“As you begin to read this beautiful volume, be prepared to experience the exquisite pain of discovery, for you may find your assumptions about others will be challenged. The rawness will stay with you and touch your heart and your thinking. The poems in Trenzas are a gift. Savor each one, and remember.”
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Trenzas: Weaving a Tapestry of Diasporic LatinX Self-Affirmation
As I read Trenzas I began reflecting about literacy in Latin America and the Caribbean, where the effective ability to read and write was, and continues to be, available to a privileged few. During Iberian colonial times the marginalized residents of what was then dubbed the New World were excluded from the vernacular of the dominant personas de calidad, that is, from the language of the lettered elite. The Europeans who controlled the means of production and presided over the colonial social order primarily wanted the labor of the Amerindians, enslaved African captives and all the other lower-class nonwhite castas. Generally deprived of access to formal reading and writing skills, the exploited workers preserved much of their experiences orally in songs, legends, rituals, rumors, jokes, gossip, innuendo, doublespeak, metaphors, and other forms of popular expression. In a word, they created, nurtured and sustained novel ways to validate their worldviews amidst a Eurocentric and classist environment intent on silencing, ostracizing, negating and erasing their agency.
After the former colonies became the modern-day states of the region, a restructured oligarchy of landowners, merchants, creditors and self-serving caudillos (strongmen) seized power over the liberated territories. As a result, new groups of materially impoverished people emerged to fill the changing laboring needs of the rural and urban enclaves, such as llaneros, gauchos, peasants, artisans and domestic workers. Not unlike their predecessors in the colonial era, they too received few of the social rewards available in the modernizing nations in which they lived. When their ability to eke out a living reached a breaking point, they reluctantly picked up whatever worldly possessions they had and migrated in search of better opportunities, both internally within the region and externally, primarily to the industrializing metropoles of Europe and the United States. Although the new American and European patronos (bosses) welcomed their hands — thus the term braceros or manual workers given to many of them — the newcomers sought to preserve their full humanity by passing on their personal stories of uprootedness, displacement, resettlement, and survival to friends and relatives, in a continual process "de generación a generación" (from one generation to another).
In fact, we owe some of the more iconic works of LatinX literature to pioneering emplumados and emplumadas who transformed these oral traditions into written narratives. As Ethnic and Cultural Studies scholars have rightfully observed, much of their literary production can be read as autobiography or as cultural ethnographies. By poring over such classic poems, short stories and novels as Yo Soy Joaquín, Bless Me Última, Down these Mean Streets, Working in the Dark, House on Mango Street, El Bronx Remembered, Dominoes and other Stories, Y No Se lo Tragó la Tierra and Barrio Boy, to name a few, the reader is immersed in the authors' personal journey. Conceptually, Trenzas falls squarely within this artistic genre. Methodologically, however, the work significantly enhances this body of literature by creatively contextualizing the sub-texts expressed by working-class Mexican immigrants that are often missed, minimized, ignored or lost in translation.
Hernández Prósperi re-examines their interviews, which were initially designed to elicit information on the barriers driving the systemic miseducation of their children, to delve deeper into the expressive symbols, imagery and other cues that shed light on the class, ethnic and racial discrimination they faced almost daily in their adopted new homes. For many parents who had not yet mastered English, the language hurdles prevented them from being properly heard, and hence from conveying their feelings and from seeking remedies to their victimization. The author rescues their muted voices and allows them to speak on their own terms, revealing a wealth of new information, glimpses of their inner world that seldom make it to the mainstream literary canon.
In addition, he places these revelations in perspective by re-examining his family's own transplantation from Argentina to the United States, a journey that was not devoid of many of the same challenges that other newcomers also confront. By doing so, the author does not explicitly seek to draw parallels and contrasts between the Mexican and Argentinean migratory and resettlement experiences in el Norte. Rather, he stresses the larger human picture by accentuating the role played by Latin American values in cushioning their transition to North American life. These values, of course, are contoured by the uniqueness of culture as it evolved in Mesoamerica and the Southern Cone, respectively. However, amidst this diversity Hernández Prósperi finds commonalities, including self-respect, determination, love, familism, parenthood, resiliency and an unrepressed desire for self-improvement (ganas). But he also uncovers, and lays bare, the painful legacy of colonialism in shaping notions of race and class that mutated into today's cultural wars, white privilege, ethnic separatism, and exploitative laboring conditions.
In short, Trenzas weaves the quotidian struggles of "las otras vidas," of those other lives often left out of the canonical narratives, into an engaging, bilingual work of poetic justice. By using trenzas (braids) as a mnemonic devise, Hernández Prósperi interlaces his interlocutors' responses, which become testimonials, in order to knit a collective portrait of the interviewees and the world around them. The result is a literary quilt that reveals threads of self-reliance, of not giving up, of standing tall and of starting anew in a sometimes foreign land in spite of chronic poverty and the persistence of ethnic, racial and class-based exclusion, discrimination and oppression.
The Gateway Approach Paradigm
"We know the world through the stories that are told about it." Denzin & Lincoln, 2005, p. 641
Carolyn Lunsford Mears
The stories we hear as children shape our awareness of the world. Our parents tell us of their past; playmates regale us with funny stories of siblings and tales of hateful injustices from rivals. As we grow older, recollections from friends, family, and colleagues bring us information, guidance, joy, sorrow, and much that we learn as we grow to adulthood. When we listen to the evening news, we comprehend an event more clearly if we hear stories of the individuals affected instead of the general tally of numbers of people involved. Through stories, we put a face on statistics, and numbers become humanized.
These narratives enrich our lives with meaning and help shape our interactions with others. However, a different kind of knowledge, more potent and transformative, can be experienced when we are privileged to hear or read narratives collected through in-depth research interviews.
For those who seek to shed light on unseen margins of human experience, in-depth interviews can build connections across boundaries of awareness. A candid and ethical sharing can develop resonant understanding of how events and circumstances are experienced by others on a deeply human level. From that, we can learn about the human experience and how to make things better for those who need support and service.
I first entered the realm of narrative inquiry after deciding to research the effects of the Columbine shootings on the parents and families of students who survived the tragedy. I knew from my own experience the hardship and devastation the tragedy wrought on families, for I am a Columbine mom.
My younger son, a sophomore at Columbine High School in 1999, survived the tragedy. My family and indeed the entire community saw first-hand how abruptly and inexplicably lives were altered that day. A few quick moments of violence stole lives, shattered dreams, and re-shaped futures. The effects of the tragedy are ongoing.
Living the trauma and witnessing the hardship and sorrow that such violation brings, I wanted to do something to help those who might find themselves in a similar situation in the future. I enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Denver to conduct research and find ways of helping survivors and their families reclaim their lives and move toward wholeness in the aftermath. My research involved extensive, in-depth interviewing, producing volumes of wonderfully informative transcriptions — over 600, single-spaced pages of stories, each rich in significance and meaning.
I was in awe at the gift the participants had given me, stories of deep pain and resilience, injury and recovery, sadness and humor, all freely shared for the purpose of benefitting others. I knew I could not do justice to the reality of the experience by attempting to re-tell their stories through summary or interpretation. These stories deserved to be told in the words of the speaker and presented in their totality, yet the sheer magnitude of "data" made that impossible.
As a result, I decided to share the narratives by distilling them to their essence, eliminating the unnecessary words and transitions, condensing the experiences into the barest yet most powerful words, stepping aside and connecting the reader with the speakers directly by sharing their actual expressions. I wanted their voices to be heard, not mine, and instead of telling about what happened, I wanted to share it, evoking a resonance of understanding on a deeply human level. What remained when extraneous words were removed appeared as a poetic narrative, intense, provocative, impossible to ignore.
When I had completed my research, I was surprised at the interest other researchers expressed in my approach to investigating from the "inside" of an experience. I was encouraged to share the approach with others and at the urging of the American Educational Research Association wrote a book explaining the process I had used, Interviewing for Education and Social Science Research: The Gateway Approach.
In the process of sharing my approach, I was introduced by a colleague to Jorge Prósperi. He was working on his dissertation at the time, looking for a way to share the richness of his own research. As he read my Columbine study, he found a process that aligned with his own goals for sharing his remarkable research. His dissertation is masterful, with poetic representations that are both moving and revealing, pointing the way to the need for empathy, intervention and better educational planning.
I was pleased that he found utility in my approach, and now, years later, am deeply honored to be asked to contribute a commentary to Trenzas, a truly exemplary text. I must note, however, that a text so pure and inspiring hardly needs comment.
To read the poetic narratives that Dr. Prósperi has crafted for Trenzas is to be forever changed. The soul-baring honesty and compassionate distillation of humanity encountered herein shatters any sense of complacency or presumption of understanding how others live. Through exquisite interweavings of language and love, poems reveal the core life experiences of people who are otherwise beyond the margins of the known, often living concealed from the majority by nature of their status and origins.
As you begin to read this beautiful volume, be prepared to experience the exquisite pain of discovery, for you may find your assumptions about others will be challenged. The rawness will stay with you, and touch your heart and your thinking, especially if you work with immigrant children and families. Without a doubt, Trenzas should be required reading for every teacher, administrator, social worker, and indeed everyone who cares to learn about life as it is lived.
The poems in Trenzas are a gift. Savor each one ... and remember.
"Thou Shalt Not Stand Idly By"
My own experiences as a child of immigrants left indelible impressions that shaped my forty-year career as a high school teacher, counselor, principal, school district administrator, professor and educational researcher.
On the one hand was the awareness of my good fortune, permanently embedded in my consciousness. Barely a day passed that my parents did not express their gratitude on being safe with their young child in a new land, while across the sea their homeland and their families were being exterminated by madmen. They discovered the blessings of a democratic society where hope was reborn, support was rendered, and citizenship ultimately earned. As I progressed through the stages of early childhood, I soon found myself preparing for school — real school where the "big kids" went, and where I would meet new children, have fun playing with them, and learn to read and write. Hiding the details of the distant horrors that were engulfing my forever-to-be unknown relatives, they rejoiced in the wonderful opportunities that school afforded me. Free quality public education started for me in kindergarten and ultimately led to a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from the esteemed University of Michigan.
I never forgot the early years of my schooling, for while I was given extraordinary opportunities that forever changed my life, I retained the memories of being from another place, of being among others who did not share my background, culture or history, of being the official linguistic translator and social liaison between my teachers and my parents. It was not until years later that I recalled at both an intellectual and emotional level what it meant to be "other" and how the experiences of that reality shaped me, from my first day in kindergarten through my decades-long career.
We were immigrants: they were "other"; we were Jewish: they were other; we celebrated our holy days: they celebrated theirs; we were few: they were many; our parents did not finish elementary school: theirs were professionals; my parents advised silence and keeping one's head down; theirs advised speaking up, heads held high ... as if ... as if it were their natural right to have a voice and be heard.
I was a good student and rejoiced in my parents' pride at my growing success. Over time, I gained access to hallowed, unimaginable centers of learning and scholarship. As my career unfolded, I found myself in the position of professor, charged with the responsibility of preparing future educational leaders with knowledge, wisdom, and an unwavering moral compass.
"You must take a stand," I would urge them. "You must be clear about what it means to be an educational leader and why you intend to take on this onerous task." I warned them, "You will be pressured from all sides by true believers who will challenge you. Your decisions will not always be supported. They will try to silence you. They will want you to honor their loud voices, their privileges, their history. "But remember," I urged them, "to be an educational leader is to think deeply and wisely about what your mission is, whom you serve, and where you stand." "You will be challenged; you may even be vilified when you make public your commitment to all, and your dedication to welcome all, embrace all, and assume responsibility for their futures."
Excerpted from "Trenzas ~ Braids"
Copyright © 2017 Jorge Dante Hernández Prósperi.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Jorge Chinea, 1,
Carolyn Lunsford Mears, 3,
Beverley Geltner, 5,
The Origins of Trenzas, 7,
En Sus Voces Ensayo ~ (In Their Voices Essay), 8,
Poética En Sus Voces,
La Vida en Méjico, 12,
Life in Mexico, 13,
Desgraciadamente ~ Afortunadamente, 14,
Unfortunately ~ Fortunately, 15,
De Chiquita, 18,
As a Little Girl, 19,
Nuestros Padres, 20,
Our Parents, 21,
Por Sorteo, 24,
By Chance, 25,
Oportunidades Sin Valor, 26,
Opportunities Without Worth, 27,
Cuando en puro inglés ... trago tierra, 28,
When in pure English ... I swallow dirt, 29,
La Mirada, 30,
The Look, 31,
Parental Involvement: En Nuestras Voces, 32,
Parental Involvement: In Our Voices, 33,
La Frontera: Retumbos del Camino, 36,
The Border: Echoes of the Journey, 37,
En Mi Voz Ensayo ~ (In My Voice Essay), 42,
Poemas Íntimos En Mi Voz,
Trenzas ~ "¡Yo Soy!", 52,
Braids ~ "I Am!", 53,
Cuando Soltar, 54,
When To Let Go, 55,
Tú Me Crees Sonso, 56,
You Think Me A Fool, 57,
Epistemología de Obsequiosidad, 58,
Epistemology of Obsequiousness, 59,
Self Oppression, 61,
¡Qué inteligente es mi mamá!, 62,
How intelligent is my mother!, 63,
El Pecado Remordido, 64,
The Rechewed Sin, 65,
Corriendo Hacia Su Ser, 66,
Running to Her Being, 67,
Si Fueran Tuyos, 68,
If They Were Yours, 69,
Nombres ~ Names, 70,
Nuestra Doctora, 72,
Our Doctor, 73,
Opresión: Sin Premio de la Academia, 74,
Oppression: Without an Academy Award, 75,
The Significance of References, 77,
Biographical Note, 91,