Thursday, October 14, 2010

Learning from the Hijab

I went back to teaching high school—after a two year hiatus—at the beginning of September. Returning has been difficult for many reasons, but one is the atmosphere I teach in. I work at tiny private school of 100 students where 20% of the school's population is international. Two-thirds of those students are Chinese while the other one-third are Saudi Arabian. It quickly became apparent that, though my schedule was English I and Performing Arts, I was to take charge of teaching the Saudi nationals English, which was minimal, at best. Just today, while working on their vocabulary, one student asked, "What does malice mean?" I said, "What does the definition say?" He read, "a desire to do harm to another person, to hurt them." I said, "What do you think that means?" He stared blankly at me. I tried again, "What words do you understand in that sentence?" His reply, "person."

Besides dealing with their non-existent English skills, I also have the challenge of dealing with young Saudi girls being out of Saudi Arabia, for what I am guessing, is the first time ever. All the young ladies wear the traditional hijab head wrap, and cover all their skin except for their faces and hands. I am amazed at how beautiful their headscarves are. Everyday they come into class with a different color: gray with metallic stripes, saffron, hot pink to match their hot pink shoes, pastel floral prints wrapped around their olive faces. Sometimes one or two of them will wear mascara and eyeliner, on special occasions one wears turquoise liner just on her bottom lid making her almond eyes shine. They are beautiful.

When school started it was the middle of Ramadan so many of them didn't start trickling in until 1, 2, 3 weeks in. One girl came in a week and a half into the term. She sat quietly, her eyes darting from one over-stimulating sight to another, and looked as if she would shatter into pieces if someone, anyone, looked her in the eyes. She was in my Performing Arts class and I tried to inform her, as gently as I could, that everyone in Performing Arts was required to perform (I probably should had thought this out, but I had never been in this position before). She instantly burst into tears. She took the piece of her scarf that ran along her hairline and pulled it down over her face. I tried to comfort her, pad her on the back (though I worried that kind of touch wasn't acceptable), tell her we would figure it out, but she only grabbed the end frays of her scarf, as if a blanket, and dragged it across her face. At one point I picked up her eye contact, if only for a second, to say, "it will be alright," but then I saw her, I saw me trying to speak to her, saw how impossible the situation was, and my heart sunk. I can't even imagine.

After 3 weeks of shuffling and settling, I finally had a set class mixed of Saudi nationals, Chinese nationals, and U.S. students. And once the shock wore off from all of us, something magnificent started to happen.

Last week I was reading the story "The Beginning of Something" by Sue Ellen Bridges where a fourteen-year-old girl has to deal with her first death and her first kiss at the same time. It’s a “rite of passage” story. As a discussion question I asked the students, "What are the traditions of your culture when someone dies?" And suddenly students were excited to share Saudi rituals, Chinese rituals, American rituals, and I thought, How cool is this? I shared with them the Mexican-Catholic tradition of a novena, where loved ones pray the rosary for nine days after the death to help the soul reach heaven. They like to hear about my culture too. They all wanted to share, all wanted to speak, to teach. That’s when I realized the unique strength of this class to be teachers as well as students together.

This week we read "Brothers are the Same,” by Beryl Markham where a Masai boy has to prove his manhood by killing a lion. For class discussion we brainstormed different kinds of rites of passage and came up with a list: earning a driver's license, first kiss, cooking for your family for the first time, getting a job. For homework that night they were to write a paragraph about a rite of passage they experienced in their own life. The girl who was about to shatter just two or three weeks before wrote a very beautiful paragraph that described her experience moving to the U.S. and how in Saudi Arabia a girl must wear a hijab when she becomes 14 (a sign of growth), but wearing it here, she is looked at as if she is from the moon. I think that says something about her, about her strength. A few weeks before she was ready to dissolve into her desk, and now she was beginning to express her experience.

With legislation in Spain and France focused on outlawing the hijab, I think of this young girl and my other students. I think about how beautiful they each are and how unique. I think about their strength and their ability to teach one another about the world, about themselves. I can’t help it. That day we talked about different funeral traditions I thought something I don't often think as a liberal-border-line feminist-Chicana, We are so lucky.

Two Parisian women protest France's Hijab ban by covering their faces and baring their legs.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Poets and Community: Thoughts from the Latino Books and Family Festival

This past weekend was the Latino Books and Family Festival at Cal State L.A. I was lucky enough to be invited to speak on a panel at the event entitled "From Inspiration to Publication: The Business of Poetry" with poets Alicia Partnoy, William Archila, Rafael Alvarado, Erika Ayon and Melinda Palacio. I was honored to be sitting next to such accomplished writers.

In March I attended a panel at UCLA featuring Alicia Partnoy, author of The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival, about Argentine political prisoners' writing and art, and I was excited to be able to finally introduce myself. It was also an honor to sit along side William Archila whose book, The Art of Exile--a poetic account of his exit from civil war El Salvador in 1980 and his later return--won the festival's International Latino Book Award in Poetry. I bought Archila's book today at the festival, and am already in love with it. Beautiful images of here and there, and consequently feeling alienated from both feel dreamy and magical, but as William explained at our panel, what we here in the U.S. call Magical Realism is an everyday-way of thinking in Latin American countries.

Walking through booths of Latino publishers, bookstores, writers and organizations made me feel lucky to be a Latino writer welcomed by a supportive community. Sometimes being a writer can be lonely. The act of writing is solitary, but what I love about being a poet is the opportunities it brings to share stories and experience a moment of togetherness. On the truest level this community is hopefully felt when we read a poem about a man's memory of being a boy in El Salvador or a political prisoner's story of survival, but it can also happen in public spaces.

It is about community. We share our stories to understand each other and gain a sense of sameness. Or as Father Boyle, Founder of Homeboy Industries, author of Tattoos of the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, and the festival's keynote speaker said it is a mutual experience. A moment in time when we discover a kinship with one another.

In my household there is an ongoing debate about the state of the Latino community in the U.S. Of course, we all know there is still along way to go, but in my house some think we have focused too much on art, literature, and education and not enough on business and politics. That may be true, but we need Latino writers and poets, books, publishers, bookstores, and community centers if only to have a place to be recognized and seen because no one else is going to do it unless we make them.

As David Orr said in his essay "The Politics of Poetry" (I'm summarizing here and taking liberties) politics and poetry both demand a mastery of rhetoric and politicians--just as poets--are “people who imagine new ways of being and perceiving.” Orr refers to this as a totalizing vision. The politician and poet’s ability to imagine a wider worldview allows both to clarify for a public a new or different reality through language. So yes, it would be good for our community to have more Gloria Molinas and Sonia Sotomayers in places of power, but we also need Luis J. Rodriguez, Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto, Martin Espada, and Julia Alvarez (to name a few).

Support your Latino writers, buy a book, and let's keep the community moving together.