Sunday, February 17, 2013

Critical Thinking: What an Ethnic Studies Class Looks Like

Amelia M.L. Montes (

Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content.  By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it . . . .  --Frantz Fanon

In this world it’s possible to achieve great material wealth, to live an opulent life.  But a life built upon those things alone leaves a shallow legacy.  --Cesar Chavez

A strong argument can be made that Chicanos have a long-standing connection to the American Midwest.  --Sandra M. Gonzales

Instead of posting a blog about those who have dismantled (or are presently trying to eliminate) Ethnic Studies, I wish to illustrate the excitement and joy I’m having right now in teaching an Ethnic Studies course and why courses such as this one are vital to all individuals residing in the United States (not just a certain group).  I invite you to read about what happens in my classroom, how we learn, and how “what” we learn becomes crucial for students to develop critical thinking skills, to acquire a complex and rich understanding of the world in which they are preparing to participate. 

I am presently teaching the following Ethnic Studies course at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln:  “Introduction to Latina and Latino Studies.”  My colleague, Dr. Joy Castro, designed the course a few years ago for our majors and minors in Ethnic Studies.  In this class, I have students from a variety of backgrounds.  Some are white and have grown up in small towns in Nebraska. Others grew up in Lincoln. A few are Chicana/Chicano, Latina/Latino, and African American.  One student identifies as Pacific Islander.  Another has spent time in Mexico and the U.S. and therefore claims a Mexican and a North American identity.  Some of the white students have already traveled or are hoping to travel to various Latin American countries in the near future.  They are an eager and interested group who have told me they are taking this class because they are working with or hope to enter a diverse work force and they want to be better equipped to understand people from various ethnicities and sections of the U.S.  They also want to understand themselves and their own ethnic backgrounds.  One student is most interested in drawing connections among her Swedish and German immigrant heritage (by interviewing her family and reading about these immigrants) and the Latina/Latino immigrant experience in our readings. 

Along with award-winning history texts such as Juan Gonzalez’s Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America and Rodolfo F. Acuña’s Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, we are also reading a social science text published in 2011, edited by Rubén O. Martinez, entitled  Latinos in the Midwest.  These three texts give us a well-rounded background. 

I also include Latino Boom:  An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature (edited by John S. Christie and José B. Gonzalez).  The students have commented that they enjoy reading the poetry, short stories, and essays in this anthology along with reading the history and social science writings.  The history/social science texts and this literary anthology gives them a solid context of various eras, a grounding of historical backgrounds which then make the creative writings much more relevant. 

For example, after reading sections from the Gonzalez and Martinez books on immigration, farmworker organizing, ICE raids in the midwest, the students read Norma Cantú’s short fiction piece, “Se me echina el cuerpo al oír tu cuento . . . “ (“I cringe and get goose bumps when I hear your story”) in Latino Boom.  The students’ lively discussion jumped from the fictional piece to the texts which allowed them to use the research, census reports, and various statistics to support their perspectives.  At the beginning of the semester, I also included a unit on logical fallacies.  After learning the various logical fallacies, their discussions steer away from generalizations, assumptions, false analogies and they develop a more sophisticated and logical framework for discussing complex topics.

The literary anthology, Latino Boom, provides students with Cuban-American, Puerto Rican, Nuyorican, Caribbean immigrant, Mexican American, Chicana/Chicano writings.  They learn authors’ names and their ethnic heritage.  In this way, their idea of “latinidad” becomes much more complex.  I often make connections to other, more well-known American authors, pointing out how Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, draws from his Boston/New York background and his work as a surveyor on the Erie Canal.  His “American” sensibilities are vastly different from someone like the California writer, John Steinbeck, whose experiences working alongside migrant workers in Salinas inspired his novel, Of Mice and Men.  Students realize (on a more intricate level) the vastly different communities and ethnic groups we have in this country.  As one student told me this past week, “we don’t live in a ‘melting pot’—we are a mosaic of peoples.”  Indeed.  The “melting pot” metaphor does not at all describe the vibrancy of difference in this country, and instead the idea of a “melting pot” only generalizes and erases difference. Melville and Steinbeck produced literary texts illustrating very different ethnic, geographic, cultural, communal, and personal backgrounds set in two distinct areas of the United States. The contemporary Dominican-American writer, Junot Diaz, says he chooses to set most of his writings in New Jersey. New Jersey is the geographic landscape of his childhood, an area of the United States that continues to inspire him.  This is what makes our country so rich. 

 Students need to see themselves in what they read, in who they meet in their classrooms, who teaches them so they can be inspired, so they can make their own connections.  And a class like this gives them that opportunity at the same time that they are also honing their critical thinking and writing skills. 

I also include a mini-unit on Diabetes because of the high incidence of the disease in U.S. Latina/Latino communities (and how it is now at epidemic levels throughout the U.S.).  When I teach this mini-unit, I’m often having to assist students in working through the vast amount of misinformation surrounding this disease.  One of them is the idea that Diabetes is reversible.  One can certainly control the disease and maintain low glucose numbers.  However, if that individual were to have major stress in her or his life, a drastic change in lifestyle or diet, a sudden lack of exercise, glucose numbers easily increase.  As well, students often ask about the “best” diet for Diabetes.  There is no “best” diet that fits every person who has Diabetes.  And this is what makes the disease so difficult because, since it is a metabolic condition, each individual’s reaction to a food will be different.  The only way one can find out what foods to eat or not, is to learn to test your blood 75 minutes after the first bite.  Then the individual will know if that food is causing (or not causing) a spike in glucose levels.  Of course there are some foods all individuals with diabetes must be cautious about:  starchy foods like rice, potatoes, corn, as well as more known dessert foods like ice cream and donuts.  Each time I have included a unit on diabetes, I learn so much from the students because almost every student will know someone (friend, family member) with the disease and have much to say about their experiences. 

We have many enjoyable moments in the class discussing the various Latina/Latino American identities in the United States.  I feel so lucky to teach a class like this and the students often tell me how much they learn.  These students will be better prepared to navigate the next journeys in their lives within this vast North American country.  Let’s hope that courses like this will return to the Arizona schools and will also be introduced in other schools across the country which yet do not have such important courses. Sending you all, dear La Bloga readers, buenas energias for a superb week!  

p.s. Check your film theater listings--This Friday (February 22nd), the film version of Rudolfo Anaya's novel, Bless Me, Ultima will be, hopefully, at a theater near you!  Check out the official trailer: (click here).    

1 comment:

Olga said...

Thanks for sharing the literature you teach and the approach you take in your Ethnic Studies class. I got my BA in Ethnic Studies and I loved every class I took. Classes like African American Literature, Asian American Studies, Native American Studies, Chican@ Literature, to name a few, fed my soul, politicized and empowered me, and gave me a deeper understanding of American History and the world.. I am very proud of my undergraduate degree which is awarded in a major I sought out and fought for-- Ethnic Studies: History of Women of Color in the U.S.