Spanish is one of the world’s most common languages and is widely spoken not only throughout Latin America and Spain but in Equatorial Guinea, the Sahara, the Philippines, and the United States. Yet the rich and varied cultures of Spanish speakers are ignored in virtually all Spanish-language textbooks. Instead, the texts give the impression that Spanish speakers are united by a middle- and upper-middle class life of singing, dancing, fiestas, and baseball.
A mass of harmful misinformation, the texts blend the world’s roughly 400 million Spanish speakers into a sanitized, homogenous, carefree blob of generic Latin Americans.
I first became aware of such shortcomings during my graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I was fortunate enough to have professors with an in-depth approach to Latin American history. I began to look more critically at Spanish textbooks, especially those I used in the first-year Spanish classes that I teach to 8th graders. I studied six texts and found that all were overrun with stereotypes, omissions, and cultural contradictions. What’s more, they all clearly suggested that the main reason to learn Spanish is to get a great business job.
False Representations of Class
In the world of Spanish textbooks, class divisions do not exist. In a section on verbs in the Ven Conmigo (Come with Me) textbook, for instance, the illustrations are all decidedly middle-class or upper-class in their representations: riding bicycles on a nice gravel path; casually walking a group of dogs, hanging out with friends at a seaside resort.
The images imply that the verbs students are studying are activities that all Latin Americans enjoy. By not naming a country, an assumption of “Latin Americanness” is suggested, as if these activities are typical of the entire Spanish-speaking world. The books collapse Latin America into one monolithic middle-class culture, devoid of individual histories, collective and culture- specific experiences, and indigenous pasts.
Secondly, the books’ illustrations give students the impression that all the children in Spanish-speaking countries have money for bicycles, for dining with their friends in restaurants, and have modern kitchens in which to prepare the family dinner. The middle-class portrayals serve to deny that anything is amiss in what is, in reality, a world of great disparity. Instead, there is a falsely presented worldview that Latin Americans enjoy a pleasant lifestyle similar to that of the middle class in the United States.
They Throw and Catch!
Just as the texts concentrate on a middle- and upper-class perspective, they also consistently over-represent Latin Americans as famous sports or entertainment figures. All of the texts I examined featured Sammy Sosa and other baseball players as representative of Latin American culture. No doubt, baseball is popular in Latin America. But its over-representation distorts students’ impression of life there.
The texts portray a Spanish-speaking world that loves baseball while concealing the reality of desperately poor children willing to quit school for a chance at the Major Leagues. In the Somos Así (We Are Like This) textbook, for example, the caption accompanying one baseball photo highlights the Dominican Republic’s training academy for Major League Baseball players. (Twenty-six percent of all players in the Major Leagues come from Latin America and one out of seven is from the Dominican Republic.) There is no discussion of how Major League Baseball exploits the poor of Latin America. For example, 60 percent of Dominicans live below the poverty line and young Dominican athletes typically play without shoes, using cut-out milk cartons for gloves, rolled-up cloth for balls, and sticks and branches for bats. Often, kids quit school at 10, 11, or 12 to play ball at the “baseball academies.” If a Major League club does offer a contract, it’s typically 5 to 10 percent of the signing bonuses offered to U.S. players. Sammy Sosa himself received a signing bonus of only $3,500.
And They Sing and Dance!
Texts over-represent entertainers in the same way, featuring “Hispanic contributions” from stars such as Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Shakira, and Selma Hayak.
The throw-and-catch, sing-and-dance stereotypes may seem better than the stereotypes found in earlier texts, where Latin Americans were often pictured as agricultural workers. But they simply present a different version of the same kind of over-representation. They confine Hispanics to a few specialized roles, denying them a fuller humanity.
Latin Americans’ portrayal as music-makers carries over into depictions of ordinary people breaking out into spontaneous song. The message? Those Latinos love music and are great fiesta-seekers.
According to the texts, these fun-loving music-makers and fiesta-seekers also make great food. The texts invariably use food to “capture” the spirit of Spanish speakers, and all the texts I studied prominently featured recipes.
What’s the harm of a little stereotyping? In an article, “The Spectacle of ‘the Other,'” Stuart Hall, professor, critic, and author of Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices, argues that stereotyping is a representational practice that is central to showing racial difference. A few simple, widely recognized characteristics about a culture reduce that culture to those traits, exaggerate them, and fix them as part of the “nature” of the people.
The textbooks’ stereotypes not only distort the “nature” of Spanish-speakers, but make it seem that food, fiestas, and sports is the best that Latin America has to offer. Rather than people of intelligence who use their brains to improve their lives, Latin Americans are stereotyped as physical people most capable when using their bodies to play sports, entertain, and eat.
Perhaps nowhere are the texbooks’ simplifications more clear than in their depictions of light-skinned versus dark-skinned Spanish speakers. The lighter-skinned, more European-looking Latin Americans are pictured in more prestigious settings, with better jobs, more Western-style dress, and in middle- to upper-class surroundings. The more indigenous-looking Latin Americans are pictured as service workers, craft-makers, or food-makers. In the Somos Así text, for instance, a clearly indigenous man is pictured selling wallets and belts at a street stall; a middle-class light-skinned woman is shown talking on a cell phone.
To a certain extent, the light-skinned/ dark-skinned dichotomy reflects the reality of Latin America. Yet the texts never build any critical inquiry into the representations. Suggested cultural activities in the teacher’s edition do not require students to analyze the specific historical and current events that have led to these inequalities. Thus, students may look at these presentations as natural, the way it was meant to be, rather than the result of colonialism and racism.
Subtly but surely, the Spanish texts teach that indigenous cultures are subordinate and that their place is in the service of Western culture and tradition.
As I analyzed the text, sometimes I debated what was worse: what was in the books or what they left out. Overall, the texts omit essential chunks of information, thus masking the colonization, slavery, and economic plunder that have shaped Latin America. Though a Spanish text is not a world history text, the amount of historical information left out is startling. Books gloss over U.S. interventions into the democratically elected governments of various Latin American countries, and fail to alert students to the link between today’s poverty and the history of conquest, enslavement, and colonization. Emiliano Zapata is often pictured, but his valiant fight for agrarian reform during the Mexican Revolution is not mentioned; nor is there discussion of the “Zapatista” movement in contemporary Mexico and how this group from the state of Chiapas rebelled against the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Instead of discussing the deep divisions between rich and poor, colonizers and colonized, the texts simply mention how the “blending” of cultures and languages has added more flavors to Latin America’s “melting pot.”
One telling example is in the text Buen Viaje (Have a Good Trip). A photo on p. 464 portrays a compound (confección) for making the famous Panama hats, which are produced from the jipijapa reeds of Ecuador. The hats are made in Ecuador but are called Panama hats because they were provided to workers building the Panama Canal. The text states, “The hats achieved their greatest fame in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when U.S. presidents, European royalty, and members of high society sported Panamas” (Schmitt & Woodford, 2003). Nowhere is there mention of the Panama Canal and its role in U.S. domination of Latin American political and economic life — nor of the many workers who died while building the canal. And while all my texts featured Ecuador, it was only in the context of the crafts, textiles, and food created there.
To use bell hooks’ phrase from her book Black Looks: Race and Representation, the people in the picture making hats represent a kind of “imperialist nostalgia” for traditional crafts and lifestyles. Today, meanwhile, Ecuador has a per capita income of $2,900 compared to a U.S. per capita income of $36,000, according to Time Almanac.
Exploitation of the Language
The textbooks portray Latin America as a wonderful place to visit and encourage students to continue their study of Spanish so they can possibly do business there in the future. The Spanish language is reduced to a commodity, useful for personal benefit. Not only can it be used to enter the international business world, it can be a stepping-stone for college and better SAT scores, a catalyst for travel, fun, and personal enjoyment.
I did not encounter any directions in my text to explore stereotyping. But I saw many ways in which the text used Spanish to highlight future job possibilities.
Some of the textbook’s most glaring contradictions involve the indigenous peoples of Latin America. The texts celebrate indigenous civilizations and their accomplishments, while ignoring the contemporary oppression and poverty of many indigenous peoples. The texts depict ancient monuments as wonders to behold, yet fail to acknowledge the destruction of these same cultures during colonization. Nor is there discussion of the indigenous peoples’ present-day dependence on tourism to survive, and how the United States’ mean-spirited immigration policies affect Latinos today.
Conclusion: Culture in the Critical Sense
In my classes with 8th graders, as we analyze the illustrations I try to teach a deeper knowledge. The story behind the smiling baseball players, for example, is the story of baseball academies and young boys with little hope.
This is hard work, and involves more than using supplementary materials. I start with information to accompany a picture and we spend time in the computer lab checking and sharing information. This information then becomes an integral part of my curriculum. During the World Baseball Classic, for instance, we dug for facts about the players who “graduated” from the academies of the Dominican Republic to the Major Leagues. After the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, we searched and shared information about the Aymara Indians of the Andes.
These are just two examples of projects that contain the potential to change attitudes and to equip students with a better understanding — of not only a new language but also of what the world is about.
Funston, J. F., Castellanos, R., Hoff, P. J., Martín Arnold, S., Sherman, D.
Somos así [We Are Like This]
(2nd ed.). St. Paul, MN: EMC Paradigm Publishing.
Gahala, E., Hamilton Carlin, P., Heining-Boynton, A., Otheguy, R., Rupert, B.J. (2004).
¡En español! [In Spanish].
Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell.
Humbach, N. A., and Ozete, O.
(1996 & 2003).
¡Ven conmigo! [Come with Me].
Austin, TX: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Met, M., Sayers, R. S., and Wargin, C. E. (2000).
Paso a paso [Step by Step]
(2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Prentice Hall.
Samaniego, F. A., Blommers, T. J., Lagunas-Solar, M., Ritzi-Marouf, V.,
and Rodríguez, F.
¡Dímelo tú! [Tell It to Me!]
(4th ed.). Boston: Heinle, a division of Thomson Learning, Inc.
Schmitt, C. J., Woodford, P. E.
¡Buen viaje! [Have a Good Trip]
New York: Glencoe/McGraw Hill.