Where is the Mexican Atticus Finch?

Feb 17, 2012 by

Issues with Latino Literature

Sometimes I worry about what I am teaching my students when we read Latino Literature. Here’s my biggest gripe: In order for these novels to properly reflect the lives of our students of color, why do the male characters always have to be violent drunks who cheat on their wives?

It seems like every Latino novel I teach has a female protagonist named Esperanza (seriously, it’s ALWAYS Esperanza), who must overcome rampant male dominance in her Latino community, overcome poverty and racism, all while representing the hope for our young women her symbolic name carries. The girls love it, as well they should. But the boys who need to become men? Not so much.

Our boys are reading about girls, and the few male characters we meet along our journey are drunken maniacs and cheats. Don’t believe me? Read these books: The House on Mango Street, Like Water for Chocolate, Parrot in the Oven, Rain of Gold. Over the summer, my Puente students read Rain of Gold. It is an epic tale of a family who escapes the Mexican Revolution and makes it to California. It is also a scathing portrayal of Latino males in which almost every one of the many male characters is a reprehensible scoundrel. The author’s (Victor Villasenor’s) father ends up marrying his mother based on a series of lies so complex she actually has no idea who the man is she married. The House on Mango Street doesn’t have a single male character who has any redeemable qualities. The father in Parrot in the Oven is an unemployed drunk who spends the family’s welfare money on beer and tries to shoot the mother with his unregistered rifle.

And we wonder why 75% of Latinos who make it to college are female.

Okay, I’m being harsh. There are some Latino novels out there with strong male characters. Even Parrot in the Oven stars a boy trying to become a man the right way, despite the lack of male role models in his life. But aren’t we just reinforcing the wrong kind of stereotypes? Why do we point to a violent drunk and say, “Now THAT is a Mexican father!”

Of course, part of the problem lies in what makes a good story. You can’t write a novel about people who are happy and well-adjusted. Clearly a middle-class Mexican kid who attends the local private school on his way to college isn’t going to ring true to our low-income public school students.

Or could it?

I just get tired of being told that in order to reach our Latino males, we should teach themAlways Running, which shows the childhood of a former gang member. I mean at this point, there are probably 30 books out there about teens who are gang members. The boys love these novels, and these books do get them to read, but they only read them because everyone is shooting each other. Our Latino males already have enough gang problems, they don’t need it in every book too. Of course the lesson is always the same, “I was a gang member and then discovered the error of my ways.” Unfortunately our boys only see the first part—and it allows them to say, “So I’m in a gang, eventually I’ll learn my lesson, but for right now I’m going to bang.”

Let me tell you a true story. A couple years ago a Latino father came to me worried about his son. He said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He doesn’t play sports. He isn’t interested in cars. He just doesn’t seem like he’s okay.” Of course, he was an excellent student. He was on the college track, he did his homework, and wasn’t in to cars and sports because he was in to math and literature. It fell to me to tell the man there was nothing at all wrong with his son. In fact, maybe he should be more worried about his older son who was on the fast track to drop-out of high school, who consequently was very good at sports.

Part of the problem with school is that being a student doesn’t fall into the expected gender roles of our boys. Sitting quietly, reading, writing about their feelings—these are not things boys are good at, not just Latino boys.

But why?

Some boys are very good at these things, like the boy I described above—the one passing all his classes.

Clearly, in order for the majority of our boys, if they are going to read a book it has to have some interesting content that appeals to their lives. It might have to be little bit ghetto (like the novel I’m writing). But it doesn’t have to always star a gang member protagonist. Yes, I realize it isn’t just Latino literature, in fact, all literature reflects the dark underbelly of human nature. When it comes to men, there are a lot of dark underbellies. We are a hairy, unreliable bunch of smokers and gamblers. We are degenerates, and the canon of white literature is filled with the fodder of drunken fathers as well.

But right now I am teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, which is about a well-adjusted little white girl with a father who is a moral powerhouse—but this book is GOOD and the kids love it! What I really want to do is teach my Puente class a book like that, starring Mexicans.

Maybe you can help me—anyone out there have some books for our Latino boys that show them how to be a man without being a gang member first? Where is the Mexican Atticus Finch?

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