Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Social Justice and Action: Joseph Bruchac and Francisco Jiménez Authors and Literary Works
Joseph Bruchac: Biography & Work
Joseph Bruchac is the author of more than 100 books. His prodigious literary output is dedicated to honoring nature and relating the history and conserving the legends and myths of North American Native peoples. Bruchac sets great store by tradition. He lives in the house where he grew up, in Greenfield Center, New York, and says, “One of the things I’m proudest about is that this is not just something that ends with my generation.” His two sons are dedicated partners in his literary and preservation enterprises devoted to “the Abenaki culture, language, and traditional Native skills.”
Bruchac was born in 1942 in Saratoga Springs, New York. Though during his childhood there was no emphasis on his Native American heritage, Bruchac began to discover his Abenaki roots as a teenager. He began reading early, and felt inspired to become a writer who would write about animals. “I would just have to walk into any room and pull a book off the shelf and find something that I was interested in reading.”
Bruchac wrote some poems on Native American themes while a student at Cornell University. He graduated with a degree in English, even though he had majored in wildlife conservation for his first three years. He earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Syracuse University and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the Union Institute of Ohio.
As a young man in the 1960s, at college and after, Bruchac had “experiences in my life that have informed and shaped me both as a human being and as a writer.” He protested against the Vietnam War, and supported the civil rights movement by marching in Mississippi, as James Meredith pursued his right to integrate the University of Mississippi. “I tried to put my feet where my words were.” In 1966, Bruchac volunteered as a teacher in Ghana, West Africa. His three years there “taught me even more.” Looking at his African students, he saw similarities to the white students from his own high school. “I was seeing beyond that racial shield, that mask that sometimes blinds our eyes in this country, so that we see people only in terms of their color, rather than what’s inside them. Rather than their intellect and their personality and what they do. The visible deeds of their life, as opposed to that costume of skin that each of us wears.”
When he returned to the United States, he continued his activism. He began giving writing workshops in prisons, and eventually spent eight years directing a college program inside a maximum-security prison. Since then he has continued his work in prisons.
In 1971, Bruchac and his wife, Carol, founded a literary magazine called The Greenfield Review, and a publishing house, the Greenfield Review Press, “to provide a venue for writers of all kinds — young and old; new and established; what we now call multicultural … but what I would prefer to describe as broadly human… So I was publishing writers in Africa, Asian American writers, Chicano writers, African writers, African American writers, American Indian writers, and so on. A whole wide gamut of people, including Arab American writers.”
Storytelling and Joseph Bruchac have been good for each other. The author has gone well beyond his original supply of stories, including many others to extend and perpetuate knowledge of Native American life and lore. A complete list of his work would run for pages. His work has appeared in more than 500 publications, including Smithsonian and National Geographic. Among his collections and novels are The First Strawberries, Keepers of the Earth, Tell Me a Tale, The Waters Between, and The Heart of a Chief (a Jane Addams Children’s Honor Book). Bruchac’s anthologies include Sons From This Earth on Turtle’s Backand Breaking Silence (winner of an American Book Award). A Bloomsbury Reviewcontributor says, “Several common themes run through these fictions … the past and present of Native American peoples, the sacredness of the natural world, and humanity’s ruptured relations with untamed animals.” Publishers Weeklyobserves, “Bruchac’s tales ring of the oral tradition he helps preserve. His stories are often poignant, funny, ironic — and sometimes all three at once.”
Bruchac has received a profusion of honors. He was a Rockefeller Fellow and a winner of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. He was chosen for the Storyteller of the Year Award by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, and honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas. His books have won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award, the Cherokee Nation Prose Award, the Hope S. Dean Memorial Award for Notable Achievement in Children’s Literature, and many other awards.
The Heart of A Chief
“Eyes ahead. I go into the classroom and quickly slide into the wrong seat — too close to the front. Big mistake. It’s an unwritten rule that Indian kids who don’t want to get in trouble sit in the back.”
Though Chris Nicola, an 11-year-old Penacook boy, begins his first day of junior high school heavy with apprehension, his sixth-grade year will actually turn out to be a positive interval of self-discovery — a time of meeting challenges and overcoming them. The character of Chris in this novel emerged from author Joseph Bruchac’s experiences teaching workshops where he “encourages Native American children to … tell their own stories. I’ve learned a great deal from them about courage, toughness, and faith in the face of overwhelming odds.”
Bruchac conceived his main character as:
a boy who leaves the reservation where he has gone for his primary education… Many reservation schools exist in the communities and kids can go to school until they’re in the fourth, fifth, or sixth grade. But then he has to go for his remaining education to a school in a nearby town, which is predominantly non-Indian. So for the first time in his life, he becomes a minority. And he encounters some of the problems that you find in schools where … Native people are not understood, and where he as an individual finds himself faced by such things as books that present Indians in an unfavorable way, or attitudes that really denigrate … American Indians.
Chris lives on the fictional Penacook Indian Reservation in New Hampshire with his sister, Celeste, and their doting caretakers, Auntie and Grandfather Doda. Though the children are well cared for, they are marked by sorrow from the loss of their parents: their mother was killed in an auto accident and their father, Mito, became an alcoholic after the accident and goes in and out of residential rehab. Chris finds it difficult to be patient through his father’s long recovery. And there is always an undercurrent of worry about Doda and Auntie. They are both getting old, and Auntie has diabetes. What would happen if they weren’t around anymore?
Though sensitive, Chris is not one to dwell on family troubles. He and close friends from the reservation set about navigating junior high with humor and camaraderie. Chris is a good student, and a keen observer of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways Native Americans are discriminated against in the school and community. He develops an effective way of enlightening teachers and fellow students about their prejudices — without alienating them. Chris wins hearts and minds through his leadership of a group project that focuses on the hurtful nature of Indian sports team mascots.
“I do a lot of work in reservation communities and Native schools,” says Bruchac. “And one of the things that I discovered was that Native kids want to see themselves in stories. They want to see themselves not as cardboard figures or as caricatures … but as real, fully realized human beings. That’s where Chris came from: those kids that I met.”
Chris is also showing signs of maturity and leadership back at the reservation. Like many contemporary tribes, the Penacooks are trying to choose between embracing casino gambling, which could alleviate poverty, and preserving sacred lands. Chris shows that he is developing “the heart of a chief” when he helps his people reach a satisfactory solution to a divisive problem.
“You could see Heart of a Chief as a coming-of-age novel,” says Bruchac. “To me, coming of age means coming to the realization of who you are and what your potential is. And Chris, in Heart of a Chief, comes of age. He sees who he could be and he begins to walk on that road that will lead him to someplace which is meaningful and powerful, and I think good. He is a character realizing he can take off the mask, and be who he is and be respected as a human being. Fully himself.”
Talking with Joseph Bruchac
What influenced you as a writer?
The stories I heard. For example, right outside this door is the building that was my grandparents’ general store. There was an old stove in that store, and people came there at night and they’d sit around and they’d tell stories.
Now they didn’t tell traditional American Indian stories. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I grew up in a traditional family. I did not. Much of what I know of Native tradition, I came to from my teenage years on. And I had to seek it out. Because my family was very, very clear — they would say to anyone outside the family that they were French Canadian. They wouldn’t mention being Indian, except when my grandfather would say, “Well, I went to school until fourth grade. And then I got tired of ’em calling me a dirty Indian. So I jumped out the window and never come back again.” Those were his exact words.
But I was influenced by the stories of the woods and what it was like when they were young. Stories of horses and working men and songs about log drives and tales about things that happened. Tall tales too. Those stories I listened to as a kid, hiding behind the soda machine where I was sure they couldn’t see me. Even though a lot of times, those old men would sort of lean back and kind of tell their story toward the soda machine.
I think that really helped me understand the power of story, and made it possible for me as an older person — as a young man in my late teens, in my early twenties — to go out to places like the Onondaga Reservation, just sit around in the trading post listening to people tell stories. I mean, to this day, my ability to just sit and be quiet — I know I’m talking a lot right now — but I love to just sit and be quiet. And when you’re quiet, stories will happen. But if you’re always talking, no one’s going to talk to you.
When I was in college at Cornell University, for example, I became involved in the antiwar movement. We felt — myself and many others — that the Vietnam War was very wrong; that we were bringing violence to a small country in a far-off place when we should instead deal with them in a different way.
I was also involved in the civil rights movement and took part in the Meredith march in Mississippi, and had a long-standing belief that we needed to see human beings as human beings and not as Other. And so I tried to put my feet where my words were and went to Mississippi and took part in that event.
From 1966 to 1969, I volunteered to be a teacher in West Africa, in the nation of Ghana. And the three years that I spent there taught me even more. For one thing, I remember very clearly one day when I was in my classroom and I looked out at these high school kids, all of them were African students, and I suddenly began to see similarities between them and kids I’d gone to high school with.
And yet the kids I went to high school with were all white; none of them were black. I was seeing beyond that — that racial shield, that mask that sometimes blinds our eyes in this country, so that we see people only in terms of their color, rather than what’s inside them. Rather than their intellect and their personality and what they do. The visible deeds of their life, as opposed to that costume of skin that each of us wears. And I think that was very important to me too.
What drives your prodigious output?
One of the reasons I’ve chosen to write so much about American Indians and American Indian subjects is that often you’ll find the books that I write are dealing with a subject that’s been covered in previous times by a non-Indian writer.
To me, representing yourself is a very important thing. I lived in West Africa in the 1960s. I got to know and, in fact, teach the novels of a very fine Nigerian writer named Chinua Achebe. In fact, Chinua became a close personal friend and was on my Ph.D. thesis committee.
Chinua wrote his first famous novel, Things Fall Apart, which presents a tragedy within an Ibo community and takes a character named Okonkwo, who is a great man who makes a mistake, and like other characters who make great mistakes, suffers and eventually dies for his mistake.
It’s written in the context of Ibo culture. Storytelling, proverbs, even the way the English language is structured is based on an Ibo perception of the world, the Ibo culture in general.
I asked Chinua why he wrote that novel. He said that when he was in college, he was forced to read a book called Mr. Johnson by an English writer named Joyce Cary. In that book, which takes place among the Ibo people, Mr. Johnson is a pathetic figure, an Ibo man who wants to be like an Englishman but can never achieve that level. He dresses like an Englishman, tries to walk and talk and act like an Englishman. And he fails utterly.
And Ibo culture is just a background of this, is seen as savage and dirty and primitive and of little worth. Chinua said, “I had to write Things Fall Apart. To represent my people as they really are. As full human beings.” Not perfect, because his main character has a tragic flaw. But “as full human beings in their own right.”
I’m not saying that only Africans can write about Africa, only Indians can write about Indians, only Arabs can write about Arabs. What I’m saying is that you have to be within the culture very deeply to represent it fully. Most people don’t have the time or the inclination to learn another culture fully enough to do this. It can be done, it has been done. But it is not as common as when you’re representing yourself.
Now I know that knowing the complexity of American Indian culture helps me to understand the relationship to other cultures within the United States. And, by the way, to remember the links that exist. For example, what we call Chicano or Mexican or Hispanic American usually refers to individuals, men or women, who have a mixture of blood that is Spanish and Native.
There’s a direct link between Chicano culture, literature, and life and American Indian culture, literature, and life. It’s a very direct link. They’re not the same, but they’re directly linked. We share common ancestors. And also that link exists in many African Americans.
One of the very seldom talked-about parts of American history is that when African slaves escaped from slavery in the United States, they went to live in American Indian communities. They were fully accepted; they married in and had children. When the Trail of Tears took place in the early 1800s, when the five civilized tribes of the South were forced out of their land and sent to the far West, with them went a great many African Americans.
Given the history of misappropriation, how can we learn to be more respectful toward Native cultures, history, and literature?
I think it’s also important to consider certain things that we might call intellectual property and cultural dispossession. In many cases in the past, ideas, objects, and aspects of American Indian culture have been taken by non-Indians. Museums, and in fact, putting the bones of American Indians into museums is perhaps the most shocking example of this.
One of the things that’s happening now in many Native communities — and myself and my family have been involved in this — is repatriation. Returning the bones of ancestors to the earth; taking them from museums and often private collectors and returning them back to the soil they came from. That’s a very big issue in many of our Native communities.
But also other aspects of Native culture, for example, what they call intellectual property, ideas, stories — very often, traditional stories have been taken without permission from communities or individuals and then retold and published as books by non-Natives, and not one penny of the money they’ve earned has ever gone back to the individual or the community that story came from — without permission in the first place.
One thing I do as a storyteller is to try to be always, always aware of two things: number one, permission. If you share a story, make sure if that story belongs to someone or to a community, you have permission to tell it. And I have occasionally told and retold stories, not just with the permission but at the request of friends who’ve said, “I want you to use this story in this book. This is a good one for you.”
The second is acknowledgment. Always acknowledge your sources. I went through this battle many times with people who were publishing children’s books. You have to have acknowledgment of source: Where did the story come from? Where did you learn it? How did you get it? So acknowledgment is very important to me.
There are stories I know, there are people I know that I never mention. That’s because they don’t want to be mentioned, they don’t want their stories to be told. They told those stories to me; they want me to keep them in a certain way. And sometimes that way is not totally restricted.
So there is responsibility in storytelling as well as the giving of a story. And so, too, when we deal with multicultural materials, we need to be sensitive of the communities and the people that those stories, those traditions come from. And we have to use them in a way that we make sure we have, as I said before, permission and acknowledgment built into it.
What advice do you have for teachers and students who want to learn more about Native peoples?
The first, of course, is your own attitude: the way you see the world, the way you see Native people. If you see them as human beings and recognize the complexity and the diversity of Native cultures, you’ve made a large step in the right direction. And also, if you’re the kind of person who can say, “I would like to know,” and then listen to those who will tell you, you’ve made a very big step.
There’s a lot of history of American Indian people waiting for someone to listen. And that listening is a very, very important thing. What you do as an individual with your life can make changes in very big ways.
I think one danger is sometimes teachers become gun shy. They think, “I can’t present this at all. I’ll just forget about even talking about Indians. Or I’ll just give it a very cursory discussion.” And I think that’s just as bad in many ways as falling into the trap of presenting things in a biased fashion. Because when you make people invisible, that’s yet another form of bias.
So what you need to do is have good tools. Fortunately, there are some very good tools out there for teachers. For example, there’s a book that I recommend to everyone; it’s called Through Indian Eyes by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin. And the little you begin to know step by step can become a lot. In fact, every step goes a long way. And as I like to say, it takes one step at a time to climb to a mountaintop. Don’t expect to jump there in a big leap. Just take one step at a time. And that one step may make a great difference.
Francisco Jiménez: Biography & Work
Francisco Jiménez was born in 1943 in San Pedro, Tlaquepaque, Mexico, the second of two children in a family that would later number nine. Currently a professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Santa Clara University, Jiménez is author of The Circuit and Breaking Through, notable fictionalized memoirs about migrant worker life as seen through the eyes of a boy.
Francisco was four years old when his family first migrated without papers to the San Joaquin Valley of California, hoping to leave behind forever their life of poverty. Instead of the good life they sought, the Jiménez family found years of backbreaking work as migrant workers — living in tent camps, moving constantly to follow the harvest, and always trying to avoid “La Migra,” the immigration authorities.
Young Francisco went to work in the fields at age six. Even though his schooling was sporadic because of the constant moves, he came to realize early that education would be his salvation. But the obstacles were formidable. In schools where only English was spoken, Jiménez remembers, “My first experience in school was very traumatic simply because I couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t communicate with the teacher, and I couldn’t understand what she was saying… It scarred me for life.” He failed the first grade, but Jiménez persisted, eventually becoming student body president of his high school and graduating with a 3.7 grade point average. Along the way there were many tough times, including the deportation of the entire family back to Mexico when they were finally discovered. A border patrol officer came to Jiménez’s eighth-grade class and took him away. But the family was fortunate to find a way back, this time on a legal footing, when a Japanese sharecropper they had worked with agreed to sponsor them.
A literary epiphany came to Jiménez when he was a sophomore in high school. His English teacher thought he might like to read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, after she was struck by an autobiographical assignment he turned in. “For the first time I was able to relate my life to something I was reading,” recalls Jiménez. “The story of my family as migrant workers was part of the American story, just like the Joad family.”
The initial encounter with English-only classrooms and the connection with The Grapes of Wrath gave direction to much of Jiménez’s later academic and professional career. With scholarships and loans, he was able to go to Santa Clara University, where he majored in Spanish. He went on to receive master’s and doctoral degrees in Latin American literature from Columbia University, under a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. After teaching at Columbia briefly, Jiménez returned to Santa Clara University, where he became the Fay Boyle Professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and Director of the Ethnic Studies Program.
In 1997, his fictionalized memoir, The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child, was published. “I wanted to chronicle part of my family’s own history,” says Jiménez, “but more important, to document the migrant experience of many, many families from the past and the present whose hard work helps to develop the economic power of our nation.” The Riverbank Review commented, “Jiménez has taken us inside a way of life, in all its sweetness and all its sorrow. It is a valuable book for young people, both for its artistic values and for the issues it illuminates.” Author Rudolfo Anaya called the stories “so realistic they choke the heart.”
The Circuit parallels the Jiménez family’s odyssey from the hopeful time when they first crossed into America through their ignominious deportation back to Mexico. A sequel, Breaking Through, picks up the autobiographical story and follows the immigrant boy’s high school years. Smithsonian observed that Jiménez’s “page-turning narrative, devoid of sentimentality, is a substantial contribution to the literature of the memoir.”
His books have received many honors. They have won the Americas Award, been Booklist Editors’ Choice books, and been noted as a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. The Circuit also won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction, was named the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults, and received a Jane Addams Honor Book Award, in addition to several other awards. Breaking Through was named both a Smithsonian Notable Book for Children and Young Adults and one of the Notable Books for a Global Society. It also received the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Book Award and the William Allen White Children’s and Young Adult Book Award, among others, and was chosen as a Silicon Valley Reads: One Book, One Community Reading Program book.
Anchoring Jiménez’s significant academic and professional life is his position as the Fay Boyle Professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and Director of the Ethnic Studies Program at Santa Clara University. He was chosen as U.S. Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education). He has served on various professional boards and commissions, including the California Council for the Humanities, Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities (WASC), the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the Santa Clara University Board of Trustees, and the Far West Lab for Educational Research and Development.
As a member of a Delegate Assembly and of the Executive Committee on Chicano Literature of the Modern Language Association, Jiménez advocated the inclusion of Chicano literature as part of American literature. “Since then, many departments of English in the country now consider Chicano literature as part of American literature,” says Jiménez, “and it’s taught in the English departments just as African American literature, Asian American literature, and other ethnic literatures are taught in the English departments.”
Francisco Jiménez has also written children’s books. La Mariposa (published in both English and Spanish editions) won a Parent’s Choice Recommended Award, made the Americas Commended List, and was a Smithsonian Notable Book for Children. The Christmas Gift/El Regalo de Navidad, an illustrated bilingual book for children, received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, was selected as a Notable Children’s Book by the American Library Association, was included on the Americas Commended List, and received the Cuffie Award from Publisher’s Weekly for “Best Treatment of a Social Issue.”
The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child
This powerful series of linked stories follows the life of a migrant family as they travel “the circuit” of harvesting jobs up and down California. Told from the point of view of the second oldest son, the stories describe a life of crushing poverty and backbreaking work lived in tents and one-room shacks, yet survived with courage, hope, and dignity.
Based on the life of the author, Francisco Jiménez, the stories begin when the family first comes from Mexico to California and settles in a “tent city” with other migrant laborers. Over the next nine years, as the family grows from four members to 11, we witness both the terrible struggles and the small joys in the everyday life of people for whom nothing — home, friendships, school, or jobs — is permanent. “Each story is simple, direct, and redolent with the smells of the earth, the sounds of the ever-changing home with its growing number of siblings, and the amazing experiences each new schoolroom offers,” observes School Library Journal of the audio edition.
Denied steady schooling because his family must move with the harvest, Panchito, as his mother calls him, starts first grade without any English at all. He begins to carry his “librito,” a little notebook of English words and their definitions, as he works in the fields. When the family’s shelter in a migrant camp burns down and his notebook is lost, he is heartbroken — until his mother makes him see that everything written in it was already permanently committed to his memory. Jiménez writes that she showed him that all that knowledge was “mine to have and to hold… It would go with me no matter how many times we moved, and we moved very often. Sometimes I would enroll in school one week and we would move the next week. In this very unstable life that we were living, I was looking for some permanence, a place to call my own, and I found part of it in learning, in education.”
Jiménez says he decided to write The Circuit in English because he knew it would reach a wider readership. He originally wrote the first story in Spanish and called it Cajas de Cartón, for the fragile cardboard boxes in which migrant families must regularly pack all their belongings before moving on to the next town and job. “Symbolically, cardboard boxes indicate the kind of fragile life that we were living. As cardboard boxes can collapse very easily, they can be destroyed easily, and I felt that our life was very similar to that.” When he translated the story into English, he decided to call it The Circuit. Not only would that title capture the circular journey the migrant worker must make each year from place to place and crop to crop, but, Jiménez points out, “In a sense it’s also a circuit from when the first story begins, with us crossing the border from Mexico to the United States, to the last story, where we get caught by the immigration officers and are deported back to Mexico. We have to leave the same way we came.” He adds that there are 12 stories in the collection, just as there are 12 months in the migrant worker’s yearly journey.
Jiménez had a literary awakening in his sophomore year of high school when an assignment in English class was to write an autobiographical piece. He wrote about the near-fatal illness of his baby brother in one of the labor camps where the family stayed. After reading the account, his teacher gave him John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to read. “When I saw how thick the book was, I said, ‘My gosh! How am I going to read such a thick book?’ And so once I started reading I had difficulty with the reading. I had to look up many, many words, but I couldn’t put the work down… For the first time I was able to relate my life to something that I was reading. There was a connection between my life and The Grapes of Wrath… Even though the Joad family … were not Mexican, they had very similar experiences that I had, that my family had. They had to move from Oklahoma to come to California looking for a better way of life; they worked in the fields … they lived in migrant labor camps just as my family did. So I felt that that connection helped me to appreciate even more the power of language and literature to move hearts and minds. And for the first time I realized that my own story as an immigrant, the story of my family as migrant workers, was part of the American story just like the Joad family.”
Though Panchito, the protagonist of The Circuit, is driven by the power of education and literature, he learns other lessons as well. He is impressed with a worker named Gabriel. “Gabriel did what he had to do,” says Panchito. Jiménez adds in an interview that Gabriel “stood up to Diaz, who wanted him to plow the rows like an ox, and he refused to do that.” Jiménez learned that Gabriel “had a lot of dignity and self-worth. And it was his dignity that he refused to give up. I have learned a lot from people who are well educated, who are teachers and university professors. But I’ve also learned a lot from people like Gabriel, who don’t have a formal education. And dignity is a lesson I learned from him.”
Jiménez hopes that students who read his work will “listen to the voice of the narrator and make a connection to that child … and develop a compassion and understanding for children who go through those experiences … children who enter our school system who are limited English speakers. My hope is that students who read The Circuit will also learn to appreciate what they have, and the work that migrant workers do. Every time we sit at the table to enjoy our meals, we should think about who made it possible to have the food we eat every day.”
Talking with Francisco Jiménez
In your writing, how much have you drawn on your own experiences?
Everything I write is autobiographical. I’ve written four books that deal with my experiences in the migrant setting. The first one is The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child, where I describe the first nine years of my family living in California, moving from place to place following seasonal crops. The collection begins with the story “Under the Wire,” in which I describe the hopes and dreams that my family had when we first left Mexico and crossed the border to California, hoping to leave our life of poverty behind. Once we crossed the border, we ended up in Santa Maria, California, in a migrant labor camp, a tent camp, and that’s where we began our migrant life.
What made you decide to write The Circuit?
I feel that for the most part these individuals have been invisible, so I wanted to make sure that their voices would be heard. These are people who work very, very hard, from sunup to sundown, and are all part of the American experience. The migrant experience — working in the fields and harvesting the crops — contributed to the richness of our diversity, and so, therefore, that experience is part of who I am as an American, and the history of who we are as a nation.
How did you prepare to write The Circuit?
I looked through family documents. We had report cards that I had from grade school. I was able to find some old photographs from that period. I also found Mexican music that we used to listen to in the car when I was a child. The music helped to take me back in time. There were some songs, for example, that my father loved to listen to. He would get tears in his eyes, because it would take him back to his homeland. And as I listened to the same songs, I could see my father’s face. And that was very helpful for me.
I visited some of the places where we lived in the migrant camps. Many of the camps no longer existed, but I went to other camps that were very similar, which helped me to recall the past. Once I had gathered all this research, I decided to focus on particular memorable experiences that I felt had made a difference in my life — that helped shape who I am.
Talk about a few of these experiences.
In the story “Inside Out,” I talk about my first experience in school, which was very traumatic, simply because I couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t understand what the teacher was saying, so I couldn’t communicate with her. I had to repeat first grade because I didn’t know English well enough. That experience was very important to me and it shaped a lot of my own beliefs about teaching and education, because I don’t want any child to go through that experience I went through.
Back then we were not allowed to speak a language other than English in the school setting. Not being able to express myself through language, and especiallymy own language, really hurt me. It scarred me, and gave me a lack of self-confidence. I felt that because my language was not valued, I myself was not valued. To this day, even when I give public presentations in English, I still have that uneasiness because of the traumatic experience I had — many, many years ago — when I was in the first grade. That’s why I think it’s so important for all of us, as teachers, to value the child’s native language. Whether we’re teaching the elementary or the middle school or high school, we must value the students’ native languages and their cultural backgrounds while we teach them to learn English and other languages. It’s very important to value every child and the gift that child brings to our school system.
Describe “Moving On,” the last story in The Circuit.
It was a tragic experience for our family, and a very significant period in my life. Historically, in 1954, this country was suffering an economic crisis. To give a little background, the federal government had created a program to give the border patrol more resources to deport people who were here without documentation. The program went from 1954 to 1959, I believe. They called it Operation Wetback, because the people got wet crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico to the United States. So that was the official title given to this effort: Operation Wetback.
We were caught by the border patrol in 1957-58. I was in the eighth grade and I was ready to recite the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, which we had to memorize for our eighth-grade class. I still remember it: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And it was right before I was to recite it to my teacher. At that moment, I heard a knock on the door, and my eighth-grade teacher opened the door, and in walked the principal and the border patrol officer. He asked where Francisco Jiménez was. So my worst nightmare — of being caught by the border patrol, and being deported back to Mexico — was becoming a reality.
Why did you use a child’s voice in The Circuit?
I wanted readers to hear the child’s voice, to feel through his heart, and to see life through his eyes. I think that The Circuit is popular with students in junior high school because the character in the work is more or less their age, at least in the last story. And I purposely wrote the stories from the child’s point of view. The child narrates or describes the experiences, but of course they’re my experiences.
To what extent is The Circuit an accurate account of your experiences?
After I did the research, I decided to select those memorable experiences that made a difference in my life, and to create a story around each experience. Obviously I could not remember some of the details about each. For example, I include dialogue in some of the stories. I couldn’t remember the exact words that were said, so in those cases I invented dialogue to capture the essence and reality of the experiences. In many cases I couldn’t remember other details. So there is some creativity, invention, imagination that goes into writing, and that went into writing these stories. If I were to give a percentage, I would say 80 percent of it is based on reality and the rest is imagination and creativity on my part.
What were you trying to convey about the migrant experience in the novel Breaking Through?
The title Breaking Through refers to breaking through various obstacles that I encountered in my life. In Breaking Through I describe how I experienced discrimination and I ask, How does one break through being discriminated against because of one’s color or one’s language or one’s looks? Another theme that comes through, I think, in The Circuit and Breaking Through is how I attempted to acquire an education while coping with poverty, and trying to reconcile my Mexican heritage with my new American heritage — sometimes taking the best from one and the best from the other and blending the two, and sometimes rejecting part of one or the other. It’s about navigating one’s self through life, experiencing love and neglect, fairness and unfairness, prejudice. How do we break through? How do we sustain ourselves as we go through these life experiences that are not very positive?
As for discrimination, well, I was brought up in a family that believed that we were all the same in the eyes of our creator. My father used to say, “It doesn’t matter whether you work in the fields like I do or you’re president of this country, we’re both human beings and we should be respected for who we are.” Even though I was hurt when people called me “you wetback,” or “you chili stomper,” I would listen to my father.
What sustained my being able to break through was my family’s love and their insistence on hard work, respect, and faith, and hope that no matter how difficult life was, if we worked very hard and applied ourselves, we would break through. And so I took those values that I learned from my family and applied them to my education. The value of hard work, and not to give up, to have hope, to have faith, and that’s helped me tremendously.
LeAlan Jones/ Lloyd Newman: Biography & Work
Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago, the very personal story of what it was like to grow up in Chicago’s notorious Ida B. Wells housing project, was a product of teamwork.
LeAlan Jones was 13 when he and his best friend, Lloyd Newman, set out to tape-record interviews with family, friends, and neighbors in the Ida B. Wells project, where both boys were longtime residents. The teenagers worked under the guidance of independent radio documentarian David Isay, who hoped to shape their audio diaries into authentic sound portraits of childhood life in poverty. Together the team produced two documentaries, which aired on NPR’s All Things Considered. They then revisited the original tapes and wrote Our America.
Looking back on his days as a “rookie reporter,” LeAlan Jones views the first documentary, Ghetto Life 101, as “a critical story detailing the resilience and hope of two African American young men finding their way through urban injustice and succeeding with optimism amongst failure.” Jones was a member of an antigang group, No Dope Express, at the time of the original taping; he went on to be the National Junior Spokesman for the group, was featured by the Chicago Defender, and lectured across the country.
After studying criminology at Florida State University, Jones transferred to Barat College of DePaul in Lake Forest, Illinois, where he received a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies. Currently he is a freelance writer for N’Digo Weekly Magapaper in Chicago. Jones is also a football coach and mentor at his high school alma mater.
Lloyd Newman has shared with Jones and Isay the considerable awards that were given to the two documentaries, including the Livingston Award, the George Foster Peabody Award, and the grand prize from the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards, which was a first for a radio program.
Newman has attended several colleges. Reflecting on his reporting experiences, he says:
Yes, I have been blessed with success in journalism, but I was a kid then, and had a lot of help. Now that I’m in college, I see you have to work hard to get where you want to be. All I can say is: I got ideas. Don’t think that this will be the last time you will hear from me, because I will put those ideas to work.
David Isay, who conceived of the Ida B. Wells documentary and book projects and shepherded them to completion, has a well-respected record in the documentary field. He is an independent producer, founder and executive producer of Sound Portraits Productions, and a longtime contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered.
Isay contacted social service agencies and high schools all around Chicago to locate a pair of prospective teen reporters. He and Jones and Newman then collaborated on interview questions and production decisions. Isay found it “a remarkable experience — sitting in my room in Chicago, listening to these stories unfold on tape. Day after day I was dumbfounded at the honesty, humor, and courage of the kids and their families. LeAlan and Lloyd were insightful, intensely curious, meticulous observers — a poignant mixture of little boys and adolescents wise far beyond their years.” Isay edited the documentary, with considerable input from his reporters. Airing on WBEZ in Chicago and nationally on NPR, Ghetto 101 “generated a small avalanche of listener and press accolades, and later more than a dozen national and international awards.”
A year and a half later, the trio reassembled to do a second documentary about the heartbreaking story of five-year-old Eric Morse, who was pushed out of the 14th floor of a building at Ida B. Wells by boys aged 10 and 11. Finally, they worked together to produce Our America. Jones’s and Newman’s story was also the basis of an award-winning HBO documentary.
Inspired by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration’s interviews with ordinary Americans, Isay has created the oral history initiative StoryCorps, “to help you interview your grandmother, your uncle, the lady who’s worked down the block for as long as you can remember.” The project started with a soundproof recording booth in New York’s Grand Central Station. Isay’s plan is to build similar broadcast-quality booths across the country, so people can record their stories with the help of trained facilitators.
Isay has won almost every award in broadcasting, including the Peabody Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Award, and the Livingston Award. He has been honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship.
The work of photographer John Brooks enhances the stark drama of Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago. Brooks grew up in another well-known and troubled Chicago housing project, Cabrini Green. He was a self-taught photographer found by David Isay through Gallery 37, a jobs program for kids interested in the arts. “John’s intimate, black-and-white portraits of his family, friends, and neighbors from Cabrini Green won us over immediately,” says Isay. “He was a natural to join the team.”
Two African American boys are the voices of this remarkable book, a first-person account of what it is like to be children growing up on the South Side of Chicago — surrounded by drugs and alcoholism and joblessness and crime, and often with their parents absent. LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman were 13 and 14, longtime friends and longtime residents of the notorious Ida B. Wells housing project in Chicago, when David Isay of NPR’s All Things Consideredrecruited them to help him make a radio documentary about public housing through the eyes of young people. Isay equipped the boys with tape recorders and sent them out to chronicle their everyday lives.
Through a series of penetrating, straightforward interviews, LeAlan and Lloyd produced an unvarnished portrait of the realities of childhood for poor blacks in the United States. They talked to family, friends, teachers — everyone who made up their world. After the airing of two acclaimed documentaries, the team decided to turn the original material into a book enhanced with haunting photographs by John Brooks. The story was also made into an award-winning HBO documentary.
In the words of LeAlan Jones, “We live in a second America where the laws of the land don’t apply and the laws of the street do. You must learn our America as we must learn your America, so that maybe, someday, we can become one.” LeAlan is the principal teller of this story. He lived with his grandparents after his mother was institutionalized with mental illness. She once told him about his father: “He knows you exist. He seen you when you was about two.” To LeAlan, that father was “just another man to me. He ain’t nothing to me. If he ain’t been here 13 years, what do I need him now for? I could die tomorrow and he still wouldn’t know.”
Lloyd Newman also spent years without his parents. His mother died of cirrhosis of the liver at 35. “I think about her every night,” says Lloyd. “When she was here I used to wake up in the middle of the night, and go downstairs, and just lay beside her, and we’d watch TV and laugh.” Lloyd’s father, Chill, drank a lot, didn’t live with the family, but kept in touch. “Do you think you’ve been a good father?” Lloyd asked in his interview. “Yes, I have … to the best of my capability I could.” But it fell to Lloyd’s sisters, Sophia and Precious, to take care of the younger children after their mother died.
The central event of Our America was related starkly by LeAlan: “On October 13, 1994, a little boy was murdered in the Ida B. Wells. Five-year-old Eric Morse was thrown out of a 14th-story window by two other little boys, supposedly because he wouldn’t steal candy for them. The story was big news all across America.”
Johnny and Tyrone, the boys arrested for the murder, were 10 and 11 years old. LeAlan and Lloyd conducted another set of interviews of all the people involved with the story. They spoke to relatives of all three boys, went to prison to talk to Tyrone’s father, and interviewed the chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. LeAlan’s conclusion about this wrenching tragedy was, “No way you can lay all the blame on Johnny and Tyrone. I’d say it’s 25 percent blame for the kids, 25 percent blame for the parents, 25 … for the building, 25 … for the environment. That equals 100 percent failure!”
Our America is unflinching in its depiction of life in the ghetto and the experience of those who endure it. But LeAlan is resolutely hopeful: “This is our neighborhood. This is our city, and this is our America. And we must somehow find a way to help one another. We must come together — no matter what you believe in, no matter how you look — and find some concrete solutions to the problems of the ghetto.”
On August 4, 1942, the U.S. and Mexican governments instituted the braceroprogram, a contract that enabled the U.S. government to act as employer to Mexican immigrant farm workers. The United States initiated this program because it was suffering a labor shortage due to its involvement in World War II, and Mexicans participated because they were encouraged to bring “modernization” to Mexico by earning funding from the United States. However, as the number of immigrant workers, documented and undocumented, rapidly grew, the United States relinquished its role as contract executor and protector and relegated that duty to individual employers. This led to the exploitation and abuse of the braceros, who no longer had any guarantee of protection from either Mexico or the United States. The bracero program was finally abandoned in 1964.
Dolores Huerta, one of the leaders of the Chicano movement and the fight for farm workers’ rights, worked with the Community Service Organization to gain more rights and protections for people in her community, then went on to organize the Agricultural Workers Association to demand more rights for farm workers nationwide. Huerta also worked with César Chávez to found the National Farm Workers Association in the 1960s, and she has successfully organized strikes and boycotts through this and other organizations. Huerta, whose role model was her single and independent mother, has also been a strong proponent for women’s rights, and has worked with many activist organizations to secure recognition and rights for women farm workers and women in general. With both the United Farm Workers and the Feminist Majority, Huerta constantly demonstrates her dedication to giving people a voice and respect.
Native American Civil Rights Movement
In the mid- to late 20th century, Native American activism has focused on many aspects of protecting and gaining rights for Native Americans on their own land and under the jurisdiction of the United States. Groups such as the American Indian Movement (AIM), the American Indian Religious Rights Foundation (AIRR), and United Native Americans (UNA) have demanded self-determination, religious rights, land rights, and protection under past treaties from the U.S. federal and state governments. It has been difficult, however, for many Native American nations to gain any protection or recognition of sovereignty from the United States, just as it has been difficult for Native American individuals to obtain civil rights protection under U.S. laws. Nevertheless, direct political action, demonstrated by the occupations of Alcatraz in 1969, the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972, and Wounded Knee in South Dakota in 1973, as well as a strong literary movement to reclaim Native American culture and heritage, have helped to raise awareness about the many injustices and obstacles Native Americans face. Just as annual ceremonial services at Alcatraz on Thanksgiving Day continue to mourn and honor the many people who have lost their lives and homes in the struggles for Native American rights, the Native American literary renaissance and civil rights movement continue to give voice to people who have been marginalized for hundreds of years.
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.