CCCC 2006 in Review
(With a sojourn in W.1 "Race, Space, and Place: Language, Identity and Students of Color in the Composition Classroom," a wink at Dagoberto Gilb, and a wistful glance at John Scenters-Zapico, Lucia Dura, and Teresa Quezada.)
As we waited for the session to start, news of the previous day's demonstrations in major cities, including Chicago, against proposed changes in U.S. immigration laws, which would especially impact Latino/a communities, circulated throughout and beyond the room. The demonstrations, in particular the L.A. school walk-outs, testified to the powerful rhetorics at the heart of Chicano/a social activism and the pedagogical strategies especially meaningful to Chicana/o students-and confirmed the valuable perspectives and practices the center of Chicana/o Studies brings to the center of Rhetoric and Composition Studies.
"Issues of legitimacy," Renee Moreno reminded us, circulate in and about Chicano/a Studies, and she pointed to current political moves to increase restrictions on immigration and to criminalize not only undocumented immigrants, but also those who assist them-including college professors who teach them. Drawing on liberation pedagogy and Chicano/a Studies's rich tradition of interdisciplinary curricula and scholar activism, Moreno noted the important role Chicano/a Studies plays in attracting and retaining Latino students in higher education. To combat high rates of first-year attrition, composition courses that serve Chicano/a students have to address the kinds of literacy issues these students must negotiate and employ pedagogical strategies that empower them. Yet, composition courses located in ethnic studies programs may encounter resistance, Moreno acknowledged, including subtle racism and linguistic discrimination. Questions arise about who is qualified to teach rhetoric and composition. In centering composition in Chicano/a Studies, Moreno argues, pedagogy serves Chicanos/a Studies and students: "it means not to back down against power and to help those who don't see their stake in the conversation, see their stake."
Seeing his stake in the conversation and helping others to see theirs, a 2006 Scholar for the Dream, Paul Velásquez-both a doctoral candidate at Texas State University and a 2nd grade teacher at Sanchez Elementary in east Austin-also speaks to and from the center of Chicano/a scholarship, culture and experience in his argument for including the work of Chicano activist poet Raúl Salinas in first-year composition courses. Drawing on the work of Angela Valenzuela and Mary Louise Pratt, Velásquez notes that Chicano/a students, especially, are left vulnerable by "subtractive schooling" and the "contact zones" they must negotiate. Written in an organic, bilingual language, Salinas' poetry, "is thus a potential bridge that can allow students of color to express oral and written ideas in a safe environment, while also exposing white students to critical issues and experiences outside the scope of their lives." Resituating dominant stories of the conquest of the Americas, calling attention to the absence of indigenous voices, drawing attention to traditions of misrepresentation-Salinas has much to bring to the center of the composition classroom, Velásquez notes; "But Composition Studies has yet to engage students in the rhetorical strategies employed by Chicana/o poets such as raúlsalinas, who appropriates aspects of the dominant group to in turn demonstrate the paradoxes that exist within various 'contact zones' which Chicanas/os inhabit."
Is this failure of Composition Studies to acknowledge the empowering, powerful rhetoric of Chicano/a poets like salinas related to those "questions of legitimacy" that Moreno remarked at the opening of this session? Is this failure due to the subtle racism Chicano/a Studies scholars/scholarship and Spanish/English speakers and writers encounter? And/ or is it the questioning of who is qualified to teach (English) composition-an issue that frequently arises on (English language) Rhetoric and Composition-dominated discussion lists? Are poets like Salinas left out because they write in blended-languages and their work is literary, and English and Spanish and Literature and Rhetoric and Composition have become (forgive the literary reference) strange bedfellows?
In another conference event, an exceptionally rich pre-conference workshop, W.1 "Race, Space, and Place: Language, Identity and Students of Color in the Composition Classroom," I first noted nervous qualifiers whenever literary works were mentioned at C's, anxious asides that punctuated my four-day conference experience ("I know compositionists don't like to talk about reading, but..." one African American scholar started a response.)
In the Race/Space/Place workshop, noted American Indian scholar Malea Powell brought this unease easily into focus: "literature and art are how many people of color enter with a public voice," she noted mid-stride. Powell's clarity resituated questions about the role of culturally relevant literary writing in the composition classroom, especially for those of us who work primarily with students of color. This CCCC, Velásquez pointed us to the writings of maestro Raúl Salinas; we were privileged to hear readings by brilante Dagoberto Gilb. Chicano Studies reminds Composition Studies that including relevant literary and cultural artifacts is crucial to reaching our students of color and expanding the knowledge and perspective of students of the dominant cultures. But is it enough?
Mejía says, no-though he may have once "naively" thought so. In a sensitively nuanced reflective analysis of his Chicano/a first-year composition students' response to an assignment, Mejíía points out the convergence of complex psychological, cultural, social and linguistic factors that affect the response of young first-year Chicano/a students to a carefully crafted and taught culturally relevant writing assignment. Asked to analyze "the degree to which elements from their cultural backgrounds can help to ward off the media's influence in shaping the ways they view and value their body's physical appearance," many students-exactly as Mejía predicted-turned in papers with no reference to their cultural backgrounds.
Mejía acknowledges that first-year college students are in a moment of identity formation in which separation from their parents and communities, their ethnic culture and its elements, plays a pivotal role in their lives. His class incorporated a diverse group of students, one-third of whom were diverse Latinos, including a Spanish-speaking first-generation Mexican immigrant whose parents' first language is Mexican indigenous and second and third-generation Mexican-Americans who may understand, but do not speak or read Spanish. Mejíía ascertained that to teach these students effectively, one must not only provide culturally affirming materials-too scarce in supply in popular readers and textbooks-but take into account the "subtractive schooling" that has devalued these students' cultural identity, the psychological and social developmental stage of eighteen-year-old traditional first-year students, and the research that predicts patterns of social and cultural identity formation and community (re)affiliation.
Moreno, Velásquez, Mejíía all point from one center to another that they fluently inhabit simultaneously. Their research and experience guides us to the richness of language, theory and practice multilingual and multicultural scholars and their students negotiate. Predominantly monolingual, Rhetoric and Composition Studies has much to gain by bringing Chicano/a Studies to its center.
Ironically perhaps, I must conclude this review of a session about centering Chicano/a Studies in Rhetoric and Composition by remarking the review I cannot include. One floor away, at the same hour, scholars from University of Texas-El Paso presented another of the handful of Latino-centered sessions, "Tales from the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands: Cultural Ecologies, Technological Gateways, and Sponsors of Literacies." While those of us blessed by magical realism might find our enhanced selves hovering between hotel floors some days, for present purposes, I hope someone who went to the other side of the border dividing these CCCC sessions will share those tales John Scenters-Zapico, Lucia Dura, and Teresa Quezada brought to Chicago, and further the grito to bring Chicano/a (and all Latino/a) Studies into the center of our field of vision.
— Katherine Durham Oldmixon
For more information on the CCCC 2006 conference,
visit the NCTE Web site at http://www.ncte.org/profdev/conv/cccc/.