Reflections of a Puerto Rican Teaching US Latina/o Literature in the Midwest.
By: Marisel Moreno
Some years ago, a good friend and colleague intimated that he did not understand why so many of us academics – especially literature professors – take our jobs so seriously. After all, he said, “what we do isn’t that important.” At that moment his comment made sense to me, and in fact, helped me maintain a certain sense of perspective during those trying years of dissertation writing and pre-tenure stress. However, I’ve never been able to forget those words, and the more I think about it, the less I agree with the statement. After fifteen years teaching US Latino/a literature at a midwestern university, I am convinced that what we do matters much more than we care to admit. Allow me to explain.
Teaching U.S. Latina/o literature – whether diaspora Puerto Rican, Dominican-American, Salvadoran-American, Mexican-American, etc. – at an institution where the majority of the student body is white and middle/ upper class, has carried a significant responsibility. In many cases, I am the first – and oftentimes the last -“Latina” (not to mention Puerto Rican) professor my students will have during their undergraduate career. Over the years some of my students have told me that I’m the first “Latina” they have gotten to know. A bigger number has confessed not knowing anything substantial about this heterogeneous group we call “Latina/os,” including reasons for migration or exile, or the legacy of (neo)colonialism, (neo)imperialism, and violence that characterize the histories of Latin American nations. Teaching U.S. Latina/o literature has allowed me to help them fill those gaps, to recognize the role that the United States has played in those histories – details that have been conveniently left out of school curricula – and eventually, obtain a better grasp of their own histories.
It isn’t a secret that literature, as Junot Díaz has said, is something that allows us to be “more human.” This is why I consider literature to be one of the best instruments to promote social transformation. We can spend an entire semester trying to explain to our students the complexity of the process of migration, but reading the works of Chicano poets Luis Rodríguez y Francisco X. Alarcón, or the poems of Puerto Rican Martín Espada, allows them to gain a deeper understanding of what migration means. We can try to explain what it is to be a migrant farmworker, but it won’t come close to the impact that the works of Puerto Rican author Fred Arroyo or Chicanos Tomás Rivera and Helena María Viramontes often have. We can try to explain the toll that racism and prejudice can take on individuals, families, and societies, but it suffices to read Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets to gain a better understanding of these societal problems. We can try to teach about the repercussions of United States foreign policy in Latin America, but nothing compares to hearing the echoes of victims’ voices that we find in the poetry of Salvadoran William Archila and Guatemalan Víctor Montejo. In other words, literature is an instrument that allows us to better understand the “other” and ourselves; and it allows us to reflect and dialogue about topics that are typically controversial, uncomfortable, or even painful. The increase in xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric following the 9/11 terrorist attacks have rendered U.S. Latina/o literature an instrument to promote understanding and social justice, both from the outside and among different U.S. Latina/o sub-groups.
Literature is a powerful tool in and of itself, but complementing it with service to the community exponentially increases its impact. For the last nine semesters, I have taught U.S. Latina/o literature courses with a community-based learning or service-learning component. This type of pedagogy bridges theory (class contents) and praxis (experience in the community), and usually promotes deeper learning. Depending where students perform their volunteer work, their experience can be comparable to a type of mini-immersion that forces the student to negotiate an “unfamiliar” environment. In other words, the experience forces them to break the bubble that college can be.
Given the demographic profile of our students, my CBL courses have fomented interaction, friendship, and solidarity, between my students and the local U.S. Latina/o community. Here in South Bend, this population is largely working class and of Mexican origin. Tutoring and mentoring pre-K to 12th grade children at La Casa de Amistad – a local non-profit organization that serves Latina/o families – has allowed my students to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges that (im)migrant families face in this country. Needless to say, the partnership between my classes and La Casa de Amistad has proven to be mutually beneficial. In fact, I venture to say that it is my students who have benefited the most as they have gained a perspective they did not have before. It’s not the same to read about undocumented migration than to befriend a child who has recently been separated from a parent due to deportation. It’s also not the same to read about the education gap among Latina/o children than to observe its roots and impact on the children. These kinds of situations force students to think critically about the social problems that minorities face, and their personal connections to people in the community add a sense of urgency that inspires them to do something about the inequality they witness.
Overall, one of the most common realizations my students experience throughout the semester – and which they record in class journals – is becoming aware of their privilege. But they also express their disappointment about not having studied any U.S. Latina/o literature or history in high school. Semester after semester they express their disbelief when they learn about all of the important facts and details that have been conveniently left out of their history lessons. Studying the history of each Latina/o group we cover (Harvest of Empire by Juan González is a staple in my courses) allows students to make connections between the role that the United States played in that history and the presence of each of those groups in this country today. In other words, the literature they’re exposed to and the work they do in the community serve to counteract the demonizing discourse about immigrants and Latina/os that the media continues to perpetuate.
There is a wealth of U.S. Latina/o literature available today, including a strong body of children’s literature. Latina/o children need to read these works. Non-Latina/o children also need to read these works. We can all do more work in our communities in order to teach Latina/o and non-Latina/o youth the importance of civic engagement. We are all parts of the same social fabric, and our words can help create unity. Literature is one of the best weapons we have against ignorance, prejudice, and injustice. Let’s use it.
Marisel Moreno, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of US Latina/o Literature at the University of Notre Dame. Her book/ libro Family Matters: Puerto Rican Women Authors on the Island and the Mainland, was published by the University of Virginia Press in 2012. She has published articles on US Latina/o literature in several academic journals (Academia.edu). In 2011 she received the Indiana Governor’s Award for Service-Learning for her US Latina/o literature and CBL courses. Follow her on Twitter: @marisel_moreno