Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Chicana/Chicano, Latina/Latino Literary Renaissance! Que Viva!

by Amelia M.L. Montes (

Last week, Cindy Carcamo, (The Los Angeles Times) wrote, “Arizona lawmakers passed a law to dismantle a Mexican American studies program in Tucson schools, but the legislation has had an unintended effect:  The controversy is renewing interest in the state and nationwide in ethnic studies and Chicano and Latino literature.  Some Tucson students have found new ways to study the subject while receiving college credit to boot.  Others who had no interest on the topic say they are now drawn to the material . . . Chicano and Latino literature libraries are springing up nationwide, and students are gravitating toward the topic (click here for article). 

Cindy Carcamo
Earlier this month, (March 7-9) in New York City, the first of what is planned to be a biennial conference, took place:  "Haciendo Caminos:  Mapping the Futures of U.S. Latina/Latino Literatures."  

It brought together Latina/Latino scholars and writers from across the nation and drew a critical mass of foundational thinkers and emerging voices. At this conference, plans were discussed about instituting a Latina/Latino literary national group. (click here for info)

Tony Diaz

Props go to all those working to provide these important books, this education to our children and young adults.  Tony Diaz, founder of Librotraficante is key in launching a “Latino Renaissance.”  You can find Librotraficante information on Facebook (click here) and Twitter (click here).

Diaz says:  “The law (House Bill 2281) was meant to prohibit books that promote the overthrow of the government, but anyone familiar with those books knows it’s ridiculous to think that.  I think people in Arizona are scared of our culture.  So when right-wing reactionaries further that fear, we are able to say, ‘Wait a second.  The books you’re talking about include House on Mango Street, which is required reading in most states in America.’ The irony is that actually if you take the ACT (American College Testing) test, there are questions about House on Mango Street to get into college.  So they’re not only infringing on civil rights, but they’re sabotaging their students’ ability to compete on college entrance exams.” 

When I think of Carcamo’s article describing a renewed interest in Chicano and Latino literature, I think of how the power of banning books affected me when I was a child.  In grade school and high school, my sister and I would easily acquire books that were on our Catholic Church’s “banned books” list. Every Sunday, our local parish would distribute a bulletin that included a list of “condemned” books. Then we would go to the public library and find the books.  Sometimes I’d hide in the closet to pour over these apparently evil books, books that later I would read again in college: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Candide by Voltaire, The Zoo Story by Edward Albee. Sometimes I understood sections of these books and sometimes I didn’t.  I was only in junior high (while my sister was in high school), but I would ask her questions or simply find those sections in the book that meant something to me.  It was a perfect example of what the early twentieth-century educator, María Montessori described as, “children discovering, learning freely.”  But in this case, we were learning freely spurred on by the ban.  And perhaps this is what is happening now in Arizona and throughout the country. 
María Montessori
For a few months, many years ago, I trained with one of María Montessori’s protégées (click here for information on María Montessori and her schools).  These are some Montessori quotes that have stayed with me: 

“It is true that we cannot make a genius.  We can only give each child the chance to fulfill [her] his potential possibilities.” 

“Education is a natural process carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words, but by experience in the environment. To assist a child, we must provide [her] him with an environment which will enable [her] him to develop freely.”

While reading Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World, I keep remembering my Montessori training and thinking about Arizona’s ban.  When Sonia was a child, Sonia’s mother had bought a set of encyclopedias.  Her mother’s decision to have these in the house (not instructing the children on what to read or when) was exactly “providing” the necessary environment for learning.  Sonia and her brother poured over the books, marveled at the information.  Worlds unfurled before them.  The books further encouraged Sonia’s love of reading, her interest in everything.   Today, Montessori schools are linked with the privileged and upper classes, but at the turn of the twentieth century, Montessori was a method for the impoverished, for children classified as mentally challenged. 

Like Sotomayor, Montessori was a gifted child.  Unlike Sotomayor, Montessori grew up in privilege and her privilege allowed her to be one of the first women in Italy to become a medical doctor.  However, because she was a woman, after she received her medical degrees, she was shunted off to the poor and destitute areas of Rome and soon had in her care a group of children that the government had deemed un-teachable, mentally challenged.  About ten years later, her community of “undesirables” became famous for testing higher than any other group in the state examinations.  The Montessori Method was suddenly famous.  Unfortunately, instead of this “Method” remaining in the impoverished part of town, or being available to all students, especially the destitute, Montessori schools today are only available to those families who can afford the high tuition.  Montessori never “patented” her “Method” or made sure to keep it available as a state-run system.  She died before she could achieve that. 

Sonia Sotomayor, 8th Grade Graduation
The struggles to provide the best education for every child, to provide the necessary environments are ongoing. Affirmative Action is another effort to provide opportunities for those who otherwise would not have them (e.g.:  María Montessori’s “destitute” students). 

In her book, My Beloved World, Associate Justice Sotomayor writes: 
“Much has changed in the thinking about affirmative action since those early days when it opened doors in my life . . . But one thing has not changed:  to doubt the worth of minority students’ achievement when they succeed is really only to present another face of the prejudice that would deny them a chance even to try.  It is the same prejudice that insists all those destined for success must be cast from the same mold as those who have succeeded before them, a view that experience has already proven a fallacy (192).”

This is the intricate matrix of prejudice facing our students.  First, the best education, the books are taken from minority students.  Then, when minority students achieve, say, a PhD and are hired at a university, they still face negative sentiments that they arrived there not because they are smart or have been proven successful.  No.  They are faced with the sentiment that they really don’t belong there.  And this will follow them after they graduate and acquire a position at a law firm, in academia, etc.  Associate Justice Sotomayor provides her own personal experience. 

The Associate Justice recounts this event when she was looking for positions in law firms upon graduating from Yale Law School (pages 187-192 in her book):  Sonia is invited to a “recruitment dinner” hosted by “Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Towbridge, a well-respected, small Washington firm.”

She writes:  There were eight or ten of us at a large table, and I happened to be seated facing the partner who was steering the event.  Scott made introductions, circling the table with a few words about each of us.  “Sonia’s Puerto Rican and from the South Bronx in New York.  She was at Princeton before she came to Yale.”

As soon as the introductions were over, and before another word was spoken, the partner facing me asked whether I believed in affirmative action.  “Yes,” I said, somewhat guarded but hardly imagining what my answer would unleash.

“Do Princeton and Yale have affirmative action programs?” Yes, of course they do, I told him, at which the challenge only escalated:  “Do you believe law firms should practice affirmative action?  Don’t you think it’s a disservice to minorities, hiring them without the necessary credentials, knowing you’ll have to fire them a few years later?”

I was stunned, as much by the bald rudenss of the interrogation as by its implications.  I’d heard nothing of the kind so blatant since the school nurse caught me off guard at Cardinal Spellman.  “I think that even someone who got into an institution through affirmative action could prove they were qualified by what they accomplished there.”

He looked at me skeptically.  “But that’s the problem with affirmative action.  You have to wait and see if people are qualified or not.  Do you think you would have been admitted to Yale Law School if you were not Puerto Rican?”

“It probably didn’t hurt,” I said.  “But I imagine that graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton had something to do with it too.”

“Well, do you consider yourself culturally deprived?” 

Gee, Officer Krupke, I thought, how do I explain?  Shall I talk about my ancestors, the heritage of Spain?  About having two languages, two ways of seeing the world?  Is there only one culture that counts?  I didn’t even know where to begin answering that one.  And an awkward silence descended upon us, before spreading like a stain to the other end of the table.

Later that day, Sonia meets with the same law firm partner, and to her credit, even though this meeting is really an interview, she challenges him.  She is not worried about whether she gets the job or not.  She confronts the partner.  She tells him how rude he was.  She says:  “That was really insulting.  You presumed that I was unqualified before you had seen my résumé or taken the trouble to learn anything about me.”  His response?  “You didn’t seem terribly upset.  You didn’t make a scene.  You were perfectly civil (189-190).”

According to the partner, then, she successfully “took” his insults by not “reacting.”  And this is often what is expected of all of us.  They are free to tell us who, what, how they think we are, and we are not to react.  And if we do, we are deemed “loud,” “a troublemaker,” “difficult to work with.” Little did this partner know what was coming.

After the interview, the future Associate Justice filed a grievance about the incident.  Sotomayor writes:

“News of the incident flared across campus and divided the school into camps—those who thought I had made too much of some off-hand comments, jeopardizing Yale’s relationship with an important employer of its graduates, and those who were solidly in support of my action.  The latter view spread far beyond New Haven as word reached one minority student group after another across the country.  Letters and news clippings describing similar affronts elsewhere started to arrive . . . the university, clearly uncomfortable with the attention the complaint was drawing, was eager to reach a settlement” and they “negotiated a full apology (190-191).” 

Looking back at the incident, Associate Justice Sotomayor writes about the importance of opportunities like Affirmative Action (or like what María Montessori had provided her destitute students):

“[T]o create the conditions whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be brought to the starting line of a race many were unaware was even being run.  I had been admitted to the Ivy League through a special door, and I had more ground than most to make up before I was competing with my classmates on an equal footing.  But I worked relentlessly to reach that point . . . (191).“

And that is at the crux of Affirmative Action:  To reach a wide swath of our population, the doors must be opened.  This does not guarantee that every minority will succeed.  Not every individual from the dominant or privileged class who goes to college succeeds.  That’s a fact.  But to give those who do not have the privilege, the opportunity, the “chance,” is key.  The doors must be opened, and then it is up to the individual to make use of that opportunity.

And therein lies another cheap shot at us when minorities either don’t finish college, don’t receive reappointment or tenure in academia, or in other professions:  that when one of us “doesn’t make it” it is then considered an “I told you so.”  A hasty generalization is created:  “Well this minority did not succeed, so all minorities really cannot succeed.” 

In the early 1990s, research was conducted at The University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).  Researchers wanted to challenge what they felt was a fallacy:  the idea that Chicana/Chicano and Latina/Latino students didn’t graduate or graduated in very low numbers in comparison to the other students.  Researchers found that earlier instruments of evaluation were only looking at the four-year academic cycle.  They expanded it to 6-8 years.  By looking at a span of 6-8 year graduation records, they found that Chicana/Chicano and Latina/Latino students were graduating at the same or higher rate than the average student. And it was not due to potential or capabilities.  The research was quite nuanced, taking in a number of detailed factors.  By investigating the reasons for the longer period of time, they found students were taking time off to help their families in various circumstances (ailing family member, helping other family members get to school, recuperating finances).  It was not about aptitude.  The majority of these students were doing the work, had high GPAs.  It was about cultural traditions: the commitment to family. The important discovery in this research was finding that the majority of these students did eventually return to their studies and did graduate. 

I think of the Associate Justice who reminds the reader that we have to do the work.  “I worked relentlessly to reach that point,” she writes.  Once the door is opened, it is up to us to do the best we can.    

Why then does someone like Associate Justice Clarence Thomas oppose Affirmative Action?  Like Sotomayor, Thomas also attended Yale Law School.  Yet both have opposing views of Affirmative Action.  In his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas writes:  “I learned the hard way that a law degree from Yale meant one thing for white graduates and another for blacks, no matter how much any one denied it . . . I’d graduated from one of America’s top law schools, but racial preference had robbed my achievement of its true value.” (click here for an article on Thomas)

Given Sotomayor’s experience with the law firm partner, she obviously experienced these kind of sentiments Thomas is describing.  However, I see a difference in that Associate Justice Thomas internalized those sentiments.  In an NPR interview with Sotomayor, she was asked why she and Thomas diverge in their beliefs about Affirmative Action.  Sotomayor answered that she couldn’t speak for Thomas but, “I do know one thing about me:  I don’t measure myself by others’ expectations or let others define my worth.” (click here for interview)

And that may be the key point between Thomas and Sotomayor.  She, like Thomas, has had to endure, over and over, individuals questioning them as to their merit for being where they are.  Sotomayor stands strong in feeling grateful for the opportunity of Affirmative Action, allowing her the opportunity to get to Princeton, to Yale—but once there, she “worked relentlessly” to be successful.  And when she felt the comments belittling her were publicly insulting, she did something about it.  She confronted the prejudice.  She didn't blame the problem on Affirmative Action.  She focused specifically on the source of the prejudice (i.e. the law firm partner).  She didn’t remain silent.  She spoke out.  She was and is loud! 

President Lyndon B. Johnson
When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law Executive Order 11246 codifying Affirmative Action, he wrote:  “Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth.  Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in, by the school you go to, and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings.  It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the [woman] man.” (see more, click here)

Last December, I wrote the "La Bloga" post, "What Presumed Incompetent Looks Like”—a review of the important text that has been receiving much attention in the weeks and months since its publication.  This book contains countless stories similar to the one recounted here by Supreme Course Justice Sotomayor.  We continue to fight those individuals and government legislators who want to prevent our gente from a sound education, from upper level positions in the work force. 

Doors that are closed only weaken a society.  María Montessori writes:  “The unknown energy that can help humanity is that which lies hidden in the child.”  

I began this post with Cindy Carcamo’s article announcing a “renewed interest” in Chicana/Chicano, Latina/Latino Literatures, and Ethnic Studies.  May it continue to unfurl and blossom into a major renaissance.  Que viva our literature, our Ethnic Studies programs.  ¡Que Viva Nuestra Gente!  

1 comment:

Daniel A. Olivas said...

What a fine post today! The struggle continues, but we are better armed than ever: with our words and books and the Internet!