High school teachers warm to Latin culture. Learn to relate to Hispanic students

Tato Laviera, a poet whose soul straddles the ``big'' island of Manhattan and the ``little'' island of Puerto Rico, is teaching a special kind of student. When he has an audience hold hands as they sing his poems, it is usually with grade-school children in the Bronx. Today, Mr. Laviera is teaching teachers. And what he is teaching them is not so much poetry, but Latin American culture.

``We are a people who looove to loooove,'' the 35 high school teachers croon, warming to the assignment. Earlier they had listened enthralled as Laviera, a graduate of the ``university of the streets'' in New York City, closed his eyes, smiled wide, and ran with his poems - bilingual verse that spans from cocky street-corner declarations to tributes to island food.

With an increasing number of children from Central and South America in schools throughout the United States, teachers face a new variety of cultural values and attitudes. Sometimes educators lack enough understanding of those cultures to be able to communicate well with their Hispanic students. Sometimes they lack the curriculum to teach about Latin America.

Marvin Axelrod, a high school English teacher in the Bronx, is attending this four-week immersion in Latin American culture and sociology run by Queens College of the City University of New York. The program is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. He says that though his school is nearly 67 percent Hispanic, there is no Hispanic literature in his courses.

Most of the teachers are from New York City, where a third of the city's public-school children are Latino. But there are also participants from Boston, Philadelphia, Texas, New Mexico, and Washington State. There are a number of Latino teachers.

High dropout rates among Hispanics, as well as increasing isolation of Hispanic students, have caused concern among community leaders and educators alike. Teachers here had questions on everything from the ``circular'' migration of their Puerto Rican students - who may disappear for months on a trip to the island - to the wide cultural differences between a student from Ecuador and one from the Dominican Republic.

``It's very important to know our constituency,'' says Nettie Silver, a retired New York City educator and member of the National Humanities Faculty.

Ronald Waterbury, director of the program and a cultural anthropologist at Queens College, says most high school teachers don't get into these topics so deeply on their own.

But the days are not simply filled with poetry, music, and history. Arguments occur, debates emerge, new ideas are shared. Bilingualism and Spanglish - the hybrid language of many Puerto Ricans on the streets of New York - are discussed, as is assimilation, and even the US political role in the hemisphere.

Juan Flores, literary critic and cultural analyst at Queens College, says that Latin American immigrants, particularly those from Puerto Rico, do not fit into the same category as earlier European immigrants to the US, despite the fact that they, too, often came from impoverished backgrounds. Cultural pluralists, who say that assimilation will occur as it has in the past, are wrong, he says.

Why? Part of it is racial, Professor Flores says. A larger part is that US society is at a different stage of development; at the turn of the century, the Industrial Revolution was in full bloom. Unskilled and semi-skilled laborers were needed. Today, the industrial sector is contracted and though there are jobs, they often require more skills and education.

``Latin American immigrants are coming to a different kind of shore,'' says Flores. He also says there is a ``subestimation, a dehumanization'' when immigrants come from colonial situations, such as Puerto Rico.

Some of the high school teachers disagree. They argue that other immigrants have come from colonial situations. One teacher defends the English system of democracy that was perfected in the US.

``We have to ask a deeper question,'' Flores answers. ``Why was democracy planted here and not in other American countries? Doesn't it have to do with the relationship between these countries? A basis of wealth made it possible to have democracy. ... [Democracy] did not fall out of the sky....''

After four weeks of discussions by anthropologists, lectures by writers, debates about politics, and evenings of Latin American films and music, the 35 teachers here are ready to go back to school with a better idea of how to incorporate salsa, the poetry of Pablo Neruda, and the ideas of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in their classes.

Jos'e Luis Pacanowski, a Cuban-born Jew who teaches social studies at John Jay High School in Brooklyn, also came for content, and for the opportunity to research and discuss Latin American culture.

``We are confronted with some real difficult challenges in the educational system,'' says Mr. Pacanowski, whose school is more than 60 percent Hispanic. He talks about the lack of discipline or parental involvement. He also talks about the bureaucracy in the school system.

``Most students come in with a respect for teachers and a hope for learning; after a few months it is gone,'' he says. ``Who do you blame - the individual or the system - for pushing them out?''

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