This unit is concerned with the cultural and personal identity of Puerto Ricans in the United States, particularly those in New York, and the role of language in the individual's quest for self-definition. It incorporates various forms and will analyze the individual writers' choice of vocabulary, imagery, syntax, and diction to determine the rhetorical purpose in the individual's artistic expression of self. The unit is titled Other Voices to reflect the fact that, while there may be similar views and realizations among the writers, each individual's experience and expression is unique.
This unit is intended for use in a twelfth grade English course and should take around five to six weeks to complete. It provides the opportunity to investigate the role of a particular ethnic group in the great gumbo called America, the nature of language and the individual's relationship with the language(s) with which they communicate. The elements of poetry and prose only have meaning in context, and this unit provides a different set of voices and cultural context in which to analyze them. The unit can be used in an honors-level twelfth grade or Advanced Placement course, but may also be suitable for eleventh graders who are mature and curious. The unit could be adapted for use in a sociology course, as well, since language is a cultural artifact.
The term "voice" has been chosen for a very specific reason: its dual importance as a literary term and a political force. All writers look to find their own "voice" as they develop; it is the tangible qualities (i.e. rhetorical, use of figurative language, syntax, diction, etc.) and intangible qualities (the personality and philosophy that comes through in a body of work) that distinguish a writer from others. "Voice" is what makes an artist's expression personal and real; it makes the lover of literature and writing want to carry on a dialogue with a text. It is the artist's expression of his or her humanity. In addition, to use one's voice is to assert a personal philosophy and relationship with society through the depiction of and reflection on personal experience. To use that voice is a political act in the purest sense. Puerto Rican writers, like other ethnic groups in the United States, have used their position as outsiders as one of the key elements of their artistic expression. Their experiences as people on the fringe of the mainstream culture has provided them with a great deal to mull over in the search to define self and culture.
Puerto Ricans are in a unique position as residents of the United States. As citizens of a commonwealth of the United States, they are considered Americans and immigrants at the same time. They have a dual identity as Puerto Ricans and Americans. Spanish is widely spoken and used in the U.S., yet it is an English speaking society in which they live. In fact, a debate has raged as to whether Congress should designate English as the official language of The United States and eliminate Spanish from government publications and public signs. This has given special significance to language as an element of personal and cultural identity. Many writers go back and forth between the languages, engaging in a practice known as "code-shifting," and have devised a hybrid sometimes derisively referred to as "Spanglish." What is the significance of this language use? Is it the degradation of two languages, as some would argue, or is it in fact a living artifact of a culture in evolution? Is it part of the political statement that these marginalized people are making? This unit will address these issues and view the writings as pieces of literary merit.