Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Just Don't Look: The Roots of a Life Calling for a Latina Educator

Miapogeo.com/My Latino Voice publishes my essays on Latino subjects and politics. This essay appeared this week.


The nameplate and title adorn my office door.

For a Latina academic, a childhood visit to Guatemala inspired curiosity about the world we live in. 

We wonder how things begin. How did I end up teaching Latin American history? While it’s true that my mother was born in El Salvador and that my father’s parents came to San Francisco during the Mexican Revolution, there are relatively few children of Latin American parents teaching our history. 

My curiosity began at the end of the fourth grade in the summer of 1960, when my mother took us to Guatemala for her first visit since she had left in 1948. 

I loved the fourth grade. Our teacher, Mrs. Gojny, exposed us for the first time to geography and other cultures. We learned about the Emerald Isle (most of our teachers were nuns from Ireland); about Italy’s shape like a boot; about the wooden shoes that the Dutch wore, and their dikes and tulips. We learned about oceans that covered the earth: not just the Pacific Ocean where our parents took us on the rare sunny Sunday in San Francisco, but also the Atlantic, thousands of miles from us but still touching our country; the Indian Ocean and others. We were introduced to maps, and I still love them and use them when I teach. The vast and ancient civilizations of the East were barely mentioned. And Africa, the home of all human life? As we say in Rhode Islandese — “fuggitaboutit.”

Our teachers and textbooks celebrated the cultures of European countries. The textbook barely mentioned Latin America except to describe the original inhabitants as savages. Small wonder that even in our Latin American household, my mother was determined to make sure that we knew that we were Spanish not mixed with “those Indians.” Clearly, she held the same view of them as did our textbook.

My mother’s family was originally from El Salvador but the violent conflicts there had driven them to neighboring Guatemala. My mother had come to the United States from Guatemala in 1948, at first only to visit her older sister. She stayed; she married my father, and had the first three of her four children. Until the summer of 1960, she had not been able to go back for a visit.

Guatemala defined culture shock for me. I was nine, and nothing about Guatemala was like my life in San Francisco. My grandmother, a woman of modest means, had a couple of Indian sirvientas who worked for her. Servants; I had never heard the word and had some difficulty understanding what it meant. It seemed illogical or wrong, somehow. They made our beds, cooked our food, cleaned the house, and washed our clothes by hand in outdoor pilas or sinks.

Except for the center of town where the mercado was and the streets were paved with cobblestones, many of Guatemala’s streets were still dirt roads. At the time of that first visit to Guatemala, my abuelita’s house was close to the center of town. The buses cost a few cents to ride.

Around the corner from my grandmother’s house, there was a commercial laundry where in the window, there was a brazier upon which rested the irons, huge and heavy. They opened up and hot coals were put inside. Then a laundrywoman would lift the iron from the brazier and use it to press the clothes. It must have weighed 15 pounds without the coals. Even to my nine-year old consciousness, I thought it must be backbreaking work, especially working with the heat from the brazier and the hot irons. Then again, watching the servants wash our clothes by hand struck me as being backbreaking as well.

As we traveled around Guatemala, we would see Mayan shamans doing traditional Maya ceremonies on small shrines, often right in front of the Catholic churches. It was not hidden or done secretly. Considering that Protestant Evangelicals and the Mormons had not yet taken hold there, and Catholicism was the only officially recognized religion, it is fascinating that they did their rites out in the open. I had never seen anything like it.

One of the strangest things to my American eyes was that there were soldiers everywhere, carrying machine guns. It was particularly striking to one used to the huge, burly policemen in the United States. Guatemalans are a diminutive people, and at nine, I was already the height of most of the soldiers I saw. Having never been exposed to the violence of the army towards the civilian population (a policy that would lead to the murders or disappearances of 200,000 Guatemalans by the army during the civil war), I would still see them as harmless. Their machine guns were no more frightening to me than the toy guns that my brother played with. In 1960, the United States was training the Cuban refugee troops in eastern Guatemala who would invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. In the midst of the Cold War and the midst of its own troubles, Guatemala could not recuse itself from the turmoil. We knew nothing of that; the pervasiveness of soldiers everywhere in Guatemala was, like everything else that summer, surreal.

When I brought back candy for the servants from our travels around town, I was thoroughly chastised and told not to waste money on them. Unused to being waited on, I was embarrassed by them, and my mother was impatient with my reticence. That was simply the way it was, and I would do better to look at the beauty of the countryside. Did I want to wash my own clothes in the pila? I was, however, a great hit with the servants.

I must have driven Mom crazy that summer. She wanted me to look at the volcanoes, the lakes; and the beautiful ruins of colonial buildings. I saw them but I couldn’t ignore the men sleeping in parks and doorways; the Indian women carrying a baby tied snugly to their chests, carrying another on a hip, with two or three children hanging on to their skirts, all of them dirty, with mucus dripping from their noses. When we would alight from the buses, we would be swarmed by Indian women and their children, all begging. All I could see was the unrelenting, overwhelming poverty: esos Indios sucios, those filthy Indians, spoken of with such contempt that you knew that they must be poor and filthy on purpose. Half-starved dogs meandered in the streets, and occasionally one would see a pig wandering about.

My awareness of poverty, of the difficulty of labor, of hardship, was unusual for a nine year-old. At that time, American children had little exposure to wars and violence in part because our exposure to television was minimal and the offerings, for the most part, were more benign. Seeing all the suffering made me sick at heart and in fact, physically ill; at least that’s what my mother always said. 

Guatemala City is surrounded by volcanoes, including an active one, Pacaya. Since 1965, it sputters continuously, a plume of smoke emanating from its depths in a warning that it could go off any time, and the city is very susceptible to earthquakes. I’m glad Pacaya hadn’t started steaming yet when first I went there. Everything was already so surreal. We visited relatives in the colonial capital, Antigua, or Antigua Guatemala which means “Old Guatemala.” It was originally named Santiago de los Caballeros but after it was destroyed by earthquakes in 1717 and 1773, the crown ordered the capital moved to a safer place, and Antigua was ordered abandoned.  

My first taste of Latin American history was visiting the Museum of Old Weapons in Antigua where my aunt’s father was the curator. I have a picture of my brother and sister sitting in a colonial chair that had belonged to the conquerors of Guatemala. We saw armor, swords and other weapons which, until then, I had seen only in the British TV show, The Adventures of Robin Hood. What were they for, I asked? To kill the Indians, I was told. That was a very confusing answer considering that there were Indians everywhere in Guatemala, dressed in their traditional brightly colored trajes. I guessed that the conquerors hadn’t succeeded in killing all of them. Moreover, killing Indians was something I knew about: I had watched John Wayne’s movies; the Lone Ranger and Tonto, as well as all the other cowboy and Indian movies on television. These Indians didn’t look anything like the fierce, war-painted Indians on television. These Indians just looked small, poor, and dirty, not at all fierce; why did anyone want to kill them?

I fell in love with Antigua Guatemala. I resolved that I would come back to live in Antigua. As I grew older, I dreamed that I would be a writer and I would live in a little house there and write my books. Sadly, I have only returned there to visit. The civil war, from 1960 until 1996, ended any possibility of that dream.

Guatemala made a tremendous impression on me. In the years that followed my first visit, my uncle sent me a book, Los Grandes Conquistadores, which was the first real book I read in Spanish. My vocation was set then. As an adult, I would come to be horrified by accounts of the massacres of indigenous people by the Spanish conquerors, but the landscapes and the downtrodden people I saw that summer left an indelible mark on my heart. At some level, my mother’s love for her adopted country penetrated my subconscious and hooked me. 

We left the country very abruptly. I had been browsing in the stores around the perimeter of the mercadowith my grandmother, and we had just approached a shop with eggs and incubators in the window, where baby chicks were beginning to hatch. I heard popping sounds but thought nothing of it. My abuelita grabbed me, ran into the shop, threw me to the floor and covered her body with mine, telling me to be absolutely quiet. I remember the scent of the sawdust on the floor of the shop. I thought I heard horses’ hoofs on the cobblestones outside but I cannot tell you what happened that day. When the commotion stopped, Abuelita found a back door to the shop, and we ran home. The next day we were on a plane going back to San Francisco.

Every teacher who loves his/her subject passionately is possessed by things they must teach to the next generation. And so it is with me. I have tried to find some mention of what happened that summer, but censorship and repression have worked their magic and there is no trace. I've asked my mother about that day; she says I imagined it. Now that she is deeply lost to Alzheimers, I guess I'll never know, but I have never forgotten the scent of the sawdust.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Beloit College Mindset List

Just a quick note tonight; it's too hot for serious thinking (a record-setting 93 degrees here today!)

The annual Beloit College Mindset List has just been issued. Its purpose is to remind professors that students do not have the same cultural references that we do.   Check it out. 

Check out:


Monday, August 17, 2009

History's Dates and People

I have an odd quirk of mind; odd, I suppose, unless one is a professional historian. I remember dates; all sorts of dates. When I graduated from college and left San Francisco, my home town, to move to Los Angeles, I found a little house in a cul-de-sac. I looked at the house number—1453—and I thought, “The fall of Constantinople.” I remember when wars happened; proclamations; constitutions; birthdays of presidents, actors, musical composers, and friends I had in high school and haven’t seen in 40 years. I even remember the date of death of the most notorious head of the Salvadoran Death Squads, the one who murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero, Roberto D’Aubuisson: February 20, 1992. That’s one I celebrate. I imagine him in the first circle of hell, reserved for those who assassinate saints.

Dates are the bane of a history student’s existence. Anyone who has ever taught history has heard the same complaint: It’s all about dates and names and I can’t remember either.  When I am frustrated by my students’ the total lack of a sense of time, I try to remind myself that mine is an unearned talent, like playing the piano by ear or having perfect pitch. It’s just there, that’s all.  But it was reinforced by the Catholic nuns of my elementary school who made us memorize all sorts of things, from the Baltimore Catechism, to long poems like Paul Revere's Ride, The Song of Hiawatha, and Evangeline (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a special favorite of our teachers), the multiplication tables, and heaven knows what else. Do these young people have to memorize anything?  I sometimes think that by not acquiring this rudimentary skill, they are intellectually short-sheeted. More troubling is the fact that they have no sense of history; no idea at all about what came first. I have been trying to figure out if that is just a function of youth or if something else is going on. From a professional point of view, after all, history hasn’t been just about dates and names for a long time but unless you have a sense of time, it’s all just a jumble.

Comedian Jay Leno used to have a feature on his Tonight Show called, “Jaywalking,” where he and a crew would wander out to talk to people on the street or at an amusement park to ask them the simplest questions or ask them to identify the photo of one of our political leaders. When he would collect the worst of the correspondents to have them compete with each other in the “Jay-Walking All-Stars,” you could just die of embarrassment. How could they be so completely ignorant of history? When he took his show to the UCLA graduation (my alma mater) or to another local university, and interviewed students graduating with education degrees, I could feel my toes curl as the unwitting victims struggled to answer simple questions. http://www.nbc.com/The_Tonight_Show_with_Jay_Leno/video/clips/battle-of-the-jaywalk-all-stars-122/861701/ It was an excruciating experience to watch it, like watching a train wreck. I often caught myself covering my eyes. Presumably, he only picked the least intelligent respondents –they make fun of smart people in other ways. You have to wonder why they would allow themselves to be be broadcast in these demeaning performances.  Is it cool to be on TV no matter the price? Sometimes it’s enough to make me want to hang up my cap and gown for good.

Is it that the past just doesn’t matter to most people? Or to young people? Of course, there are always students who excel at the study of history but how do you connect it with young people who live only in the present?

One thing I do is to try to connect what I’m teaching with their cultural landmarks. I even read People Magazine once in a while just so I have a vague idea of the gossip that they would be familiar with. We live in a culture of celebrity; our students can name celebrities that are completely unfamiliar to me but that are part of their world. How do you make the world of politics and global interests, matter to them?

I’ll take that up tomorrow.

Friday, August 14, 2009

We Are Teachers, Not Police Officers* (In memory of Frank McCourt)

Among the great pleasures of life for college professors are our contacts with former students. Sometimes they send e-mails or handwritten notes; other times they tack notes to my office door; and sometimes we have a serendipitous and unexpected contact in a market or library and I get a quick glimpse into the windows of their lives.

Recently, I had an interesting e-mail from a former student. As a student-teacher in a high school, she has been coming to terms with a teacher's daily strains and workload. She had recently been fooled by a student claiming to be ill, only to learn later that the student had been malingering.

She wrote about that in passing. The real purpose of her letter was that she overheard one of my students boasting about his plan to fool me into giving him a higher grade than the "D" he had earned from me last semester, even as he malingered and claimed to have mono.

This is my reply to her:

Hi there--
YOU are the reward and payoff for me. I have had thousands of students and only a handful keep in touch or thank me for my efforts. But I have the joy of the work itself; of seeing the light go on in my students' faces; of seeing a student care enough to go into the Peace Corps or public school teaching to try to make the world a better place, and sometimes, when I'm lucky, someone like you who takes my feelings into consideration or writes to let me know that I have influenced your life in a positive way.

The world is a harsh place. The people who are the rats, the cheats, the lazy slobs who would rather steal somebody else's work, or the White House for that matter, were young once. We cannot know what forces combined to create a piece of coal instead of a diamond. Ultimately, we cannot take responsibility for them; we are teachers, not police officers. If I had to chase down every cheat or every creep who set out to fool me, I'd drive myself crazy. I can sleep easy knowing that I gave my all in the classroom. We who are the teachers can only do our best, teach our hearts out and believe that most of our students will go on to be good, honorable people who will raise their children to be that way as well, because most of them will. The problem is that the bad apples pollute the air itself. There appear to be more of them than there actually are.

As it happens, I know which student you are writing to me about; at least I think I do. Since I give so few "D's" or "F's" I almost always know who got them. It is because of students like him that I have had to become more suspicious and require doctor's notes. I hate doing it but I always have to figure these jokers into the equation. A student really has to screw up to get a D or an F in my classes: I bend over backwards to be fair. I have trained myself to avoid seeing the name on a class paper or exam until after I've graded it so that I don't favor a student I like or punish one I don't like. If they failed it is due to frequent absences, missed assignments, or excuses, excuses, excuses. This particular student was bragging about this last semester. A student who heard him confided to a male professor who called me anonymously to tip me off. I ended up feeling very suspicious and when one of my students got mono, I was a stickler for the doctor's note only to find that that student really was sick and nearly died.

What can you do? That young man is foolish. I can't take it personally. I wish I could send him to talk to the athlete who failed my intro class, and a year later showed up again but since he missed assignments, missed classes and failed tests, I flunked him again. When he showed up a third semester in a row, I told him to save us both a lot of aggravation, to go take something else. I hate giving failing grades but if they earn 'em, I give 'em. I used to think that eventually, the lying and cheating would cause a downfall but we only have to look at some of the leaders of our government to see how unlikely that is. And like you, I am hurt when someone succeeds in fooling me then brags about it to his friends.

I read once that the best teachers are funny and energetic; that a teacher creates the climate in his or her classroom. So teach, enjoy your teaching and remember that no fool can make a fool out of you; they only deepen the hole they're in. Your students will bless you and if there is a heaven, there's a special circle reserved for teachers. As a student's mother once said to me, teachers earn every nickel. If you want to read a book that will make you laugh out loud about teaching, read Teacher Man by Frank McCourt, the author of Angela's Ashes. I listened to it on CD (borrowed from the public library in Kingston) and it made my commute disappear.

Best of luck to you
Dr. P
Francis "Frank" McCourt (19 August 1930-19 July 2009) died just a month ago.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Balancing Act

Life requires a delicate balance, and that is especially true in teaching.

Over the years, I've developed a somewhat formal style in the classroom: I usually address the students as Mr. or Ms. and I expect them to call me Dr. or professor. I know that today most professors are less formal than that but I believe that there is too much informality in our lives: E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of electronic communication rely on quick, abbreviated messages and the loss of all barriers. If I am trying to teach a discipline, I have to start with teaching in a disciplined way, and I want them to perceive me as being disciplined. Which is not to say, that I don't want them to think I'm not nice or approachable, or that they can't come to me for help. But I also don't want them to think that they can roll me, either. (More on that later).

And perhaps I'm a bit defensive. There are so few Latino/a professors, still, in 2009; the last available figures, for 2007, put Latinos/as at only 3.6% of the professoriate. Despite the claims some have made that we are now in the post-racial Obama era, many people still think Latinos are not particularly bright or associate us with everything they fear and dislike; the issue is further complicated by fear of the immigration from south of the border or just plain xenophobia. Thank heavens for Justice Sonia Sotomayor's "wise Latina"! Now something besides teen pregnancy and gang girls will be associated with the word "Latina." When I was in graduate school, I heard the veiled racism of those who claimed that I only got a job because I was Hispanic. I worry that we are not yet, as a society, past that attitude, and part of my insistence on being called by my title is a response to that.

On the other hand, I am touched when my Latino students write me thank you notes when the semester ends. They almost always tell me that I am the first Latino/a teacher they have ever had and they treat me as a role model. It bestows an awesome responsibility on me that I strive to fulfill.

Once they are past our initial encounters, many students come to address notes to me with "Dr. P"--that's fine. Oh, to have an easy name like "Cortes"! But my ancestors endowed me with the unpronounceable, unspellable (for anyone not endowed with the name) "Pegueros." I must say that it gives me great pleasure when, after years away from school, a former student sees me in a store and calls out, "Dr. P!!" In the inimitable Rhode Island accent , "Hey, Docta P!"

To return to the issue of discipline: I am astonished how many of my students claim never to have written a book report, or written a research paper. You would not believe how many students tell me that they have never read an entire book until they took my class. I wonder if it is an excuse or if it is true that such exercises have been discontinued in primary and secondary education. I ask them if they have ever read "The Scarlet Letter" or "Red Badge of Courage," or another of the classics that filled my childhood hours, or even "Harry Potter"? I am distressed at how many students say they hate to read. What, I wonder silently, are you doing in college? When they tell me that they are education majors, it helps me to understand why our students don't read but I can't help but wonder why they want to be teachers! If the teachers hate to read, how do they communicate a love of learning? Faced with this question, another comes to mind: What can I do to change this?

Some people say that it's not our responsibility; that we should teach the ones who are teachable, who meet our standards. Perhaps the Ivy Leagues have the luxury of picking those who have the best preparation for college but we, in the state universities offer higher education to a broader spectrum of students, and we are the ones who will increase the middle class and bring greater prosperity to our society by doing so. Before they can pursuit fruitful careers, however, they have to learn how to learn and develop a love of learning.

More on that next time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

August is one long Sunday night

This is a blog about teaching Latin American history to college students. There are legions of college professors in our nation's colleges and universities, most of whom teach United States or European history. The rest of us cover the rest of the world which, if you look at a globe, is quite a lot of territory.

I am beginning my seventeeth year at the University of Rhode Island where I teach Latin American History, and Women's Studies. People always ask me which country I specialize in. While my research is on Central America (a region, obviously, rather than a country) the truth is I am a generalist (more poetically, a Renaissance woman) since I cover 20 countries and over five hundred years. Sometimes I envy those who have a smaller bit of real estate for which they are responsible but mostly I love the breadth of understanding of the world that my study of history gives me. It is this breadth of understanding that I hope to give them because while I teach about Latin America, I am really teaching them to look beyond the shores of of this country. If I succeed in arousing their curiosity about Latin America or help them understand a newspaper article about Mexico or a movie about the Brazilian favelas, I will know I have succeeded.

All college professors teach a discipline but our students are people who may, as they attempt to get their degrees, face challenges and troubles we know nothing about. Sometimes it is difficult to know what is a genuine challenge and what is a good excuse because not all of them are mature enough or serious enough about their studies. To teach them effectively, we must reach them where they are and bring them along.

As this summer draws to an end, I am reminded of a student in one of my summer classes this year. She always looked a bit sleepy though she never fell asleep in class or handed her work in late. One day, she arrived at our 8 AM class just as I did, right on the button, and she handed me a large cup of coffee. She explained that she had been afraid that she was going to arrive late because she worked the 5-7:30 AM shift at a local donut shop and the clerk who relieved her had called in late. She didn't want me to be upset about her late arrival, so she brought me a cup of coffee, presumably because I always had a cup of coffee with me when I lectured.

It was a funny little thing but it made me aware--and I had forgotten--that some students work grueling schedules as well as taking classes and studying. It was an important reminder of just who I was dealing with.

URI is a state university. Many of our students are working-class. Many are the first in their families to go to college. They will never know the cushy college experience of their peers at the Ivy League colleges, and most will graduate with a staggering amount of debt. We who care about them must keep these things in mind. This is a blog about what it's like to teach them; about some of the shenanigans that they get up to; about the state and academic politics we have to deal with as we strive to deliver the curriculum.

As August draws to a close, I am working on syllabi and preparing quizzes; trying to get a jump on the avalanche of work that hits as soon as the first school bell rings. As one wag said, for a teacher, August is one long Sunday night.