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San Antonio Express-News
National Plan Promotes Latino Culture
by Anne Miller
October 10, 2001
We defy translation.
Ni tengo nombre. Nameless.
We are a whole culture once removed.
- Sandra Maria Esteves, " Puerto Rican Discovery #3: Not Neither"
Jefferson High School Spanish teacher Martha Vasquez gave Esteves' poem to her Spanish III class as homework. They already had read another from that series, " Puerto Rican Discovery #10: Surprise Package," part of Vasquez's efforts to incorporate Latino literature into her lesson plans.
Students took turns reading stanzas, standing in front of the class reading clearly if nervously, turning their feet on the tile and shrugging as they pronounced the words of a writer searching for her identity.
"You are a surprise package. So am I. So is everybody," Vasquez said.
As embracing their culture becomes more popular among Hispanic youths, teachers struggle to incorporate such lessons in their classrooms. But lack of resources often works against them.
Ellen Riojas Clark, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, knows well those frustrations, being a native San Antonian and expert on bilingual and Hispanic education.
Under her direction, the university was awarded a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to stage a monthlong summer institute to educate 28 teachers on ways to incorporate diversity lessons and Hispanic culture into their classrooms.
"It is a very vibrant, dynamic time for Latino literature in the U.S.," Clark said.
"One of our goals is to impact the canon of American literature."
For students, Clark said, lessons in their culture give them more of a sense of self-worth.
"Seeing themselves reflected in literature helps them identify who they are," she said.
"It validates who they are. It validates their community. It validates their culture. It validates their parents. They recognize themselves in the literature."
Among the summer institute's exercises was having the teachers write lessons for students and expose them to local culture.
The traveled on VIA buses to see the town.
They toured the South and West sides of the city that tourists seldom visit.
They saw murals and the homes of local writers such as Sandra Cisneros.
"We wanted them to see what the context of some of the literature was," Clark said.
"One teacher from Oregon, she was shaken to her core. She was shaken in terms of her understanding about what this literature is about."
Vasquez was one of the teachers who learned from Clark this summer.
This is her sixth year teaching, her fourth at Jefferson.
She previously was a religious missionary in her native Colombia. She purchases materials for her classroom during visits home.
"The textbooks they give us, they're so plain," Vasquez said. "You have to challenge them more than that. There is so much confusion about how we define ourselves. Many of them have grown up to be ashamed of our culture because being different has sometimes meant you are less.
"They have been given that package in the U.S. that you have to speak English and you can't speak Spanish. That is changing, thank God."
Her students agree.
A few stayed after class to talk about their teacher, the course and their Hispanic identities after Vasquez had left the room.
"It makes you see other points of view. Like, hey, I know what she's talking about," said 16-year-old Ixchel Gonzalez. "Everyone else has a foundation about where they came from, because they talk about it."
"You hear about black and white always," said junior Juan Leal. "Nobody really talks about Hispanic or Mexican. No Cesar Chavez."
During the school year, Vasquez will have her students move desks aside and teach them to salsa and merengue. Pablo Picasso and Federico Garcia-Lorca will make appearances through their works.
"My group last year, they were dancing all the time," Vasquez said. This year's class is shyer, so she drafted two students from another class who also preside over the school's dance club to demonstrate salsa moves for the class.
At the end of the period, the class voted on whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state and whether the Navy should end all bombing on Vieques . They also had to explain why they voted as they did.
"It's not just about discovering your culture, your identity, but being sensitive to others," Vasquez said