Equity & Access Family Literacy Multilingual Learners

Cultural Citizenship and Latino English Language Learners


One day in English I found out I got a 54. When I showed my mother she got mad and called my teacher, Mr. B. Then that night I saw Mr. B. But it was not him. He had long sharp teeth, long hair all over his boddy. I thought he was playing around, But he wasn’t. It was for really. I siad, “How are you” But he did not answer. I siad again “How are you” But aggressively! Then he siad I’ve come for you because you failed. I was so scared I could not move or talk.

—(Rodrigo, 7th grader).

It was early November 2003 and Rodrigo’s 7th grade language arts class was writing scary stories. These stories were to include action, dialogue and imagery. In Rodrigo’s essay the action centered on a teacher becoming a werewolf who said, “I’ve come for you because you failed….” Rodrigo responded, “‘What are you talking about?’ but he did not understand me.” The essay continued, “I looked at my watch. It was 4:30. 4 hours before day break and I thought he could devour me before day break.” The personification of a teacher as a werewolf was elaborated with details of sharp teeth, long hair, rough low tones, and sharp claws. The image of a teacher devouring his failing students ended with a sense of powerlessness because Rodrigo could not find a silver bullet needed to kill the werewolf. This is a powerful metaphor of Latino students’ sense of powerlessness in the face of failing grades particularly in light of grisly statistics that indicate that “drop out rates for Latinos and Chicanos still remain almost four times as high as the rates for Whites” (Rumberger and Rodriguez, 2002: 119)

As language arts educators observing Rodrigo in his class we were concerned that he was at risk for not completing middle school. In our experience, teachers who do not put Latina/o cultural citizenship at the center of their teaching would create a scary rather than a safe space for language and literacy development. By Latino cultural citizenship we are not referring to citizenship as defined in the social studies classroom but the right to use one’s linguistic and cultural resources for learning. From this view point classrooms are safe spaces where students’ evolving sense of belonging to different communities is at the heart of curricula.

In this article we describe four premises for fostering cultural citizenship in classrooms. We developed these premises from the available research literature (Flores and Benmayor, 1997; Rosaldo, 1994; Ong, 1996; UNESCO1997). Our goal is to describe each premise and provide classroom examples in which K-12 teachers uses these principles to guide their teaching of the language arts. Although we describe each premise separately we acknowledge that these four principles are dynamically interrelated.

The Four Premises of Latino Cultural Citizenship

1 – Providing Access to Culturally Relevant Texts

The premise of using culturally relevant texts is not new. Teachers who select culturally relevant texts take into account the necessity of providing literature that authentically represents students’ cultural backgrounds. However, Barrera and Quiroa (2003) warn that some texts considered as culturally relevant actually promote cultural stereotypes. For example, Latinos in the classroom are often represented only as Mexican-Americans and/or as migrants. Thus, the premise of providing access to culturally relevant material takes into account a critical approach in selecting classroom literacy materials.

We observed an exemplary lesson in a fifth grade classroom with majority Mexican-American English language learners. These students had varying language and literacy skills. The teacher used the book, Recordando mis Raices y Viviendo mis Tradiciones/Remembering my Roots and Living my Traditions to elicit writing regarding the local traditions of their rural South Texas community. The story was written and illustrated by four Mexican-American young women. The students made direct personal connections with events in the story. They wrote amazing descriptive essays about quinceañeras (coming of age ceremonies), mariachi parties, carne asadas (barbeques), cascarones at Easter (confetti eggs), novíos pa’ lazar (herding steer), among others. Because students were provided access to books written by authors, they were able to engage and produce culturally laden texts.

2 – Proposing Multiple Opportunities for Students to Use Their Cultural Assets

An assets orientation assumes that children from Latino homes do not necessarily come from a “culture of poverty”. Rather, Latino children are invited to affirm and use their culture as a resource for learning. When teachers adopt an assets orientation, they provide multiple opportunities for students to use knowledge from their families and communities in the language arts classroom.

For example, in the case of a multi-age summer writing workshop, the teacher provided prompts to elicit drafts of memoirs, biographies, legends, poetry that were then used to create new drafts (storyboards), and finally used to create video poems. These poems were edited by the students and presented to members in their school and local community. Central to these opportunities was the invitation to develop their own unique voice through different literacy modalities.

In another example, Mrs. Z said she wanted to “create a sense of belonging.” Towards this end she provided students with at least five prompts as choices for initiating writing during journal time in her language arts classroom. At least one of these prompts refers to making connections with family or community (e.g. things I do with my family or the wisdom of grandparents means…). A student, Teresa decided to write about the difficulty in communicating with her grandmother in Spanish because she no longer spoke her heritage language well. Her writing indicated that she was aware that not speaking Spanish had consequences at home. If she did not make personal effort to maintain her Spanish, she might not be able to understand her grandmother. For this reason, she recognized the value of developing her heritage language. Teresa was in a dilemma because bilingual instruction was not available to her. Through her writing this Mexican-American English language learner recognized the need for her heritage language rights and that she did not have access to them. By providing multiple prompts and repeated opportunities to write about her home culture, Mrs. Z created a venue for Teresa to explore her rights to cultural citizenship.

3 – Fostering Cultural Preservation

In order to foster cultural preservation teachers ought to have an additive rather than subtractive approach toward unorthodox ways of producing writing about their ethnic community. They invite students to speak and write about their values and beliefs regarding texts and events in their personal lives.

An example to illustrate the preservation of community memories involves Rodrigo, the student who was haunted by his teacher as a werewolf. In an after-school educational setting, he brought a newspaper article to writing workshop about the recent demolition of a school in his local community. Rather than writing about his point of view he asked the teacher and students to visit the razed site where he produced an oral text with a microphone and video camera.

“We’re here in Cotulla in front of what used to be the old high school…Before it was torn down there was a whole bunch of people here … trying to get in. They were former students who came here…they just wanted to get in to see their high school one last time…They went to school here and what I think is that they want[ed] to have the memories of it…. if they tore it down, they might forget the memories.”

To support his claim that residents feared losing their memories Rodrigo decided to write interview questions to use with his Tia Rosie who, in earlier decades, had taught at the high school. This series of events re-engaged Rodrigo who appeared very constrained in the typical writing workshop format as well as in his seventh grade language arts classroom. His after-school teacher and peers validated his writing process by accepting the oral before the written text, the microphone before the pen. An inverted writing process affirmed his commitment to the cultural preservation of local historical memories. No longer scared of the werewolf, Rodrigo emerged as a powerful writer.

4 – Engaging Students in Activities with Transformative Potential

When teachers engage students in activities with transformative potential they see their students as able to become agents of change. Toward this goal a safe space is created for students where they can link cultural practices from the home and community to broader struggles for social change. In these safe spaces students come to understand citizenship as cultural responsibility.

As an example of this principle we offer a story from a high school classroom. One student summarized the respect a teacher, Ms. White Chocolate (pseudonym provided by students), had earned in his class: “she understands the struggles of being brown in this school and in this town. She is white on the outside but brown on the inside.” This teacher selected Bless Me Ultima to be read during English class. Arguments ensued during the reading of the book chapters. The Mexican and Chicano students argued about who is the real Mexican and if you have to speak Spanish to be Mexican? Messages about “English Only” in the media and local community made a strong impression on some students and they did not like the fact that the author, Rodolfo Anaya, used codeswitching in the book. Consequently, this literary strategy caused some students in the class to feel affirmed and connected, and others to feel estranged. In many ways the story provided a rich resource for examining group differences within the Mexican community and challenged the idea that students with common ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds truly share common perceptions of the world. Because Ms. White Chocolate had crated a safe space for literary discussion, students could talk about the tensions accompanying their personal and collective ethnic identity. Her stance to use culturally relevant texts played an important role in helping students acknowledge the possibility of constructing more permeable boundaries between languages that are in direct contact in school and in the world beyond school. In this way she assisted students in disrupting beliefs about language. Over time these disruptions posed new possibilities and assisted students to seriously consider new ways of thinking. These types of engagements with contradictions, disruptions, and tensions have transformative potential and bear cultural responsibility (Fránquiz & Salazar, 2004).

Guided by these fours principles we make the following recommendations in order to improve learning for Latino students in general and English language learners in particular. Educators interested in revising cultural relations with their students can:

  • select culturally relevant texts that assist students to respond by establishing confidence in their cultural authority as writers.
  • plan for literacy activities that support individual student’s traditional as well as unorthodox processes as writers.
  • provide students with choices to explore their linguistic and cultural heritage in literacy events.
  • work collaboratively with students, parents, other teachers, and after-school programs to provide a broad range of opportunities for the affirmation and development of cultural citizenship.

Future research regarding effective literacy for Latino students can benefit by considering ways that cultural citizenship is visible or invisible in students’ written products. We propose that educators make every effort to make claims for and questions of cultural citizenship visible in the literate lives of children living within and among the many linguistic and cultural borderlands of the twenty first century.

This article was first published in the summer 2006 issue of California English, journal of the California Association of Teachers of English.



Barrera, R. & Quiroa, R. (2003). The use of Spanish in Latino children’s literature in English: What makes for cultural authenticity? In D. Fox & K. Short (Eds.). Stories matter: The complexity of cultural authenticity in children’s literature, p 247-268. Illinois: NCTE

Flores, W. & Benmayor, R. (1997) (Eds.), Latino cultural citizenship: Claiming identity, space, and rights. Boston: Beacon Press.

Fránquiz, M. E. & Salazar, M. (2004). The transformative potential of humanizing pedagogy: Addressing the diverse needs of Chicano/Mexicano students. The High School Journal, 87(4). 36-53.

Ong, A. (1996). Cultural citizenship as subject-making: Immigrants negotiate racial and cultural boundaries in the United States. Current Anthropology, 37, No. 5, 737-762.

Dueñas, T., Dueñas, T., Sánchez, P. & López, M. (2004). Recuerdo mis raíces y vivo mis tradiciones/ Remembering My Roots and Living My Traditions. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Rosaldo, R. (1994). Cultural Citizenship in San Jose, California. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 17(1): 57-63.

Rumberger, R. and Rodriguez, G. (2002). Chicano dropouts: An update of research and policy issues, p. 114-146. In Richard G. Valencia (Ed.) Chicano school failure and success: Past, present, and future. NY: Rutledge/Falmer.

UNESCO (1997). Cultural citizenship in the 21st century: Adult learning and indigenous people. Fifth International Conference on Adult Learning. Conantia, Hamburg.