¡Mira Look!: Books for Teaching Civil Rights

“I never thought in terms of fear, I thought in terms of justice.” –Emma Tenayuca,

--From Flickr user Rich (Sparky_R); used under Creative Commons

–From Flickr user Rich (Sparky_R); used under Creative Commons

As promised, today I want to provide you some great book titles to teach about Civil Rights in your classroom. I’m orienting this post much like the last in which I give you small snippets of information about a few resources so you can quickly decide which resources to further investigate for your classroom. I want to note that two books Zinn Ed recommends for teaching about Latino history have been highlighted on this blog (see! I told you we’re on it!): Sylvia & Aki and Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck (click the links to read). These books are all meant to help your classroom learners get a grasp of what civil rights means in various context and the ways in which resistance is shown.

  • Murals: Walls that Sing by George Ancona (grades 3-6). This Américas Award Winning essay-picture book provides beautiful photos of murals in Latino communities throughout the US. In addition to the gorgeous photos, Ancona provides small snippets about the symbolism in each photo and provides some brief historical background to murals in general. While not a comprehensive treatise on mural art, Walls that Sing provides an interesting jumping off point for a discussion on symbolism, art, political activism and community identity. Additionally, the murals are so gorgeous that maybe your kids would/could be inspired to create a mural (on paper of course…. though it would be neat if it was on a wall…) about their classroom: what symbols do they see? Is there any civil rights activism or resistance in their pictures–a call for longer recess or more reading time perhaps?
  • That’s Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice by Carmen Tafolla, Sharyll Tenayuca and Celina Marroquin (grades K-2). That’s Not Fair tells the (bilingual!) story of a young girl Emma who, “was not born a hero of the poor. … the seeds of Emma’s awareness and activism were sown when she was very young” (from the book). Emma grew up to be one of the key activists in the rich history of the Mexican-American labor movement. Witnessing the injustice, poverty and poor conditions of pecan shellers in San Antonio, Emma led 12,000 workers in a Civil Rights march in the 1938 Pecan Shellers Strike. A fantastic woman, arrested more than a few times for her activism, Emma shows our kids that they too can do something in the face of poverty, suffering, injustice. Extraordinary beings are everywhere, indeed they are all of us, if given the knowledge to recognize injustice and the courage and drive to fight it. Your kids will be thrilled to learn about this woman who had a great hand in changing the lives of thousands.
  • Side by Side/Lado a Lado by Monica Brown and Joe Cepeda (grade P-1) tells the story of Dolores Huerta and César Chávez who were instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement for Mexican-Americans in the 1960s. They organized the National Farm Worker’s Association in 1962, the United Farm Workers Union in 1967 and led the march up the capitol steps in Sacramento for equal rights, pay and treatment for farm workers. Dolores and César went on to help pass the 1986 immigration bill allowing millions of Mexican-Americans to establish citizenship. From an early age, Dolores’ parents instilled in her that justice belongs to all; and Chávez experienced injustice first hand from losing his childhood home to hard labor in the fields. Side by Side, told in easy to read Spanish and English, accompanied by vibrant and lush illustrations, tells the story, much like Emma’s, of “ordinary” people accomplishing extraordinary feats.
  • We Took to the Streets: Fighting for Latino Rights with the Young Lords by Miguel “Mickey” Melendez (grades 11+). The Young Lords, emerging in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, were a Puerto Rican activists group in the 1970s. This book, an autobiography of one of the members, recounts their journey from setting up a blockade to inhabiting hospitals in the call for social justice. Successful in some of their goals, the Young Lords forever changed the face of New York and were a boon to Puerto Rican identity in the 1970s. This book is extremely useful for a discussion with older readers on the various forms social activism takes: from art, to non violent movements to more severe tactics (a discussion on the differences between Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X would serve well here as an addition). Is there a right way to incite and establish change? If so, how do we measure that? What means justify what end? Are different paths more successful than others or is it always context dependent? What are the different philosophies (i.e. Marxism, Maoist, etc.) that influence civil rights groups? Additionally, intersections of race are at play here too: Mickey is half-white, half-black Puerto Rican, did that play at all into his or the Young Lord’s identity and support during the 1960s/70s (I’ll give you a hint: yes!)? I’m not going to pretend that all parents or superintendents would be happy about my recommendation of this book: it’s vivid, visceral and celebrates a certain type of struggle and political ideology lots in this country fear. Furthermore, it is an autobiography, so following it up with some minor fact checking (a perfect throw back to my critical eye news post) would be a wise activity. However, the 1960s/70s and even today are not “pretty” nor “cookie cutter” nor unhindered by violence, death and fighting. The realities are harsher than we may want to realize, which is precisely why we should read about them.

“We were boys and didn’t know about segregation and so we thought that all soldiers were white, which is to say, all heroes were white.” —Jose Torres, We Took to the Streets.



5 thoughts on “¡Mira Look!: Books for Teaching Civil Rights

  1. Here’s another good picture book for elementary students.
    Si, se puede! = Yes, we can! : janitor strike in L.A.
    by Cohn, Diana

    • Thank you Katrina! I think students would really enjoy these books and engage with the gravity of the text in a way that is enlightening, fun and informative!

  2. Pingback: ¡Mira Look!: The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano | Vamos a Leer

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