Saludos todos! This week we are concluding our monthly theme of love with Martina the Beautiful Cockroach, an adaptation of an old Cuban folktale, written by Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrated by Michael Austin. This book won recognition as a Pura Belpré Honor Book. According to the introduction of the book, this folktale is one of the best known in Latin America, but versions of this classic tale also exist in other regions of the world. Nonetheless, Deedy takes this traditional tale, and its familiar themes, and intertwines it with her own creative twists and childhood memories. This in itself is one of the beautiful things about traditional folktales—their themes and plots have become so familiar to most people that they can be retold and adapted across countries, cultures and individual experiences to reflect both common sentiments of society, and the particular lives of individuals. Martina the Beautiful Cockroach deals primarily with themes of romantic love, but also of familial love, as young Martina relies on the advice of her wise abuela in choosing a future spouse. This charming story conveys themes of respect, compatibility, and family love, and is bound to make any reader smile as they follow the journey of Martina the beautiful cockroach.
As part of our spring programming this semester, we held a free screening of the film Pelo Malo/Bad Hair. The film touches on a number of important themes relevant to this month’s topic of women’s history as we consider the complexity of gender constructs and expectations, and the stereotypes that result from these. For today’s post, I’ll share our thoughts and reflections on the film, as well as our accompanying educator’s guide.
It’s certainly not an easy film to watch, but one which I highly recommend. Set in Caracas, Venezuela, Pelo Malo tells the story of nine-year-old Junior who has stubbornly curly hair, or pelo malo. He desperately wants to have it straightened for his school photo, but his mother, a young widow, can’t understand his obsession. The more Junior fixates on his appearance in an attempt to make his mother love him, the more angry and hurtful she becomes, ultimately rejecting him.
It deals with heavy content, and is likely most appropriate for older students and adults. It’s certainly a powerful classroom resource, as it provides the context to discuss gender roles, expectations, and constructs, as well as race and its impact on societal norms of beauty. Much of Junior’s mother’s rejection comes from her inability to accept the ways in which her son doesn’t fit her own ideas of masculinity. As a result, she assumes he’s gay, something that is intolerable to her. The point of the film is not Junior’s sexual identity, but instead his mother’s issues and assumptions that provide the context to analyze the ways in which our gender stereotypes are harmful and superficial. Interestingly, while Junior’s mother holds him to stereotypical standards of masculinity, she defies these same standards of femininity in her work as a security guard. Much of this seems to be the purpose of the director, who writes, “I also wanted to talk about intolerance in a social context that is riddled with dogmas, which don’t embrace otherness, where public affairs extend to the private life of its inhabitants, highlighting their differences, be they social, political, or sexual.”
While reading reviews of the film, I was surprised to see descriptions that seemed to be making excuses for the mother’s behavior, describing her as a worn-out and tired single mother who had no patience with her son’s antics, as if this made her abusive behavior understandable or acceptable. I think this is an important distinction to discuss with students. The mother, a young widow struggling to find work, was overwhelmed and exhausted. But this does not make her psychological or emotional abuse okay. In past posts I’ve written about how important I think it is to talk about love in the classroom. Love is relevant here as well. As much as we want all of our students to be in nurturing, healthy, authentically loving environments, some of them aren’t. We need to give them the tools to recognize when something or someone is unloving. They need to have the language to discuss this with adults who can help. In talking about the film, the director writes, “I’m interested in talking about helpless characters, who lack resources for emotional survival. . .Bad Hair is the intimate story of a nine-year-old child’s initiation to life. A child who still plays, but who plays with everyday horror.” Perhaps in using the film, we can begin to discuss with our students some of these resources for emotional survival, better preparing them to be successful psychologically and emotionally, in addition to academically.
Of equal importance is the way in which the film engages in a discussion of race and racism. The title alone invites discussion of how and why certain types of hair are labeled “good hair” or “bad hair.” Societal notions of beauty as interpreted by Junior and his young female friend clearly demonstrate the damage such stereotypes can do. Their obsession with beauty pageants and their photographs plays an important and telling role throughout the film.
If you’re interested in reading more about the film, check out our educator’s guide. It includes general teaching ideas for using film in the classroom, as well as comprehension questions and projects specific to the film. Please note, the film is unrated, but with sexual scenes and nudity, some parts may need to be omitted for classroom use. In the guide we have clearly noted the times of these scenes so they can avoided if necessary.
If you’ve seen the film, or decide to watch it, we’d love to hear your thoughts. There was certainly some interesting conversation after our own screening.
Until next week,
For this week’s En la Clase, I’m sharing our review of Separate is Never Equal, one of this year’s Americas Award Winners. It’s a great book to explore themes of love of self, love of family, and love of community, while also teaching about an often overlooked but important piece of the Civil Rights Movement.
In next week’s En la Clase, I’ll share the free educator’s guide created for the book.
Separate is Never Equal
Written and Illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
Published by Harry N. Abrams, 2014
Age Level: 7-12
Almost 10 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her parents helped end school segregation in California. An American citizen of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage who spoke and wrote perfect English, Mendez was denied enrollment to a “Whites only” school. Her parents took action by organizing the Hispanic community and filing a lawsuit in federal district court. Their success eventually brought an end to the era of segregated education in California.
There are a number of reasons why Duncan Tonatiuh’s book, Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, is so important. In writing it, he did something that no one else has. No other children’s picture book on the Mendez case exists. Moreover, the book is well-researched and compellingly illustrated. By drawing on primary source documents, court transcripts, and interviews with Sylvia Mendez herself, Tonatiuh has created an important historical book for younger and older children alike. Continue reading
This week’s En la Clase post continues to look at ways in which to think, teach, and talk about love in our classrooms. As I was writing last week’s post on teaching about love through immigration, I was reminded of another classroom resource that could also be used to teach about love. In the fall we reviewed Linda Christensen and Dyan Watson’s book Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice. The whole book is wonderful, but given this month’s theme of love, I’d like to highlight one of the lessons that I think could be particularly compelling for creating or deepening the ties of community within our classrooms. The lesson is available as a pdf here. In “Remember Me: A farewell poem,” Christensen asks her students to write a Remember Me poem about a fellow classmate. Christensen uses it at the end of the year, but I also think it could be used during the month of February to expand upon conversations around love of community. As students are bombarded with the commercialized representations of love, it’s important to provide the space for them to think through these messages, challenge them, and create their own statements on the meaning of love.
In the lesson plan, Christensen writes, “Students need to learn how to build new traditions–ones that don’t involve corporations telling them how to think and feel about death, birth, illness, goodbyes, celebrations, or each other. By creating practices in our classrooms that honor our time together, our work, and our community, we can teach students how to develop meaningful new traditions.” I couldn’t agree more. Incorporating “Remember Me” poems into the classroom allows students to think deeply about the people in their classroom community, and hopefully foster a sense of love for that community. Continue reading