Emergent Writers Equity & Access Family Literacy Multilingual Learners

Voces del Corazón: Voices from the Heart


“La boca habla de lo que está lleno el corazón”
The mouth speaks of what fills the heart.

On a warm October evening of 2002, the Sabal Palms Writing Project, Los Cuates Middle School, and Resaca Middle School in Los Fresnos, Texas, sponsored their first Family Literacy Night. Los Cuates and Resaca are the only middle schools in this small community, a mere nine miles from Brownsville, on the southernmost tip of Texas, where I live.

Parents, teachers and community members walked in a few at a time, ready to hear stories their children had written about the evening’s theme, “What Is the Best Advice Your Parents Ever Gave You?” People sat quietly with their teenagers by their side. The students carried their stories in their hands, the paper wrinkled, twisted, and worn—not from the humidity of the day, but from obvious practice before the event.

“Finish school and get a college education, so you’ll never have to work in the sun like I do,” read a young boy of about thirteen while his parents sat proudly at a table nearby. His father, a laborer, mowed lawns on the side to supplement the family’s income. The boy’s father sat before him in his short-sleeved cotton shirt, or guayabera, with his straw hat in his lap, smiling and nodding slightly as the story was read. One after another, teachers, parents, administrators, and students came forward to share original songs, poems, and their own stories about the lessons learned at home from their parents.

A month earlier at Faulk Middle School in Brownsville, Lourdes Deytz, a Sabal Palms teacher-consultant, had invited families and their children to celebrate “el dieciséis de Septiembre,” Mexico’s Independence Day. In a cafeteria decorated with red, white, and green streamers, parents wrote and shared stories about their pride in their native country of Mexico, and how they wished to convey the same values and sentiments to their children. Some wrote that even though generations of families have made great sacrifices and strides in their pursuit of the American dream, they did not want their children to lose sight of their native language or their family histories.

At the same event, Deytz asked participants to look into their purses, find an artifact that had great sentimental meaning, and write about it. A young girl responded to the prompt by writing about how much she valued her eyeglasses, because she had struggled for so long without them until her parents were able to afford her first and, very likely, only pair. She needed them, she said, “…in order to make good grades in school.”

As I sat there on these nights, listening to one story after another, deeply rooted memories emerged. When I was a young girl growing up in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, my parents wanted the same things for me. They worked hard to ensure that we had everything necessary for success in school. As with the parents of these students, my parents always wanted us to pursue a higher education, so that we would never have to depend on others for help.

“El salir de la posada, es la mayor parte de la jornada.”
Leaving the rest stop is the major part of the journey.

Family Literacy Night at the Sabal Palms Writing Project resulted from the thinking of a team of teacher-consultants who had participated in the National Writing Project’s Project Outreach. In order to help Sabal Palms Writing Project reach out to teachers and families in low-income communities, the team created Family Literacy Nights. Our team of five teacher-consultants decided to hold programs at each of our schools. We would work with teachers in advance of the event to prepare their students’ writing, combining staff development and outreach to the families.

For our part, anticipation was high, but we also felt some reservations about whether or not the programs would take off. Would parents and teachers be willing to participate? What kind of support would we need to pull this off? Would the team be able to create a “safe” writing environment so that participants would be willing to share their stories, or would we face dead silence? We thought we had ideas of ways to make the events inviting enough to motivate parents, teachers, and students to participate once they arrived, but we were unsure if we would be able to entice people to come.

To create an inviting environment, we settled on the following guidelines:

  1. Make the event festive, inviting, and nonthreatening. Avoid making flyers that appear like those for typical parent-teacher conferences. Send out personalized invitations in Spanish as well as in English.
  2. Embrace the parents, teachers, and students. Set up a greeting committee at the event. Guide parents and participants to various stations or offer to seat them at tables where they can listen to the stories.
  3. Establish a climate that allows for mutual respect for all stories shared. Everyone has something important to read or share. A simple “Thank you!” after each story is a way to show people how to listen and respond to others.
  4. Allow participants to write from the heart and in the language of their choice. Offer readings or read-alouds to the audience in Spanish first, to create an atmosphere that honors the bilingual or multilingual culture of the school.
  5. Provide transcribers for nonwriters. This is especially important for small children and for speakers of languages other than English, so that they may feel included in the event.
  6. Use prompts that encourage participants to write about what they know best. Themes should prompt relevant conversations between the parent and the child. Imagine topics that would spark interesting conversations about a family’s past, which might continue long after the family literacy event has finished.

With our plan in place, we went to work, beginning with teachers at our team members’ host schools. We met several times with participating teachers prior to each event to examine literacy research and to immerse them in professional readings based on the selected themes. Before the meetings ended, both the organizers and teachers at our schools wrote and then shared their personal writings with each other. In writing and telling their own stories, teachers began to see the value of passing on the many aspects of their cultures and histories through the written and spoken word.

The host school teachers then went to work to prepare their students for the Family Literacy Nights by exploring writing based on the themes for the night. The Sabal Palms Writing Project team members took care of the logistics. They secured locations, sent out invitations, set up schedules, selected menus, prepared writing prompts, consulted with teachers, and chose appropriate age-level readings, among other things. At the actual events, teacher-consultants sat with teachers and invited family members to write, share, and celebrate their stories with each other.

Here is a sample of themes used for family literacy events:

  1. Bring a family artifact and write about it.
  2. What would you like your child to know about your family’s country of origin?
  3. Map the places where your family has traveled and write about them.
  4. Pick something that is of great value to you and write about it.
  5. Write about the best advice your parents have ever given you.
  6. Connect with an elderly family member. What stories can he or she tell you?
  7. Write about the kinds of (holiday) traditions you share with your family.
  8. Write about a favorite Christmas memory.
  9. What kinds of home remedies do you use?
  10. Write about your favorite “dicho,” or proverb, and tell what it means to you.
  11. Write about a long-lost family member.

The themes were engaging to a wide variety of families. Reflecting on the events of the evening at her gathering in Los Fresnos, Judy Kennedy, a Sabal Palms team member, responded, “At first we were worried that no one would come. If they did come, we wondered if they would be willing to read in front of others. By the end of the evening it was difficult to find a stopping point. Parents and students just kept coming up to the microphone, one after another, after another to read!”

“Quien habla dos lenguas vale por dos.”
One who speaks two languages is worth two people.

If they wished, parents, students, and teachers were encouraged to write in the language of their heart, the language of their emotions, and the language of their dreams. People here on the “frontera” between the United States and Mexico have for many years incorporated the best of both worlds into their day-to-day lives. Separated only by the Rio Grande, the communities of both nations are forever connected by a long history of the people who have traversed back and forth between countries and cultures. Life here is a fine mixture of the languages, customs, music, and cuisine that has come to define who we are today. Our work in the Family Literacy Nights needed to be a reflection of this rich cultural mix.

Many students here begin their education speaking only Spanish. English language learners (ELL) struggle to view themselves as writers, especially when asked to read or write in a language they have yet to master. For many emergent learners of a second language, reading and speaking in their nonnative tongue can be a harrowing experience altogether, and getting a message across on paper becomes a daunting task. The parents of these students hold their children’s teachers in high regard, but because of language obstacles, communication is sometimes a challenge for both the parents and the educators. One might assume that in a border town such as mine, mastery of two languages would be a given. Surprisingly though, moving from English to Spanish, and vice versa, can be a tongue-tying experience for both educators and parents.

While a small number of parents see the differences in language as a reason for not participating more in school activities, many arrive with children in tow as interpreters. Acknowledging that communication in any language is communication nonetheless, Spanish, English, and “Code-Switching” were welcomed at the family literacy nights as a way of encouraging all participants to write and share. “Code-Switching” is the informal language evident in many border towns— that used within and among families (Duran 1988). It allows the free exchange between two languages within the same sentence or conversation.

Such freedom has not always been a hallmark of American education. We should not forget that even thirty years ago, writing in any language other than English was unheard of in many school systems. Historically, a child’s native language was considered the language of the home, but not the school. Even today, many ELL students wrestle with the frustrations surrounding the ebb and flow of second language acquisition, struggling to gain proficiency in the new language while holding on to language spoken at home, persevering despite the obstacles.

Those of us involved with the Family Literacy Night project see it as our goal to introduce and nurture the concepts of equity and respect for diverse backgrounds, opinions, and voices. We have worked to respect, preserve, and validate the identities, language, and culture of our students and all those who participate in these events.

“Lo que se aprende en la cuna, siempre dura.”
What is learned in the cradle lasts forever.

“Voces del Corazón—Voices from the Heart” was created in response to the question “How can we help our teachers help students, most of whom come from low socioeconomic backgrounds or are second language learners of English, take ownership of their literacy development?” We did not have to look far beyond the boundaries of our schools. We found the answer to this question by returning to the one place where students learn their first lessons from their first real teachers: the family and the home.

We wanted to establish conversations between the home and the school not only to help our students achieve academic success, but to keep alive their families’ pride in and ownership of their culture and community. We wanted the family writing experiences to be reaffirmations of the value of the parents’ role as part of a triad made up of the school, the community, and the home.

Little did anyone know how profoundly families, students, and teachers would be affected. In many cases, long-lost stories dealing with culture, language, history, spirituality, and family values and customs were resurrected. Not only did parents and students connect with each other, but the link between the family and the school was all the more solidified.

One young woman in team member Melba Lucio’s college writing class, at the University of Texas-Texas Southmost College, learned that as a young girl her mother had always wanted a doll, but had never received one because her family did not have the means to provide for luxuries beyond the basic needs of the home. After the student’s mother read her own story at the event, the young woman surprised her mother with her very first doll in front of the other participants and invited guests. It was an emotional moment for everyone.

“Al que a buen arbol se acerca, buena sombra le acobija.”
Stand next to a good tree, and a generous shade will blanket you.

As our group’s work continued to evolve, the team decided to imbed itself within a single community. We were ready to move beyond the original model of the one-night events, into something with more depth, continuity, and meaning. We wanted to see the benefits of working with families over an extended period of time. Our writing project formed a partnership with Poinsettia Community in Brownsville.

Despite their busy work schedules, families came out at several sessions to write their stories and share them with their children. Parents and children took the opportunity to speak to each other through their writings, building bridges that connected their families’ pasts with the present. Stories forgotten or long overdue about ancestors, traditions, and histories came alive once again.

The families wrote about cultural themes and traditions deeply rooted in our Mexican-American community. The participants, mostly women and children from the area, wrote stories based on the book Family Pictures, by Carmen Lomas Garza (1990). Team member Judith Gavito had found this book very useful at her family literacy event. Themes included “Family Photos—Fotos y Recuerdos,” “Home Remedies—Remedios Caseros,” “All Souls Day—Dia de los Muertos,” and “Favorite Proverbs—Dichos Favoritos.”

Our partnership—the ongoing nature of the work—seemed to elicit writing that addressed deeper cultural and economic concerns in the families. As a result, we learned that the people from the community struggle through the same issues we do. We discovered that, despite their limited resources, they have the same aspirations for their children as any parent would be expected to. They work hard to provide for their families. A woman shared her story at the Poinsettia Community Center one evening:

A mi personal me gustaría llegar a tener mi casa propia para poder tener un perrito ya que mis hijos pequeños sueñan con tener un perro. También que cada generación va avanzando más a nivel de educación. Por ejemplo: si uno estudió vocacional—que nuestros hijos terminen el colegio.

For me personally, I would like to own my own home in order to have a puppy, now that my small children dream of having a puppy. Also I wish for each generation to advance higher in their level of education. For example: If we studied a vocation, we want our children to finish college.

—María Jaime

These families look beyond what life has dealt them with optimism and hope. One of the women revealed a collection of stories she hopes to publish as a book, hoping her child will never forget her story, the struggles of her family, and the hopes for his future.

“En la union está la fuerza”
In unity there is strength.

The women from the Poinsettia Community were bold and forthcoming about their struggles and hardships. Difficult themes emerged in their writings: trying to raise their families on limited incomes, single parenthood, poverty, and a sense of isolation. They found refuge in sharing their stories with others who face the same challenges. As a result, they created friendships and bonds with neighbors they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to meet or know.

This partnership established a strong sense of trust and a public occasion to articulate their hopes, dreams, and desires. We hope that the women will continue to grow as writers, model the importance of reading and writing to their children, and write about critical issues that many of them deal with in their lives. Our partnership initiated a strong sense of community and solidarity, such that they may be able to use the power of the pen to take action on the most critical of issues in their community.

What does this all mean for our team and for the work we do at our writing project? It means that a small group of people can make a difference in a community that has for many years struggled to find ways to successfully bring parents into the loop. By giving parents the opportunity to come to school and write alongside their children in a nonthreatening environment, the linguistic paralysis that keeps parents from participating more in our schools can be lessened.

Each time I’ve left an event, I’ve walked away humbled and in awe of the sincerity, the candor, and the strength with which people share their innermost thoughts, stories, and dreams for their children’s future. Sound bites of their readings remain with me for days. They have let their hopes, worries, wishes, and dreams slide off their sleeves and onto pages and pages of paper.

For me personally, it means reacquainting myself with the most colorful and beautiful aspects of my Mexican-American culture, details of which may have been misplaced along the way, but were never lost in my own journey.



Burciaga, Jose A. 1997. In Few Words/En Pocas Palabras: A Compendium of Latino Folk Wit and Wisdom. National Endowment for the Arts Heritage & Preservation Series. San Francisco: Mercury House.

Duran, Richard. 1988. Latino Language and Communicative Behavior. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Garza, Carmen Lomas. 1990. Cuadros de Familia / Family Pictures. San Francisco: Children’s Book Press.