In this week’s En la Clase we’re looking at Jorge Argueta’s children’s book Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con Madre Tierra. This bilingual poetry book not only speaks to this month’s theme of diversity within Latinx identity, but is also an excellent resource for those teaching a critical history of conquest and colonization. As with last week’s featured book, Argueta’s poetry is simple but powerful. It elicits both critical thought and personal reflection. Through these autobiographical poems we learn about Tetl:
“Tetl’s skin is brown, his eyes are black, and his hair is long. He’s different from the other children, whose taunts wound him deeply, leaving him confused and afraid. But Tetl’s grandmother knows the ancient teachings of their Aztec ancestors, and how they viewed the earth as alive with sacred meaning. With her help, he learns to listen to the mountains, wind, corn, and stones. Tetl’s journey from self-doubt to proud acceptance of his Nahuatl heritage is told in a series of powerful poems, beautifully expressed in both English and Spanish” (Goodreads).
In last week’s En la Clase, we discussed the importance of authentic cultural referents in children’s literature. Argueta’s book demonstrates why this is so powerful. Too often when we discuss native cultures and Indigenous peoples in our classrooms, it’s done in the past tense, as if they no longer exist. In Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con Madre Tierra readers learn about the childhood of Jorge Tetl Argueta who identifies as Pipil Nahua. Argueta writes his poems in first person present tense. While this may seem an insignificant choice, it’s not. The explicit and implicit messages sent through the language in our children’s books are powerful. The use of third person, past tense, or passive language can perpetuate ideas such as Indigenous peoples no longer exist, they have no agency, or they are to blame for the violence that is/was enacted upon them. For more on this conversation, see Jean Paine Mendoza’s article “Goodbye, Columbus: Take Two” from A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. October is often the month in which students learn about Columbus, exploration, conquest and colonization. It’s important to model for our students how to critique the oppressive messages conveyed in both the fiction and non-fiction literature they read on these topics, and to provide them examples of empowering narratives such as Argueta’s.
Written in a child’s voice, Argueta’s poems are not only engaging reads for younger audiences, they are empowering. It’s heartbreaking to read about the racist bullying that Tetl endured:
my schoolmates used to call me
and laugh at my bare feet.
they would call me
and pull on my hair
long and dark as the night
“Indian called down from the hill
by the beat of a drum,”
they would tease me and while the teacher
wrote on the blackboard, they would hit my back.
But, when we continue to live in a society that claims to be color-blind or post-racial, there is something powerful about naming this racism and the stereotypes being perpetuated. Tetl’s words reveal a vulnerability that provides the space to discuss bullying and racism in a very open way. This type of bullying continues to happen in classrooms and playgrounds across the nation. While it’s certainly a complex problem, it’s not going to get any better until we’re willing to have the sometimes hard and uncomfortable conversations about racism in our classrooms. Argueta’s book provides one way in which to do that. We talk frequently about literature providing mirrors, windows, and doors. Here, students who have been bullied are provided a protagonist who speaks both to the experience and how he chose to overcome it. We can also hope that those who have acted as bullies will begin to reflect on the causes and consequences of their behavior.
In Dr. Laura Harjo’s introduction to the LAII’s recent screening of the film Tambien la Lluvia, she talked about how one of the effects of conquest, colonization, and colonialism can be seen through the deadening of land as it became property that could be owned. Argueta’s poetry together with Lucía Ángela Pérez’s beautiful illustrations offer a much different view of land. Here, Mother Earth is something both alive and powerful. Exposed to a powerful counter narrative through the introduction to Nahua beliefs and spirituality, readers will hopefully develop a greater appreciation for Earth and the many facets of nature that we often take for granted, such as the wind, sun, water, or plants.
There’s a lot you could do with the book beyond a read aloud. These ideas are just a start. It’s certainly an excellent mentor text for poetry writing. Argueta discusses his own childhood experiences with both openness and vulnerability. Using this as a model, ask students to think about a hurtful experience they’ve had. Perhaps they’ve been bullied, or they have bullied another student. This could become the inspiration for their own poem. It’s also an excellent text to use to teach nature poetry. Ask students to think about the ways in which we take different elements of nature for granted. Then, choosing one of these elements, each student can write their own poem as Argueta did. If time permits, have students illustrate their poems. Then, create a class book of the poetry for display.
We’re not alone in thinking this is a wonderful book. It has received both the International Latino Book Award and Américas Book Award.
As always, I’d love to hear what your students think about the book!
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