Speaking a second language has been part of the journey. Part of understanding ourselves is recognizing that we don’t need to limit ourselves to English only, that allowing ourselves to use another idiom enriches us, opens the world to us, does not weaken our knowledge of place, of belonging. We the educated, the educators, have the task of reducing cultural isolation, prejudice, bias and ignorance precisely by pointing out the endless variety of culture in a diverse population. We do not fear what we know. Diversity itself must become the face of our familiar.
I have learned in this seminar that my own experience and knowledge of Latin America is directly valuable in my teaching. If my students understand what I have done and what I believe, their own learning will have more meaning.
My passion for Latin America began with my first knowledge of the Spanish language, the soft rocking sound of southwestern USA Spanish speakers. It permeated my mind at an early age and left a neural pathway which has since been busy with new attractions. I first saw a picture of Machu Picchu when I was fifteen. I did very poorly in school in Spanish: memorizing verbs out of context was beyond my commitment, but I could not forget the tantalizing mystery of Peru. When I was in college, suffering through
and Borges in Spanish, I had two experiences which shaped my future. It was the time of my great hero, Cesar Chávez, who led the migrant farm workers’ movement in California. He was a non violent resistance fighter who eventually died from complications resulting from his numerous hunger strikes, but not before he had made America notice the plight of the farm workers. If he had spoken to his constituency in the language of the majority culture, he would have a day named after him. He was the first great leader of civil rights for Latinos. That summer I spent working in West Denver in a Chicano community center, running youth programs. I learned about Rodolfo (Corky) Gonzales, a former boxer who became a political activist and the writer of one of the first bilingual poems to describe the roots of Latino identity, entitled “Yo Soy Joaqu’n/I am Joaquin.” I began to understand a new part of Latin American/Latino dynamics. That summer there were marches in Denver about Mexican American rights and plights. I remember the chant was “Sock it to me chile power, ooh, ah.” That was my first protest march, led by Rodolfo (Corky) Gonzales. I also went to my first funeral, a small child killed in a fire in her apartment. I understood that her death was related to bad housing and distant landlords.
The following summer I joined an organization called Amigos de las Américas, whose mission it was to inoculate the children of Central America against smallpox, polio, diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus. We nineteen year olds were trained for three weeks and sent in pairs into small villages in Honduras to vaccinate school children. I shudder at the thought of what damage we may have done. We were told that the Amigos program had successfully halted an epidemic of childhood disease, with a high mortality rate For me it was so devastating an experience that I could not bear to think about it. I turned away from the reality, although I wrote my senior thesis on the Alliance for Progress in Honduras in 1970.
In 1973 the film
State of Siege,
directed by Costa-Gavras, was released. It told the story of the Tupamaro guerrilla movement in Uruguay, and the involvement of the CIA in training those who tortured the resistance. Yves Montand and Costa-Gavras came to New Haven, to the Lincoln Theater, now known as the Little Theater at ECA. After the showing they answered questions from the audience. I began to recognize the complex relationship between the USA and Latin America. It was a bad time in Latin America, the 70’s. I had a friend who was one of the few Americans among the thousands if Chileans arrested and held in the soccer stadium in Santiago when the Allende regime collapsed under the lies and murder of the military. The movie
is about this epoch. What it does not tell is the power of fear to paralyze. My friend was paralyzed from his experience. There are things so frightening that we cannot bear to know their reality. I was to learn this later.
I finally went to South America in 1978. The first stop was Machu Picchu. It is all and more than it has been described. I was on my was to Paraguay to live with Doctor Joel Filártiga, and his family, who ran a clinic in the
treating the Guarani speaking
for the myriad diseases of rural poverty, not the least of which was intoxication from breathing the insecticide they used on their cotton crops. It was not macho to use a mask, so they breathed full force the chemicals made by American companies and labeled NOT FOR SALE IN THE US. Joel Filártiga, the doctor, was a black sheep member of the upper class. His mother was a ranking member of the Colorado party, the party of the dictator Alfredo Stroessner. Joel felt a compulsion to speak his mind. He worked too closely with those who suffered under the dictatorship to remain blinded and silent. Eventually an ambitious and jealous police officer believed he would gain from silencing Filártiga. He took the Filártigas’ seventeen year old son and tortured him until he died. Instead of shutting up Joel, it was as though a damn had burst. He spoke and wrote and drew his rage and agony in international view. He was arrested and beaten three times. He became a case of Amnesty International, and eventually sued—and won the case against—the torturer in US court. A very inaccurate movie was made of this story by Sergio Toledo, 1991,
One Man’s War
, starring Anthony Hopkins. I was there with them about a year after Joelito had died. The family was, in antiseptic North American terms, dysfunctional. We were there as witnesses, to protect by our presence against any further reprisal by the authorities. We learned to be paranoid; we were questioned in subtle ways. We did not know whom to trust. The truth became an inconstant. We were encouraged to doubt Filártiga, who was obviously unbalanced by the death of his son. There was no solid reality, no fact, no story which told us how to proceed, what to count on. At 1:00 one morning, Nidia, Mrs. Filártiga, came to us and told us to get up and dress; the police had come. We went out into the subtropical night, lit by the heavy moon, to the patio which extended back to the patients’ rooms which opened onto it. The compound was drenched in sultry light; you could see the green boundary, and the shadows surrounding. They were soldiers, perhaps sixteen years old. They held Uzi machine guns, with tube barrels like French horns. “It is a pleasure to meet you,” said the police chief, with the easy manners of Latin diplomacy. “May we have your papers, please. There has been some trouble. Nothing for you to worry about. You can come to the police station on Monday to get your passports.”
They took Joel that night. He was back in the morning, not much worse for wear. He said that there had been a bomb, or that the police said that there had been a bomb, that they thought his car had been used by the guerillas, that the engine was still warm, that the police said there was a bomb as an excuse to round up the usual suspects. We got used to not knowing, an experience we were learning is common in worlds like the one we were visiting.
The police did not give us our papers on Monday. They said that the papers had been taken to some army barracks in a nearby town. We decided to go to the US embassy in the capital. We took the two hour bus ride in, walked to the phone company and phoned the embassy. The consul was available. We told our story at the embassy. The ambassador, appointed by President Carter, was Robert White, a valued diplomat who was later adroit in Nicaragua and other Latin American hot spots, with a forceful response to human rights violations. He heard our story. It took a few hours for Ambassador White to arrange for our papers to be returned to us. He was curious to hear our story.
For a few days I felt protected as though the rules I had grown up with were still in force, as though some wise parent had intervened in a childhood squabble and set the table straight again. But soon I began to be afraid. It wouldn’t be difficult for us to disappear. We belonged to no community, except the family Filártiga. We knew other Americans in Asunción, but our association with a persona non-gratis made their immediate lives difficult as they lived and worked with the upper classes of the town. They suspected us and we suspected them. Who really was giving what information to whom? And what information was worth exchanging anyway? We felt so insignificant, uninformed and unofficial that we were of no use to anyone. And yet we were the target of an uneasy curiosity. Only Ambassador White seemed unconcerned about us. We decided to leave. I felt defeated by the bullies. I felt inadequate even to the task of bearing witness. I returned to the United States, depressed at my sense of failure, disengaged from the American scene, culturally shocked. It helped to find Latin Americans who had come from Argentina or Chile or Nicaragua who knew what we were talking about. It hurt deeply to meet Americans who had been in Paraguay and believed Filártiga to be a fraud, perhaps the most successful of the campaigns to silence him. It helped a lot to hear that two weeks after we had left, Ambassador White, in his state car with flags flying, drove out to Ybycu’ to visit the Filártigas in their rural clinic. Perhaps our little uproar was bearing witness enough. To my knowledge the family has not been bothered again. And now Stroessner is dead.
Even in the USA the sense of conspiracy and distrust persisted. The Filártiga family has many friends and relatives in the New York area. Like many countries with an oppressive government and an impoverished people, there are as many Paraguayans out of the country (three million) as there are in Paraguay. This community embraced the Filártigas and sought to help them. They learned that two of the principle players in the death of Joelito were in the New York area. Amnesty International became involved in the Filártiga case, as it had come to be called. Using a nineteenth century law which had been drafted to provide protection against piracy the Filártigas were able to bring suit against Amerigo Pe–a. The law provided that if both parties were in the USA, a foreign national could bring suit against another foreign national for crimes committed outside the United States. Dolly Filártiga moved to New Jersey and took her brother’s murderers to court. The Filártigas did win the suit for six million dollars, although none of that would ever be recovered. Pe–a disappeared. Who can know how much embarrassment or inconvenience the Stroessner regime had in the face of this man, Dr. Joel Filártiga, who would not be silenced.
About three years later, when I had an eighteen month old daughter and was carrying my second, I was asked if I would teach Spanish in a middle school in New Haven a few hours a week. I began the long struggle to motivate my students, to understand what Spanish had to do with their lives, and what the curriculum I was asked to teach had to do with mine. In our seminar this year, our leader—Teacher—has challenged us to look closely at what appears obvious. She has taught us not to teach the biographies of writers before we teach their writings. It is not their lives which have made them famous, but the effect their words have had on the lives of others. If you want to teach biography, she told us, teach your own. Explain to your students what this literature means to you. Tell them about yourself, and why you teach Spanish. As you explore the writings with your students, questions may arise about the authors, about why they wrote what they wrote. Perhaps then biographical information may be relevant.
I want my students to understand from learning about Latin America what political activism is. I want them to know, especially my African American students who are sensitive to prejudice, to being coerced or ignored by the dominant culture, I want them to know that there are real things to fear, and real ways to fight. I want them to know I recognize their alienation. I want them to understand what it means to be resistant to political oppression. I want them to think about the differences and similarities between Tupac Amaru and Timothy McVeigh. I want them to know about non-violence and passive resistance and civil disobedience, about civil rights and human rights. I want them to believe in hope, and the righteousness of the underdog. I want their values to be a source of strength to speak honestly for themselves.
Many curricula units have been written about Latin America; some are mentioned in this paper. Others can be found in the indices if the Institute. I have included descriptions of mine because they are part of the background from which I write this paper.
This is my fourth seminar on Hispanic culture, all through the vehicle of literature. The first was taught by Roberto González Echevarr“a on “The Modern Short Story in Latin America,” particularly the works of Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garc’a Márquez, (87. .01). I wrote about “The High Road of Saint James (El Camino de Santiago)” by Alejo Carpentier. My study of the story resulted in an annotation of the historical and symbolic references used by Carpentier. The story is an allegory of pilgrimage at the time of the conquest of the Americas, beginning in Spain and travelling to Cuba. The world of 16th century Spain is illuminated as the protagonist travels from Compostela to the West Indies.
In 1991 I participated in Howard Lamar’s seminar on “Regions and Regionalism in the United States: Studies in the History and the Cultures of the South, the Northeast and the American Southwest” (91. .01). I researched the history of European-Indian relations in the southwest, beginning with the prehistoric Anasazi and continuing through the Indian Wars of the late 19th century with the destruction of the Chiricahua and the resettlement of the Navajo after Bosque Redondo.
In 1992 I participated in a second seminar led by Roberto González Echevarria, this time entitled “Writings and Rewritings of the Discovery of America” (92. 02999). My readings led me to the conflict between Spain and Portugal for possession of South America. Again my interest was on the impact of the collision of two worlds, Europe and America, which had developed separately, and with societal values which sustained their disparate cultures so contrasting, conflicting and polarized that disaster must occur when finally they met. This point of impact, or to use the science fiction term, first contact, fascinates me. I am still exploring it. I want my students to wonder about it.
In our seminar this year on 20th century Latin American writing we have discussed our readings as particularly Latin American in the omnipresent themes of politics and religion which shape the lives of the protagonists. The energy of creation is still fierce; politics, like the earth, is volcanic, and religion is a life force. Political opposition is expected, popular, and does not shirk from human cost. Mythology from Precolumbian peoples is not a quaint and distant story, but an active religious inheritance from ancestors.
North Americans find Latin American politics confusing. We may criticize our own political system as self serving, creating jobs for politicians, and we may not feel that government is immediate to our lives, except in the irony of its failure to provide certain services in contrast to its inability to fail to collect our money, but we don’t translate our frustration into motivation. Passionate politics feels immature, unstable. We have a hard time finding any similarity between violence in the United States and violence in Latin America. Perhaps we are right. They are not alike. North American violence surprises us because we believe that we have the best country on earth, and that our problems can be solved in the polls. We think Latin American violence is avoidable: if only
had education and a democratic constitution; if only
weren’t so excitable . . . But we learn from Octavio Paz that North Americans do not see what they don’t want to exist. And we do not see the contradiction between our own lack of faith in the political system and our outrage at Americans who turn to violence.
We must acknowledge that in a pluralistic culture we must protect a diverse collection of rights and varied values equally. We must teach culture without offending; protect the environmental without violating the rights of property owners; defend religious freedom including the absence of religion. We must mediate between the religious beliefs of those who bestow the right to life with conception and those who construe rights at birth. What have responsibilities to affirmative action. In a society with one value system, these debates are short lived; majority rules. But we no longer live in a society with a majority.
cultures in America are minority. 90% of all migration in the world is into the USA. By 2005, Hispanics will outnumber African Americans (public radio). We are coexisting minority cultures and our survival depends on a commitment to mutual understanding which begins with the
education of our children.
Multiculturalism and diversity are jargon in the public schools, coined years ago to represent the effort of the American educational system to combat institutionalized racism. Their intent is to teach children and families of the dominant culture to value minority cultures and traditions. Sometimes this feels unbalanced, unfair. Why, it is asked, do minorities,
, get special attention and
don’t? It is intrinsic to being the dominant culture that “normal” be recognized as that which is most prevalent. As long as this is true, the dominant culture literally does not see the world around it. Even a very large culture becomes insular without the influences of “other”. The global village is a string of separate and suspicious villages until the villagers begin to know and accept the traditions of their neighbors as variations on the human condition.
With this understanding we teach languages other than English. We begin with food. We learn the names of tapas in Spain and that Mexican cuisine isn’t limited to what fits in a tortilla. I find my students parochial, even though they live in a cosmopolitan, though small, city. They are suspicious about the unfamiliar. So I translate the customs as well as the words, make the traditions parallel. When we eat tapas, the students bring pepperoni and peanuts. Their discomfort about greeting by kissing on the cheek can be reduced if they pair this with their own acceptance of football players patting each other in congratulation, or grandchildren kissing their grandparents. If they are appalled that gifts brought by the Magi are placed in shoes in exchange for the straw that children had left for the camels, I remind them about the gifts they receive in their Christmas stockings in exchange for the cookies and milk Santa Claus has eaten. When they see themselves reflected in another culture they begin to recognize that we are all the more alike for our differences.
I have said that several representative themes are found in Latin American literature. It is the story of a dominant culture, or stories of many cultures with similar conflicts, which struggle to identify themselves, children of native American mothers with European fathers, spouses of kidnapped African slaves, Asian or European refugees of yesterday, parents to children of all races blended to become one race, la raza, inheritors of powerful opposing religious systems, archaic roles of gender and class, all with an eye unblinking to the violence of human existence.
The work of some of Latin America’s great literary geniuses, such as Horacio Quiroga, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garc’a Márquez, Octavio Paz, and Juan Rulfo will be included. I intend to present the stories in English, as my goal is to make comparison readily accessible. Readings in the original Spanish and using the stories to practice translation can be used with more advanced students.