Socially Produced

Thinking about our cultural context, one cultural token at a time.

Archive for the ‘Race’ Category

Dealing with Cultural Literacy

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YES Prep's Logo

Since I began the blog, I’ve switched locations and employment. Currently, I’m situated in Houston, TX, working at YES Prep SW, a high-performing charter school. When I say high-performing, I mean it: our test scores are among the highest in the state, we send 100% of our students to four-year colleges, and the selectivity of the colleges our students is only increasing. I recently showed a quiz I was giving my students for Islam to a couple of friends of mine who have attended college and taken classes on Islam.

The quiz covered material they would have covered in their college classes in 3-4 weeks of class. I did it in four classes, with a bit of homework. My students did well. I can confidently say that I have great students and that they work hard. Our goal here at SW is to prepare our students not just to be college-eligible, but to be college-ready.

What does it mean to prepare a student for college? At our campus, we talk openly about college-readiness as our standard. Our students should be ready to academic handle the rigors of collegiate life, particularly since a large minority of our students will be attending selective or highly-selective universities. Equally important, however, is preparing them for the culture shock that many collegiate environments will be for them, particularly the further away they get from the city of Houston.

A couple of quick anecdotes will suffice: only 6 of my 125 students have seen any Star Wars movie. Only one had seen the Godfather. The concept of ‘philosophy’ is completely foreign to them. Even the game of baseball is a mystery to most them (taking my students to a baseball game is an experience I’ll be recounting another time).

These are not dumb students. Most of them are hard working, quick-witted and sharp. They are held to more rigorous standards that I and many of my fellow Yale alumni were held during high school. However, the gaps in certain cultural knowledge is extreme.

If a cultural reference falls in 'mainstream' white culture and there's no one around to hear it, is Darth Vader really your father?

This matters. Knowledge of baseball, the Godfather and Star Wars may seem trivial, but they are symptoms of a much larger conundrum: the inability to gather the tokens of a privileged culture they will have to enter in college and in larger American life.

E.D. Hirsch first aired these concerns in a big way 1988 with his bestselling book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. In the updated edition, Hirsch discusses his central thesis:

A shared cultural literacy “enables grandparents to communicate with grandchildren, southerners with midwesterners, whites with blacks, Asians with Latinos, and Republicans with Democrats – no matter where they were educated.  If each local school system imparts the traditional reference points of literate culture, then everybody is able to communicate with strangers.  That is a good definition of literacy: the ability to communicate effectively with strangers.  We help people in the underclass rise economically by teaching them how to communicate effectively beyond a narrow social sphere, and that can only be accomplished by teaching them shared, traditional literacy culture.  We only make social and economic progress by teaching everybody to read and communicate, which means teaching myths and facts that are predominantly traditional.

Those who evade this inherent conservatism of literacy in the name of multicultural antielitism are in in effect elitists of an extreme sort. Traditionally educated themselves, and highly literate, these self-appointed protectors of minority cultures have advised schools to pursue a course that has condemned minorities to illiteracy. The disadvantaged students for whom antielitist solicitude is expressed are the very ones who suffer when we fail to introduce traditional literate culture into the earliest grades.

His pivot is important and it is one I recognize as vital to the project of educating students from environments that aren’t middle class or white, particularly as I educate them for a future where hopefully, because of their educational credentials, they have to engage and be a part of that world. Lisa Delpit, a personal hero of mine, writes about this challenge in Other People’s Children:

Progressive white teachers seem to say to their black students, “Let me help you find your voice. I promise not to criticize one note as you search for your own song.” But the black teachers say, ” I’ve heard your song loud and clear. Now, I want to teach you to harmonize with the rest of the world.”

Furthermore, Delpit goes on to describe the reality of the culture of power that myself and my students have to deal with with and what many minority parents see as the role of schooling and education:

There are codes or rules for participating in power; that tis, there is a “culture of power.” The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power. If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier.


But parents who don’t function within that culture often want something else. They want to ensure that the school provides their children with discourse patterns, interreactional styles and spoken and written language codes that will allow them success in the larger society.

It was the lack of attention to this concern that created such a negative outcry in the black community when well-intentioned white liberal educators introduced “dialect readers.” These were seen as a plot to prevent schools from teaching the linguistic aspects of the culturel of power, thus dooming black children to a permanent outsider caste. As one parent demanded, “My kids know how to be black – you all teach them how to be successful int he white man’s world.”

To quickly summarize before continuing: power exists. As an educator who is training students to enter a culture of power that is not theirs, I have to make it explicit and I have to teach the cultural literacy behind the institutions of power they’ll have to navigate. I cannot, in good conscience, pretend that their cultural experiences will be valued for all that they are worth and that they won’t be judged for not having those markers of cultural knowledge. I forced myself to read the ‘classics’ of Western Civilization before attending school, but I constantly felt that the philosophers and ideas that were being dropped on a regular basis completely baffled me. I still can’t exactly tell the difference between the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and other famous rock bands, though I at least know a phrase or two from popular songs.

That’s not the totality of my challenge, however. The difficulty arises that I have to convince them, amidst all of this, that their cultural experiences are legitimate. Their love of Tejano music or their knowledge of the urban, ethnically diverse and youthful language that pervades their culture is important and it is a travesty of reality that their experiences are not considered part of the mainstream language of cultural literacy. I need to make them not feel ashamed of their culture as I did many times as an undergraduate: how many times did I instinctively lower the volume on my Tejano music? Too many.

Furthermore, the point is to arm them for a future where they can create a fundamentally more fair world. In a bit of practical philosophy, you need the Master’s tools to dismantle the gate. You can’t simply slam into it repeatedly. Many of my posts from now on will focus on this tension.

It’s a challenge, but one I feel I’m surprisingly well-equipped to handle. I’ve grown up in communities where the contextual clues of power are completely lacking, but I learned first-hand what power differentials do. I moved to a university environment where I both had to negotiate the rules of power, but just as important, work to change them and make them more accepting. Yes, it is hard work. In many ways it’s unfair.

My students will succeed,  they will be ‘cultured’ and gosh darnit, they’ll prove some people wrong.


Reading: Lisa Delpit’s explosive article in the Harvard Educational Review:


Written by Ferny Reyes

October 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Mexican-Americans and the Tensions of a Hyphenated Identity

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I’d like to take some time to explore something I’m particularly interested in: the tension inherent in hyphenated identities. Whether an individual recognizes themselves as Hispanic-American, Mexican-American, Latino, etc., there are two distinct sources of acculturation: the mainstream socialization of American society and the cultural appropriation and interaction with the Latin American heritage, history and peoples. This relationship becomes more complicated the greater the immediacy is between the two identities. Those of Mexican descent probably suffer through the greatest tension, due to their relative geographical proximity of Mexico, as well as the numerical presence of individuals of Mexican descent in the United States. I speak on this as someone who has explored this tension quite readily.

There are Tensions. Many.
The tension arises because both sides of the hyphenated place cultural and communal demands upon an individual. I was born in Houston, Texas to parents who had recently immigrated to the United States. The cultural background of my parents and the rest of their family were distinctly Mexican: the music, movies and cultural cues they had were not from the United States. My neighborhood in South Houston, a densely populated Mexican enclave in the greater Houston metro, was similarly filled with the sights and sounds of Mexican cultural practice. Vacations weren’t to Disneyland or New York City: we traveled to cities in Mexico because of proximity and cost. It’s sort of ironic that it was actually moving to South Texas that began my forced assimilation. The district had a tough policy on primarily Spanish speakers, with English immersion and culture classes. It was a rather rough go, but I quickly learned English, key identifiers and important tools of the cultural trade. This was done through some work and by a rather heavy dose of punishment from teachers when I would speak in Spanish.

Kicking in the US, Sitting in Mexico. Gotta make my mind up, which side should I take?

This didn’t change the fact that my immersion on Mexican culture was also easier: living 10 miles away from Mexico does that to you. I remember once being at the center of an international bridge to Mexico, putting a foot on both sides and wondering if I needed to make a choice. More stories are unnecessary, suffice to say: I had a lot of conflicts with family, friends, teachers and officials.

Adding to the cultural and geographical are the socio-economic differences that manifest themselves between ‘Mexican’ and American’. The dramatic tensions between the two nations cannot be underestimated: millions have fled Mexico in hopes of becoming members of a much more prosperous nation. This cannot be removed from the relationship between the two different components of the hyphenated identity, particularly since so much of it is borne out of the necessity of leaving the cultural homeland. This complicates the already fraught relationship even further because a hyphenated individual has to navigate the familial networks in the previous homeland, while still trying to seem as a bone-fide American to a public audience which is already likely to see you as an ‘other’ simply by the color of your skin. If you compound it with public recognition that those that are poor and brown matter as a part of your identity, you can quickly be disempowered. However, your family in Mexico still demands recognition that you are a part of them.

One of my favorite encapsulations of this was in George Michie’s Holler if you Hear Me, an account of a young schoolteacher’s experience as a Chicago public school teacher.

Student:  “It’s sort of like you’re walking down the street and you’re with your friend, the United States. Then Mexico comes walking down the street…you ignore Mexico and pretend you didn’t see him. When you’re alone, you see Mexico walking by and you say, “Hey, Mexico, What’s up?” It’s like you’re embarrassed to say hi to Mexico when you’re around you friend the United States…If you don’t start saying hi to Mexico, he’s going to leave you alone.”

Particularly for children, this is difficult terrain to navigate. Already marginalized from their home culture in terms of language and given a dearth of material about people like them, students of Hispanic background have to modulate their responses to each particular community. Individuals live in a constantly precarious situation, where one false move can lead to backlash from a community or institution. To betray the homeland is to attack the family connection, but to too heavily rely on it paints you with a brush of inferiority from a largely white society that considers you an ‘other’.

Selena and Being Perfect
Selena Quintanilla-Perez is perhaps the most visible Mexican-American in American popular culture, even in death. For most Americans, what made her compelling was her beauty, musical talent, and tragic murder at the hands of her fan club president. For many Mexican-Americans, however, their identification with her stems from the ways in which she publicly navigated the terrain of being both Mexican and American.  Managed by her father, Selena began her music career by singing American Top 40 singles in the English language. Her father, Abraham, would transition Selena away from English and begin to encourage her to sing in Spanish. Selena’s native language was English, a product of her American education. She initially learned many of her songs phonetically, working with her parents to ensure the proper intonation.

Is Selena saluting the tension in this painting?

Her style of music was originally reacted with skepticism, particularly in Mexico, where they had yet to accept a mainstream Mexican-American artist. As she traveled in Mexico, she was forced to give interviews in Spanish, which she initially struggled with.

Through some breakthrough performances and creative marketing, Selena began to conquer the Mexican music scene and began to explode into Latin America, becoming a breakthrough artist throughout all of Latin American. She became a public symbol for Mexican-Americans, who saw her as an individual that was able to transcend her hyphen and become a member of both worlds. This challenge was encapsulated in a monologue by Edward James Olmos, who played Selena’s father, Abraham, in a biographical film about her life:

“Listen, being Mexican American is tough. Anglos jump all over if you don’t speak English perfectly. Mexicans jump all over you if you don’t speak Spanish perfectly. We’ve got to be twice as perfect as anybody else. Our family has been here four centuries, yet they treat us as if we just swam across the Rio Grande. I mean we got to know about John Wayne and Pedro Infante. Anglo food is too bland; yet when we go to Mexico we get the runs. Ours [homeland] is right next door – right over there. And we got to prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are; we got to prove to the Americans how American we are. It is exhausting! Man, nobody knows how tough it is to be Mexican American!”

This challenge is not unique to individuals with hyphenated identities, but as Olmos states, the proximity of Mexico to the United States makes it even more difficult – Mexico is not a theoretical homeland that is far away, but a place that you reach rather quickly. Selena’s ability to transcend was particularly persuasive and inspiring: she transgressed and embodied both. In her death, a model was lost and has unfortunately not been regained. It is a bitter irony for some that she reached #1 on the Billboard 200 listings only after her death, through the use of her English albums. The Mexican-American community was never truly able to see if one of its own could succeed in the United States. To be able to reach iconic popularity in the US and Mexico seemingly required her public passing.

I distinctively recall the day I was told she died. My mother picked me up from school and tears were streaming from her eyes. After she dropped off my friend at her house, she stopped the car and told me in Spanish that Selena had been murdered. Tears streamed down my face and I was despondent for the next week, spending most of my time listening to my cassette tapes. For years before that, I had always heard the music of my mother and father’s generation; the regional Norteño music that dominated in Northern Mexico. Selena was from my generation. I knew she was born in the US, just like me. Only two months before her death, I had seen her perform at a concert at the Astrodome in front of 60,000 people. With her, I had felt connected to a community far greater and more comforting than I had ever imagined. That was all gone.

Personal Negotiations
You never become perfect at this. Because of my immediate family and the communities I would grow up in, I was well versed in many parts of the Mexican experience. I knew all the best Norteño and Tejano artists, and I had been to a lot of their concerts. Even so, at family gatherings when folks start talking about cultural affects from their generation, I sit silently and simply smile: I have no access to that realm of knowledge. A similar process also occurs when they bring up Mexican films. However, I’m luckily considered ‘authentic’ enough that any ignorance on my behalf is forgiven because I’ve shown myself to act and think like someone that is proud of his Mexican heritage.

Concurrently, a similar process occurred to me all the time while I was in college. At any given dorm party, there was a lot of music in the air, particularly rock. With a little alcohol in their stomach, they start singing along with the music. It was not uncommon that I was the only person in the room not singing; I simply did not know the songs. Many times, cultural references pass over my head, particularly at Yale, where I grew up away from the Northeast American culture that many students inhabit. Likewise, I still find myself accepted as an individual within the American context. My lack of knowledge about certain cultural cues notwithstanding, my status as a Yale student empowered me to interact and participate within my ‘American’ identity.

I’m particularly blessed that I have had a decent family network and access to modalities of privilege that let me become rooted in a certain Mexican-American identity without being utterly disempowered. However, my ability to do so does not come without a cost. In Mexico and the United States, I am sometimes simply lost with a group of people, isolated from the larger cultural conversation. You cannot be all things to all people and Mexican-Americans learn that lesson quickly and occasionally painfully. The nature of this disjointed relationship, particularly for those that attempt that try to engage their hyphenated nature completely, is confusing and sometimes lonely, particularly when there are few people that you can discuss the nature of both relationships with. One has to be both Mexican and American; regardless of the ability to do so, one is expected to try.

And you aren’t judged on trying: you’re judged on whether you succeed. We’ve got to be twice as perfect.

Written by Ferny Reyes

April 26, 2011 at 9:44 pm