As Latina scholars and activists in the United States, we are alarmed about the recent political and social developments in the country. We can’t help but notice that the new President has engaged in reprehensible rhetoric against members of different groups in the U.S., and has threatened others. As we witness his selection of future cabinet and administration officials, we note that many of them have also participated in this dangerous rhetoric and often stand opposed to the rights of working people, women, racial and ethnic minorities, religious minorities, as well as the right of all humans to clean air, water, and land. In this climate, we are witnessing an increase of exclusionary language based on race, citizenship status, and religious affiliation, where the everyday realities of racism, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry, harassment, and violence have been increasingly on full display since the election. Continue reading
Lessons from Ethnic Studies on Strategic Courage
By Andrea Romero and Michelle Téllez
On May 5 2011, a small group of faculty from the Arizona Ethnic Studies Network gathered in Tucson following a devastating Tucson Unified School board meeting where the Mexican American Studies program in the district was ended. It was a blow that was felt deeply by us all. We came together as scholars from universities and colleges across the state to publicly voice our support for Ethnic Studies. This was in the aftermath of HB 2281 that banned courses that “(1) promote the overthrow of the U.S. government (2) promote resentment toward a race or class of people or are (3) designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group (4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals” (AZ House Bill 2281, 49th Legislature, 2010). This bill was used to target, monitor, and dismantle a successful Mexican American Studies curriculum, despite the fact that external auditors determined that the courses were academically successful and promoted positive group interactions (Cabrera, Millem, Jaquette & Marx, 2014; Cambrium Audit, May 2, 2011). In response, we worked as a network to ensure our critiques were made public and to support those teachers and students who were being directly attacked. It was from this source of collective action that we drew strength, and from these activities was born new research, new relationships, stronger students, and a highly aware and involved community.
We find ourselves again at a point in U.S. history where higher education is under conservative scrutiny and new “watchlists” for “dangerous” professors are being created and used to threaten and intimidate scholars in the academy. We live in a country that has been shaped by a particular history of exploitation, genocide, and exclusion. In this, Arizona is not an anomaly, but the norm. However, given the legislative battles we have had in in this state over the last six years, it seems important to comment both on our experiences and on what we imagine our role as Ethnic Studies scholars to be in the coming years given the emergence of what mainstream media Continue reading
Latina/o Studies Association 2016: Nourishing the Mind and the Spirit
By Magdalena L. Barrera
The 2016 LSA conference was a wonderful experience, for many reasons. To situate myself: I am a faculty member of the Mexican American Studies department at San José State University. My primary area of research is analysis of textual representations of Mexican Americans in early twentieth century American cultural production; however, in recent years I have developed a secondary research area that explores the retention and mentoring of first-generation and underrepresented students in higher education. This second area was inspired in part by the learning curve I underwent as my environment changed from the R1 settings of my undergraduate through postdoctoral training to working in the California State University system. Although I have maintained my primary research area, it requires some effort to stay in touch with emerging trends in the field, as I am the only person at SJSU who does Humanities-based work in Chicanx Studies. Moreover, I had not attended a conference in a couple of years, and so I welcomed this year’s LSA as an opportunity to fully engage as both a presenter and participant, and to expand my professional network. Continue reading
By: Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo
“The new world of monsters is where humanity has to grasp its future.”
—Hardt and Negri, Multitude
Teaching Introduction to Ethnic Studies and the Art of Asking Questions
I hate surprises in the classroom. I appreciate the potential of surprises in life. The promise they sometimes carry with them. The ability to keep me on my toes, so to speak. But to be clear, I hate surprises in the classroom. Especially when I teach lower division courses. When I teach Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies in particular, a service course we do for the university, I follow a simple, modified rule designed for lawyers in court: do not ask a question for which you do not know what the answer will be. The questions I am talking about here are not questions about class content, but rather demographic or attitudinal questions, that is to say, questions for which the answers will illustrate a particular point. This is not about students knowing the “correct” answer, but about me knowing the answer that students will give me beforehand because although I do not know each one personally, I have a certain general knowledge about who is in my classroom, and the ideas they may bring with them. Thus, I rely on both experience and “external” indicators to anticipate what their answers will be. For instance, when I ask my students in the Introduction course (like I usually do at the beginning of the semester) to stand up if they see themselves as White (to make a point about the changing definitions of “Whiteness” in our country), I know, before it happens, that 80-85% of the 100 students in the classroom will stand up (because I know the student demographics at our institution). Also, when I ask for the left handed students to raise their hand to make a point about certain predictable angles of “random populations,” I know that about 10% will do so (because they mirror the general population, and the very point I am making by asking them to raise their hand is based on that precise fact). And when I ask them to talk to me about their experiences with “diverse populations of students” at their high schools, I know what they will tell me (e.g., whether there were “lots of students of different backgrounds in their high schools” or whether they “hadn’t interacted much with students different from themselves until they stepped foot on our campus”), depending on what part of Washington they went to school.
On a carefree day, I would say that I have turned this “asking only questions for which I know what the answer will be” endeavor into a work of art. Over the years I have become accustomed to and very comfortable with this practice: I always know (at least approximately) how many students will stand up or raise their hands, or the verbal answer they will give me in response to a question I make. Like I said, I hate surprises in the classroom.
The Question that Broke my Art
A few years back in my Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies class, during a lecture on the use of American Indians as mascots in sports teams, I made two simple points: (1) the (ab)use of American Indians as mascots is tied to the (ab)use of American Indian cultures and peoples by mainstream American culture, which has a long history; and (2) the practice must be terminated. I showed them horrifying visuals depicting these practices throughout the decades, including pictures of sports teams using the American Indian mascots of other teams in violent, degrading ways. During this lecture, I lingered on a particular picture of a state college with a bull as a mascot portraying the American Indian mascot of its rival state school on its knees performing fellatio on their bull. My students thought the picture was in bad taste (which is a start), but I also asked them to think about the treatment of mascots in general, and whether it was fair to portray human beings in the same light. For instance, a tiger performing fellatio on a bulldog is still in “bad taste,” but the objections may end there. This was not the first time I had given that lecture, so I knew the point the students were going to raise in response, which they did, right on cue: American Indians are not the only “humans” portrayed as mascots, for we also have the “Vikings” and the “Fighting Irish,” they earnestly offered.
I always take this point very seriously, because I assume they bring it up in good faith, wanting to understand the difference. This time, my answers were simple but to the point: As a group of people, the Vikings (like the Trojans, and the Ancient Greeks) are gone, the American Indians are still with us. As for the Irish, I usually concede that it is a good example, because the Irish, as a people, do exist. I could have easily gone into all sorts of discussions about the positionality of the Irish as an ethnic group within U.S. culture or even within the United Kingdom, but this time I decided to take a different route: I asked my students what the mascot of the Fighting Irish was (and as with every question I ask in that class, I knew the answer). They promptly and ceremoniously responded: “a leprechaun.” Then, with the picture of the bull and the American Indian on his knees still up, I asked my students to raise their hands if they had American Indian ancestry. I saw them hesitate, so I made it clear: raise your hand if either of your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents is or was American Indian. Around 30% of the students in the classroom (regardless of how they identified ethnically or racially) raised their hands, and as always, I knew they would. So, I said, that picture right there (pointing again to the Indian on his knees) is about your relatives, which is to say, is about you. Now let me ask you this: How many of you have leprechaun relatives? I thought I knew the answer to this question. The question was supposed to be a throwaway, a joke for them to get the point. No hands were supposed to go up. Not one hand up was the answer I knew to expect. But, to my surprise (yes, a surprise in my classroom), at least three white-identified students raised their hands. Not as joke, not even as a challenge to my authority, but as a bona fide answer to my question. I am hardly ever thrown off balance in my classes, but for a fraction of a second I was, and then sternly told those students to put their hands down because although I hated to break it to them, “leprechauns, just like unicorns and mermaids, do not exist.” At least not in the corporeal sense that would prompt genealogical claims. For a moment there all I wanted was to get those hands down and erase the incomprehensibility they represented. But regardless of how fast they put their hands down (and they were extremely fast), my fail-safe system of asking students questions in class was broken. Even if momentarily.
Some of my Students are Leprechauns, Which is to Say, they Think Racism is not a Big Deal
Those hands confirmed that this generation of students is truly lacking an understanding of the historical impact and contemporary reverberations of racial formations (a la Omi and Winant) and racism. More to the point, if students do not understand the difference between “real” and mythological peoples or even how genealogy has operated in their own creation, how can they understand the difference between racial myths and racial realities, or how racism works in our society? Students suggesting that mythological leprechauns or extinct Vikings are as abused as flesh and blood American Indians should be troubling enough. But for them to actually identify with the figure of the monstrous leprechaun by seeing themselves in that figure should be beyond comprehension. Unless you understand this generation, that is. This is the first generation of White Americans raised with a societal understanding that equality between the races as a principle should not be disputed. However, this understanding has been intertwined with a convenient lie, mainly, that we have actually achieved racial equality. That lie has taken root because although their generation is buffered by my generation (Generation X), which was born after segregation and other major forms of de jure discrimination were deemed unconstitutional, studies show that buffer notwithstanding, White millennials have not transcended the history of this country. Thus, when it comes to expressing racism, Millennials are sometimes no better than their parents (Gen Exers) or their grandparents (Baby Boomers) (Clement, 2015). As Michael D. Smith argues, “the education [white Millennials] have received has left them ill-equipped to understand the nature of racism,” as they “have inherited a world in which the idea of ‘reverse racism’ has been legitimized…” (2015). Their “education” has taken place in a vacuum where discrimination against Black folks (which they equate exclusively with slavery and perhaps segregation), was something that happened in a long and terminated past, something that has no repercussions today because, as they’ve learned, we are now all equal.
And that is the crux of the matter, for if as they’ve been instructed, we are all equal today (whether we descend from American Indians or leprechauns), that means that Whites can experience as much discrimination as anybody else (hence “reverse discrimination”). So, from this perspective, Black folks, American Indians, and Latinas/os may be having a hard time in our society, but by golly, so are Whites. Their understandings of race and racism have become another mythology, where their perceived oppression is equal to that of anyone else’s. And in their mythological views about race and racism, their non-human, monster-like “leprechaun ancestors” are being abused by sport teams, just as are those of American Indians. Unfathomable to many, but if we (professors) are to help them understand their own positionality within historical and contemporary manifestations of racism, and to help humanity “grasp its future” as Hardt and Negri compel us, we must become adept slayers of mythical creatures in this new world of monsters, which irritatingly enough, seems to include a classroom surprise or two.
Clement, Scott. 2015. “Millennials are just as Racist as their Parents.” The Washington Post. April 7. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/04/07/white-millennials-are-just-about-as-racist-as-their-parents/.
Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formations in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge.
Smith, Michael D. 2015. “Millennials are Products of a Failed Lesson in Colorblindness.” PBS. March 26. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/white-millennials-products-failed-lesson-colorblindness/.
By Marisel Moreno
I have been teaching US Latino/a literature with a Community-Based Learning (CBL) approach for the last five years. I can honestly say that after 10 consecutive semesters, 4 different courses, and more than 5,000 hours of student service hours, I can hardly imagine teaching US Latino/a literature without the CBL pedagogy. It has been that transformative; not only for me, but for my students and our community partner, La Casa de Amistad. I thought I should take a few minutes to reflect on the power of CBL to transform students’ attitudes toward literature, especially minority literatures. I decided to write this reflection to hopefully convince those considering adopting this pedagogy that it is absolutely worth it.
A few details about CBL that people should know about: there is no standard definition of the concept or standard model that can be applied to all cases. This can be both intimidating and liberating at once. I know that in my case, when I first learned about CBL about six years ago, I felt I had discovered the “missing link” to my US Latino/a literature courses. My initial excitement soon gave way to anxiety when, after scheduling the first meeting with my future community partner, I realized that I was on my own. At that point, almost nothing had been published on the application of the CBL pedagogy in upper level US Latino/a literature courses. It seemed to me that most of the scholarship was geared toward the Spanish-language curriculum. Although I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going—or where my courses were heading—I decided to take the plunge because deep inside, I was convinced that CBL would add a depth of understanding and engagement that literature alone would probably not provide for my mostly white middle/upper class students. I also found solid common ground between La Casa de Amistad’s mission and my own pedagogical goal of teaching tolerance, acceptance, and civic engagement through literature.
La Casa de Amistad is a community organization founded in 1973 in South Bend, IN, that offers a range of services to the local Latino/a community. It’s mission, according to their website, is to “empower the Latino/Hispanic community within Michiana by providing educational, cultural and advocacy services in a welcoming, bilingual environment” (website). Among the services that La Casa provides are: the bilingual pre-school program “Yo Puedo Leer,” after-school programs “Crece Conmigo” (K-6th) and “Adelante América” (7th-12th), citizenship classes, computer classes, ENL adult classes, and a food pantry, among others. For five years, my students have been tutors and mentors with “Crece Conmigo” and “Adelante América,” since these are the two programs that mostly depend on a solid number of volunteers. These programs run from Monday-Thursday for two hours each, and my students sign up to work with either Crece or Adelante once a week for a two-hour session. La Casa’s commitment to promoting literacy and academic support to its students is one of the main reasons why I found its mission to connect with the goals of my courses.
Without a specific model to follow—there are too many out there—I came to a few preliminary conclusions. First, I wanted all my students to volunteer at the same organization instead of providing a few options, as some professors do. I saw this as a way to create common ground for my students, give them an experience that they could share as a class. Second, I wanted their volunteering to extend throughout the semester in order to meet the needs of our partner. In other words, rather than telling them to complete a set amount of hours, it was made clear that they were expected to work at La Casa at least 2 hours per week for the entire semester. Third, and perhaps the hardest thing, I told myself that not everything needed to work out perfectly every time. I convinced myself that I could let go of the need to control all aspects of teaching. It was hard at first, but eventually I learned to “go with the flow” and adjust to the unexpected changes and challenges that working with a small non-profit organization brings with it. In fact, I found it absolutely vital to remind my students of this last point, especially when it became obvious at different points that some were “uncomfortable” with the element of unpredictability (changes in staff, closings due to weather, transportation issues, etc.) that is part of any CBL partnership.
After five years I can confidently say that joining forces with La Casa de Amistad has proven mutually beneficial from the beginning; every semester my students became the backbone of La Casa’s after-school tutoring programs (they provided consistency as they were less likely to miss a day of tutoring), but more importantly, the relationships they cultivated with the children opened their eyes to the issues affecting US Latino communities. Immigration, racism, sexism, transnationalism, prejudice, education gap, undocumented immigrant and migrant farm worker—these are just some of the terms and concepts that my students were exposed to in the classroom but were able to understand in greater depth thanks to their time at La Casa. Those personal bonds they established with the children (and sometimes with their families) allowed my students to become more emotionally invested in the material we were covering in class; they wanted to learn more, and they wanted to read more. Of course, there have been exceptions, but overall, most students comment on this particular point in their final course evaluations—how getting to know the kids at La Casa have made them better people and opened their eyes to the injustices that ethnic and racial minorities face in this country. We can’t underestimate the importance of this type of statement, especially when it comes from white middle/upper class students who didn’t have significant contact with US Latinos/as prior to taking my course. This may sound paradoxical, but as a professor, there’s nothing more encouraging than hearing my students’ absolute disillusionment after realizing the histories and literatures they were not taught in school. I say “encouraging” because this usually translates into motivation, not just to learn more by filling those silences in their educations, but also to act and become more engaged in their communities and fighting for the rights of those who are left at the margins of society (In fact, for academic institutions seeking to reduce the town/gown divide, CBL courses offer a socially responsible solution). There’s also hardly anything more rewarding than witnessing your students’ individual transformations as they come to learn more about themselves and gain the gift of perspective through the combination of literature and CBL. I commonly hear my students reflect on how the CBL experience has taught them about their own limits (patience, ability to work with children, their personal racial/ethnic biases and prejudices, etc.) and has opened their eyes to their own privilege (economic, social, racial, citizenship status, etc.). Above all, many make it clear in their journals and final course reflections that the CBL component has allowed them to connect with the local Latino community in ways that they would not have otherwise; and that connection in turn has enhanced their appreciation and understanding of the literature discussed in class.
I could go on and on about the personal and academic benefits I have seen when applying a CBL approach to US Latino/a literature courses, but space is limited. I do want to confess that it hasn’t always been easy; there have been plenty of moments of doubt throughout the years. Some of the challenges my students and I have faced include: conflicts organizing the volunteering schedule in order to balance their presence at La Casa; transportation issues since public transportation is not really an option in that area; unexpected site closings due to weather or maintenance, etc. For non/pre-tenured faculty especially (as I was most of the years I taught these courses), teaching CBL can be very time-consuming and therefore not encouraged by the administration. However, when I read my students’ final course reflections every semester, where they’re expected to reflect on the course as a whole (including the literature and CBL components), I usually witness the power of literature and CBL to transform lives. Many of my students state a commitment to keep learning about US Latinos/as, to help set the record straight among friends and family who display prejudices toward this population, and to serve this population in the future as lawyers, doctors, and teachers.
It is precisely because of how transformative it has been for me to teach US Latino/a literature with a CBL component, and because I can see the incredible potential we have before us, that I want to encourage (especially) faculty teaching minority literatures to consider adding CBL to their courses. When you read students’ class journal reflections where they say that “if more people could study this literature and get to know kids like those at La Casa, there would be more peace and understanding in this world,” you know that this is something worth sharing. CBL can be implemented in all disciplines, but I think those of us in literature have an advantage. We can use the stories, poems, and novels we teach to open our students’ eyes. But we can also provide them the opportunity to break out of their comfort zone and become, if only temporarily, part of the community they’re learning about. US cities and towns are replete with community centers and non-profit organizations serving US Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, the undocumented, and many other groups whose stories we teach. Let’s make those stories come alive by keeping it real—in and outside the classroom.
MARISEL MORENO, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Latino/a Literature in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Notre Dame. Her first book, Family Matters: Puerto Rican Women Authors on the Island and the Mainland, was published in 2012. She has published articles on US Latino/a authors in Latino Studies, CENTRO, MELUS, Hispanic Review, and Afro-Hispanic Review, among other academic journals. In 2011 she received the Indiana Governor’s Award for Service-Learning.