This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Why should I teach a predominately African American class about Latin-Caribbean culture?
My school, like many schools in Philadelphia is racially isolated. Consequently, tensions exist regarding meeting the School District’s expectation of promoting multicultural studies.
According to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in the greater Philadelphia area, with over 129,000 in the city. Puerto Ricans are the largest Latino group with an estimated 91,527 residents. Of the School District’s more than 190,000 students, Latino students represent close to 17% of the total population, while African American, White, and Asian students make up 62%, 13%, and 6%, respectively. But many African American and Latino students seem generally isolated from each other in Philadelphia schools, despite the fact that they share lots of common historical and popular cultural connections.
The School District of Philadelphia’s curriculum encourages teaching about diverse cultures. In particular, the sixth grade social studies curriculum covers the Western Hemisphere, which includes the history, geography, and culture of people from Latin America and the Caribbean.
My students and I have been involved in an inquiry project that explores the connections between Latin-Caribbean and African American cultures. Through completing an I Search personal narrative research project about the connections between Latin-Caribbeans and African Americans, my students are discovering they are influenced by the same kinds of music, dances, games, fashion, and political and popular cultural patterns.
Some students discovered that similar housing, employment, and educational discrimination of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans gave rise to the popular urban, hip-hop- inspired reggaeton music.
I was pleased with the poetry my students composed that embeds some of the new things that they learned. Their poems were inspired by excerpts of Sandra Cisneros, "You Bring out the Mexican in Me." This lesson was adapted from my Yale National Initiative, Latino cultures curriculum unit, and from the selection "You Bring out the Latino in Me” from the anthology, City Of One : Young Writers Speak To The World written by youth between the ages 9-23.
Prior to composing their poems, my students worked in unison reading groups to do a close reading of Cisneros poem. This poem created a dynamic buzz in the classroom. I overheard one reading group questioning why Cisneros would “surrender my one-woman house. / Allow you red wine in bed, / even with my vintage lace linen.”
Makilah, a precocious 11-year-old, wondered out loud, “Is the speaker being nasty in this poem?" Harun, a charming yet bravado-filled boy, countered that “the poet is using metaphors." He remembered we learned about metaphors before.
After reading, debating, and playing around with the poem, I turned my students loose. I told them to use Cisneros’s poem as their muse; reflect on their inquiry and learning about Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban culture; and compose their own “You Bring out the Latin-Caribbean in Me" poem.
The maturity, passion, and insight from my students’ poetry was inspiring. Zahfir, an intense but playful boy, whose peers at times mistake for an elementary student, wrote a powerhouse: "You Bring out the Puerto Rican in Me" poem. He mused “The way you walk, and talk is so lovely. / No matter what we’ll stay together. / If we don’t we’ll be the opposite of better…”
Harun offered a possible reflection of imperialism in his "You Bring out the Puerto Rican in Me" poem: “… I can feel the pain from our countries. / They wanted to kill each other. / It does not matter that our nations almost killed us / But we should live in harmony together… I will always love you. Just like the spices we export and import / You are my beautiful Puerto Rican wild flower."
Khyre rendered a muse to the Latin beat, in his "You Bring out the Latin in Me" poem, “when you move to the groove of the rhythm, / and dance to the dance to the beat, / of that smooth music, / you bring out the Latin in me…”
Precious, an 8th grader, former student, and prolific member of Beeber’s Poetry Café Club, decided to compose a bilingual poem, “Te Quiero / I Love You” and recited the poem to my 6th grade students to encourage them as we culminated our inquiry and performance project.
Spanish is not offered at my school, or for enough public Philadelphia middle school students. The initiative showed by Precious, who is not Spanish-speaking, demonstrates that world languages should be taught at all school levels, not just high school.
We plan to showcase our poetry along with present a Latin/Caribbean-inspired dance demonstration at our upcoming holiday assembly program. It should be wonderful to bring the celebration of life En La Ciudad de Filadelfia.
A selection of students’ "You Bring Out the Latin Caribbean" poems are available here. Readers are encouraged to provide feedback and encouragement to my budding scholars and poets.