But First Some Questions
I teach a semester-long elective course at my high school entitled, "Multicultural Literature I." A title like this could mean anything and, at worst, could lead to sorting writers of all different eras and contexts into an unexamined set of ethnic groupings and leaving it at that. The goal of the course as it was given to me was to show students that writers came from all different backgrounds and to try to use that fact to positively reinforce (celebrate?) the students own ethnic identities.
This approach offered a couple of problems for me as a teacher. First, by the time the students reach their senior year in high school (as most of the students who sign up for this course have), many have seen this approach over and over again and have begun to take it for granted. Second, I find it hard to find worthwhile stories for a literature course that "celebrate" ethnicity. For me, the most interesting stories have always been ones that undermine a reader's preconceptions and force him or her to ask questions, rather than reinforcing or celebrating anything.
So, I try to organize my curriculum around stories and writers that force readers to ask questions about the idea of culture in general and the origins and usefulness of specific cultural groupings in the United States. The curriculum for the course overall has settled into an examination of writers placed into three rough groupings--American Indian writers, African-American writers, and Latino writers-- that pushes students towards specific definitions of what culture is and is not.
The goal is not to reach conclusions about what it means to be a member of one of these groups, but to ask whether grouping writers this way could help us understand how ideas about culture really work in our society. Through the American Indian writers, we look at the general inaccuracies of most cultural labels and the need for these writers to be true to their own experience. Then we read a chronological selection of African-American writers to find common and developing themes that occur when writers confront the realities of the concept of race in America. And then we conclude with Latino writers. However, in past years, upon reaching the Latino writers, my organizing principles always fell apart. The stories, people, and experiences that could be called Latino seemed far too diverse to cover in a few weeks and I did not know enough to make a select group of writers fit neatly into my scheme.
As I have learned more about the cultures and communities that can be placed in the category Latino, the reasons for this breakdown have become much clearer. Looking beyond generalities about language, religion, race, and social class, one finds the very specific histories of over twenty different countries and territories, the unique set of relationships between the United States and each of these countries and territories that have led individuals and families to establish lives in the United States in the last two hundred years, and the even more specific life stories of each of those individuals and families.
I have stated a preference for stories that raise questions about our understanding of the world, but the sheer range of questions that can be asked when considering what is or is not Latino quickly becomes intimidating-- At what point in history, if any, does Latino become a genuinely useful term? How can we justify applying the label to historical figures who would not recognize its meaning? How does the Mexican-American whose family has lived in California since 1850 fit under the same label as the Dominican in New York City who has just achieved citizenship? Does a migrant laborer share any interests with a Cuban expatriate? What about the Puerto Rican child and Guatemalan child living in the same American city and going to same school? Do they have more in common with each other than they do with their own grandparents? If one looks white and the other looks black, will they have substantially different experiences in the United States today? Does calling them both Latino undermine traditional notions of race and ethnicity in the United States or does it simply add another arbitrary category to the old ones? Does it matter if any of these folks actually speak Spanish?
Defining this seemingly straightforward term requires several tenuous connections across history, geography, language, family generations, and social class. Its ability or inability to make these connections makes the difference between a word that is powerful and rich in connotations and one that is completely meaningless. However, at this point in the American cultural dialogue, the term Latino has become stuck in our language and, if we are to make it a rich term rather than a thin one, choosing the right stories becomes an important task.
Hill Regional Career High School (Career, for short) is a magnet school for students in the New Haven area interested in health and business careers. There are about 700 students total. The ethnic composition in traditional terms is approximately half African-American, one quarter Hispanic, and one quarter white and other ethnicities. After freshman year, students must choose either the health or the business track and this choice determines most of the electives they will take for the next three years.
The traditional high school requirements of English, history, math, and science still apply, but electives within the English department are not a high priority in the overall curriculum. They provide a rest for the teacher from the workload of the regular English courses and a necessary credit towards graduation for the senior with a hole in his or her schedule. There are significant exceptions to this of course, but this is the general situation. Students arrive at the course with vague expectations of ethnic affirmation and light work. They are not necessarily interested in addressing the heavy questions of our times.
Also, for the contemporary adolescent in a mixed urban high school, ideas about other people's ethnicities tend to be roughly hewn. An individual student can be pressed quietly for proud details of his or her family or cultural background, but most interactions between students can be represented by the frequently asked question "What are you?" And the acceptable answers to this question come only from a few very broad categories-- white, black, Puerto Rican, Italian, Jamaican. Students who have immigrated to the U.S. are allowed to name the country they came from, but calling yourself "Latino" in response to the question "What are you?" would seem too academic. Once the question is answered with the appropriate label, no other information is necessary. The obvious stereotypes are joked about with no offense intended and everyone rests comfortably knowing that everyone has a label.
The role the course plays in Career's curriculum, the students' expectations about the difficulty of the course, the students' history with multicultural curriculums of all sorts in their previous schooling, the students' regular habits in talking about each other's ethnicities, and my own identity as a young-looking mild-mannered white male teacher-- all of these things provide significant challenges when thinking about what stories and poems I might choose and the kind of lessons that might lead the students towards serious consideration of the questions inherent in the subject matter.
Initial Thoughts about the Literature
When I was assigned to teach this course last year, I turned to the resources the school already had. Of the assorted anthologies and textbooks that the school owned in sufficient number for classroom use,
The Latino Reader
edited by Harold Augenbraum and Margarite Fernández Olmos had the most interesting and comprehensive selection of writers. After doing the work to prepare this curriculum, I realized that
The Latino Reader
was, in fact, an excellent resource. Thanks to the thoughtful efforts of an anonymous predecessor, I had stumbled upon the ideal text for this curriculum. The selections cover most of the recognized important writers while still being short enough to be considered in one or two class periods.
As I mentioned before, however, even with this text, I did not know how difficult it would be to find a unified set of stories and poems that could lead students to questions and concepts that followed naturally from the previous two units on American Indian and African-American literature. Given the limited time frame of this curriculum, I needed to find the middle ground between a fruitless attempt to cover the full diversity of Latino cultures (and their tangled roots in Indian, African, and European traditions) and the too narrow shortcut of choosing Puerto Rican writers for students who already feel that Puerto Rican and Latino mean the same thing.
At this point, it is probably wise to temper both my initial skepticism about ethnic empowerment and my hand-waving about the irreducible complexity of Latino-ness. It is true, and not a bad thing, that the students do perk up (if only ever-so-slightly) when reading the work of writers that they feel share their background. And it is not a tragedy to simplify a complex subject matter in order to introduce the students to writers that I now know are more than just random selections in an anthology.
So, with appropriate self-awareness, the middle ground I have chosen is a selection of mostly Puerto Rican writers who address or portray variations of four kinds of experience found in Latino literature-- immigrants making a new life in the United States, adults and children wrestling with the continuum of languages between English and Spanish, Latino youths discovering American social boundaries for the first time, and writers using poetry to assert individual identities in the face of the resistance or neglect of the majority.