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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Cultural Studies: Ishmael Reed and Graciela Limón Session Author and Literary Works: Graciela Limón

Graciela Limón

Author Bio

Graciela Limón is a singular voice in contemporary American Hispanic literature. A Mexican American writer, Limón was born in Los Angeles and earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in Spanish American literature. She has written five novels, each filled with erudite historical and anthropological insights.

Limón’s work combines complex historical and anthropological reflections with a potent empathic, emotional perspective. Her novels explore Mexican cultural heritage, focusing on the world of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and are peopled with characters grappling with issues of cultural and personal identity, sexual autonomy, and interracial love.

Limón’s work has created a dialogue about issues that have long been ignored. As scholar Ellen McCracken writes: “Limón’s five novels represent one of the most important contributions to the renaissance of Chicana fiction in the United States in the late 1980s and [the] 1990s. Her work is situated in a transborder experience of the Americas in which the women and men of Central America, Mexico, and Los Angeles come together in political and gender struggles, re-examine their historical past, and narratively employ their future.”

Limón’s first novel, In Search of Bernabé, was named a New York TimesNotable Book of the Year for 1993 and received a 1994 American Book Award. Her following four novels, The Memories of Ana Calderón, Song of the Hummingbird, The Day of The Moon, and Erased Faces, have all received wide critical acclaim as well. A current resident of San Bernadino, California, Limón has recently retired from the faculty at Loyola Marymount University, where she taught U.S. Hispanic Literature and chaired the Department of Chicano Studies.

Synopsis of Erased Faces by Graciela Limón

Erased Faces tells the story of Adriana Mora, a Mexican American photographer who travels to Chiapas, Mexico. There, Mora comes to grips with her nightmarish memories of her parents, her complicated relationship to her heritage, and her attraction to Juana, the powerful female Zapatista leader. The novel divides its focus between Adriana, Juana, and another young fighter named Orlando, tracing their parallel journeys to personal and political consciousness.

The novel incorporates many literary and academic genres: history, anthropology, fiction, and folklore. Like much of Limón’s work, Erased Facesquestions our sense of boundaries – not only boundaries between different genres of writing, but also boundaries between countries, between political groups, and between sexual identities. This insistence on breaking down boundaries is also critical to Limón’s bid for her readers’ empathy: By calling upon her readers emotionally, Limón breaks down the boundaries between self and other.

The intertextual reading from this lesson, The Story of Colors (La Historia de los Colores), similarly uses folklore to address political issues. It is a folktale, retold by Zapatista leader Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos in a communiqué to the Mexican people. Marcos’s text was later published with illustrations by Domitila Domínguez, the Mayan artist who also illustrated The Day the Moon Fell by Pat Mora. The Story of Colors explains how the gods found all the colors of the world and illustrates the necessity for political tolerance and mutual respect.

Audio Clip with Graciela Limón

Juana is what we call a prototype. She’s a model of what I discovered and saw and experienced down there. As we speak, right now — this is not last century — right now, young girls of 12 and 13 are being bartered off for a handful of pesos, a mule, a donkey, whatever. And this, of course, is a huge injustice to any human being. And this is one of the reasons why that huge rebellion, the women have a big invested voice in saying, “Look, we’re human beings.” But you know what? We have to think. In what other ways does this happen? Look around yourself. Is this happening with anybody I know?

Audio Clip with Nicolás Kanellos

Graciela Limón, among all of the authors of Hispanic background in the United States, has a very, very special place. She is one of the very few authors who have a sense of history and a global vision. Many authors really write out of their own circumstances and can document and create, or recreate, the emotional stages of their development through their literature, through their fiction, and through their poetry. However, Graciela comes to it from another angle: Having been a teacher, having been a historian, she connects the past with the present.

Q & A with Nicolás Kanellos

What are some of the major themes in Graciela Limón’s work?
One of the main tones that we get through her work is this tone of [the] commitment and struggle of women, and how they see things and how they are faced with all of these epical challenges — whether that be gender roles, or [whether] that be the conquest and elimination of a culture and identity, whether that be racial relations. She deals with all of these things, and she deals with them not only from within the Mexican American woman experience, but she deals with it within Anglo American and Mexican American [experiences]. In Erased Faces, for instance, she links up someone from the inner city in Los Angeles with a struggling Indian peasant woman in Chiapas — two lives that are completely separate. And she’s able to unite their feelings, their passion, and their struggles through this book. She also goes beyond that to give us the male perspective. She has three perspectives in this book, three perspectives that at first glance look radically opposed, but by the end of the book they are unified. So it’s a very, very enriching experience that we get with the prose of Graciela Limón.

What are some other ways teachers can explore her material in the classroom?
If I were a high school teacher dealing with Erased Faces, some of the opportunities that I would take advantage of, for instance, are the links to indigenous cultures. I would go into what it is like to be an indigenous person from Chiapas; I would go into the whole history of development of relations between Europe and the Americas and how that has remained a very, very strong issue in southern Mexico. Other issues that need to be explored, and can be explored, are the development of women in the book and women’s rights, including the roles, and the sexual roles in particular, that society expects of women and of men, both in the developed world as well as an indigenous society. So there’s lots of opportunity to study these things, to study what culture is, to study how cultures come together, and to study the family roles and the expectations, and the gender roles and expectations, that are very much a part of Erased Faces … Now, Erased Faces is a book that deals with very, very important adult themes — race, sex, politics, revolution — and a teacher needs to be aware of these and do some homework on how to treat these subjects.

Information About Key References

The Conflict in Chiapas
In 1994 the Zapatistas, a band of poor, socially disaffected residents of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, staged an armed uprising, leading to a long battle between the guerilla army and government forces. Despite the government’s vow to institute gradual social and economic changes in the region, the guerillas continue to fight for respect and freedom for the underclass.

Subcomandante Marcos
The masked leader and spokesman for the Zapatistas, Marcos retells tales of the indigenous people of Chiapas as a way of conveying political truths. In addition to The Story of Colors, Marcos has written Questions and Swords: Folktales of the Zapatista Revolution.

Ezlin (EZLN, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation)
A rag-tag army of Mayan natives and impoverished Mexican men and women, Ezlin fights what they call la guerra contra el olvido – the war against oblivion. With meager weapons and means, they fight against the Mexican government and the North American Free Trade Agreement, as they believe both are destroying them and their way of life.

Zapatista Women (Mujeres Zapatistas)
Many of the female Zapatista revolutionaries struggle against rape, poverty, and isolation, trying to bring new respect and possibilities to women through the Women’s Revolutionary Law.

A number of religious and secular organizations, including the Catholic Bishops of Chiapas, the Canadian Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others, have offered support for the Zapatistas. In addition, indigenous people from around the world have offered concrete and symbolic support.

Suggestions for Applying Other Theories to Erased Faces

Graciela Limón’s Erased Faces is a novel with very sophisticated content. While it is generally easy for students to enter into the book, it may be difficult for them to process the content in depth on their own. Reader response-based activities within the context of a cultural studies lesson plan, such as coding, can help. Students often empathize with the characters in Erased Faces. They do not like to see the misogyny enacted upon the two protagonists. In order to help students process this and get deeper into the content of the book, the teacher might ask students to write a letter of concern to one of the characters. In the letter, they can communicate their feelings and ask the character questions. Teachers can gather the letters in a packet and later pass them out the students, asking them to respond in depth as a character to whom the letter is addressed. In this way, students get the opportunity to respond personally to the book, then do a deeper character analysis. Ideally, students would return to the book to skim and reread sections before responding to the letters.

Erased Faces offers many inquiry opportunities. The book includes historical, cultural, political, economic, and relational elements that may not be familiar to the student. One way to launch an inquiry is by asking students to consider the cover of the book. The teacher can make a slide of the cover and project it onto the wall. As students look at the projected image, they can start describing what they see. After they have written for five or 10 minutes, the class should discuss the descriptions. During the course of the discussion, the teacher should designate one or two students to record the questions that arise about the image. They might ask about the mask, the bullets, the colors, the composition of the elements, etc. Next, the teacher should ask the students to read the first chapter, while keeping in mind the questions that were recorded earlier. The students should make notes when they feel the reading has produced answers to some of these initial questions. They should also write new questions that come about from the reading generally or in relation to the previous questions. Finally, the teacher can assign formal inquiries based on the questions generated earlier. Teachers may want to keep these questions in a journal or on a computer disk so that students can access them at any time. Students can record answers, reflections, and new questions on the disk or in the journal as they read through the novel. The teacher can periodically read through the responses and bring them up in discussion with the entire class.

While Erased Faces works well with an inquiry-based approach, it is especially suited for critical activities. As students read the book, they might decide to log on to bulletin boards or subscribe to listservs where discussions about the current crisis and conditions for the Zapatistas are discussed. They can write to churches engaged in activism or humanitarian work on behalf of the Zapatistas. They can produce displays or installation art about the Zapatistas for the school or local library.

Author and Literary Works

Works by the Author

Limón, Graciela. The Day of the Moon. Texas: Arte Público Press, 1999.
In this story of forbidden love, the reader encounters four generations of the Betancourt family. The epic tale spans the 20th century, and the Southwest and Mexico, and deals with issues of skin color, gender, religious boundaries, and life and death.

—. Erased Faces. Texas: Arte Público Press, 2001.

—-. In Search of Bernabé. Texas: Arte Público Press, 1993.
In Graciela Limón’s first novel, the reader follows a female Mexican protagonist on an intrigue-filled international odyssey to find her son, from whom she was separated in the chaos that followed the assassination of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador. In Search of Bernabé; is a family saga that has repercussions of biblical dimensions.

—-. The Memories of Ana Calderón. Texas: Arte Público Press, 2001.
Graciela Limón takes her reader on a journey through the tangled past of Ana Calderón, who, as a child, moved with her family from a Mexican fishing village to the United States and endured the hardships of migrant life along the way. As the family saga grows more and more complex, the heroine attempts to come to terms with two cultures, grueling work, and a destiny of torture and unfulfilled desires.

—-. Song of the Hummingbird. Texas: Arte Público Press, 1996.
This historical novel chronicles the life of an 82-year-old Aztec princess dying in a convent as she confesses her final sins to a captivated priest. In the telling of her story, she reveals an account of the sixteenth century Spanish conquest of Mexico unlike any the priest has ever heard — or could have imagined — before.

Works about the Author

Rebolledo, Tey Diana. Women Singing in the Snow: A Cultural Analyis of Chicana Literature. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995.
This analysis of the Chicana literary tradition traces the development of Chicana literature from 1848 to the present.

Enduring Survival
This page offers a review of Erased Faces.

Series Directory

The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


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