WOW Stories Volume VIII Issue 2

Creando comunidad através de la literatura global en español/ Building Community through Global Literature in Spanish
Christia P. DeNicolo

The number of immigrant families continues to increase each year, particularly from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Children and youth from these countries represent the largest number of unaccompanied minors in the U.S. and there is much to learn regarding their experiences in schools (Conway, Roy, Hurtado, & Lewin, 2020; Coronado, 2013). Educators and school leaders find themselves unprepared to attend to the varied needs of Latinx students from Central America due to a lack of knowledge on the histories, immigration patterns, and languages of Latinx Indigenous students (Baquedano-López & Janetti, 2017). Additionally, Indigenous Latinx students face multiple layers of marginalization such as: demeaning portrayals by the media (Catalano, 2017), school district linguistic re-formulation and erasure (Campbell-Montalvo, 2020), misidentification (Baquedano-López, 2019; DeNicolo, 2019; Ludwig et al., 2012) and discrimination within the broader Latinx community (Barillas Chón, 2010; Ruiz & Barajas, 2012; Urrieta & Calderón, 2019). It is imperative that school staff gain an understanding of students’ linguistic knowledge, provide support for unaccompanied minors (López & Fernández, 2020), and identify their mental health needs (Capps, Cardoso, & Brabeck, 2020). In this article, I recount how one school team decided to develop their knowledge of Central America and that of their students through global literature. I will share how we came together, selected books, and learned from the collaboration.

Our global literacy group was made up of four Spanish language arts teachers, an assistant principal from a PreK-12 Spanish/English dual language immersion school in a large Midwest city, and me, an associate professor of bilingual and bicultural education. The school was established nearly three decades ago as the manifestation of the community’s commitment to provide Latinx students from the community with the opportunity to maintain and develop Spanish while learning English, and English-speaking students access to learning Spanish as a world language. Over the years, the dual language program became seen as a welcoming and caring environment for students.

We began meeting monthly to address our original goals: to introduce high school students to literature that reflected their lived experiences, to create a climate of enthusiasm regarding literature, and to examine the ways that global literature can assist in learning more about the language practices of students and families. As the global literacy group discussed the literature that would enhance Spanish language arts instruction, teachers communicated that many of the texts for Spanish language arts were translated texts that were not reflective of the home lives or experiences of students. The school team also noted that they had the sense that many of the middle and high school students whose families had been in the U.S. for one or more generations did not understand the immigration experiences of their Central American classmates. In our first meetings, we discussed the current immigration context, the extremely difficult challenges of family separation, and the harsh conditions young people have been forced to endure upon entering the United States, such as the holding cells called hieleras-iceboxes that are kept at freezing temperatures and students who had experienced harsh conditions upon entering the United States. These discussions led us to shift our goals slightly.

Three of the teachers in the group taught middle school, so we decided to extend the project to include middle school students. We also agreed it was important to focus exclusively on Spanish language arts. After meeting and reviewing the literature and Spanish language curriculum, we determined it would be important to focus on global literature that was centered on Central America as well as the Caribbean, as there was a growing number of students from Guatemala, Honduras, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and a lack of literature across the grade levels set in those regions.

Central to our conversations was the importance of having young adult literature serve as both a mirror and window (Sims-Bishop, 1990), allowing students to see their ways of knowing reflected in the texts while also learning about cultures different from their own. We discussed how literature that authentically represents the realities and experiences of Latinx youth and global contexts could serve multiple purposes. These books could offer a different reading experience from English books translated into Spanish. We decided that we wanted students to read, reflect on, and discuss themes that intersected with their ancestral knowledge and were relevant to their lives.

Selecting Global literature about Central America and the Caribbean

After transitioning to the goal of utilizing literature from Central America and the Caribbean, we began to look for young adult literature that was written in Spanish. The teachers felt it was important to have all students reading the same text so they could ensure that they were supporting students in developing reading comprehension skills and vocabulary while also learning about the themes addressed in each text. From this point of understanding, we began to look for global literature titles in Spanish that took place in Central American countries and the Caribbean and met the reading levels of students in Grades 6-12.

To select the texts, we first reviewed the global literature book lists for middle and high school recommended by Worlds of Words to identify texts that focused on Central America and the Caribbean, particularly Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. We developed a list of titles that met our criteria and then expanded the list by looking for books that had been award winners within the last five or ten years. We cross-checked our list with books that had received the Américas Award from the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs. This award recognizes children’s and young adult literature that can be used in K-12 classrooms and effectively and authentically represents Latin America, the Caribbean and/or Latinx in the United States. We also looked at titles that had received the Pura Belpré Award for texts written by Latinx authors and illustrators that address Latinx culture, and the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award for children’s and young adult literature that center Mexican Americans. Finally, we read reviews and recommendations on the Latinx in KidLit website and blog.

Our efforts resulted in a list of 40 titles. The teachers quickly determined that El color de mis palabras [The Color of My Words] by Lynn Joseph was a great addition to the sixth-grade language arts curriculum. The story takes place in the Dominican Republic and chronicles the experiences of 12-year-old Ana Rosa as she dreams to be a writer and navigates growing up, family dynamics and loss. This left us reviewing the books on our master list that focused on Central America, which proved to be more challenging than we anticipated. We refined the criteria that we felt were important: addressed Central America, had a protagonist between the ages of 12 and 18, and dealt with themes that we felt would engage students, motivate them to read, and persevere when encountering new vocabulary.

From the master list we reviewed several texts that centered characters from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Two of the books were not selected because, although the stories met several of the criteria, they were not available in Spanish. The first of these, The Other Side of Happy (Balcárcel, 2019), tells the story of 12-year-old Quijana and her developing bicultural identity, as her father is from Guatemala and mother from the U.S. The second, Journey of Dreams (Pellegrino, 2009), centers 13-year-old Tomasa and her family as they are forced to leave Guatemala in the 1980s due to persecution and come to the U.S. as refugees. A third text was not selected because it was a graphic novel and teachers felt it was important for students to experience an entire text in Spanish. Voces sin frontera.Our Stories Our Truth (Latin American Youth Center, 2018) is powerful, written bilingually and nonfiction. The book contains narratives and testimonios on immigration written by the Latino Youth Leadership Council of the Latin American Youth Center and addresses experiences in Central American countries as well as Mexico, Ecuador, and Cuba.

Cover of La Travesia De Enrique depicting a long road disappearing into the horizon. The sky is dark blue at the top of the cover and fades into white in the middle.

Figure 1. La travesía de Enrique (Nazario, 2015).

The final two literature selections that resonated with the group were: La travesía de Enrique. La historia real de un niño decidido a reunirse con su madre. Edición adaptada para jóvenes lectores [Enrique’s Journey. The true story of a boy determined to reunite with his mother] by Sonia Nazario (2015) and El único destino [The Only Road] by Alexandra Diaz (2016). After reviewing each text, the teachers determined La travesía was at a level most appropriate for grades 7 and 8 and El único destino was best for grades 9-12.

Both stories illustrate the complexity of the decision to leave one’s home country in adolescence to embark on the incredibly dangerous journey to come to the United States. Both stories serve as counternarratives to the mainstream discourse on immigration and immigrants from Central America. The texts reveal the complexity of current immigration contexts, the decisions that young people take to leave their homes and families, and the pain, loss, risk, violence, and loneliness that are part of the journey. El único destino is fiction but inspired by true events and a Pura Belpré Honor book in 2017. The story is about the journey taken by two cousins, Angela and Jaime who leave Guatemala after gang members kill Angela’s brother, Miguel. The book captures the many challenges faced by youth traveling alone and how Jaime’s artistic abilities function as a tool for navigating the pain of grief and separation from his family. La travesía de Enrique is a nonfiction text adapted for youth and based on the Los Angeles Times newspaper series that won two Pulitzer prizes. The text chronicles the experiences of Enrique, who leaves Honduras when he is 16 to find his mother, on his eighth attempt to enter the U.S. In 2014, La travesía de Enrique won the Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People Award and Kirkus Best Teen Book of Year.

Cover of El Unico Destino

Figure 2. El único destino (Diaz, 2016).

After selecting the three titles, our group meetings focused on how to connect the texts to the standards and curriculum for each of the grade levels. The high school Spanish language arts teacher determined that the best approach would be to embed the reading of El único destino within a unit exploring Central America. Students traced the journey of Angela and Jaime, while also engaging in activities related specifically to reading. Across the reading of each chapter, they engaged in vocabulary and grammar study, while also exploring the primary elements of the text. The sixth-grade teacher had identified many resources that supported her use of El color de mis palabras to meet the curricular objectives and a timeline set forth by the school district. The seventh- and eighth-grade teachers had more of a challenge preparing materials to align their language arts curriculum with La travesía de Enrique. They identified key vocabulary for each chapter, comprehension questions, and journal prompts to support students’ reading of the text.

A primary concern that was addressed in almost all of our meetings after selecting the texts was how the seventh, eighth and high school teachers would introduce the texts and provide support for students who had life connections to the books that were painful or traumatic. The teachers felt that they had developed strong, supportive cultures within their classrooms. The school staff worked consistently on understanding trauma and supporting students in learning, socio-emotional health, and well-being. The teachers determined that the best approach was to inform the guidance counselors and support staff that they would be reading the texts. Prior to reading, they provided an overview of the books for students so that they would not be surprised by the content. They also informed students that they had the option of reading the text outside of the classroom, meeting with the counselor at any time, or reading a different text.

Student Learning and the Impact of the Stay at Home Order

Across the grade levels, teachers felt that students were highly engaged with the books they were reading. They attributed this to the fact that students had a high level of interest in the books due to their own family histories and/or the immigration stories. Several students at the high school level made connections to El único destino and shared in their journals how they had encountered similar experiences as the main characters. Their teacher felt it was important that they have an opportunity to read a story that reflected their lived experiences and write privately in their journals. The middle school teachers noted that students were highly interested in reading both El color de mis palabras and La travesía de Enrique, which provided opportunities to work on reading comprehension and vocabulary.

The impact of the stay-at-home order on the teachers, students, and community due to the pandemic was swift and intense. The first challenge faced by teachers was trying to communicate with students. Initially, many did not have access to either a computer or the internet, which meant that teachers and school staff communicated by phone. Also, the sudden start of the stay-at-home order meant students went home without the classroom texts, so not all of them were able to finish reading. The additional activities that were planned as part of the project were also impacted. The ninth and tenth graders were preparing to have short video interviews with the author of El único destino, Alexandra Diaz, when the stay-at-home order was initiated. They had reviewed her web page and prepared questions for the interviews. They were not able to set up the video interviews because there was no way for them to meet as a class. Teachers had planned an end-of-the-year video event where students would share insights from the books with their parents and families, but with the school closures this was not possible.

Lessons Learned

Even though the pandemic and stay-at-home order impeded the ability to complete the plans for the global literature project, there were many lessons that will inform our future work with students in Grades 6-12 and as bilingual educators. Our experiences having students in Spanish language arts read, discuss, and write about these three texts taught us three important lessons. The first is that global literature provides teachers and staff with a valuable opportunity to engage in critical reflection on their understandings of students’ home countries, linguistic knowledge, and immigration experiences.

The second lesson is that before reading literature that may connect with difficult issues in students’ lives and past experiences, it is important to develop a plan with school social workers and counselors to support students who may have painful memories, loss, and/or trauma connected to the reading. We needed to read the books first with teachers and staff to identify support systems and to ensure that each book is the right choice for students. Dutro (2019) writes that literacy instruction in school offers opportunities for teachers and students to engage in critical witnessing of loss and pain, which in turn cultivates classroom communities where students experience a sense of belonging. Her book, The Vulnerable Heart of Literacy: Centering Trauma as Powerful Pedagogy, would be a powerful tool for teacher groups to read and discuss when planning literature units.

The third lesson that we take away from this project is that global literature can promote greater understanding among students, teachers, families and disrupt singular narratives (Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999) about groups and social issues. This disruption does not happen by chance and involves careful planning and preparation.

Looking at themes and issues across literature titles may deepen the learning and understanding of specific regions and social issues. Units that incorporate several texts and provide multiple points of exploration for students can promote critical reading and assist students in drawing on their learning across the books. It can also open opportunities for families to share their knowledge and experiences with students and staff (Leija & Fránquiz, 2021). Global literature units are also powerful additions to methods courses for pre-service bilingual teachers. Teacher education courses can provide pre-service teachers with experiences in navigating critical readings of texts while they are developing their knowledge of instructional planning.

The process of working as a team to select global literature centered on Central America and the Caribbean helped us see the potential for our own learning, for using texts that middle and high school students are interested in reading and for drawing on student knowledge for Spanish language arts instruction.

Baquedano-López, P., & Janetti, G.B. (2017). The Maya diaspora Yucatan-San Francisco. In S. Salas and P.R. Portes (Eds.), US Latinization, education and the new Latino south (pp. 161-183). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Barillas-Chón, D. (2010). Oaxaqueño/a students’ (un)welcoming high school experiences. Journal of Latinos and Education, 9(4), 303-320.

Campbell-Montalvo, R. (2020). Linguistic re-formation in Florida heartland schools: School erasures of Indigenous Latino languages. American Educational Research Journal.

Capps, R., Cardoso, J. B., & Brabeck, K. (With Fix and Ruiz-Soto). (September 2020). Immigration enforcement and the mental health of Latino high school students. Migration Policy Institute.

Catalano, T. (2017). When children are water: Representation of Central American migrant children in public discourse and implications for educators. Journal of Latinos and Education, 16(2), 124-142.

Conway, C.A., Roy, K., Ghaffar, A.H.C., & Lewin, A. (2019). Family separation and parent-child relationships among Latinx immigrant youth. Journal of Latinx Psychology, 8(4), 300-316.

Coronado, H.M. (2013). Central American youth in the U.S. (Re) claiming identities and spaces: The effect of family migration and educational experiences on ethnic identity and educational aspirations. [Doctoral Dissertation, The Clarement Graduate University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

DeNicolo, C. P. (2019) The role of translanguaging and inquiry in establishing a sense of school belonging for emergent multilinguals. The International Journal of Inclusive Education.

Dutro, E. (2019). The vulnerable heart of literacy. New York: Teachers College Press.

Leija, M. G., & Fránquiz, M. E. (2021). Building bridges between school and home: Teacher, parents and students examining Latinx immigrant experiences. In G. Onchwari & S. Keengwe (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Bridging Family-Teacher Relationships for ELL and Immigrant Students. IGI Global.

López, J., & Fernández, E. (2020). “You never know when you will see him again”: Understanding the intersectional dimensions of immigration, indigeneity, and language for unaccompanied indigenous minors. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, 23(1), 5-20.

Ludwig, S. A., Lucas, F., Nicolas, L., Archuleta, F., Sandoval, A., & Carbutt, R. (2012). Supporting respect: Community partnership in Alamosa, Colorado. Practicing Anthropology, 34(1), 32-36.

Ruiz, N., & Barajas, M. (2012). Multiple perspectives on the schooling of Mexican Indigenous students in the U.S.: Issues for future research. Bilingual Research Journal, 35(2), 125-144.

Sims-Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3), ix-xi.

Tuhiwai-Smith, L. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples. London, England: Zed Books.

Urrieta Jr., L., & Calderón, D. (2019). Critical Latinx indigeneities: Unpacking indigeneity from within and outside of latinized entanglements. Association of Mexican American Educators Journal, 13(2), 145-174.

Children’s Literature References
Balcárcel, R. (2019). The other half of happy. San Francisco: Chronicle.

Diaz, A. (2016). El único destino. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Joseph, L. (2000). El color de mis palabras. New Jersey: Lectorium.

Latin American Youth Center (2018). Voces sin fronteras. Our stories our truth. Shout Mouth Press.

Nazario, S. (2015). La travesía de Enrique. La historia real de un niño decidido a reunirse con su mamá. Edición adaptada para jóvenes lectores. New York: Penguin.

Pellegrino, M. (2009). Journey of dreams. London: Frances Lincoln.

Christina P. DeNicolo is an Associate Professor of Bilingual and Bicultural Education in the Division of Teacher Education at Wayne State University. Her research examines the ways students’ home cultures and languages support their learning in school. She also explores how education policies influence the ways bilingual education programs are implemented and how the programs support learning for bilingual students who are developing proficiency in two or more languages. Her work has appeared in journals such as the Journal of Latinos and Education, The Urban Review, and The Bilingual Research Journal.

Author’s Note: The Global Literacy Communities received grants and instructional support from Worlds of Words for their work with teachers and students around global literature. These grants were funded by the Center of Educational Resources in Culture, Language and Literacy at the University of Arizona, a Title VI-funded Language Resource Center of the U.S. Department of Education.

© 2020 by Christina P. DeNicolo

Creative Commons License

WOW Stories, Volume VIII, Issue 2 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work by Christina P. DeNicolo at

WOW stories: connections from the classroom
ISSN 2577-0551

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *