Religion, Ancient and Modern
Religion has been a powerful force in Latin America for thousands of years. It played a major role in the conquest, particularly in Mexico, where the prophesies foretold the arrival of fair haired people who may have been the return of the god, Quetzalcoatl, or may have brought the end of the Fifth Sun, or modern world of the Aztec nation.
The Spaniards arrived with a mandate no less powerful than the peoples they met. After eight hundred years of occupation by Muslim invaders, their final expulsion in 1492 brought an enormous religious fervor which resulted immediately in the expulsion of all non-Catholics from Spain, and the search for new souls to convert to the only true church. This passion was fueled as well by the growth of the protestant movement in Europe. Spain was intensely religious. The gold taken from the New World was to be used for the purpose of religious expansion and the augmentation of the weakened Catholic church. There was no sense, as we have in modern anthropology, of the intrinsic value of culture and belief systems.
The religious blend which resulted from this collision was created at the cost of many lives, huge destruction and time. It makes a fascinating story. In the literature of Latin America religious themes are common, ancient, blended and modern. To teach these ideas several steps are involved. The first is the ancient beliefs.
The two great cultural systems of Latin America before Columbus were the Andean culture which was dominated by the Inca in the fifteenth century, and MesoAmerica, of which the Aztecs held control. Creation myths and stories of the celestials are available for both areas. When choice arises I will teach Mesoamerica because Mexico is the focus of the last activity: travel.
In the story of their origen, The Aztecs, or Mexicas as they called themselves, had wandered for a long time looking for the symbol of the feathered serpent to show them where to build their city. They had come from the mythical Aztlan, on the Pacific coast south of Acapulco, and wandered into the Valley of Mexico. There they saw an eagle in a cactus, eating a snake. Quetzalcoatl had found their home. The story is written many times. One of my favorites is by Rudolfo Anaya,
Lord of the Dawn: the Legend of Quetzalcoatl
. Anaya is Mexican American, that is to say that his ancestral roots are in Mesoamerica, even though his life is in New Mexico. The Hispanic southwestern United States was part of and settled by Mexicans up until the war of 1848. To Anaya this is not a quaint story of the ancient gods, but a story of the beginning of his people.
For further understanding, use Bernal D’az del Castillo,
The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico
; Miguel Leon Portillo,
; Carlos Fuentes,
The Buried Mirror
; and Octavio Paz,
The Labyrinth of Solitude
An example of precolumbian religion in modern writing can be found in Elena Garro, “The Fault of the Tlaxcaltecas,” a story of the fall of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital and the site of the modern Mexico city. Another reference is a poem, published in a bilingual edition, by Rodolfo Gonzales “Yo Soy Joaqu’n.” It is an epic poem about Chicano identity traced back to Aztec heritage.
I have chosen two stories to explore religion post-Columbian. The first is the story of the Virgin of Guadelupe. She is the patron Saint of Mexico, a vision to a poor Indian, Juan Diego, who was finally able to convince the power of the church to build a church more accessible to the poorer worshippers. Again there are many versions of this story. I plan to tell the story to my students and then read it aloud in Spanish. I will use a text called
Realidad y fantas
, which also contains “El origen de los Aztecas.”
My second story is more ambitious. Borges has a story called “The Gospel According to Mark,” which takes place in rural Argentina. The characters in the story take quite literally this beautiful biblical account of the life of Christ, and as it happens in fantastic literature, what is imagined comes true, often with a somewhat gruesome ending. In order to understand this story, the class will first have to read the story in its original form from the Bible, sections of which can be read in Spanish.
History and Politics
A second major theme of Latin American literature is history. History is rich and exciting and can be confusing. The precolumbian history of Mesoamerica, the layers upon layers of civilization, stretches back five thousand years at least, before the Aztecs came to power. Aztec domination of Mesoamerica, though powerful in a way which is reminiscent of the Roman Empire, lasted a short two hundred years, and ended brutally with the Spanish conquest. A curriculum unit has been written about Tenochtitlan and Teotihuacan (96.06.09).
One of the most intriguing aspects of the conquest is the person Malinche, interpreter and mistress to Cortes. She spoke several languages because she was the daughter of Aztec nobility, sent off to live in the Yucatan. I intend for my students to contrast the legends of Malinche and Pocahontas.
These two famous historical women represent parallel legends in Mexico and in the USA about the role of the native in the conquest of their lands by the Europeans. In the myth of Pocahontas, the daughter of the Indian chief protects the English soldier from death at the hands of the suspicious tribe. She later marries him and the two worlds coexist, with her marriage to Captain Smith. Malinche also helped and loved the invading European. Sometimes her story is told as a political maneuver for her smaller tribe to be protected from or to gain retribution against the stronger Aztecs. Sometimes she is a harlot, smitten by the beauty of the fair haired Cortes. She is a slave, a gift, a skilled translator. But the myth always leads to Malinche, willing or no, as the woman who led the enemy to the heart of the Aztec nation, Eve, the ultimate traitor.
A legend is a story told about history, but not limited to historical accuracy. In both cases, Pocahontas’ and Malinche’s, the tribe did not survive. In both cases the desire of the European was, in fact, for the wealth of the native peoples, in gold or land. And in fact though the destruction of Tenochtitlan was more dramatic, the destruction of the woodland tribes of the Atlantic was more complete. The legend of Pocahontas tells a pretty story of cooperation, like the first Thanksgiving. The legend of Malinche tells of a nation founded on betrayal, a people whose existence was forged in the collision of two societies which could not cooperate.
The centuries following the conquest have led to different fates for the people represented by these two women. In the United States the Indians were pushed out, assimilated and decimated. The 19th century stories of The Indian Wars and the Trail of Tears (91.01.01) are a devastating revelation of the single minded westward expansion, without regard for the lives or rights of people who already lived there. Unlike the sack of Tenotchitlan it is not a fast and total destruction, but a pattern of decades of small destructions and defeats. Now in the late 20th century we have turned our awareness to the value of other cultures, and as a nation are protecting the people we were heartlessly destroying one hundred years ago.
It happened very differently in land settled by the Spanish. While the British came to establish colonies free from the tyrannies of the crown, the Spanish came for the glory of the crown and especially for the Church. They came for gold and for souls. Unlike the British they did not come with families to begin homesteading. They found wives and lovers among the people they conquered and began a new race. Mexico especially is a land of mestizos, of European and Indian ancestry.
How this is explored with North American children depends on their age. Different scholars describe Malinche in various ways. Octavio Paz makes the conquest violent and sexual. This is not present in the same way in Bernal D’az del Castillo, who says, “ I should know; I was there. I knew her mother.” In
there are clear indications of deception, but as with all the others, one must consider the source. Carlos Fuentes in
has another slant. The most complete seeming and least impassioned was in Cecil Robinson (see Bibliography). But, as Paz would say, he is North American and does not see what he does not want to exist. One wonders if the correlative for Paz is to see what he wants to exist.
Recent units on Pocahontas are available from the Institute. In 1996,a seminar on Race and Culture yielded two (96.03.01 and 96.03.06). These explore the development of the legend of Pocahontas irrespective to the paucity of historical fact.
The history of Latin America invariably leads to modern political struggle, violent and non-violent. Much of Latin America still lives in a classist society of haves and have nots. A particularly poignant story is “Es que somos muy pobres (It is that we are very poor)” by Juan Rulfo. Poverty leaves no alternatives.
Garc’a Márquez’ most recent book,
News of a Kidnapping
, is about the Colombia drug cartel’s attempt to silence its enemies by kidnapping leading journalists. The strategy is eerily like those of the dictatorships of the 1970’s in Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, for example.
Peru is rife with examples of political struggle with roots in the cultural collision of the conquest and the continued existence of a classist/racial duality. In Peru, largely as a result of geography, in a country of desert and jungle split in half by the enormous Andes Mountains, there still exist two incompatible cultures. One is the nation of the coastal lowlands, of cities and modern conveniences, of commerce and competitive economics. The other is the culture of the indigenous peoples who live in the heights of the Andes and the interiors of the jungles in the traditions of their ancestors. Their economy is communal, their life style ancient, traditional, impoverished. There has always been an undercurrent of tension between these two worlds. Jose Maria Arguedas wrote a powerful novel ,
, which explores this intolerance.
The Story Teller
by Mario Vargas Llosa is about stone age people deep in the rainforests of Peru, on the verge of extinction. A symbolic and dramatic movie,
La Muralla Verde,
written and directed by Armando Robles Godoy in 1970, is a bold statement about the vanity and power of the political military government and its disregard for the basics of survival.
In the experience of my students a boundary exists between people according to their complexion, particularly heritage from African ancestors. The Hispanic people they know are largely of Puerto Rican ancestry, and experience these sam boundaries. As a result non-English language dominance tends to be equated with complexion in their minds. Perhaps they are exactly right: prejudice, rejection of Other, can stem from any difference, linguistic, racial and cultural are only a few. It is opne of my goals in this section of the curriculum to untangle these threads so that they may be compared.
When the Japanese Embassy in Lima was invaded in December 1996 I talked with my students about it. Many angles to follow up arose; some appear totally random, but caught the attention of the students. Tupac Amaru is a homonym with toopack (Two Pack?), the rap singer who also lived and died a life of violence led in resistance to his sense of exclusion from the majority culture. These two very different forms of protest can be contrasted in discussion. Issues of what is being protested, and how the cultural majority react will bridge two seemingly unrelated events. The derivation of the names will be a starting point.
The available literature of politics is endless. Pablo Neruda in
mentions the political history of most of Latin America in his paean to her. Using selections from this book and the lovely, if historically inaccurate, 1995 Italian film by Michael Radford,
will give students a good sense of the romance and passion of Neruda. Many outstanding films on Latin American politics may be appropriate.
State of Siege
by Costa-Gavras leaps to my mind because it was the first I saw, and because the Uruguayan struggle might be called the first of the modern human rights battles in which the USA was implicated on the side of violation. Costa-Gavras has out a new movie called
, 1997, which may help students find this material familiar.
Elena Poniatowska wrote
Massacre in Mexico
about non-violent student protest which ended in a massacre of the protesters by over zealous forces at the time of the Mexico City 1968 Olympics. It was the same year as the shooting of four student protesters at Kent State University in Ohio.
Seminars from previous years which may prove useful in teaching Latin American history include: Society and Literature in Latin America, (82.05), History as Fiction in Central and South America, (85.04), Writings and Rewritings of the Discovery of America, (86.02 and 92.02), The Latin American Short Story, (87.01), Autobiography in Latin American Literature, (90.01), Ancient Americas (94.02).
Minority Status and Speech
What is “proper” speech? An issue which attracts my adolescent students is the problem of the vernacular, resurfacing again in Ebonics. They identify partly in resistance to the adult world, and partly as a reflex defense of what they see as an attempt to obliterate minority culture. It is an opportunity to teach what we mean by dialect, what we know of the survival of speech patterns from Africa in her descendants in our classes. It is also a chance to reroute the question of “Why can’t
learn English.” In
, Arguedas deals with the issue of Quechua, a language thought untranslatable into Spanish until recently. Parallels can be found in the slang of our students, which equally “lose something in translation.” The discussion could include comparison of idioms they know (
) and some they don’t (
, it’s raining cats and dogs). The University of Chicago
Spanish-English Ingles-Espanol Dictionary
has a section of these. For a more complete understanding of Arguedas read the afterword by Vargas Llosa.
is a challenging book, but many sections of it are pertinent to this unit.
Another angle on “proper” speech is illustrated by writers such as Junot D’az, Ana Lydia Vega, and Gloria Anzáldua. In academic circles the bilingual idiom they use is still homeless, yet an increasing number of writers is publishing in it, in response to growth of the popularity of this mode of speech Students can consider the question who invents speech, and who writes dictionaries. They will also recognize language usa as a source of acceptance—or rejection.
Arguedas, as well as many other writers, attacks the problem of minority status, but he experiences the conflict as a genetic member of the dominant society (Peruvian aristocracy) raised in minority culture (Quechua) to the degree that he is not accepted by or comfortable in either. Can our students imagine themselves in these shoes? In “Dances with Wolves” a woman has lived with the Sioux so long she does not remember her first language, English. She fears being removed from her home by force by the westward expansion. What happens if a person identifies with a culture despite superficial or physical disparity? Bernal D’az speaks of Spaniards who had assimilated in the Americas during the discovery and had no interest in returning to their previous lives when the conquistadors came across them.
Magic realism and Fantastic Literature
Magic realism is the term used to describe the tradition in Latin American writing which does not separate rational reality from dreams, imagination, metaphorical or symbolic or mythical happenings. Ancestors may be in conversation with their descendents, people may turn into animals, nightmares and dreams come true, metaphors blend into themselves. North American writing is more likely to distinguish between these, allowing rational conscious tangible measurable happenings to be more real or determinant or important than writers using “magical realism.” Of course, if you are Garc’a Márquez or Borges you might add at this point that North Americans only accept what they want to accept of reality, a logical conclusion of Cartesian thought. This, however has no impact on reality, any more than blindness has an impact on light. The works of M.C.Escher, particularly “Drawing Hands,” are for me a visual example of magic realism. It also reminds me of “Borges y yo,” by Borges, and “To Julia de Burgos,” by Julia de Burgos. Felisberto Hernandez has a similar statement about his work in the introduction to
. Each of these is some version of the artist creating or separating from him/herself creating.
The tradition in the Caribbean basin, and including Mexico to Colombia was invented by Alejo Carpentier, and called Magic realism. Characters slide in and out of time and of selves, as in Garro’s “It’s the Fault of the Tlaxcaltecas,”
The Kingdom of this World
by Carpentier, the films told by Molina in
Kiss of the Spider Woman
(Hector Babenco, 1985). Another tradition, literature of the fantastic, grew somewhat differently in South America. Characters maintain their personalities, but it is quickly apparent that the setting itself is fantasticor imaginary. Events grow into extensions of their imaginations, fears, dreams or thoughts. Bizarre and often macabre stories result. Writers of this genre include Horácio Quiroga, Jorge Luis Borges, and Julio Cortázar. The great American master, Edgar Allen Poe, was much admired by these literary greats. Cortázar wrote and delivered a eulogy at Poe’s funeral. The distinction between these two literary genres becomes blurred. See Emil Rodr’guez Monegal, Felisberto Hernández and Tzvetlan Todorov for further reference.
Our students are already attracted to the literature of the fantastic, especially in movie form. The devotion to the grisley ghost stories of Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock is evidence of the North American passion for the fantastic. Some science fiction might be considered an offshoot of the fantastic.
One accessible writer is Laura Esquivel,
Like Water for Chocolate
The movie is wonderful, though appropriately rated R. Sections of the book, however, are lyrical descriptions of life growing up on a ranch in Mexico, with a little magic mixed into reality.
Garc’a Márquez’ “Light is Like Water” illustrates magic realism by extending the simple simile of the title to its tragic conclusion when for literal minded children light does become wholly, not just symbolically, like water. It fills up the apartment so that the children can boat in it while their unknowing parents are away. It is an easy story to read, only five pages, and students can understand this concept about the elusive edges of reality. It can be taught first as a metaphor, with students brainstorming sayings which are similes or metaphors of light and water: ie; light pouring in a window, a pool of light, bathed in light, a wash of color, and rainbows. After this activity the class should read the story aloud. (The teacher should be forewarned that there is reference to adult sexuality in the story. “Papa’s condoms” are mentioned, as well as adult film and TV.)
The story begins with the sentence, “At Christmas the boys asked again for a rowboat.” Garc’a Márquez begins with the a realistic situation: children repeatedly asking for something they think they want badly. However we are immediately warned to suspend our disbelief, as the parents should have, when we learn that “the boys were more determined than their parents believed.” (p. 157)
Totó, nine, and Joel, seven, are living abroad with their parents. Like in many other families, their success in school is rewarded in the way they request, and also like many other families, the reward comes through the father’s indulgence over the practical objections of the mother, who says, “To begin with, the only navigable water here is what comes out of the shower. (p. 157)” To begin with she is right, but she doesn’t know that the narrator has answered Totó’s question about why light turns on at the touch of the switch by saying, casually and poetically, that “(l)ight is like water; . . . you turn on the tap and out it comes.” (p.158). The narrator even warns us, “. . . I did not even have the courage to think about it twice.” Nor do we, the readers, think twice about what happens when determination and imagination are greater than belief.
The boat is stored in the maid’s room, since a maid is another thing the family does not have. Hence we are warned of the possibility of the boys alone without adult supervision. Step by step, one Wednesday evening at a time, we learn that the parents routinely go out to the movies, adult movies like
Last Tango in Paris
, hence the need for the condoms, leaving the boys alone, and that the boys routinely fill the house with a modest three feet of water at that time, and that the boys always get the reward they ask for when they have excelled in school. But we the readers are surprised because we do not believe what we have been told: that Madrid is landlocked, that Toto and Joel are skilled boaters, more determined than can be believed, that the boys longed to go farther, and that light is like water.
Follow-up discussion will include a plot summary, then a step by step analysis of when the metaphor becomes reality. As in any reading of Latin American literature, students should identify cultural descriptors: words or actions which are culturally specific, and compare them to their own culture. Parallels in the literature of North America are plentiful. All the works of Edgar Allen Poe are possibilities.
, a delightful picture book by Chris van Allsberg, was made into a movie showplace for Robin Williams and special effects. I recommend the book.
In “Miss Forbes’ Summer of Happiness” an idyllic summer is transformed for two boys by a governess who institutes a militaristic control on their life. When the desire for freedom from tyranny leads them to plot her death, the boundaries between imagination and reality become blurred, and to the surprise of the boys it isn’t just their own imagination which has run away with them. After reading the story, discussion might include: who imagined or fantasized what? What did the boys want? What did Miss Forbes want? What did the boys have to do? What did Miss Forbes have to do? What did the boys plan? What did the boys fear? What really happened to Miss Forbes?
, by Carlos Fuentes, reminds me of
The Picture of Dorian Grey
by Oscar Wilde. In the pursuit of eternal youth there is always peril. Dorian Grey had made a deal with the devil for his own continual youth. In Aura, the aged main character has recreated herself, her youth and perhaps her husband through magical use of drugs and religion. But the exertion of keeping her young self present is exhausting. The story is told in the second person, as though Aura’s late husband were telling it to you, his new replacement. The sexual relationship between Aura and the narrator may deny its usefulness to middle school students.
Borges wrote about the fantastic and published collections by other authors. The collection,
The Book of Fantasy
, which he edited with Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Cesares contains the favorite fantastic stories of the three. Works by John Aubrey, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Carlyle, Lewis Carroll and Edgar Allen Poe are included. It is a stunning volume. It gives a more extensive meaning to the term. “House Taken Over” by Julio Cortázar is included in the volume. This story, like much of fantastic literature, will be readily enjoyed by our students. “The House Taken Over” is also included in
Blow Up and Other Stories
another excellent source of fantastic literature. “Bestiary” is my favorite; there is a tiger living loose in the house and the residents must anticipate his location to plan their lives. It happens that the head of the house hold is beastly himself . . .
In his discussion of Cortázar’s short fiction Ilan Stavans compares Cortazar’s early works to Bunuel’s 1930
Le Chien Andalou
and to the European surrealist movement. He
refers to underlying themes of incest, surrealism and psychoanalytic dynamics. “Bestiary” is a story of involuntary intrusions and disquieting invasions, says Stavans. It is interesting that he mentions these motivations of Isabel, but merely says that the Kid is cruel; I see him as sadistic and abusive to Rema and Nino. “Bestiary” is a story which may be read with these motivations in mind, but it is also a powerful work at a less intense and intricate level which our students can appreciate. It is told, Stavans explains from the limited perspective of a child’s view, “from the floor up.”
Isabel is sent to stay with her Aunt Rema Funes for the summer. The reasons are adult; we are told the story through Isabel’s mind. She understands that she is difficult to deal with in the summer for a variety of reasons. We know her mother and sister Ines have mixed feelings about her visit to the Funes, that the house is depressing, and Isabel’s only companion will be “that boy”(79). We are also warned that the tiger is not a problem because the Funes’ are careful in that respect. But we are forewarned: we know Cortázar writes in the tradition of the fantastic, we must be willing to wonder if the story is really true, and we must be prepared for a macabre twist.
“That boy,” Nino, turns out to be a comfortable companion to Isabel. They play happily together with what they have. An ant colony becomes their fascination. And we hear, casually, about being careful not to go where the tiger is. Isabel loves and admires Rema. She watches her actions, and is soothed by her touch. Rema’s husband Luis and his brother, the Kid, are also there. Luis is remote, quiet, intellectual. The Kid is sadistic, hurting Nino or threatening Rema in a subtle ways which are noticed by Isabel.
The routine of the tiger is established midway through the story. The foreman keeps track of the whereabouts of the tiger and informs whomever he meetx. Isabel soon learns to adjust and who to ask. After a time she becomes one of the trusted sources of knowledge of where the tiger is. She becomes subliminally aware of the tiger, and of the Kid. As the story progresses Isabel begins to draw parallels between the insect life she watches and that of the humans in the house. She mentions hope of escape in relation to the ants. A preying mantis leads her to visions of murder, although we understand that it hurts Isabel to kill an insect. One day after she has heard Rema crying, Isabel is the one to tell the family where the tiger is. A close analysis of the passage allows us to see that Cortázar has not said directly that Isabel lies, but creates an opportunity for her to let the family believe that she is relying on information from the foreman. When the Kid enters the library, Isabel is so deeply entranced with the snails she is watching, snails that can escape from their houses, that she does not react to his first scream. She does not move until Rema comes to her, and holds her in a way that Isabel interprets as gratitude and acquiescence.
Questions for discussion include, from whose perspective is the story told? Who is listening? Who is not listening? Does Rema know that Isabel has murdered the Kid? Did Isabel set up the Kid to be killed by the tiger? Is the Kid sexually assaulting his sister in law? Does Luis know how far his brother dares to go? What does Nino know? How does Isabel feel toward her aunt, and how does Rema feel toward her niece? Who is complicitious in the death of the Kid? Who is oblivious or in denial? Who is the real danger in the story? Does every character agree?
“House Taken Over” is a story a brother and sister whose house is being taken over. In a Kafkaesque way we are never told how or by who this is happening. The story was written during the second dictatorship of Juan Peron, and reflects the steady growth of the regime in the lives of its citizens. It also reflects the house Cortázar grew up in and his slose relationship with his sister, according to Stavans. The siblings in the story are adult and live together because they never bothered to get married. Stavans is a good source to further understand this, the first story Cortázar published, and one of his most powerful.
In discussion with students I will follow up the notion of a steady subtle creeping domination. I would reiterate some of the questions discussed in “Bestiaray,” particularly those alluding to the sense of powerlessness the characters seem to have, their inability to make the evil stop. Who tells this story of “The House Taken Over,” and who is listening? I would ask my students if this is a ghost story, and what makes it so or not? What is the function of ghost stories in their lives? What social values of our time do they remind us of? Which of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories does this story make us think of? Were the characters party to the loss of their house?
Horácio Quiroga was an earlier writer and master of this genre. Unfortunately few of his stories are available in English.
The Decapitated Chicken
contains several stories with children as protagonist, or narrator, in a world of fantasy. There is an excellent and thorough analysis of this story in Peter Beardsell (see bibliography). The collection entitled
Cuentos de la selva (para ni–os
) was published in 1918. Unfortunately these are not yet in English. A unit on Quiroga (85.04.02) written by Trish Niece. The valuable information and suggestions in her unit need not be repeated here.
Coming of Age in Latino Literature
As we embrace the concept of cultural diversity we include more reflections of that diversity through the eyes of our various minorities. Latino literature in recent years has become more available in the United States, and part of school curricula. This is the story of a minority culture, or several with similar aspects, in response to the dominant culture, trying to find justice or fairness or equality in a society founded at the intersection of racism and open integration.
Short stories by Hispanic authors can introduce universal aspects of life to students of Spanish in middle school. They can read in English stories about people they understand, and with whom they may identify. They will discover cultural differences and make links of cultural similarities. And best of all they will understand that all this foreign language is as American as tortilla chips and salsa, right here in our own lives. I plan to read aloud, or have students read, stories in class each week. The lessons are designed to focus on differences and the ways those differences show us to be alike. My purpose in this section is to provide an opportunity for my students to compare themselves to characters of their own age from literature written about and by Hispanics. I intend to include a variety of short stories and excerpts from novels.
As my goal is to make what is foreign seem familiar, my objectives will be reached by having students compare their own lives to the lives they are reading about. I had hoped originally to find “coming of age” stories from other countries. I came to realize through my reading that “coming of age” as we understand it in the USA is an experience peculiar to us. In other countries the shift from childhood to adulthood is different, perhaps more sudden, sometimes earlier and sometimes later. The economic needs of society and the traditions which have resulted differ greatly between the Latin and the North American. In stories by Latin Americans, children are often relegated to minor roles
“Balthazars’ Marvelous Afternoon”), or must assume adult burdens at what we Northerners consider a tender age (“Es que somos muy pobres”), below the age of consent (
Erendira), minors (“The Desert”). The stories of adolescents of Hispanic heritage who are living in the USA (Latino literature) more often reflect the longer passage from child to adult, complicated by the duality of their culture. Some popular writers are Chicano authors Rudolfo Anaya,
and Sandra Cisneros,
The House on Mango Street
Woman Hollering Creek
; the Puerto Rican authors Esmeralda Santiago,
When I was Puerto Rican
, and Judith Ortiz Cofer,
An Island Like You
; Cuban Cristina Garc’a,
Dreaming in Cuban
; and Dominicans Julia Alvarez,
How the Garc
a Girls Lost their Accents
and Junot D’az,
. Hispanic children and adolescents growing up in the USA have the same problems as other minorities, as we discover all of us are. Prejudice, isolation and generational non-acceptance, particularly around issues of assimilation, are familiar.
This may be the easiest part of the unit to prepare and to teach. There are dozens of usable books, written within the acceptable parameters of
. Whatever that is. I have mentioned Cisneros, Garc’a, Anaya, Alvarez, Ortiz Cofer, D’az, Rodr’guez. There are other Caribbean writers such as Edwidge Danticott and Jamaica Kincaid whose works speak of cultural boundaries whether in Spanish or French or English. A valuable resource to mention at this point is Hazel Rochman’s 1993 bibliography of children’s books for a multicultural world,
. It has an enormity of useful material, and I desperately hope she publishes an addenda every five years. She includes fiction, non-fiction and video listings. The book has sections in themes—family, love, journeys—and also by ethnic group, among which Latino is included.
Chicano author Richard Rodr’guez has written an essay, published in
U.S.News and World Report
, April 7, 1997, about American adolescence in Los Angeles. He concludes that American authors have not known how to write the end of the story of adolescence since Mark Twain signed off, “The end. Yours truly, Huck Finn.”
Family, Holidays and Children on their own
Students will read stories with clear and complex family trees, and make comparisons with their own families. (
Bless Me, última
How the Garciá Girls Lost Their Accents
). Some comparisons may be visual: drawings, collages, family portraits. I may ask students to investigate their own family trees to find out what heritages and linguistic traditions might be represented. We may compare customs, like birthday parties or school experiences, (“Once”). Did their parents have cultural boundaries to marriage? See the seminar (89.03) on the family in Latin American literature. We will also look at the family/cultural trees of some of the people we are discussing in the course. We have mentioned Arguedas’ dual cultural experience. We might also talk about people such as Frida Kahlo and Elena Poniatowska, both Mexicans with recent European roots: Kahol’s father, and Poniatowska herself.
I am aiming to create a sense of American-ness, that we all, from Tierra del Fuego to the North slope of Alaska, are immigrants. We are descendants of people who came here from somewhere, with languages forgotten or remembered, with traditions intact or reinvented. The accidents of history have put us where we are and our neighbors where they are. The new world is new to us all, and we may live next door to people who have come from any part of the world. Multiculturalism means that people of different origens now live together. This is a new experience to humanity, given five or ten thousand years of urban civilization on every continent.
In discussion I would ask students what we mean by cultural diversity or multiculturism. Why do schools value it? What cultures are represented in your family? church? school? What is prejudice? What is taboo in our culture? in the culture of the middle school child? in other cultures? Do Americans marry their siblings? Why not? Why did ancient Egyptians or ancient Americans feel differently? What about killing other people? murder? capital punishment? human sacrifice? What role did cultural misunderstanding have in the fall of Tenochtitlan? What assumptions does a dominant culture make about the values and goals of minority cultures?
We know that holidays are relics from agrarian society, when life was measured by the seasons and the work each required. From the most ancient memories of humanity we find celebrations to mark the continuing circle of time. The Aztec calendar, which is as accurate as the calendar we now use, ended every 52 years. At the end of a week of waiting, if the sun came up again the gods had allowed another 52 years. The last one ended in 1519, the year of the Spanish inbvasion. Several institute units have been written on Aztec life. One on the Aztec calendar (85.06.02) will be helpful in teaching this advanced mathematical understanding. In all cultures we find a celebration of the beginning of spring, the vernal equinox, the height of the sun, summer solstice, the harvest and autumnal equinox, and the end of the growing dark, winter solstice.
The celebration of holidays crosses culture, yet we discover discomfort and confusion about learning the differences among these celebrations. A unit is prepared in teaching multicultural holidays (89.01.12). Though the word holiday means Holy Day, in modern times this does not necessarily imply a religious sense. The Day of the Dead is sometimes misunderstood as devil worship, when in reality it is more like our memorial day. We now teach holiday clusters, such as Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwaanza, and El d’a de los reyes. Other cultures celebrate this last as Twelfth night (Shakespeare), Epiphany (Ecclesiastical calendar), and Little Christmas, as it is called by many 20th century European Catholic immigrants to the USA. Autumn festivals include Homecoming, Thanksgiving, Succoth, Halloween and El d’a de los muertos
And of course in summer we celebrate Memorial Day, Midsummer Night, May Day, the 4th of July and San Ferm’n when the bulls run in Pamplona. Many books about multicultural holidays are available.
Survival without adult support
Children coping with disaster in the absence of adequate parental aid is the stuff of great literature and movies.
is alternately censored and praised as the greatest American novel.
, John Hughes, 1990, grossed millions. “Es que somos muy pobres,” a story by Juan Rulfo, is a simple monologue of a girl considering her future after the family’s cow, meant to be her dowry, has drowned. “The Desert,” Quiroga, is similar to
, an Australian movie about two children whose father kills himself, leaving them in the outback of Australia to walk their way back to civilization, and discover self reliance through the Aboriginal coming of age experience. Bunuel’s famous film,
exposes the lives of the homeless children of Mexico. S.E.Hinton’s books are taught in middle school. Several have been made into movies,
That Was Then, This Is Now
, Christopher Cain, 1986 and
Stand by Me
is a 1987 Stephen King movie about four friends who go alone on an oddessey to find a dead boy’s body. In “Light is Like Water,” Garc’a Márquez gives us a story of parents who were very present, but underestimated the power of their sons’ imagination.
Part of my lesson plan will be rather more intensive, extensive than some teachers will find convenient. I am planning for the first time to take a group of eighth grade students to Mexico in February, 1998. I want the trip to be an exploration of Maya ruins, which they studied in sixth grade, and an opportunity to use the language they will have worked with for nearly three years. I am still investigating which tour company will provide us with the most for the least. I hope to be able to arrange for us to stay away from American resorts, and truly experience something of Mexican culture. I will plan a lesson on Mexican money, exchange rates, coins and the prices to expect as part of this unit. I will stress those aspects of life which are parallel but different over those aspects which are identical. For example, cultural comfort should extend beyond going to McDonalds in San Juan or staying at the Marriot in Cancún. A shopping trip in the open air market would use Mexican money rather than dollars and cents.