grade students (7
graders next year) are often bored and cynical. It is a rare student who is interested in the assigned reading or who really wants to write a five-paragraph essay on any topic. I teach English to Speakers of Other Languages at Truman School in New Haven. All of my English Language Learners (ELLs) are Hispanic; most spoke Spanish as a first language and many still speak Spanish at home. It is a struggle to persuade these students that they need to expand their knowledge of English vocabulary. When I introduce "words to know" at the beginning of a reading unit, many will not use those words in oral descriptions of plot/action/story problems/character analysis/story summary/problem solutions, or in their writing responses to issues/ideas expressed in the text. It is my hope that by helping students identify with Latin American writers from a variety of countries and cultures they will be intrigued by the way these authors use language and make an effort to understand and possibly empathize with the author's observations.
What do authors "see" as they "observe" the modern world? Sometimes these authors see (and describe) an actual child picking a mango or a village school teacher (Allende). Sometimes they see a more metaphorical object such as an artichoke which has become a vegetable in armor (Neruda). And sometimes they write exotic stories about food, or relationships between people that are both realistic events as well as extended metaphors (Esquivel). I think it is important for my students to understand what the authors I have chosen are seeing and what they are saying about their observations; the students also need to learn how to see the world around them and observe how they think and feel about their role in that world.
There are many modern writers who have written poetry and short stories that would be appealing to this age group. What is culturally appropriate about Latin American authors, and, can a non-Hispanic teach this literature? The answer to this two-part question lies within the need for multiculturalism within the urban school Language Arts curriculum. "Reading multiculturally enhances our multicultural awareness and helps us see multicultural issues which were not previously apparent." (Cai, p.14) I am interested in looking at what a group of Latin American authors can see because my students should have an opportunity to see things about their Latin culture which they might not know about; they may have no knowledge of the contemporary literature of their home country and they may not have heard the folktales which are an integral part of their heritage.
Can a non-Hispanic teach this literature? Cai discusses this topic in a slightly different way (although it is important to note that he does not mention any of the authors in this curriculum unit and he rarely discusses a Latino multicultural issue). He asks: can someone from outside the culture write (italics mine) about a given culture? (Cai, p.37 and following). He frames this debate in terms of "outsiders" (those outside the culture) and "insiders" (those within the culture). He adds the dimension of cultural authenticity and asserts that "ethnic literature is culturally specific" (p. 38) and that the outsider needs "imagination" (p, 40 and elsewhere) to take on the "group's perspective" (p. 40) in order to avoid "cultural arrogance" (p.42). I respect his warnings. I am an outsider: while I have been a visitor to Chile (several times) and have a daughter, granddaughter, and Chilean son-in-law who live there, it is not possible for me to truly enter Chilean culture, much less that of Mexico or other South or Central American countries. However, I aspire to the insider's imagination and believe I have the pedagogical tools to help my students observe what these authors observe and see as much as they can see about themselves (Cai discusses pedagogical purposes of multicultural literature as well, p. xvi and following). I am learning about the literature of Latin America as well; I believe that the process of learning together is intrinsic to the best classroom experience I can offer my students.