April 20, 2007

Elders’ stories inspire Latino kids to write

From the time she began writing on Big Chief tablets from Woolworth’s in the 1950s, Irene Márquez was hooked on writing. It’s what motivated her to found Los Bilingual Writers, a writing workshop aimed at promoting writing in Latino communities in San Diego — and validating bilingual writing. And it’s why she turned her efforts several years ago to helping Latino kids learn to write. Her latest project, the Bilingual Literacy Project, funded by the Council under the California Story Fund, involves both Latino kids and senior citizens in writing and storytelling.

“There’s very little encouragement of writing, particularly in underserved Latino communities,” Márquez said recently. “Many people are in survival mode and to them art is a luxury. What they might not know is that art can feed the soul and make other things bearable.”

Márquez meets once a week with two groups of young writers —elementary and middle school students from the Sherman- and Logan Heights communities in San Diego. The approach she follows is based on a writing workshop model developed by Amherst Writers and Artists that emphasizes providing positive feedback and a safe, supportive environment in which to experiment and learn. Giving the kids permission to write in either Spanish or English, or even a mix the two languages, is also part of her approach. “There’s not enough representation of bilingual writers in the literary community, so it’s something I want to promote. This way these kids can be the Latino writers of the future.”

The kids write for 10 to 15 minutes at each session and read their work aloud. “After each reading, I ask everybody to tell the writer what they liked about the piece and what stood out for them. The idea is to address the story, not the writer, and not to worry about misspellings or grammar.”

To prompt the kids’ writing, Márquez brings in Mexican bingo cards or other things the kids can relate to. She also brings in the stories she’s been gathering from Latino elders as part of the project.

To find the elders’ stories, Márquez visits local senior centers. “I introduce myself and let them know what I’m doing. Some think it’s great and say, ‘yes.’ Others tell me that their story isn’t worth telling, that they don’t have anything to say or that they don’t want to remember the past. I encourage people, and some of them gradually begin to tell me about their lives when they see my interest.”

Márquez takes the elders’ stories back to the kids as prompts for writing. “One woman in her 80s told me about an experience she had at 6 when a teacher made her dress like a boy to recite a poem. It was a traumatic event that she remembers to this day. I went to the young writers with that story and they took it and transformed it into a work of their own.”

Márquez thinks the program benefits both generations. “Seniors have rich stories to share with youth, and the kids can give a new perspective to elders. They are learning from each other instead of feeling separated.”

Márquez plans to publish a 100-page book of the kids’ writing at the end of the project. “Every time a child writes a story I make a copy and give them back the original. Eventually I will turn the stories over to a committee of people from the community, who will select the best ones for the book.” The book will also include photographs of the kids and the seniors. In June Márquez will organize an event for the general public showcasing the stories and photographs.

“When I started Los Bilingual Writers, I thought I would just have a few workshops for adults,” Marquez said. “My work has grown into something much bigger, but I think there is something of value here, and this is the best way I know to be of service.”

Reprinted from the California Council for the Humanities newsletter “network”, Spring 2007.

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