Tuesday, May 14, 2019
May 14, 2019: Spring Semester Reflections: Espada and Cisneros in Ethnic American Lit
[April showers bring May flowers, and May flowers bring, besides Pilgrims, the end of another semester. So this week I’ll share a few reflections from my Spring 2019 semester, leading up to a special weekend post on what’s ahead for the summer and beyond. I’d love to hear your Spring reflections in comments!]
On two distinct but complementary ways to challenge exclusionary propaganda.
In the preview post for my Ethnic American Literature course, I wrote about the incredibly complex and crucial task of teaching such topics and themes in 2019. Well, the first few months of 2019 didn’t disappoint (or rather they did in so, so many ways, but not in living up to such predictions): the semester opened in the midst of a government shutdown over false, xenophobic, white supremacist narratives of a border and immigration “crisis”; and it featured in its early weeks a presidential “emergency” declaration over that same “crisis,” with all the subsequent and ongoing debate and fallout. While I wrote a lot about those issues and themes, especially for my Saturday Evening Post gig, I didn’t necessarily bring them into my classes as often as I might have (no doubt in part because I felt that both I and we needed spaces where we weren’t bombarded by those horrific unfolding histories). But certainly we connected to such contemporary issues at multiple moments in the course of the Ethnic American Lit class, and never more so than in Unit 3, a pairing of various late 20th and early 21st century poems by Puerto Rican poet Martín Espada with the opening couple dozen stories from Sandra Cisneros’s short story cycle The House on Mango Street (1984).
Many of Espada’s poems directly challenge both border/immigration policies and practices and the kinds of exclusionary and bigoted attitudes that underlie anti-immigrant sentiments. That’s particularly true of a poem like “Federico’s Ghost” (1990), which uses the life and death (and afterlife) of a migrant laborer to expose a variety of destructive social and historical forces. But in its own more subtle and funny way, a poem like “Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits” (1999) is just as activist, as it forces its non-Latino, non-immigrant American readers (indeed, all of its readers, but perhaps those with particular force) to think about both the lives and stories of those around them and the way their attitudes and actions might affect those fellow Americans. Reading these poems helped us talk about questions of culture and language, of heritage and identity, of what links figures like Federico and Jorge to those in other class texts (like Richard Wright in Black Boy or Michael Patrick MacDonald in All Souls, to name two) as well as what distinguishes their American experiences. All discussions that help challenge the propaganda underlying white supremacist exclusions.
Espada’s poems and protagonists tend to offer such challenges overtly and purposefully, while Esperanza, the youthful narrator of Cisneros’s stories, tends to focus far more consistently and understandably on childhood concerns of family and friends, bicycles and boys, and other such topics. As that hyperlinked story illustrates, those concerns themselves often connect to cultural, social, and historical issues, even if Esperanza herself isn’t always aware of the broader contexts (she is in that particular story, to be sure). But even when the stories remain focused on simpler or more universal experiences of childhood and growing up, they nonetheless offer a potent challenge to propagandistic fears of immigrants. Esperanza, after all, is (like Cisneros) the daughter of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. (and possibly undocumented ones; we’re not told their immigration status, but they are at least in a similar socioeconomic status to many undocumented arrivals, as the book’s titular first story reflects), an embodiment of the American future that seems to so terrify those who offer dire warnings about “migrant caravans” and the like. Reading Cisneros’s stories thus helps us engage with the specific realities (rather than the fears) of such lives and families and communities, and at the same time to recognize that their stories are very much like all of ours.
Next reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Spring reflections you’d share?