It took only one of Consuella Lopez’s journal entries to convince me that multiculturalism belongs in every American classroom.
Consuella, a student in my 9th grade English class, is a gang member. Every day, she struts into my room wearing baggy jeans and an oversized flannel shirt in her gang’s color--black. While taking roll, I easily spy the 3-inch-high wall of hair that rises up defiantly off the top of her forehead as she slouches in the back row. Thick black eyeliner surrounds her brown eyes, and dark burgundy lipstick covers her mouth. From her ears, large silver hoop earrings dangle.
After filling out her detention slip--this quarter alone she’s been tardy five times and suspended once for being disrespectful to another teacher--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 gangs 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 make up the majority of the student body. Consuella’s life, like so many of my students’, differs radically from my own.
And yet, until this year, I’ve taught the same books I read when I attended my predominantly white middle-class high school: The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, Death of a Salesman, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.
This year, however, I am teaching The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros. The book, written by a female Latina author, 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 my school’s English curriculum, my colleagues and I had to overcome opposition to multiculturalism from parents, school board members, and fellow teachers. “Are we instituting multicultural texts for the sake of multiculturalism, regardless of literary merit?’' they asked. “Wouldn’t this ‘affirmative action’ in English classes come at the expense of great literature? What multicultural author--whatever his or her race, gender, or sexual preference--could match or excel the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, or William Shakespeare?’'
Sandra Cisneros, for one. Her use of voice, theme, and symbolism, as well as the honesty and clarity of her writing, rivals that of the best novelists I have ever taught.
Teaching The House on Mango Street, I often rely on my Latino students for insight and clarification of the book’s contents. I know nothing of private Catholic schools, for example, but a few of my Latino students do, and their experiences, including Consuella’s, add to what the main character describes. When I read “esta muerto,’' “los esperitus,’' and the word that made most of my Latino students giggle, “mamasota,’' my students helped me pronounce and define them. After a character dies, some of my Latino and Filipino students explained to the rest of the class what the “Day of the Dead’’ means to them. Consuella began to attend class regularly after we read 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 another lesson, Consuella would plead, “Don’t stop. Let’s keep on reading.’' Normally, I’m the one pleading with my students to read and finish their books.
If I had any lingering doubts about the importance of multiculturalism in my classroom, Consuella eliminated them with a journal entry she handed in--albeit late. Consuella, the gang member, the girl with the number 13 tattooed between her right thumb and forefinger, had this to say about the book:
“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.’'
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as A Walk Down Mango Street