¡Mira, Look!: La Gran Canoa: Leyenda Kariña

¡Buenos días! I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving weekend! As we continue with our Indigenous Peoples book reviews, I want to highlight a resource recently shared by Alin, an Indigenous Reads by Indigenous Writers list. Although this list focuses on North America, we hope you will find this to be a useful resource when teaching about all of Indigenous America (North, Central, South and beyond). We intend for these books and resources to extend not only through Native American Heritage Month, but all year round.

Today we will be travelling to Venezuela with La Gran Canoa: Leyenda Kariña, retold by María Elena Maggi and illustrated by Gloria Calderón. This book illustrates the Kariña people’s legend of the great flood. It is written in Spanish and Calderón’s illustrations are breathtaking. She paints light-colored lines onto a black background, giving the illustrations an etched look, and bringing the different scenes to life with movement. It’s a technique that appears reminiscent of sgraffito painting. Continue reading


En la Clase: Using the Film Pelo Malo in the Classroom

Pelo MaloAs 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 pelo malo juniormother 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 pelo-malo-review-rondonsomething 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,


¡Mira, Look!: The Streets Are Free

In The Streets Are Free, readers become enveloped in a tale that describes how “For the children of the barrio of San José de la Urbina in Caracas, their only playground is the busy streets.  Where once there were fields and streams, the landscape is now defined by local towers, sewers, and highways” (Zinn Education Project).  The book begs the obvious question of “are our streets free?” If not, where can our children go to play if they do not have access to formal, public infrastructure like parks and playgrounds?

A children’s book written by Kurusa (pseudonym for a Venezuelan anthropologist and editor, according to the Zinn Education Project) and illustrated by Monika Deppert, this is a book for teaching about social justice.  And it’s not a pie-in-the-sky effort to do so.  Based in real events, it depicts a realism bordering on optimism. A review from Library Thing tells us that “This delightful and empowering book is my favorite storybook in my extensive multicultural library that I’ve grown over the decades for my innercity classroom. It tells the true Venezuelan story of children who, with the help of the librarian, organize themselves a play space. Remarkably, it relates the two needed strands of organizing: pressuring the government (or other power structure) to do its job, and bringing the community together to do what the government can’t.”

If you’re interested in using literacy to introduce social justice topics to your classroom, and to empower your students to think about their own agency, consider this book.  It’s beautifully illustrated and really does a remarkable job of conveying how young children (most suited for ages 4-9) can be at once respectful and defiant of the power structures that overlay their lives.