The Rio Grande Valley of South Texas is a bicultural, bilingual region where three of its counties – Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr – border northern Mexico. The two largest cities of the “Valley,” Brownsville and McAllen, are just across the river from Matamoros and Reynosa, Mexico, respectively.
Much of the news about the Texas/Mexico border these days is about warring drug cartels, American citizens who have been shot and killed, and farmers who have been threatened with violence. Yet amidst all the news about drugs and guns, the schools in the Rio Grande Valley remain open. The teachers and administrators in these schools, whose students are predominantly Mexican-American, are fighting another “battle.” They are working daily to educate the children of Mexican immigrants to the United States, many of whom will be the first in their families to attend college. These students, like students elsewhere, are reading fewer books and struggling to creatively solve problems. The high school dropout rates for Hispanics are the highest among any ethnic group in the United States.
The executive summary of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) 2007 report To Read or Not To Read notes that “little more than one-third of high school seniors now read proficiently.” The same study reports that 58 percent of middle and high school students use other media while reading. The July 19, 2010, issue of Newsweek ran a cover story on “Creativity in America” in which the authors report that “American creativity scores are falling” at a time when “all around us, matters of national and international importance are crying out for creative solutions.”
How can we as educators promote reading, literacy and creativity in the classroom for a new generation of Hispanic students? These students are now the majority of public school students in Texas and California and are changing the face of higher education.
I would like to draw upon my experiences as an educator and as a writer who has lived in the Rio Grande Valley for 10 years. As chair of the Department of English at the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA) from 2001 to 2007, we doubled the number of English majors and the department became ranked No. 1 nationally for bachelor’s degrees awarded in English to Hispanic students. I supervised the development of a new curriculum that reinvigorated the department and fueled student interest in the major. I also taught many of the region’s high school teachers in workshops designed to promote creative writing, creativity and “textual power” through engaged reading.
I encourage the teaching of “ecphrasis” in the college classroom and in workshops that I offer to Region One teachers from Brownsville to Laredo. The tradition of writing a poem or prose passage in response to a work of art is called “ecphrasis,” defined by John Hollander in his book The Gazer’s Spirit as a “verbal description of a work of art.” Perhaps the most famous example of this is John Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in which he uses the art object as an inspiration to con-template the nature of beauty and time.
Many modern and contemporary poets have written poems in response to works of art. Recently, the University of Notre Dame, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, sponsored an exhibit titled “Poetas y Pintores,” which featured 12 poems and 12 works of art by Latino/a poets and artists.
In my teacher workshops, the teachers bring a drawing, a painting, a photograph or another piece of art they want to write about. I ask them to imagine the subject of the painting speaking. What story would she or he tell? Or what would the artist say about the creation of this work? I ask them to write down all the visual details of the artwork to see what they reveal about the piece. By engaging in a close examination of the art, they discover all kinds of wonderful insights that can then go into a poem. They can then share this activity with their students.
Honor Moorman, dean of instruction for English and social studies at the International School of the Americas in San Antonio, Texas, also uses “ecphrasis” in her classes. She has found that “studying the specific links between visual and verbal expression found in ecphrastic poetry gives students an even deeper understanding of the power of details to create an image in the mind.”
For Dana Gioia, former chairman of the NEA and instrumental in providing support for “Poetas y Pintores,” “the visual arts are so central to Hispanic culture that by introducing them in classroom assignments it is possible to bring a huge elemental energy into artistic projects. Having grown up in a bilingual family and in a neighborhood of immigrants, I have seen how some Latinos feel – initially at least – like outsiders in English-language creative writing. Once they get started, then these worries quickly disappear, but the challenge is to engage both their interest and their confidence. The visual arts give them a starting point which has no barriers and allows them to express their sensibilities directly. Projects which combine visual and verbal elements also allow students who feel comfortable in one area to explore the other without risk, thereby making the exercises more inclusive as well as more accessible.”
When I moved to South Texas, my artist wife Reefka began sketching and drawing the people on both sides of the Rio Grande, in communities in South Texas as well as the northern states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, Mexico. As she continued to draw and paint children, street vendors, musicians and women from the border town of Nuevo Progreso, or the flea markets of Mission, Texas, for example, I began to write poems about some of her portraits. The result of our collaboration is a new book titled Borderlines: Drawing Border Lives (Fronteras: dibujando las vidas fronterizas, Wings Press, 2010). The book consists of 25 of her drawings and 25 poems, one about each of her drawings. We wanted a bilingual text to reflect the two languages spoken along the border, and the poems are translated into Spanish by José Antonio Rodríguez.
Borderlines/Fronteras was featured at the Miami Book Fair International and the Texas Book Festival and has been recommended for classroom use in reviews of the book by the San Antonio Express-News and the Library Journal. Ed Conroy, writing in the San Antonio Express-News (May 16, 2010), concludes his review by suggesting “this book will find ready acceptance in schools and public libraries across the U.S./Mexico border, and will help fulfill the authors’ desire ‘to improve cross cultural understanding and deepen awareness of the human ties that bind us all together.’”
Borderlines/Fronteras provides a model text for teachers to promote reading, writing, and creativity in the classroom. Because the drawings in the book are of real people who live along the border, the students see themselves in the drawings as well as members of their own family. The drawings of “Boot Seller” and “Proud Vendedor” feature men we met at one of the many open-air markets in the Rio Grande Valley and who could be the uncles or cousins of my students. As a result, they discover that art can be made from their own world.
Because the content of Borderlines/Fronteras is culturally relevant, the students find that the poems are accessible and hold their interest. Joan Parker Webster, in her book Teaching Through Culture, defines culturally relevant literature as literature in which students “can see themselves ... represented accurately and respectfully.” Louis Moll, a professor of language, reading and culture at the University of Arizona, contends that “existing classroom practices underestimate and constrain what Latino and other children are able to display intellectually.” Borderlines/Fronteras taps into the students’ life experience and presents an alternative to the culture of drugs and violence glamorized in narcocorridos and other expressions of popular culture. Borderlines/Fronteras also provides social commentary on the issues that confront Hispanic students – literacy, education, poverty and freedom.
Moreover, the bilingual text helps Spanish speakers to learn English and English speakers to learn Spanish. Recently, Reefka and I attended a program at the Pharr Literacy Project in Pharr, Texas, a community out-reach center that teaches English to new immigrants and prepares them to enter the work force. The founder of the center, Elva Michal, had been working with a group of adults on their English-language skills, using Borderlines/Fronteras as a text.
You sit back in your leather chair
With that white sombrero on your head
And smile out at the world
That passes by your stall at the Mission flea market Where you sell Western boots
To construction workers from Oaxaca,
To migrant workers from Camargo,
To fruit sellers from Nuevo Guerrero.
Your smile is as wide as the Gulf of Mexico
And you listen all day to rancheras and conjunto music On the radio.
You are happy to be sitting here.
You are happy to be selling these leather boots, Polished and shiny in the heat of the day.
You cradle in your hands a cell phone
As if you hold the world in your fingertips.
You talk to those who enter your outdoor tienda
And listen to their stories of coyotes,
The women and children they have left behind.
You listen to their struggles to find work.
You are a man comfortable
Selling boots at the Mission flea market
Close to the fruit stands and the jewelry sellers
And the used clothes on the racks.
You are proud of the boots on your shelves
And the vast expanse of desert you have crossed.
You have a glint in your eyes of a man
Who has made it on this side of the Rio Grande Content to sell these boots
On a sunny afternoon in a flea market in Mission, Tejas.
Each of the students in the class was required to adopt one of the portraits in the book and write a short story in English about the portrait selected. Each student also created a large painting as a backdrop for the story. After many weeks of working on this project, the students’ presentations included a reading in English of one of the original poems from the book, a demonstration of their own artwork and then a reading in English of their short piece of prose. We were moved by the creative way the mate-rial in our book had been put to use to help native Spanish speakers learn English and to express their stories of pain and struggle. This is just one of the many different ways that Borderlines/Fronteras can be put to use in a classroom where many of the students may be English-language learners, like here in the Rio Grande Valley.
When Reefka and I began our Borderlines project in 2001, the U.S.-Mexico border was very different than it is today. One could cross with ease from the U.S. side to the Mexican side on one of the many pedestrian bridges built over the Rio Grande. The border wall had not yet been constructed. The activity of the Zeta and other drug cartels was quiescent com-pared to today.
In the current climate of fear along the U.S.-Mexico border, where the headlines about drug-related murders dominate the news, it is very easy to lose sight of the real people who live and work here and aspire to raise their families, listen to music and dance under the stars.
What does it mean to cross over a border? It means that you leave the familiarity of your own space to enter another culture, which opens the door to cross-cultural understanding. When that door is closed, no exchange of views and ideas can take place, no breaking of boundaries. Reading provides a similar kind of experience, whereby we may be trans-ported by a book into another world. However, if the experience of reading books is diminished, then our students lose out on their experience of other worlds. One of the ways to get them engaged with reading, according to Sandra Cisneros, is to have them discover “su novia” in the form of a book. When students read about their own culture, they unlock the plea-sures of reading and in time read to learn not only about their own culture but the culture of others as well.
When students write about works of art, or create works of art in response to poems, it facilitates the expression of their own creativity in new and surprising ways. I have seen this repeatedly in my graduate creative writing seminar at UTPA, where students often produce their best poems in response to a work of art.
Anne Waldman, in her essay “Going on Our Nerve: Collaborations between Poets and Visual Artists” in the book Third Mind (edited by Tonya Foster and Kristin Prevallet), writes that “something new, or ‘other,’ emerges from the combination that would not have come about with a solo act.” The disciplinary crossing of poetry and art, like the crossing of a geographical border, leads to discovery and insight that both nourishes the soul and stimulates the brain. “Highly creative people are very good at marshalling their brains into bilateral mode,” according to the Newsweek article, “and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.” Poetry-Art (“ecphrasis”) just may be the key to unlocking our students’ creativity.
If we do not find ways to promote creativity in the classroom for Hispanic students, then the tremendous resource they represent for helping to solve society’s problems will be lost. The Newsweek article cites “a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs who identified creativity as the No. 1 ‘lead-ership competency’ of the future.” In business, in the arts, in the sciences, the most creative thinkers are changing the directions of society and at the same time working to solve its most pressing problems.
You stand in front of the fruits and vegetables You sell at your open-air tienda
At Ochoa’s Flea Market each weekend
In your Levis and leather belt from Guadalajara Your sleeves rolled up, the collar
Of your red and white checkered shirt unbuttoned A man happy to be here
Wearing a San Antonio Spurs championship hat And selling red and green chili peppers
Carrots, cucumbers, cabbages,
To cabinet workers from Michoacán, Locksmiths from Tampico.
Weekdays you drive a tractor
And work the sugarcane fields
On old Military Highway.
Weekends you sell fruits and vegetables
To support your family:
Your three children who work beside you,
Your wife and your nieces and nephews
Who bag the peppers and tomatoes
To all who come in their Texas Longhorn hats And Tommy Hilfiger shirts
(Bought for less at the mercado on Conway) And drink fruit cocktails from Castañeda’s. Afterwards they watch La Lucha Libre
Each Sunday afternoon in the tin shed nearby Where El Rey del Camino
Takes on the Black Venom.
Six-Year-Old Street Vendor
In her right ear she wears a pink stud.
Her lips are sealed and will not share the secrets
Of her family, the two room house
With dirt floors and no running water.
Her mother makes doilies and tablecloths
Sold at the basilica.
The handbags draped over each wrist
And around her neck
Are stitched by a cousin
Who lives in Matamoros.
They hang from her like ornaments.
She awakens each day, early,
To walk the streets of Nuevo Progreso
Where she competes
With other child vendors – of watches, silver bracelets,
CDs of Tejano music.
She is intimate with the alleys of this border town
Beggars with tin cans, children playing the accordion, stray cats. She will never learn how to read or write.
She leaves only traces of her footsteps
On the muddy paths beside the Rio Grande.