May 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Latinx Literature Gives Students A Voice | #Representationmatters

Since the release of the blockbuster films Coco and The Black Panther, the hashtag #representationmatters has been trending. And while it seems that Hollywood is slowly beginning to understand the importance and power of representing historically marginalized groups, I often ask: Are our ELA classrooms are doing the same? Does representation matter in ELA classrooms?

Do We Have Books?

A few years ago, I had a conversation with one of my former Latinx students. She had just graduated and returned to school to share her interest in becoming an English teacher. When I suggested she enroll in a Chicano literature class, she responded, “But Mr. A, do we even have books?” Her question forced me to accept a daunting reality. In Arizona, there are many students who have not been exposed to literature that honors their sociocultural and linguistic identities. This is largely a consequence of polices passed down by state legislators and voters, including Proposition 203 (2000, which essentially outlawed bilingual education); Proposition 300 (2006, which requires verification of immigration status from anyone applying for state-funded services including childcare and financial aid); SB 1070 (2010, Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhood Act, also known as the “Show-Me-Your-Papers” law); and HB 2281 (2010, which banned Mexican-American studies).

I was born and raised in Phoenix, AZ, and can attest to the lack of inclusive literature in ELA classrooms during my school years. I vividly remember loving to read at home, but detesting it at school. My first experience with Latinx literature came, at home, when, captivated by the colorful cover and interior images, I discovered Carmen Lomas Garza’s In My Family/En Mi Familia. I remember feeling stunned, yet proud that people who looked like members of my family existed in a book. That was my sole encounter with Latinx lit until I reached college.

Exploring Latinx Novels

While recent data suggests that Latinx students are attending college at higher rates, the reality is that many of them will never have the opportunity to study a Latinx novel in school. As a teacher, I work to create culturally sustaining literacy practices (Paris, 2012) to ensure that this cycle does not repeat itself in my classroom, and I’ve been inspired by students’ insightful responses to the works I have introduced. While reading Latinx literature, they have examined how their communities are portrayed and their own attitudes toward them; probed the life experiences of others; and discussed cultural authenticity, identity, and the importance of education. Their responses have reinforced the value of exposing students to culturally authentic literature that speaks to their experiences and that of their larger communities. What follows is a quick look at some texts we have explored and a few important student responses.

The first Latinx novel I taught was Rudolfo Anaya’s, Bless Me, Ultima. Often considered the first major Chicano novel, Anaya’s multilayered coming-of-age story depicts the life of six-going-on-seven-year-old Antonio Márez y Luna in a rural town in 1940s New Mexico. Guided by Ultima, a curandera, Antonio must discern various cultural, spiritual, and familial influences to discover his identity. Decades-ago life in the countryside was not something my students related to easily, but as the novel progressed, the connections came. One young woman commented, “When I started school here [in the United States] I was like Antonio, I didn’t speak English and I felt like an outcast,” which lead to conversations about how perceiving oneself outside the prevalent dominant culture can feel. In a final analysis of this text, a young man offered an interesting critique. He explained, “I could see members of my family in this book, but it also seemed kind of stereotypical of Mexicans.” His comment is a powerful reminder to educators working to create a more inclusive curriculum: no one text can ever capture the nuances of a community.

Lúis Alberto Urrea’s Pulitzer Prize finalist’s Devil’s Highway takes readers on a real-life journey through the deadliest track of Arizona’s Sonora Desert in the story about a group of men who attempted that trip in 2001; only 12 of the 26 survived. Incorporating history, firsthand accounts, and verse, the Mexican-American author’s book challenged my students, who nonetheless had much to say about Urrea’s and the book’s impact on their view of Latinx community. “I guess it’s sad, but you don’t really hear about Mexicans doing things. You know writing books and stuff. I guess it just makes me feel more passionate [about my future].” While news about the Mexico–U.S. border crossings is a frequent topic of conversation in this country, often making headline news, most people have no firsthand knowledge of the physical and emotional trauma these attempts entail, and Urrea’s book brought those experiences home. One student pointed to novel’s authenticity, “You hear about immigration and Mexicans on the news, but you don’t know what really goes on in the desert unless you’ve lived it or read this book.”

More recently, we studied Laura Esquivel’s 1989 novel, Like Water for Chocolate in my World Literature class. Often cited for its magical realism, Esquivel’s novel follows the forbidden romance between Tita, Mamá Elena’s youngest daughter, and Pedro Muzquiz, a neighbor. In my experience, students typically try to deny an author’s use of magical realism. However, here, the supernatural blended with a Mexican setting kept students engaged and talking. As we studied the text, I challenged them to consider why magical realism is most often associated with Central and Latin America. One young man replied, “I think it all makes sense because of our culture. We have a lot of myth stories in our culture, but I don’t know where that comes from.” I encouraged him to think about the daily lives of the indigenous peoples prior to Spanish colonization. This student, like many Latinx youth, had not been afforded an opportunity to learn about indigenous history and culture.

Matt de la Peña’s Mexican Whiteboy represented my first experience teaching a young adult novel. It explores adolescence through the eyes of Danny Lopez, a biracial teen from an affluent neighborhood in San Diego. Working with this novel, I asked my students to deconstruct the concept of adolescence. I encouraged them to consider how that period in a person’s life can vary given a teen’s racial and gender identity, class, and nationality. One student quickly pointed out that educational opportunities or the lack of them can impact that experience. She noted that one of the characters, “who lives in a poor community is willing to leave school to learn more about colleges,” but questioned “why she got to leave her neighborhood?” This student continued, not all schools “in the hood are poor.” She explained that she felt she was getting a good education despite the fact that outsiders often dub her school as “ghetto.” Another student commented, “People don’t think we care about education, but we do. Sometimes we just have bigger issues we are facing.”

Moving Toward a Culturally Relevant Classroom

Going forward, it’s beneficial for teachers and administrators to take note of the many faces that make their way through our classrooms. Rather than adopting a deficit perspective, one that determines what students cannot do or do not have access to, educators must reexamine what counts as knowledge in the classroom and which voices are most often privileged and which voices are most often silenced or forgotten, and address disparities.

By also reconstructing the power dynamic in the classroom, teachers and students can engage in a two-way dialogical learning process—one that situates the instructor as both teacher and learner. In doing so, educators will be able to offer a foundation for developing a curriculum that allows students to see themselves represented. By validating students’ ways of knowing, cultural experiences, and ethnic identity, students will be better able to develop their academic identity.

*Paris, Diango. Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy: A Needed Change in Stance, Terminology, and Practice, Educational Researcher, 2012. 

Steven Arenas, a 2016 recipient of the NCTE Early Career Educator of Color in Leadership Award, currently teaches 10th grade English at Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, AZ.

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