Article for Teachers

Adding Latinx Poetry to Your Curriculum

Using poems to discuss more than poetry in the classroom.
“Colorful map of America” by marina_ua, courtesy of Shutterstock.

The very landscape of what being Latinx means is in flux. The brown and black bodies that make up this diverse ethnic group—and the centuries of their culture in the Americas—are often overlooked, neglected, or kept out of view. There was a recent battle for ethnic studies in Texas, where now Mexican American studies can be taught, but only as an elective, and there’s the newly uncovered history of Esteban Hotesse, a Dominican Tuskegee Airman who served during World War II. Latinx culture exists in countless ways, and every day is an opportunity and challenge to uncover, preserve, and share its history and legacy. 

The terms Latinx and Latino/a have been synonymous with survivor, with adapting, and with even darker tones: undesirable, alien. (In some arenas, people still use the labels Hispanic and Latin.) Latinx people have been part of US history since its beginning, but American literature—like this country’s history books—does not include enough examples of Latinx people or culture. Educators need to correct these omissions and bring more Latinx literature into American classrooms.

Latinx poetry is an enormous part of American poetry. Latinx poetry is the work of ethnic writers and poets of color whose roots are tied to the Americas and their languages, cultures, and geography. The roots of Latinx poetry predate the European colonization of the Americas. Latinx poetry is not just written only in Spanish or Spanglish—it’s also in Portuguese. It’s also Afro-Latinx poetry. It’s the poetry of the United States that can include Nahuatl, Mayan, Huichol, Arawakan, et cetera. It’s Haitian, Mexican, Dominican, Honduran, and any land that connects to both an indigenous identity and a Latin language root. It involves learning about the literature of writers and poets such as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Roque Dalton; Piri Thomas and Sylvia Aguilar-Zéleny, Christina Rossi, and Nicomedes Suárez Araúz. But it is an identity that is still problematic and often neglected in our K-12 classrooms.

This, then, begs an important question: how should teachers approach Latinx writing in classroom settings? Should we create units to cover Latinx People 101? That’s neither realistic nor productive. In my experience, threading Latinx literature through a yearlong curriculum is more effective. Of course, there are many ways (ethnic studies being one format) to create exchanges between Latinx culture and other cultures. One of the most engaging is through poetry. Poems are made to linger in the head and the heart, in the body and the ear well after they are first experienced.

To share what poetry illuminates—the understanding of self and others and what being human means—we should include as many kinds of people as possible. Latinx history spans two continents once erroneously referred to as the New World—North and South America—and its literature spans six centuries. If we don’t present works by Latinx and Latin American writers in our classes, we risk misrepresenting the real range of American literature.

Poetry is a brilliant entry point into Latinx history and culture. Thoughts and feelings are readily accessible in its languages, tones, forms, and techniques. Students may need help understanding what a poem expresses, and the feelings they tap into can be wide ranging and universal. Poetry can illuminate an infinite range of subjects, so it can reach future historians, business people, and budding scientists. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at some effective ways of exploring Latinx poetry in the classroom.

If Poetry Isn’t Your Strength: A Multi-Genre Approach
I won’t assume that poetry is your favorite genre to teach or the one you feel most confident teaching. Perhaps you like essays, memoirs, novels, short stories, or a hybrid of these forms. If poetry is not your strong suit, then think about using multi-genre texts that give you access to a combination of prose, poetry, and memoir—books such as Judith Ortiz Cofer’s Silent Dancing (1990) and Jasminne Mendez’s Island of Dreams (2013). Multi-genre books can provide built-in scaffolds for learning about poetry. They are access points offering something for every kind of reader in your classroom. Most students are unfamiliar with the mix of poetry and prose found in multi-genre works. You can tell your students, “We aren’t going to read the whole book,” and already the kids are in, if only for the idea that they won’t be focusing on the quantity of reading. Multi-genre works give your learners a flexible experience, which might translate into a new kind of feeling of discovery and connection with poetry and prose.

Teachers who have a difficult time drumming up engagement with a work can try tactics such as these:

  • Build word walls with images, themes, vocabulary, and words in Spanish.
  • Invite students to read aloud in class (with partners or popcorn style).
  • Have students create questions about what they are reading.
  • Spend time in class and out of class responding to these questions.

For working with bilingual texts, have your students build dictionaries for themselves, in which they create definitions of translated words and phonetic spellings to help with pronunciation. Then, in paired reading situations, have students read poems aloud to each other so they get comfortable with the tones and meaning of the language. Be prepared to model correct pronunciation or ask bilingual students to serve as models. In time, students become confident enough to read in a group setting—this method shifts the burden away from Spanish speakers to a shared experience that engages all students.

Provide Real-World Connections
Share poems that speak to the present and to students’ lives. In contemporary Latinx poetry, the connections poets make in their work are often based on the urgent problems people face today: inequality, body image, racism, language, immigration, and so on. Start with poems whose subject matter may be bold enough for your students to access—those that allow for a good discussion and prepare for later explorations of more difficult poems. Try using José Angel Araguz’s “Gloves,” Rodrigo Toscano’s “At a Bus Stop in El Barrio,” Aracelis Girmay’s “sister was the wolf,” or Dan Vera’s “Small Shame Blues.” These poems address the essence of family, longing, belonging, as well as issues with culture and prejudice in the Latinx community. 

There are still other examples: Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied (2017) and Carmen Tafolla’s Curandera (1983) are ripe for such exploration. You and your students can make brilliant connections among the poems in these collections and what you’re learning in the classroom—as well as the world outside it. Here’s the opening to Zamora’s “How I Learned to Walk”:

Calláte. Don’t say it out loud: the color of his hair,
the sour odor of his skin, the way they say
his stomach rose when he slept. I have
done nothing, said nothing. I piss in the corner
of the room, the outhouse is far, I think
orange blossoms call me to eat them. I fling rocks
at bats hanging midway up almond trees.

These lines capture the turmoil and the necessity of trying to make sense of an early memory—especially when the memory is of a different time, a different place. Zamora’s poem is about the moment a family member leaves home for a while, perhaps beginning the trek to the United States or a distant farming job. The speaker captures a place, a moment of change.

You can connect this poem to other media that cover these themes, such as a documentary about how migrant farmers make a living in and out of the United States. This can help students comprehend the reality Zamora expresses. You can also share articles on urgent issues currently surfacing in the United States: immigration and the fate of unaccompanied children who cross the border.

Working with contemporary poems that interrogate difficult personal and cultural subjects can be a negative trigger for some students. Be ready to listen as they describe what they are getting from the texts—some of this content might be very close to home for them and evoke intense feelings. You may need to seek assistance from counselors to help you and your students process what they are experiencing. Poets intend to create strong emotions in their readers; teachers should be prepared to help students process and manage the emotions engaging with poetry prompts. 

This poem and the others in Zamora’s Unaccompanied are about the change and upheaval that a journey can initiate. The expressions of longing in this book—as well as the depictions of reunification and the yearning for hope and survival—lend themselves to understanding more than just the immigrant experience.

You can also use poetry to engage with history in an imaginative way. In “Voyage,” from Curandera, Carmen Tafolla creates an imaginary history and a form of protest. Here is the first stanza:

          I was the fourth ship.
                               Behind Niña, Pinta, Santa María,
                               Lost at sea while watching a seagull,
                               Following the wind and sunset skies,
                               While the others set their charts.

Here we are asked to imagine that readers explore a poem voiced by a fictional fourth ship that set out with Christopher Columbus in 1492. This boat proceeds quite differently from the others: it does not follow the same course yet is not lost at sea. It abandons its predetermined route and sets out to follow its own path. The poem can be read as a form of resistance to the process of colonization and a way to wonder how history could have been different. In a history or geography lesson, poems that reimagine or reinterpret historical moments offer moments of artistic license and opportunities for synthesis.

What if you are looking for more concrete examples of opportunities to connect Latinx poetry to a more traditional or focused curriculum? Let’s say you’re hoping to find poems related to recent history and life-changing events. Check out Martín Espada's “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100,” a powerful piece that explores a historic moment—in this case, September 11, 2001—through the eyes of locals. Espada’s epigraph serves as the poem’s dedication:

for the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local l00, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center

Here are a few stanzas from the poem itself:

Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza.Praise the kitchen in the morning,   
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs 
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy’s music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.

This complex poem suggests a number of avenues for discussion, such as the role immigrants play in every aspect of American life, including tragedy. Here is a range of possible questions to ask your students:

  • What images tell readers about the occupations and heritage of the employees?
  • Why write a poem about these specific individuals?
  • What is the significance of the listing of countries in the first stanza?
  • Who sees themselves represented in this poem?
  • How does this poem change the narrative behind September 11?
  • What other poems offer a different (or similar) perspective of this important date?

Teachers can link Espada's poem to the historical and political ramifications of 9/11—including the highly topical issues of immigration policy and national security policy. You can extend students’ engagement with the poem through research projects—have students look up all the current TSA and FAA rules for air travel, read about survivors of the attacks and what life was like in the aftermath, or find some of the news footage of the attack as it happened. Engaging with the poem can bring up all those connections.

Build the Context
Remember, analyzing poetry is not just what literary critics say it is. It is also connecting poems to communities, to history, and to other works. Teachers can help students understand a poem’s political and historical context by providing that background before or after they read. Draw upon the life of the poet if it provides meaningful context to the poem you share. Let’s say you want to talk about the relationship between social marginalization and mental health issues or addiction or the role religion plays in family life—look to Natalie Diaz’s poem “My Brother at 3 A.M.”:

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps
when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.
            O God, he said. O God.
                    He wants to kill me, Mom.
When Mom unlocked and opened the front door
at 3 a.m., she was in her nightgown, Dad was asleep.
           He wants to kill me, he told her,
                 looking over his shoulder.
3 a.m. and in her nightgown, Dad asleep,
What's going on? she asked. Who wants to kill you? 
           He looked over his shoulder.
                      The devil does. Look at him, over there.

This powerful poem gives us access to personal family issues, which Diaz isn’t shy about confronting. A basic internet search offers a multitude of interviews with poets and writers, both in print and in recorded audio/video. You can find an interview with Diaz talking about her family’s reaction to the work in her book, When My Brother Was an Aztec. Sometimes including portions of these interviews in your teaching can help engage students and can help them learn the many reasons why poets write.

After reading “My Brother at 3 A.M.” closely, teachers can help her students navigate the story. There is a young man and a mother and a conversation between the two. There is a macabre element in these lines. The scene is initially familiar, yet there’s an unknown haunting figure, part devil incarnate, part story by campfire. Teachers can suggest an added, alluded-to element: perhaps this young man is hallucinating and is in conversation with the mother about what he is experiencing. There is enough here artistically to unpack for more than a day or two, whether in an art class, a lit class, or an AP psych class. The poem could spark a mini unit exploring what may be happening to this young man. Teachers can help build that knowledge by asking questions along these lines:

  • What effect does the repetition in Diaz’s poem have on the story? Does it build a haunting tension, or does it drag out the suspense?
  • Do readers need to know what this devil looks like?
  • Draw this moment of the mother and the son speaking on this porch. What is present in your sketch?
  • Talk to your elders, such as your grandparents: do they have stories involving encounters with the supernatural?
  • Consider your local community: do urban legends or stories of the supernatural exist here?

If you are teaching literary terms and techniques, you can explore the delicate braiding of the lines here in the form of a pantoum (a poem in which the second and fourth lines of each quatrain are repeated in the following quatrain as the first and the third lines). Sometimes teachers reach for older, more classic poems as examples of poetic forms, such as the sonnet, villanelle, and sestina, but these lessons are opportunities to showcase how these forms are alive and well in contemporary Latinx poetry. You could use Mónica De La Torre’s “$6.82”, Alan Pelaez Lopez’s “Zapotec Crossers (or Haiku I Write Post-PTSD Nightmares),” “Sonnet for 1950” by Jack Agüeros, or Blas Falconer’s “A Ride in the Rain”, to name just a few. You can initiate a conversation about the way the poems’ forms and narratives inform each other. Students need to know that Latinx poets play with form in a multitude of ways—engaging oral histories and theology, the supernatural, history and the literary tradition—just as non-Latinx poets sometimes do.

Make Meaningful Connections
No matter what grade level and/or subject you teach, you can find poems that complement what you’re exploring in the classroom. Many poems actively engage with history, politics, philosophy, anthropology, theology, and other subjects. Don’t be afraid to begin or end a lesson with a poem; it might be a new way to help that lesson resonate with your students.

One of the easiest tools a teacher can use is right here on the Poetry Foundation website. The search bar at the top offers easy access to the website’s vast collection of poems, articles, biographies, and audio recordings. You can research and read the poets and poems you think will best fit your classroom needs. You can also use the Explore Poems page, where you can browse poems by topic, form, poetic school or period, or a poet’s region. Be sure to research outside of the site as well. Just because a writer has a Spanish-sounding name does not necessarily mean he or she is Latinx. Similarly, don’t be surprised to find bilingual work from those with very English-sounding names.

In addition, look for connections between the subject you teach and other school subjects. See if you can build connections with fellow teachers—perhaps those who teach history, art, political science, speech, or debate—to make the content stick. Some possible sources include the politically relevant work of Ruben Quesada’s “Last Photograph of My Parents” and Raina J. León’s “Addict,” the familial thought in Roy G. Guzmán’s “Those Seventy-Two Bodies Belong to Us,” and the cross-cultural voice and performance poetry of John Murillo’s “Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds.” These are just a few possibilities. Let’s also look at some other works in action.

Let’s say you are a teacher giving a music lesson or the instructor in a dance class. You might draw on Elizabeth Acevedo’s “Hearing That Joe Arroyo Song at Ibiza Nightclub, 2008.” You can enhance the lessons you teach in percussion, salsa dancing technique, or the history of salsa music by beginning or ending with this kind of short narrative. Here are a few lines from the poem:

A boy I did not marry                  taught me to dance salsa on 2      placed
the fingers of his left hand         on my untutored spine;                 you know
it’s like to become someone’s clave
               when I                  1, 2, 3             5, 6, 7     in front of my mirror
I was always la negra defended in the lyric                  and      you     can    
searching hands when a mouth swells the biggest ache of your body
                                                                                                     into song

Here the speaker is an Afro-Latinx woman articulating the entrancing effect of being involved with another dancer. This short poem paints a deeply sensual scene and sentiment. A teacher in a music class could draw connections between Joe Arroyo songs and the poem, asking students to examine the tempo and rhythm in his music and answer questions such as “which Joe Arroyo song were those dancers dancing to?,” “what are some of the instruments that make up a salsa band?,” or “can a salsa song make a person feel an emotion? If so, what are some examples?”

The dance teacher can simply cement the idea that the “1,2,3” and the “5,6,7,” which are the basic steps in salsa dancing, have a home in poetry. The music history teacher can have students research the image of la negra—the figure of black womanhood that lives in many songs, even those songs outside the salsa music genre.

Students make connections between poems and the rest of their curriculum based on the contexts their teachers build. If school is a rock wall that students must learn to climb, then poems can be the climbing holds they grab onto. Imagine the red ones being all the Latinx poems you could use.

Sometimes we as teachers forget that when students explore the connections (direct or indirect) created in poems, they not only learn about a subject but also engage with literary pieces of art. Many students approach poetry the way they do topics in science and math classes: they think only about the one skill or topic in the one class, believe it’s something they can forget after an exam or a paper, and fail to see how what they have learned connects to other subjects and to their lives. It’s up to teachers to build that framework for meaningful connections and help students see that poetry is in everything. This is true of all kinds of poetry, but Latinx poetry regularly engages the language choices, the cultural references, and the complex histories that inform students’ daily lives and the larger political landscape. Here are some ways to find more poems:

Give Kids Access to Books
Once you and your students make meaningful connections with poetry, you can help them become poetry lovers through their own discoveries of works that speak to them. For students who are totally hooked, it’s a good idea to have a range of other poetry books available to explore–let their curiosity lead the way. Build your own classroom library by checking out books from your school library. Even better, bring in some books from your personal collection. You can have students borrow a book, take a snapshot of the cover for later investigation (think cellphones), or let them look at a book while in class. After all, Latinx poetry isn’t always easy to find in bookstores. Ask your students for feedback about the book(s), ask them what they experienced in the reading—this builds even deeper connections, showing students that you are invested in their lives as readers and lovers of poetry. You are showing them how to love poetry too, a gift they won’t soon forget. The connections students map for themselves are long lasting and wholly relevant to the ever-changing world they navigate. 

Y Colorín, Colorado—Este Cuento se Acabado—and They Lived Happily Ever After
As I write this article in my home on the southwest side of Houston, change is on the horizon: Latinx people are projected to represent the largest population group in Texas by 2022. Change is already present: in public schools in Texas are currently 51 percent Latinx. To engage these diverse classrooms, it’s not enough to teach the classics—teachers must revamp the lists of the authors we teach. We should make sure that we fully integrate Latinx poets, past and present, into our curricula. I offer these suggestions as possibilities of how to begin. There is still so much more teachers can do. Once we begin this work, we can find ways to connect Latinx and Latin American poets. We can use poems to talk about code-switching. We can explore poems written in indigenous languages and in Spanish. We can approach bilingual students in an inclusive manner—they can try to translate poems and then write, discuss, and speak to their choices. 

The best way to help students engage with these writings is to continue to be students ourselves: we need to learn more about Latinx culture and new and different Latinx poetry and continue to explore Latinx counter narratives. In serving students who will need to navigate a rapidly changing world, we also serve ourselves.

Originally Published: February 27th, 2019

Poet, teacher, and activist Lupe Mendez is the author of the poetry collection Why I Am Like Tequila (Willow Books, forthcoming 2019). He earned an MFA in creative writing (poetry) from the University of Texas at El Paso. His poetry has appeared in Luna Luna, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Rabbit Catastrophe...