Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Social Justice and Action: Alma Flor Ada, Pam Muñoz Ryan, and Paul Yee Authors and Literary Works
Alma Flor Ada: Biography & Work
Raised in a family of storytellers, Alma Flor Ada grew up listening to tales of all kinds, from folktales to stories about Cuban history to fantasies about other worlds. Her grandmother taught her to read before she was three by writing the names of flowers and plants on the ground with a stick. Yet Ada only began writing books when she became a teacher. Unsatisfied with the materials she was given, she began to write her own. A professor in one of her college classes saw what she was writing and helped her to get it published, and soon she was writing textbooks. One day, however, her four-year-old daughter told her that the textbooks she was writing were “ugly” and asked her to write books for her instead. “At that time,” Ada says, “I didn’t know what I know now. I didn’t know that everyone is an author; that everyone has stories to tell. I was very shy and so I started by telling the stories my grandmother used to tell me.” Now Alma Flor Ada has over 200 books to her name, many drawn from her own childhood or from the folktales her family told her.
Ada was born in 1938 outside Camaguey, Cuba, and grew up there. As a young woman she moved to Peru and began teaching, but this, her first immigrant experience, left her lonely, afraid, and yearning for familiar food and friends. After 10 years in Peru, she moved with her husband to the United States and, once again, had to negotiate the life of a person of two cultures — a theme that appears again and again in her work. Yet, she says, “The beautiful thing is that I now know that although I live in another country, I don’t have to stop being who I am or change the way I think or feel. I bring a richness, a value to this country, and I can serve as a bridge between two cultures.” Immigrants are “border crossers,” Ada says, but “the important thing is to learn that we can eliminate that border” by virtue of being people who understand two cultures. Reading about other cultures, she believes, also helps us cross borders in understanding different people and their traditions. “Through the wonderful multicultural literature that exists, you can really make friends with children of other cultures.”
A fierce proponent of bilingual education, Ada was a professor at the University of San Francisco, where she directed the Center for Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults. In her school visits, Ada constantly reminds students to find and use their true voices to express their ideas and speak up for what is right. Because she greatly admires people like César Chávez who fought for the rights of others, she reminds young people that “we cannot just wait for another César Chávez to appear. Every one of us has to be a César Chávez inside and do our part so that this happens.”
My Name Is María Isabel
For María Isabel Salazar López, the first day at a new school is hard enough, but then her teacher suggests to her that, with two other Marias in the class, the class should “call you Mary instead.” For María Isabel, who is named for both of her grandmothers as well as an uncle and a father, the loss of her real name is the loss of herself. In fact, she often doesn’t realize the teacher is calling on her when she says the foreign name “Mary Lopez,” and as a result she misses the opportunity to take part in her school’s winter pageant. But when the teacher asks the students to write about their “greatest wish,” María writes, “My greatest wish is to be called María Isabel Salazar López. When that was my name, I felt proud of being named María, like my papa’s mother, and Isabel, like my grandmother Chabela.” In the happy ending, María gets to sing in the winter pageant, and, most important of all, her teacher recognizes the importance of calling her by her real name.
Alma Flor Ada drew this story from her own life as an immigrant, but she also had the actual experience of a teacher changing her name. In third grade her teacher decided that her name was just “Alma” rather than “Alma Flor,” and for years Ada was known simply as “Alma” as a result. “But in reality it wasn’t my real name,” Ada says, remembering that it took years to convince people to use her full name again. “Now,” she says, “my real friends call me Alma Flor.” But her story is very common for immigrant children, Ada says; “My own personal experience grew to be the experience of many people.” In schools all over the United States, children change their original names — for example, “Jesus” or “Jose” — to more “American” names like “Chuck” or “Joe,” and lose, she suggests, a piece of their culture in the process.
In My Name Is María Isabel, readers can see from the point of view of a little girl the larger struggles of a Puerto Rican family to improve their lives in America. María Isabel’s experience will resonate for readers regardless of background.
Talking with Alma Flor Ada
(as interviewed by students in Laura Alvarez’s class)
What was it like when you immigrated?
When I immigrated to Peru, my hope was to be able to study. And eventually I was able to do that. It wasn’t easy at the beginning. I think I immigrated there a little bit more [from] needing to go to someplace rather than having made all those expectations. Sometimes people immigrate because they have those dreams and they say, “I’m going to go to this place where I’m going to be able to have a better life,” and all that. Sometimes they immigrate because they have to. My family moved from Cuba, so I couldn’t go back and I didn’t really have much choice. So it was kind of that situation.
When I came to the United States, it wasn’t my choice either. It was just a circumstance that brought me here. I was married at the time. It was my husband who wanted to come. And, if I must be truthful, I wanted to raise my children in a Spanish-speaking country and I would have stayed in Peru even if the economic conditions were lower and the material life was not as good. It would have been originally my choice.
Once I came into this country, then I was very fortunate because I was highly educated so I had wonderful opportunities. But then I realized the reality of my people in this country. And then it became a true reason to be here, to try to work with the community, to try to help them achieve what they had always dreamed [of] — which is better education for their children. So then it became more of a mission, and it’s been a wonderful mission.
Do you feel different when you write in Spanish and when you write in English?
I feel like when I write in Spanish I focus more on the feelings and I take more time with the feelings. And when I do it in English, I feel like I have to think more of the plot and moving the story quicker — and it’s because the two cultures are different. And that’s what’s exciting about being bicultural. To be able to do it well in one language and to do it well in the other language. It’s like moving from two very different places, like at the beach and in the mountains. You do different things in the two places. And the good thing is to be able to do both.
Why are books important to you?
I think reading is so important because we get to know ourselves better and to understand other people better. We can begin thinking ahead. We can begin asking ourselves, “What can I do the next time I see a kid that just arrived that doesn’t know English?” And we can begin asking ourselves, “How can I help this new student? How can I be her friend, his friend?” That’s what’s so powerful [about] reading, that it helps us become better people. We become not only brighter, but also more generous, kinder, stronger.
You’re coming as immigrants or children of immigrant families to a country that is made up of many different cultures. And one way in which this country can be stronger is if everyone learns about each other’s different cultures and learns not only about their celebrations and their food but also about their values, their ideas, their history, their dreams — so that we can learn to not only celebrate but also deeply respect and appreciate others. And just as we want them to learn about our Latino cultures — because we are one major part of this nation — also we should learn about all the other cultures that exist here.
And one of the wonderful things about books is that they really [help you] understand other people. And through the wonderful multicultural literature that exists, you can really make friends with children of other cultures. Maybe if you’ve never met them in person, you meet them through the characters in the books, you see the inside of their homes, and you see their families and how they interact with each other. It’s the great way, by reading that wonderful multicultural literature, that we have available to get to know the different people in this nation.
Pam Muñoz Ryan: Biography & Work
Pam Muñoz Ryan has written more than 25 books for children, including works of fiction, nonfiction, and picture books for every age from toddler to teenager. She has won many awards, including the national Willa Cather Award and the California Young Reader Medal. “I write about dreams, discoveries, and daring women. I write short stories about hard times, picture books about mice and beans, and novels about journeys,” she says. “That’s part of the enchantment of writing and creating characters — the variety!”
Born and raised in the San Joaquin Valley of California amid a large extended family, Muñoz Ryan considers her background an “ethnic smorgasbord” — she is a mix of Spanish, Mexican, Basque, Italian, and Oklahoman. During the long, hot summers of her youth, she found relief in the air-conditioned local library. She credits these visits with kindling her interest in books and reading. Muñoz Ryan’s devotion to books persisted through her college years, so she decided on a career in teaching, and later went on to be an administrator. When a colleague asked for help writing a book, she says, “That’s when I discovered what I really wanted to do with my life.”
The young adult novel Esperanza Rising is a story that is deeply connected to Muñoz Ryan’s life. As she explains in the author’s note that ends the book, Esperanza’s experiences are very much based on the life of her grandmother, who also grew up wealthy in Mexico until a series of circumstances forced her to come to America to work at a company-owned farm labor camp in California. Like Esperanza, she lived through the effects of the Mexican Deportation Act. Yet, Muñoz Ryan writes, “My family’s feelings for the company camp are deep-rooted and still filled with loyalty for their start in this country and for the jobs they had at a time when so many had none.”
Muñoz Ryan calls her grandmother a “survivor,” and says, “Our accomplishments were her accomplishments.” Muñoz Ryan is proud that all of her grandmother’s grandchildren learned English, and most went to college. “It is no wonder,” she writes, “that in Spanish, esperanza means ‘hope.'”
Pam Muñoz Ryan is a graduate of San Diego State University, where she also earned a master’s degree.
Set during the Great Depression, Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising is a coming-of-age tale that also tells an important historical story. As the book opens, Esperanza (Spanish for “hope”) is a wealthy and privileged child, the daughter of a grape plantation owner in Mexico. But when her father is murdered by bandits and her corrupt uncle burns down their plantation, Esperanza and her mother are left with nothing. They come to California, where they find work on a farm labor camp. There, lonely Esperanza, who has never known anything other than a pampered, aristocratic life, must learn to cook, sweep, and work on the farm. “Ryan writes movingly in clear, poetic language that children will sink into,” according to Booklist, “and the book offers excellent opportunities for discussion and curriculum support.”
The book opens with a Mexican proverb that reads, “The rich person is richer when he becomes poor, than the poor person when he becomes rich.” As Esperanza works packing produce for the money to bring her beloved abuelita to the United States, she becomes stronger and more mature. She thinks of the story her grandmother has told her of the phoenix that rises from the ashes. As the book ends, she realizes, “She had her family, a garden full of roses, her faith, and the memories of those who had gone before her. But now, she had even more than that, and it carried her up, as on the wings of the phoenix. She soared with the anticipation of dreams she never knew she could have, of learning English, of supporting her family, of someday buying a tiny house.” The book ends with Esperanza passing on to another the advice that her grandmother once gave her: “Do not ever be afraid to start over.”
Set against a backdrop of historical events like dust storms and labor strikes witnessed by Muñoz Ryan’s grandmother, Esperanza Rising shows how one family can withstand deep injustice by bonding together. Stories of Dust Bowl “Okies,” Japanese, Filipinos, and Chinese are woven in among the struggles of the Mexican immigrants. The novel has won the Pura Belpré Medal ane the Jane Addams Peace Award; it was an Americas Award Honor Book and was chosen as an ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults. It was on the Best Book Lists of the Los Angeles Times and Smithsonian, and was also included on the Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Books List.
Paul Yee: Biography & Work
Third-generation Chinese Canadian writer Paul Yee is the author of books for children and young adults, of which Tales from Gold Mountain: Stories of the Chinese in the New World is one of the best known. Yee’s books explore such themes as discrimination, identity, assimilation, and other realities of living between two cultures.
According to the Canadian Children’s Book Centre:
The love of literature and the personal importance of his cultural heritage are both important in Yee’s work, where he weaves the history and culture of Chinese Canadians into his stories. His desire to write about the largely untold, early history of Chinese Canadians has inspired Yee to provide Chinese Canadians with a sense of their culture, history, and heritage through his books.
Yee was born in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1956, and moved to Vancouver at an early age after his parents died. He lived with a foster family for a time, and then was raised in Chinatown by his aunt. While Aunt Lillian spoke both Chinese and English fluently, she wanted Yee and his older brother to be grounded in their Chinese culture. According to papertigers.org, a Web site for teachers interested in the Pacific Rim and South Asia, English was not to be spoken in the home, and the boys went to Chinese school. They were even taken to movies from Hong Kong on weekends. “So we had this huge exposure to Chinese traditional stories, Chinese values, Chinese concepts of good and bad, evil and justice,” recalls Yee. “I grew up surrounded by plenty of Chinese images.”
But Yee was lured by life outside the protected enclave. He has said he had a “typical Chinese Canadian childhood, caught between two worlds, and yearning to move away from the neighborhood.” Leaving Chinatown and going to college gave Yee some separation from his Chinese-intensive upbringing. But soon he developed a renewed interest in his native culture — “my point of rebirth,” he called it — and he began to volunteer at the Vancouver Chinese Cultural Center.
Yee completed a B.A. and then a master’s degree in history at the University of British Columbia. History led him to a career as an archivist, working first for the city of Vancouver and then moving to Toronto to become Multicultural Coordinator for the Archives of Ontario.
Though he had been an avid reader as a child and had later written some short stories, Yee attributes his career in children’s literature to a “fluke.” The publishing company Lorimer wanted a children’s book set in Vancouver’s Chinatown for its Adventures in Canada series. Familiar with his background and his volunteer work in the Chinese community, Lorimer asked Yee to write it. Teach Me to Fly, Skyfighter was the result, a set of interwoven stories about four 11-year-old immigrants living in Vancouver.
Since Skyfighter was published in 1983, Yee has written many more novels and collections of stories for children and young adults. Many of his books are set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the period when Yee’s family came to Vancouver, and a time when discrimination against the Chinese was unsparing. A writer at Canadian Children’s Books credits Yee with making “a notable contribution to Canadian children’s literature by fusing the unique details of ethnic experience with the universal concerns for identity and love.”
Tales from Gold Mountain: Stories of the Chinese in the New World
This is a collection of eight original stories that are set in the mid- to late 1800s, when gold mines beckoned and workers were needed to build the Canadian and American railroads. These stories inhabit the great historical movement that Chinese Canadian writer Paul Yee interprets so well: the immigrant experience. In the book’s afterword, Yee states his intention to “carve a place in the North American imagination for the many generations of Chinese who have settled here as Canadians and Americans, and help them stake their claim to be known as pioneers, too.” A reviewer in Children’s Literature called this young adult book “a concise history of the Chinese experience in folklore form,” and characterized the tales as “poignant, witty, and tender.”
Paul Yee is a historian by training, and had a career as an archivist before beginning to write books for young people. He grew up in Vancouver’s Chinatown, and has chronicled the history of Chinese Canadians in nonfiction as well as fiction books. Yee has a command of folk literature from childhood reading, and skillfully integrates ghost stories and legends into his history-infused fiction. Betsy Hearne of the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books observes that Yee’s stories “carry mythical overtones that lend the characters unforgettable dimension — humans achieving supernatural power in defying their fate of physical and cultural oppression.” These Tales from Gold Mountain are accompanied by dramatic full-page illustrations by artist Simon Ng, which combine traditional and abstract elements.
In the initial story, “Spirits of the Railway,” Chu is a peasant forced by floods and starvation from his home in China to Canada, where he finds a job working on the railroad, encounters anti-immigrant bias, and receives wise advice from the ghost of his father, who was killed in an accident while working on the railroad himself. In “Sons and Daughters,” the gods wage retribution on the children of a Chinese Canadian man who clandestinely switches his newborn twin girls for a set of male twins in China, in an effort to preserve his family name. Years later, when his “sons” go to China to find brides, fate leads them to the abandoned twins, and all four young people are cursed with barrenness. In “The Friends of Kwan Ming,” the punishment meted out to a greedy and gluttonous businessman who overeats is swift and graphic: he explodes. “Gambler’s Eyes” tells a tale of racism: a blind man whose intuition dazzles gamblers turns out to be concealing blue-green eyes that are a telltale sign of his interracial parentage. “Whites and Chinese alike, they mocked my mixed blood. So I shut my eyes and I opened my ears.”
In “Forbidden Fruit,” a narrow-minded Chinese farmer dooms his young daughter to an early death by banishing the white farmhand she loves when he asks to marry her. But in “Ginger for the Heart,” the young people who encounter conflicts between cultures and traditions are able to resolve the differences wisely and to have a happy marriage. The ghost story “Rider Chan and the Night River” contrasts the behavior of two brothers seeking New World treasure. The industrious brother encounters the ghost of the partner of his lazy, greedy brother — the partners have killed each other in a fight. The ghost directs the virtuous brother to a store of gold, which this surviving brother takes back to his mother in China. In the final tale, “The Revenge of the Iron Chink,” a faithful employee retaliates against the cold-blooded employer who has replaced him with a machine, showing that just because the boss is a fellow Chinese Canadian doesn’t mean he is an ally.
Tales from Gold Mountain was well received by reviewers. The book is “told in richly evocative language,” according to Horn Book, “… and the stories skillfully blend the hardships and dangers of frontier life in a new country with the ancient attitudes and traditions brought over from China… [The images of Tales from the Gold Mountain] will stay with the reader for a long time.” Yee’s collection of stories has won many awards, including the British Columbia Book Prize for Children’s Literature, the I.O.D.E. Violet Downey Book Award, and the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Book Prize, and it was listed as a Parents’ Choice Honor book.
Paul Yee describes his stories as about nine parts imagination to one part “stories I heard when I was growing up… The Chinese stories operate within the particular context of New World history. It’s not just a blend of the new with the old but the creation of a New World mythology. Every group that comes to North America leaves an imprint of itself that can be shaped into fiction.”
César Chávez was one of many leaders of the Chicano movement. He was dedicated to his community and to the principles of achieving social change through nonviolent action. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and César Chávez believed in civil disobedience as a tool for change, and used this idea in the United States during the civil rights movement and the fight for Chicano rights as well as farm workers’ rights. After many years of hardship as a farm worker, in 1962 Chávez began one of his greatest projects, the National Farm Workers’ Association (which later became the United Farm Workers of America). This union was meant to fight for and protect the rights of farm workers, and under Chávez’s leadership it won many protections for workers in the agriculture industry through nonviolent protests such as boycotts and strikes. Chávez’s motto, “Sí, se puede” (“Yes, it can be done”), demonstrates his involvement in the larger Chicano movement and his dedication to effecting change and to improving the lives of many workers.
Mexican Immigration to the United States
Mexican immigrants have been important to the United States in times of economic growth and depression. However, despite the fact that Texas and the southwestern lands were annexed largely because white Americans illegally immigrated to those areas, Mexican “immigrants” who worked as migrant farm laborers in the early 20th century, and even Mexican Americans who had been in the United States since annexation in the mid-19th century, were often in danger of being deported or treated unfairly at their jobs. However, many migrant workers were able to stay in the country and formed strong unions that started a farm labor movement. Still others worked in many other industries and contributed greatly to the U.S. economy. Their participation continued into World War II, when around five million Mexican immigrants were brought into the United States as farm workers. The United States had a labor shortage due to the war, and convinced Mexico to contract temporary workers to the government. Mexico, in turn, was implicitly promised an influx of capital that would help it on its path to modernization. However, as the possibility of wealth attracted an increasing number of Mexicans to the United States, Mexico lost control over emigration, and the United States refused to protect those workers anymore. This led to the exploitation of many Mexican laborers, the loss of promised capital for Mexico, and the continuation of its economic dependence on the United States. This can been seen in the fact that by the end of the 20th century, there were more immigrants from Mexico in the United States than from all the European countries combined.
As China faced economic and political problems in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many people, especially from the southeast areas of China, immigrated to North America, which they called Gold Mountain, in search of jobs and money to send back home. Most of the Chinese immigrants who came to the United States and Canada formed communities and companies based on similar languages and hometowns. However, many could only afford to come to Gold Mountain if their future employers paid for their voyage. This meant that many immigrants arrived in debt, and often they ended up as indentured servants who were sent to mining camps or into the mountains to work on the railroads until their debts were paid off. Under this system, many Chinese workers suffered harsh and dangerous working conditions, low wages, and discrimination from their bosses or other non-Chinese workers.
Workshop 6 Historical and Cultural Context: Langston Hughes and Christopher Moore
Stanlee Brimberg and his students in New York City study the important contributions of African Americans to the United States and the recent discovery of the African Burial Ground in Manhattan through factual texts, video, art, photography, and poetry. The students interview writer, historian, and documentary filmmaker Christopher Moore to learn more about the everyday experiences of African slaves in early New York. They examine the works of Langston Hughes, and then — drawing on all of the texts — they write their own poetry and engage in peer review. As a culminating activity, the students take a field trip to the African Burial Ground Memorial, and then design their own postage stamps to commemorate the site.