Latinos(as) in the US: A Historical Perspective

CLAH Newsletter, vol. 32, no. 1 (Spring 1996)

Teaching and Teaching Materials Committee – teaching-related issues.

Latinos(as) in the US: A Historical Perspective. Felix V. Matos Rodriguez, Northeastern U., Boston, Massachusetts

Last year, I taught a slightly different version of the Latino/a history course outlined below. I want to begin this brief commentary by sharing some ideas about potential texts, readings and audiovisual materials. After that, I thought that I should say something about the
particularities of teaching this course at a school like Northeastern and about the audience for whom the course was designed.

A common concern of many teachers of Latino/a history courses, is the lack of good survey books. I believe that most faculty teaching Latino history would agree that the survey books written between 1970 and 1980 seem substantive and theoretically dated. Most of the books tend to concentrate on the Chicano/a experience, making them difficult for a Latino/a history course, unless one is constantly including additional readings dealing with Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans and other groups. I used Julian Zamora and Patricia Vandel Simon’s A History of the Mexican-American People (U. of Notre Dame Press, 1993) last year. Both the students and myself disliked it. It was too simplistic, poorly organized, and it did not integrate cultural, artistic and literary issues in an effective way. Students gave high praise to the writings of, Ruiz, Fix and Passel, and Cisneros. The House on Mango Street provoked the most positive response by the students.

After reviewing my course outline, one might question the wisdom of dedicating so many weeks to cultural and public policy topics in a historical survey course. Part of the answer lies, of course, in my own previous experiences as a literature major and a policy-oriented program officer job prior to teaching at Northeastern. Yet, the real reason probably has to do with the fact that there are no Latino/a literature or Latino/a Social Problems courses offered at Northeastern. My course serves then, not only as a historical introductory course, but also as an introductory course with an interdisciplinary orientation.

I wanted to comment on several of the videos used in the course last year. I combined a few in-class showings — to break the monotony of lecturing and to ensure the day-to-day survival of a first year assistant professor — with assigned viewings as preparation for class
discussion. The following videos were particularly effective:

(1) Puerto Rican Passages (CT Humanities Council, 1994): Although this documentary focuses on the migration of Puerto Ricans into Connecticut, it provides a solid general account on the structural and individual reasons behind Puerto Rican migration to the US. The documentary covers from the origins of US-Puerto Rico economic relations in the second half of the 19th century, to current debates within the Puerto Rican community regarding bilingual education and welfare reform.

(2) The Cuban Excludables (Richter Productions, 1995): This documentary follows the story of the Cuban “Marielitos” and their struggles with the US federal government, providing important information regarding the political, legal, and diplomatic issues surrounding the aftermath of the 1980 Mariel boat lift. The documentary includes interviews with Cubans who were deported to Havana after years in US prisons; law and immigration officials close to the prison riots in Georgia and Alabama; and, with other “Marielitos” who settled in the Miami area.

(3) The Quest for Empowerment (National Council of La Raza, 1992): A brief documentary of the participation of Chicanos in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. It provides a good comparative perspective from the dominant African American-centered narratives and serves as a good introduction for students of the major issues, personalities and organizations of the Chicano movement.

(4) Mambo Mouth (Island Videos Arts, 1992): This video of John Leguizamo’s fast-paced one man show, proved incredibly provocative. Questions regarding representation, ethnic and gender stereotypes, inter-ethnic relations, sexuality, bilingual education, and domestic violence, among others, were part of the discussion following the video viewing.

Regarding the mechanics of the course, one should know that Northeastern runs on a quarter system. That explains why the course is structured for twelve weeks as opposed to the more traditional 14 week semester. Students on a quarter system end up buying more books than students on a semester system, so I try not to force students to buy more than 3-4 books per course. Given that many Latino(a) students, most of them at Northeastern are on financial aid, are interested in courses like this one, I also try to keep required books at a minimum.

One final note about the student composition in last year’s class. Latinos/as made up the majority of the students in my class. Out of 20 students, 15 were Latino/a. Representative of the Latino/a population in the Eastern US, where most Northeastern’s students are
recruited, the class had 5 Puerto Ricans, 3 Central Americans, 3 Colombians, 3 Peruvians, 1 Cuban, 1 Argentinean, and no Chicanos. The class was equally divided among women and men. Precisely because the students were so foreign to the Chicano and Mexican-American experiences in the Southwest, I decided to give significant attention to these experiences. I also included sections on the newer immigrant groups, which seldom get discussed in most Latino/a history courses (in part because there is not much written about them).

I hope that these notes and the ensuing course outline help those thinking of teaching a Latino(a) history. I look forward to receiving your feedback and comments