It took one journal entry written by Consuella Lopez, a student in my ninth-grade English class, to convince me that multiculturalism belongs in every American classroom.
Consuella is a gangbanger. Every day, she struts into my class wearing baggy jeans and an oversized flannel shirt in her gang’s color: black. While taking roll, I easily spy the 3-inch wall of hair that rises defiantly off the top of her forehead as she slouches in the back row. Thick black eyeliner surrounds her brown eyes; dark burgundy lipstick covers her mouth. Silver hoops dangle from her ears.
So far this quarter, she’s been tardy five times and suspended once, for being disrespectful to another teacher. After filling out her detention slip, I ask about her weekend. “Hey, Mr. Smith,” she says. “Like I was kickin’ it with my homeys. Ya know.”
I don’t. I know virtually nothing about home girls or gangbangers or the fierce pride that burns within this Latina girl. I’m an Anglo, born in Wisconsin, teaching in a California school where Asians, African-Americans, Pacific Islanders and Latinos all together make up the majority of the student body. Consuella’s life, like that of so many of my students, differs radically from my own.
And yet, until this year, I have taught the exact same books I was given when I attended my predominantly white high school: “The Great Gatsby,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” etc.
This year, however, I am teaching Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street.” The book, written by a Latina, tells the story of a 12-year-old girl who comes of age in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in Chicago.
Before adding this book to the curriculum, my colleagues and I had to overcome criticism against multiculturalism from parents, school board members and fellow teachers.
They asked: Were we instituting multicultural texts for the sake of multiculturalism, regardless of literary merit? Wouldn’t this “affirmative action” in English classes come at the expense of great literature? What multicultural author - whatever his or her race, sexual preference, or gender - could match or be better than the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain or William Shakespeare?
“The House on Mango Street” dispels these criticisms. The book’s use of voice, theme and symbolism, as well as the honesty and clarity of its writing, rival that of the best novels I have ever taught.
While teaching “The House on Mango Street,” I often rely on some of my Latino students for further clarification of the book’s content. I know nothing of private Catholic schools, but a few of my Latino students, including Consuella, added their experiences to what the main character described.
When I read “Esta muerto,” “los esperitus” and the word that made most of my Latino students giggle, “mamasota,” some of my Latino students helped me define and pronounce these words correctly. After a character died, some of my Latino and Filipino students explained to the rest of the class what the “Day of the Dead” meant to them.
Consuella began to attend class regularly after we read and discussed the chapter titled, “Those Who Don’t.” This chapter includes the lines, “Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared … But we aren’t afraid … All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake … Yeah. That is how it goes and goes.”
From then on, whenever I’d stop reading to begin a lesson, Consuella pleaded, “Don’t stop. Let’s keep reading.” Normally, I’m the one who pleads with my students to read and finish our book.
If I had any doubts about the importance of multiculturalism in my classroom, Consuella eliminated them with a journal entry she handed in late. Consuella, the gangbanger, the girl with “13” tattooed in black numerals between her right thumb and forefinger, wrote this:
“My favorite chapter in ‘The House on Mango Street’ is ‘Hips.’ The reason why is because when I was little I use to jump rope with my friends and make up weard songs to jump to. And my favorite part that she wrote was ‘All brown all around.’
“I don’t know why but that just got to me. Sometime I think back when we read this book and pitcher me being the main charicter. I like this book alot. It is like here is this Latina girl writting a book that I really like. I never have gotten in to a book like I do now. And that is the truth.”