Texas Tech University

Ways In: Teaching Culture through Literature*

Cordelia Barrera

* This essay was originally presented as an address to the Latino Hispanic Faculty and Staff Association.


Every year, the Latino Hispanic Faculty and Staff Association here at Tech has a conference to highlight some of the issues that affect Hispanics and Chicanos in and around campus. This year's theme, "Perspectives on Cultural Success," couldn't be more timely, as there's still a lot of press on HB 2281, the law that bans ethnic studies in Arizona. And although it's too soon to tell what's going to be decided in Texas with regards to SB 1128, which would ban ethnic studies as a choice for core Texas and U.S. history courses required in Texas universities, it doesn't seem likely that Texas will follow the lead of Arizona.

I don't want to get into the politics behind these measures, but instead discuss the importance of learning about one's culture through literature, a topic that's at the core of what I do every day in my classes. Tony Diaz, "El Librotraficante" has said, "every week is banned books week for Chicanos." And what this suggests is that Chicanos, like other ethnic groups, often have to make a real effort to locate stories about themselves, their identities, and their cultures. Literature is a window, an opportunity to engage in varied and rich cultures. Literature habituates our minds to the vast. It is a process, but it is also a necessity. What happens when people do not find themselves in the stories they read? Does this affect their way of being in the world? Does it affect their voice? I think it does, and I think it matters greatly. Today, I'd like to talk about the importance of literature, specifically the ways in which literature helps students to think critically and to find their voice.

My greatest challenge, and I think a significant challenge for most professors in the classroom, is to motivate students to establish, or create situations in which learning occurs. I believe in Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire's critical pedagogy that insists that students are active learners who produce meaning from their own varied experiences. I believe that every student is capable of learning, and I initially always aim, in the classroom, to demonstrate a reciprocal model of learning between my students and myself. My challenge as a guide, a facilitator, and a model, is to accept that students come to the classroom with different funds of knowledge. My job is to help students find their voice. In Latina/Chicana writings, this is called conscientization, or nepantla—finding one's voice—as Chicana writers Ana Castillo and Gloria Anzaldúa, respectively, have called it.

As many of the literature classes I teach focus on counter narratives of nation-making in American and US borderlands literature, students often face challenges to their own cultural and personal beliefs while examining cultural differences and developing meaningful relationships through communication with those from different cultures. The Caribbean-American writer and activist, Audre Lorde famously proclaimed that the differences between us create a fund of necessary polarities that allows individual creativity to spark like a dialectic; this is an idea I instill early and throughout each semester, for it encourages open-minded inquiry alongside an embracing of the very real differences between us all. I believe that a responsible pedagogy is multicultural at best, as there is a constant need to foster dialogue between and with Others. In dialogue, we bridge our differences, in bridging our differences, we come together to learn from each other, to provide feedback, to witness as other voices are heard. This conviction structures my lectures, excites class discussion, and encourages students to learn from both myself and each other.

The feminist educator and activist bell hooks discusses ways that embrace education as a movement from oppressive social practices toward justice and equality.She points out the role of power and ideology in the sociohistorical construction of knowledge, education, culture, identity, difference, and social relations in efforts to work actively through, and not passively on, students as they recover their histories by demystifying how domination works. In other words, when students understand their histories—their stories—they can actively begin to engage with broader sets of ideologies and values, perhaps ways of living and working in the world that they can more effectively identify with. hooks compels us to teach in ways that decenter authority...ways that create self-empowering conditions for students. In her model, teachers and professors are facilitators, rather than self-contained authorities who must position themselves above students. These ideas highlight the understanding that ALL students are capable of learning and that each student has a unique storehouse of knowledge that he/she brings to the classroom. The challenge of acting as a guide, or facilitator is to accept that each student comes to the classroom with a unique storehouse of knowledge. The goal, then is to help students find their unique voice and then develop it.

Students will find their voices, and quite possibly, celebrate their unique voices, when they read about others like themselves. A cultural studies approach, rather than a "whitewashed" approach to literature that erases ethnic or minority voices is key to a student's engagement with literature. Only when students become exposed to diversity and diverse cultures do they begin to cultivate a sensitivity to the ways in which culture is a field of power relations involving centers and peripheries, status hierarchies, and connections to norms that impose repressions and the marginalization of groups.

For example, Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya is one of the most widely-read and respected works in Chicano literature. It is the coming of age novel of a young boy named Antonio. In the book, young Tony questions his Catholic upbringing, the nature of religious belief, and the nature of good and evil. Although it has been publicly contested for years because of its support of holistic medicine and questioning of traditional Catholic hierarchies, Bless Me, Ultima was recently selected as a "Big Read" by the National Endowment for the Arts. The book is currently banned within the Arizona school district as part of that state's political posturing that targets indigenous studies and minorities as a whole. For this reason alone, anyone who chooses to uphold his or her right to acknowledge the diverse stories of history and identity, rather than the single, privileged whitewashed story of the status quo, has a duty to read the book. Doing so vindicates the diverse stories histories that make the US. It allows people to decide what is significant, life affirming, and consequential for themselves. At the simplest level, the book is about a boy who questions his Catholic upbringing and who must learn and judge for himself the path of life he will ultimately choose. But in many ways, the book upsets the status quo, and so is seen as a threat by many in tenuous positions of power.

Another example of a work of literary studies that focuses on unique voices within Chicano literature is With a Pistol in His Hand. This is the story of Gregorio Cortez, who in 1901, fought for justice against the discriminatory practices of the Texas Rangers. The story of Cortez spawned a corrido and a legend. The story was written as a dissertation in the 1950s by Américo Paredes, who later founded the Center for Folklore Studies and the Center for Mexican American Studies at UT Austin, where he taught for over 30 years. This is an important text for many reasons, the most important being that it was one of the first texts to discuss, without prejudice, the point of view of the Mexican-American experience in Texas. Point of view is fundamental in any understanding of the power of stories, especially with regard to the historical record. In the first chapter, Paredes lays the groundwork for understanding Cortez's struggle, which represents the struggle of all Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the borderlands of Texas in the early 20th century. He outlines the stories that the Texas Rangers tell about the Mexicans and that the Mexicans tell about the Rangers, and not surprisingly, the stories each group tells about the other vary tremendously.

Stories are how we make sense of our world. There is compelling research that indicates that narrative and stories are the basic medium by which we structure our lives. The author and psychologist Robert Coles, who still teaches classes like "literature and Medicine" at Harvard, argues that we read and engage fiction in order to do moral and social history. As a young psychiatrist, Coles listened to his patients as they recalled their experiences to him. In this way, he began to see his patients as storytellers. He learned that he had to dig out clues from the many stories that his patients told him. These were like treasure maps to him, puzzles that he could only decode once he had clear knowledge of a patient's history and vast experiences. He began to see his patients as "texts"—full of signs and wonders—that he must learn to "read" if he was ever going to connect with his patients in efforts to heal them.

As teachers, we don't heal our students, but we do nourish them. Works of literature encourage us to identify with an author's imagination, but they also trigger powerful memories, rouse our conscience, and possibly—or hopefully—ignite fires that lead to further expressions that resonate with those of greater society—our cultures, religions, politics, and economies. If, as cognitive scientist and author Mark Turner argues, "stories are the primary mode of language by which our minds are organized" then is it not imperative that teachers, professors, work to help students tease out their creative, critical, contemplative minds via literature?

Our engagement with the present is contingent with our experiences in and with our past. We all need our stories, our histories as much as we need the air that we breathe, for like air and water the stories of our lives are essential to our continued growth and prosperity. Professor and literary critic Robert Scholes argues that "reading and writing our stories is important because we read and write our world, as well as our texts, and are read and written by them in turn." We are the products of the stories we tell and are told. When students are allowed to openly and honestly engage—in critical and meaningful dialogue—with the narrative encounters of their lives, they can begin to embrace the value of creating their own texts, their own stories, their own ways.