First, please allow me to say that I hope you are celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day well. Usually, we wouldn’t post on a holiday. However, the issue of civil rights is so large that there is simply so much literature available for review that relate to the topic. So today, we have a book for you! For this week, we will be discussing Teresa Cárdenas’s Letters to My Mother. While it does not necessarily deal with civil rights, this book includes a discussion of race and racism that is appropriate for young adults.
Letters to My Mother is a book about a young, Afro-Cuban girl who goes to live with family members after the death of her mother. In this book, this young lady communicates with her dead mother by writing letters to her. In fact, this whole book is a compilation of letters, each of which begins with “Mamita” or “Querida Máma.” While it is clear that the narrator is struggling to deal with the loss of her mother, she is finding it equally difficult to acclimate to her new surroundings. While the death of one’s mother, especially at a young age, is a difficult situation, her family’s attitude towards her compounds the issue. This young lady is taunted by her own family because of her dark skin. They utilize stereotypes regarding people with dark skin, and they make her feel like an alien in her own skin. As she begins to find a life outside of her family, she meets other young people who are also suffering from issues of identity.
Not only is this book about race, but it deals with some of the most difficult issues of regarding race that our students may face. For example, this young lady’s own grandmother tells her that it is important that they improve their race by marrying whites. This way, their skin lightens. Now, let’s think about this for a moment. What does this mean? Are lighter-skinned people and whites more superior than darker-skinned people? Of course not! Not many people would ever utter such a sentence. However, this is an issue that impacts our students daily. Have you picked up a magazine recently? The beauty ideal is set by people with light colored skin. Societal standards still dictate that the only way–or certainly the best way–a person with darker skin can find his or her niche in the world is to become an athlete or an entertainer. Lightning one’s skin is a way to become beautiful and more acceptable. This is an idea that still exists today in more subtle forms. Perhaps this book will serve as an excellent means to open dialogue on race and how our students perceive race.
Another way in which this book may serve the classroom is that it is set in Cuba. Most of us know so little about Cuba because of the political situation that has existed between the United States and Cuba for fifty years now. When this book was first published in 1998, it came under fire for its depictions of racism in Cuba. Like Brazil, there exists a notion in Cuba that it is a post-racial society. The official party line is that racism does not exist in Cuba; the principles of the Revolution eradicated racism. However, Cárdenas presents a different–arguably more accurate–of the notion and concepts of race in Cuba. (Note: I have been to Cuba, and it is one of my areas of focus. While there is no legal or social segregation, people of either sex and of all skin tones can be employed in a plethora of positions, and there are generally equal opportunities for education and health care, social racism still exists. Citizens, to some degree, maintain racist ideology, even though the State does not endorse it.)
Well, I certainly hope you will check out this book. It is an interesting read, and it could lead to some great dialogue in the classroom on race and society.
Until Next Time,