Overall, my Multicultural Literature course is arranged around a series of short readings and accompanying questions meant to spark critical response from the students. Career High School has a block schedule arranged so that each class meets for an 82 minute period every other day. This schedule provides plenty of time for students to read a selection, discuss their questions and impressions, and write an extended response to the questions posed in class (with some leeway to complete unfinished reading or writing assignments as homework). Continuity between classes is provided by keeping a running set of notes (on large white post-it paper) at the front of the class, which allows the students and me to continually refer back to previous questions and concepts discussed in class.
The Latino literature portion of this semester-long course is meant to last five weeks. With the block schedule, the class meets approximately twelve times over those five weeks and, taking into account introductory and review classes, that leaves about ten short class sets of reading (e.g. a short story, a set of short poems, pairs of prose excerpts) to cover the concepts mentioned above. The typical class would be divided into thirds, with 25 minutes for reading and note-taking, 25 minutes for class discussion, and 25 minutes to complete the writing assignment.
The writing assignments are the primary means of assessing how the students are processing the ideas in class and have proven, in the past, to be a reliable measure, though special attention needs to be paid to asking questions that require students to make connections to ideas discussed in previous classes, and holding them responsible for making those connections, so that they are not simply viewing each assignment in isolation.
For this portion of the curriculum, all students are using one anthology,
The Latino Reader
. The title, author, page numbers, and questions for discussion for the daily reading are posted at the front of the room before class begins and students should begin reading immediately.
Discussions should be freewheeling to take advantage of particular strengths of each group of students, but important ideas generated by the class should be closely documented in class notes, and the teacher should periodically return attention to the overarching concepts
I use one consistent set of writing requirements throughout the entire semester, asking for a 150-word minimum (slightly less than one notebook page of reasonable-sized handwriting), logical organization, a clearly expressed central idea or conflict, and a handful of specific supporting details (either short direct quotes or unique facts) from the reading.
What is Latino? This is the title of my curriculum and, in fact, the first question that I ask the students when we begin the unit. The initial responses, even after the two previous units, tend to be an airing of stereotypes or generalizations. In order to focus their thinking, I point out that the term "Latino" only really makes sense within the United States and I provide the following data from the 2000 U.S. Census
35 million Latinos
For students who are mostly familiar with Puerto Rican culture, this chart helps shift their thinking away from their immediate experience towards an effort to make sense of the larger label at the top. When asked specifically what all these sub-groups living in the United States might have in common with each other and what it means for Mexican-Americans to be such a large majority, the students will begin to bring up the kinds of ideas, experiences, and themes that we will find in the literature.
Readings and Concepts
To review, the readings I list below are grouped according to a theme. For each theme I have chosen a couple of short pieces from
The Latino Reader
. I will name each of the experiences, give the author and page numbers for the selections, and a brief overview of what these selections are and how they might be discussed.
Immigrants making a new life in the United States
"New York from Within" by Pachín Marín, pp. 108-111
Memoirs of Bernardo Vega
by Bernardo Vega, pp. 165-173
These two men, both born in Puerto Rico in the nineteenth century (though twenty-two years apart) do not fit the image of the struggling family that we normally conjure when thinking of immigrant arrival in the United States, but the stories they tell are a very useful way to start a unit that asks the students to go beyond narrow views of ethnicity. Though both men were Puerto Ricans who spent significant time in New York City, their worldview extended far beyond these two specific locations to encompass an international, class-conscious sense of identity.
In "New York from Within," published in the New York Spanish-language newspaper
La Gaceta del Pueblo
Marín starts, "If you present yourself in this metropolis… suitcases stuffed with Mexican
or shimmering gold doubloons, things will naturally go very well for you," but then slyly makes the case for the many charms the city holds for the man who arrives with nothing, speaking the wrong language. Marín addresses this hypothetical visitor directly and ultimately guides him to what he declares is New York's greatest institution, the Lager Beer Hall, where two men can drink beer, eat sausage, beef, ham, and "succulent" soup for only five cents.
It is up to interpretation to determine whether Marín is being at least a little bit ironic in this tribute. It is not clear whether the new arrival he has guided to beer hall will find any constructive pursuits other than passing time in the beer hall, or if Marín even wants this man to find any other pursuits. The final tribute to the beer hall in the story is uttered by a "philosopher friend" who every day returns to the beer hall "from heaven-knows-where", a phrase which connotes a life of cheerful wandering, rather than dutiful labor. Or we can take the author at his word and say that the beer hall is an important place of refuge and community for the new arrival who can then go forward with new confidence to make his contribution to the thriving industry of the city.
Vega was an active political leader in his time and his memoirs are considered an important resource for historians studying the political development of the Caribbean.
He places the camaraderie and support that Marín finds in the beer hall in the context of an industrious workplace in the 1910s in this excerpt from his memoirs. After several discouraging jobs working in abusive and dangerous factories, Vega finds ideal work in a cigar factory, El Morito, in New York that employs Spanish speakers from all different nations and where the men are continuing the tradition of having someone read aloud for two hours a day as they make the cigars. Vega places the origin of this tradition in Cuba in the 1860s and says that the readings began as light entertainments, but as the workers became more political, they developed a taste for heavier literature, social theory, and intense political discussion.
Vega describes in detail the deep political awareness and passionate points of view that the men share and debate during the years around World War I, writing that with "workers of this caliber, El Morito seemed like a university." As workers, the men identify strongly with the socialist theory of the time and develop an international perspective, especially in regards to the interests that Cubans and Puerto Ricans share. The factories are home to what could be called an early Latino identity that extends beyond individual countries of origin. Vega states proudly, "It is safe to say that there were no factories with Hispanic cigar workers without a reader. Things were different in English-speaking shops where, as far as I know, no such readings took place."
Though the students tend to see Vega's excerpt as a little long, both of these selections have worked well in past classes. The students have been taught about the cigar factories before, Marín's ironic tone communicates well, and both pieces introduce the idea of political unity, or at least transnational camaraderie, as useful application for the term Latino.
Between English and Spanish
Hunger of Memory
by Richard Rodriguez, pp. 391-405
by Gloria Anzaldúa, pp. 444-452
These two are thoroughly argued, contrasting views of the types of negotiations with language that occur within Spanish speaking families and cultures in the English dominant United States. Rodriguez describes in careful detail his experience as a Spanish-speaking first grader in an English-speaking school and then reflects on how his experience might help us think about bilingual education. Anzaldúa intersperses personal anecdotes with a detailed analysis of all the different combinations of English and Spanish that she has encountered during her life in Texas.
Hunger of Memory
is a collection of autobiographical essays that sparked a tremendous amount of political discussion when it was published in 1982.
His central conceit in this story is a distinction between private and public language. Before arriving at school at the age of six, he has never given much thought as to how language is used by people other than his immediate family and relatives. Hearing English at school, he comes to the conclusion that Spanish is a private language. This conclusion creates the main conflict of the excerpt when the teachers from his school arrive at his house to tell his parents that, in order to help their son learn English more quickly, they should only speak English to him in the house. And though the parents' own limited English make this difficult, the whole family begins to speak only English, and what the young Richard thought of as his family's private language slowly disappears from the house.
Surprisingly, since this shift in language is described with such heartbreaking detail, Rodriguez concludes that the whole process was to his benefit. He finds that it is essential for him to be able to participate fully in the public language of his country to be a true citizen. He writes of the first day when he feels comfortable enough to raise his hand and answer a teacher's question in English, "I spoke out in a loud voice. And I did not think it remarkable when the entire class understood… The belief, the calming assurance that I belonged in public, had at last taken hold."
In contrast to Rodriguez' story where one language completely supplants another, Anzaldúa describes a world where several different combinations of English and Spanish all exist at once and finds that each serves an important purpose. Her book
, published in 1987, attempts to weave an understanding of the politics of language and identity throughout the text.
For her, Chicano Spanish sits firmly in the middle of the "American" that teachers forced her to speak at school and what she calls "Standard Spanish." She writes:
For a people who are neither Spanish nor live in a country in which Spanish is the first language; for a people who live in a country in which English is the reigning tongue but who are not Anglo; for a people who cannot entirely identify with either standard (formal, Castilian) Spanish nor standard English, what recourse is left to them but to create their own language?
Her list of language variations also includes slang English, Standard Mexican Spanish, North Mexican Spanish dialect, Tex-Mex, and
(which she describes as a youth slang Spanish with heavy English influence). For each of these languages, she describes a place or time when she found herself having to speak it.
Students who are more familiar with the Puerto Rican variation of this continuum will have to make a little leap of comprehension, but these authors have such distinct points of view that it should be easy for the students to figure out where they would place their own opinions in relation to those described in the excerpts. They should also be able to come to some easy conclusion about how this complex relation to language can help us define the term Latino.
Latino youth and American social boundaries
Down These Mean Streets
by Piri Thomas, pp. 279-285
by Nicholasa Mohr, pp. 317-328
Alternative reading: "American History" by Judith Ortiz Cofer, pp. 479-487
These two stories make an interesting contrast because they portray two characters who have opposite reactions to similar situations. Both stories show that even for Latinos born in the United States who primarily speak English, American culture creates significant social boundaries. In literature, this kind of truth seems to become apparent to characters in their later childhood years or early adolescence, when it becomes necessary to venture outside the comfort of an immediate family or neighborhood.
In this excerpt from Piri Thomas' autobiographical
Down These Mean Streets
, his family moves from Harlem to suburban Long Island in 1944 when he is sixteen years old. Moving to an entirely new kind of home and a new school would be traumatic for any sixteen-year-old, but the conflict Thomas finds at his new school has a very particular slant. Thomas' youth in Harlem gave him a clear set of social categories and a strong identity as Puerto Rican, but because he is dark-skinned, his classmates at his new school refuse to think of him as anything other than black and treat him with the corresponding racism of the time. When he realizes the extent of his classmates' ignorance and his isolation at this new school, he is enraged, cutting off his initial friendships, and declaring that he will never return to the school.
In this excerpt from Nicholasa Mohr's novel
, the title character faces a similar rejection of her identity when she travels away from the city into leafier environments. In this case, she is a ten-year-old traveling to a summer camp where she is, for the most part, extremely happy and comfortable. The only conflict comes in a conversation with the only other girl in the camp who knows Spanish, Olga Rodríguez. Olga is an older camper who upon hearing Nilda's Puerto Rican accent gets angry, calls her stupid, and threatens, "Don't let me hear you calling yourself Spanish around here when you can't even talk it properly." Nilda is surprised by this, but unlike Thomas, she has no probably brushing it off. She remains blissfully unconcerned with another's person ignorance.
The differences between these two reactions should allow the students to takes stands on what factors they think are most important in allowing a person to negotiate these types of boundaries. Questions to guide this discussion might include the following: Is it more painful to be rejected in terms of race than to be rejected in terms of language? What about rejection by an individual compared with rejection by a group? Are adolescents more or less sensitive to these boundaries than younger children? Can the social boundaries of race and language a means for Latinos of different national origin to find common experience?
If there seem to be a few too many differences between these stories, I have offered an alternative selection, Judith Ortiz Confer's story "American History." In this story, the main character, a ninth-grade girl, develops a crush on a white classmate named Eugene whose house she can see into from her window. She especially likes the fact that he is quiet and spends most nights reading intently at kitchen table. She arranges to study with him on a day that unfortunately ends up being the day that President Kennedy is assassinated. She persists in keeping the date and is rejected at the door by Eugene's mother for clearly racist reasons. She reacts with particularly touching kind of sadness. There is a slightly subtler set of associations and ironies here than in the other stories, but it still could be paired in an interesting way with either one.
Poetry that asserts an individual or ethnic identity
"Returning" and "Farewell in Welfare Island" by Julia de Burgos, pp. 209-210
"African Things" by Victor Hernández Cruz, pp. 285-287
"Puerto Rican Obituary" by Pedro Pietri, pp. 328-337
"AmeRícan" by Tato Laviera, pp. 378-381
"A la Mujer Borrinque–a" by Sandra María Esteves, pp. 382-384
"Ending Poem" by Rosario Morales and Aurora Levins Morales, pp. 438-440
It is not necessary to ask the students to read all of these poems; half of these would be sufficient for the time allotted for this unit. I list them all in order to provide choice and flexibility in how to conclude the unit overall. All of these poets have connections to Puerto Rico. The poems range from very short, "African Things," to very long, "Puerto Rican Obituary," and from intense inward focus, "Returning," to purposeful exhortation, "AmeRícan." They are listed here in chronological order, and were published from 1947 to 1986. Though the selections start off with Julia de Burgos' evocations of sadness and isolation, the poets who follow her are mostly defiant or, at least, supremely confident in their portrayals of themselves and their culture. These are the fully developed adult responses to the boundaries the adolescent characters encounter for the first time in Nilda and
Down These Mean Streets
Both "Returning" and "Farewell in Welfare Island" are expressions of deep sadness. Burgos writes, "It's as if I'd like to love/ and the wind doesn't let me" in the first and, "It has to be from here,/ right this instance,/ my cry into the world" in the second. Students could be asked whether the previous readings in this unit might provide clues for the source of this sadness.
"Puerto Rican Obituary" by Pedro Pietri is an extended epitath and tribute for all of the Puerto Ricans in America who spent their lives working and dreaming without achieving success or independence. Again, students could be asked about the root of the anger and sadness in the poem and whether the poem respects or disdains the people he is describing. Also, the poem was written in 1973, so students could be asked whether this poem could still be written today. The poem may be too long for some groups of students.
"African Things," "AmeRícan," and "A la Mujer Borrinque–a" are all exhortations towards taking pride in vibrant, mixed roots. In "African Things" the speaker implores his grandmother to summon the African spirits and rhythms that he knows are deep in Puerto Rican culture. "AmeRícan" is an enthusiastic tribute to the strange glories and creativities that come with being Puerto Rican and American at the same time. And in "A la Mujer Borrinque–a," the speaker is a mother who takes pride in teaching her children to be strong.
Poetry allows a lot more creativity in the kinds of written responses students can be allowed to write. I frequently ask students to write their own poems in response to ones we read in class and always get some thoughtful, crafted results. The final poets we see here are trying to use their words to break through some boundaries. After spending a semester trying to name and define those boundaries, the students might be given some freedom here to try to break the boundaries down themselves.
Young men seeking refuge and identity in a group of their peers
"Cuco Goes to a Party" by Mario Suárez, pp. 201-207
by José Antonio Villarreal, pp. 236-247
Grandmothers and granddaughters in intense emotional relationships
"The Moths" by Helena María Viramontes, pp. 432-438
Dreaming in Cuban
by Cristina Garcia, pp. 468-478
These two topics are a little more specific than the others and do not fit quite as easily into an overall progression with the other topics, but all four stories are excellent and could be used as additional reading for the students or to tailor the overall curriculum to a specific set of students.
"Cuco Goes to a Party" describes a long night of enthusiastic revelry for a man who decides at the end that he is not fit for the intense dedication to work and family that his in-laws require and that he will leave his wife and newborn child to return to Mexico. In the excerpt from the novel
, the main character takes part in a rumble as a way to abandon the conservative assimilation of his family in favor of a much more rough and independent group of young Mexican immigrants. These stories could possibly be used to discuss the specific demands that America and/or Latino culture places on young men and whether the choices these characters make could be considered representative or exceptional.
In "The Moths," a young woman takes on the responsibility of caring for her grandmother as she dies and has a series of powerful visions. In the excerpt from
Dreaming in Cuban
, another young woman prefers her correspondence with and memories of her grandmother in Cuba to the harsh daily interactions she has with her mother. These stories could be used for a group of students with more interest in the role of women in Latino culture, or as a way to discuss how young people form a cultural identity through interactions with older generations.
This curriculum is meant to be the conclusion of an entire semester's worth of discussion about literature and culture, so appropriate concluding activities will vary widely depending on the time of year and the group of students. The entire set of class notes should be reviewed and discussed to gauge how student's views have developed or been confirmed through the semester. Student could compare and contrast their conclusions about Latino culture with the conclusions that they reached after the previous two units (American Indian literature, African-American literature) and ask whether these could be applied to any culture. For a more formal final activity, students could be asked to pick one selection from the unit as their favorite and to make a short presentation to the class explaining the reasons behind their preference. For a less formal approach, refer back to the musings at the end of the poetry section.