Since World War II, the communications revolution and an increased flow of translations have helped create a wide audience for the rich and diverse literature of Latin America. In the United States this literature has had an increasing popularity since the early 1960s. In colleges and universities, and non-academic circles as well, the achievements of Latin American authors have been acknowledged and acclaimed partially in response to a swell of Latinos/as in the general population, but also because the literature has achieved a level of accessibility and readability for the average American reader, Hispanic and otherwise. English translations of the works of Latin American writers and reviews and articles in publications such as the New York Times have exposed the general reader to an increasing array of talented writers. Alma Guillermoprietro's journalistic musings for The New Yorker, while no doubt very subjective, are still fascinating to read; when I heard her speak at a national Latin American symposium in Austin, Texas several years ago I was transfixed by her fiery presence and reformist message. The fact that the seventh grade text book includes the writings of Sandra Cisneros (Mexico), Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic), Marta Salinas (Mexico) and Pablo Neruda (Chile) among others is a good indication that Latin American literature has entered the mainstream.
Racism in America has been especially difficult for African-Americans primarily because of skin color; Latinos with dark skin (Mexicans and Puerto Ricans especially) have also had a difficult time assimilating into the American dream. Some Latinos have gone so far as to deny their racial heritage and of course affirmative action has had ups and downs depending on the pervasive political climate of the moment. Cockcroft devotes an entire chapter, and more, to the civil rights issues that have impacted African Americans and Latinos; he mentions particularly that the "impact of civil rights legislation on Latinos' job opportunities was also severely weakened" (Cockcroft, p. 133) when Presidents Reagan and Bush were appointing Supreme Court justices. The wave of Latino students who entered American universities in the 1960s and thereafter helped fan the fires of civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests; at the same time, they provided Latin American authors with an audience - many of those authors were writing about equality, civil rights and opportunity in their own countries.
But even as significant a Supreme Court case as Brown v. The Board of Education (1954) has yet to eradicate "separate but equal" from some school systems. New Haven's efforts to comply with the Connecticut Sheff v. O'Neill decision by increasing district wide magnet school opportunities has had some positive results but have also severely affected New Haven's neighborhood schools, and not always in a positive manner. While some had predicted that the African Americans and Latin Americans would naturally join forces to press for equal educational and economic rights, that joint effort has not been successful, perhaps because members of both groups are fighting for the same entry level jobs and economic security. Culturally, they may also have different educational aspirations.
The landmark Supreme Court case, Lau v. Nichols (1974), is often cited as the entry point for what has become "educational equality" for ELL students. In this case, Chinese public school students sued the San Francisco Board of Education for the right to have classes taught in their native language. Equality of instruction, i.e. native language instruction, has also had ups and downs: in California English is now a mandated language of instruction as it is in Massachusetts. (This is not to imply that "English Only" has been successful - it has probably been a terrible change for teachers and students - but that legally, teachers are not permitted to "cater" to the native language of their students in those states). In New Haven, there are several bilingual schools in which students can learn in both languages in the elementary grades, and students in higher grades can learn content subjects in Spanish if they are newcomers. At Truman School, students in K, 1
grades learn English in a "Transitional English" model which is all Spanish in Kindergarten (for those whose 1
language is Spanish), 50-50 English/Spanish in grade 1 and at least 75-25 English in grade 2. The State of Connecticut's Department of Education believes that after 30 months of instruction, ELL students should be able to function academically with their age group in regular classrooms. (As a teacher, I am certain that this is one of the most ill-advised and arbitrary decisions made by the Connecticut Department of Education but it defines the way I teach emerging English language learners in the lower grades).
What is the relationship between racism and Latin American literature? During the last several decades, the Meistersingers of American culture in general, and literature in particular, have recognized and accepted the value of diversity; however, it is difficult to assign one particular role to Latin American literature (the term "Hispanic" became official during the 1980 Census). Its poetry and fiction are filled with unusual metaphors (Neruda), graphic sexuality (Allende), emphasis on primitive myths (Allende and Neruda), and of course, harrowing tales of immigration and the difficulties of learning English while assimilating into American cultural norms (Cisneros, Alvarez, Mu–oz Ryan, Martinez, and many others). Several writers stand out as being particularly influential in bringing Latin American literature to a wide international audience: Jorge Luis Borges (fiction, especially); Gabriel Garcia Marquez (a member of the so-called "boom" period); Laura Esquivel (her story which became the movie Like Water for Chocolate is a good example of "magical realism" - her subsequent writing, Between Two Fires is autobiographical and not nearly as powerful); Isabel Allende (related to the former President of Chile, Salvador Allende) - her writings are too long for this unit or too graphic with the exception of one story from The Stories of Eva Luna); Pablo Neruda (various genre, some possible for a junior high audience, some less so). When Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 Chileans went wild. His various houses in Santiago, Valparaiso and elsewhere are shrine-like museums, and his international and marital "extra curricular" activities have been forgiven, at least by the Chilean intelligentsia, if not by snobby American academics. He and Mexican's hero-poet, Octavio Paz, are both Nobel Prize winners and have other biographical details in common.