We have to tell our young 730 times that reading, writing, and culture matter.
That works out to 2 x a day in a year.
This means literally, at the most essential level, telling them exactly. Because on any given day, even before they walk out of the door for school, they have been told otherwise several times. By the time they get to sleep they have been flooded by messages that teach them that reading and writing do not matter. At the very least, they have not received any positive messages about culture, let alone their culture.
On a really bad day, they have seen or heard their culture denigrated.
Do I need to show you how? I will resist, in this essay, for the moment, to break down how our culture is broken down by those who do not like us. I am writing a book about our Community’s Cultural Capital. This essay and this part of the essay is about the exact opposite.
It’s sinister and a lot harder to quantify-the missing.
It’s impossible to count the number of times our culture is not mentioned.
But I measure it the first day of my Mexican American Literature course. I give students a very straightforward Cultural Quiz.
I ask them 4 questions. I’ll talk about each of the questions in later essays. I’m focusing on just one this time.
Question number one is: Name 5 Latino writers.
This is linked to my discussion of Community Cultural Capital because we are basically quantifying Community Cultural Capital.
Most students can’t name one Latino writer.
Of course, by the end of the semester they can name many. On top of that, during an amazing semester, they will meet 5 Latino writers in person and participate in campaign to further Mexican American Studies. That’s Cultural Acceleration.
But back to the bad news. The majority of them have not taken a single Mexican American Studies course, even as the entire public school system is now majority Brown. Latinos make up over 52% of over 5.2 million public school students. Yet, most will finish school never having read a book by or about Latinos. Of course, this is set to change Fall of 2019 since last year the Texas State Board of Education endorsed Mexican American Studies statewide. But it won’t change fast enough.
I convey this to you to manifest omission.
We are talking about quantifying nothing. Our young believe there are no books by or about Latinos.
What does this tell our youth? They will think that:
We do not write.
We are not intellectual.
We do not have a voice.
We do not matter.
But that’s okay because writing doesn’t matter.
Mind you, these are students who have already graduated from high school. They have passed at least 2 English courses, Composition I and Composition II. They were the last generation to deal with Remedial English courses. Add English as a Second Language for some.
Additionally, they came looking for Mexican American Literature.
These are the motivated and interested students looking for culture in our system. They have been denied their literary culture in high school, middle school, and kindergarten.
As you can imagine, they are edified by the works in the class.
I want you to experience that.
Don’t get scared. You won’t have to pay a semester of tuition. You will get it for free.
But first, tell your youth our history, our culture, our books matter.
If you want to be more subtle. Read in front of them. That counts for 2 mentions.
If you want to be even more subtle, write in front of them, a letter to a relative, an email to a friend, a poem, a short story.
If you want to change the world, buy books. Dedicate a shelf where you live as your family library. On days you forget to tell them our voice matters, the books will say that for you.
Of course, we are Cultural Accelerators, so let’s take this to the next levels.
This is good, but I want you to know what it feels like to earn an “A” in my Mexican American Literature course.
Don’t worry, it won’t cost you a semester of tuition. In fact, it’s free.
Attend the 21st anniversary celebration of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say Wednesday, April 3, 2019, 6:30 pm – 8:30 pm at the Brown Auditorium of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. It’s free. It seats 350. If you want to rsvp your seat, please visit www.NuestraPalabra.org and make a donation. Or just come. No one will be turned away.
That day you will meet in person 6 Latino writers.
But not just any 6 Latino writers.
You will meet the godfather of Chicano literature Dagoberto Gilb. He’s is the author of nine books, including The Magic of Blood, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña, Woodcuts of Women, Gritos, The Flowers, and Before the End, After the Beginning. He is also the editor of two canonical anthologies, Hecho en Tejas: Texas Mexican Literature and Mexican American Literature, and the founding editor of Huizache, the country’s best Latino literary magazine.
He’s also my mentor. And you know you are experiencing a Chicano Renaissance when a writer whose work you admire becomes your mentor and friend. You know he’s good because 2 of his books were on the Mexican American Studies curriculum banned in Arizona. On top of that, he joined us on the 2012 Librotraficante Caravan to smuggle the books banned in Arizona back into Tucson.
Speaking of the ban of Ethnic Studies in Arizona, you will also meet HuffPost reporter Roque Planas. He is the journalist who first wrote about the ban and the Librotraficantes and brought national attention.
You will also meet me, but you already know me, but if you’re keeping score-that’s three writers.
Our Nuestra Palabra Second Generation Writers round out the evening. These are some of the writers who first read in public with NP and began working with us to promote Latino literature and literacy, and now they have their own nationally published books and projects. They are spreading the word to the next generation.
Poet Lupe Mendez with his new book Why I Am Like Tequila.
Poet Jasminne Méndez with her new book Night-Blooming Jasmin(n)e: Personal Essays and Poetry.
Poet Leslie Contreras Schwartz will read from her book Nightbloom & Cenote.
As Nuestra Palabra enters its 3rd decade of work, we are also expanding how we approach culture and art.
The line-up that evening will also include Mari Carmen Ramirez, The MFAH Wortham Curator of Latin American Art. She will discuss the MFAH’s holdings of Chicano and Latino art.
Also, Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia will have a special announcement on a New Latino Art and Literature Initiative.
But don’t mistake this evening for simply an anniversary.
This is a living narrative.
We are experiencing a Renaissance.
Never forget that in 2012 Arizona banned our history and culture.
Community Cultural Capital overturned that ban.
Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say played a role in that story by creating the Librotraficantes and fighting for MAS in Arizona and Texas. Nuestra Palabra has gone from its first reading at the party hall of Chapultepec Restaurant to drawing 30,000 people when we organized Houston’s largest book fairs, to creating underground libraries as Librotraficantes, to the mainstream as we celebrate in the Museum of Fine Arts and in official buildings throughout the county and beyond.
If you join us, if you buy the writers’ books that night and have them sign them, you won’t just have 6 books to begin or to add to your family library, you will have a story to share with your kids, your students, your friends about celebrating our culture, which you will be reminded about every time you see those books and which others will retell. Those books tell a generation that our voice, nuestra palabra, matters.
This is the most advanced way to convey to others that reading and writing are essential.
Read. Write. Buy books.
More next week.
Tony Diaz is a writer, activist, professor and media personality. More at TonyDiaz.net. He tweets from @Librotraficante.
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