I’m interested in how my identity determines how I read the world and conversely, how the world reads me.
All year I’ve been exploring the power of identity on how we choose and make sense of text. In our Journeys into Literacy series, we reflected on and even sketched our identity webs to gain clarity on its impact on our reading lives. Clearly connections to text are made through what a reader brings to text, which is identity and background knowledge. Of course, my identity reaches far beyond the books I read; it informs and shapes my thinking and judgements. Indeed, the roots of my biases are planted in my identity, whether positive or negative. In school, teachers spend a lot of time getting to know students because identity impacts success. Beyond relationship and community building, exploring diversity, and assessment to determine support, knowing kids cues us to which books to put in kids’ hands.
Before My Trip to El Salvador
I bring what I’ll call ‘background knowledge’ baggage on my trip. The stories of child migration, particularly from Central America, have dominated my reading life and been a catalyst for some inquiry I’ve modelled with teachers with whom I work. One of the stories I’ve read, Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey, invites you to join an epic dangerous trip that mirrors the route many young Hondurans, but also Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans embark on to escape violence and despair. A hopeful but treacherous journey that, like their home country, doesn’t necessarily hold a happy ending. The States faces a prickly polarizing issue as thousands of Central American children reach its borders. And El Salvador headlines shout the statistics of 25 deaths per day these past few months.
With my daughter living in El Salvador at this time, I recoil, I worry. I am conflicted. Just like two years ago when she was robbed at gunpoint. I had a choice to make. Your natural motherly response is to get her on the next plane home! But I knew that every mom in El Salvador no doubt wishes she could save her children and escape the ongoing threat of potential violence.
So how does my identity or background knowledge help or hinder my frame of reference? This kind of baggage I carry can’t be checked at the airport. You can’t undo knowing what you know. You have to find a way to merge what you bring with what you’ll learn. You wear your white privilege. How does my power position me? What do I carry with me that is a barrier to really seeing? Certainly my developing Spanish skills create a barrier to understanding. Only because of my daughter living in El Salvador right now do I catch a glimpse of some aspects of life that, as a tourist, I would not have been aware of. El Salvador is not a tourist destination. Not that it couldn’t be with its lush tropical landscape, its rich cultural heritage, and its miles of sandy beach. But right now, no tourists, save a few surfers and backpackers travelling through the country. Its reputation for violence bars most travellers. I came to wonder if Salvadorans may only expect white visitors if they were part of NGO’s working there. Despite this, you cannot walk down the sidewalk without every Salvadoran greeting you.
A dizzying array of economic, socio-political, environmental factors plague this small country of 6 million. I cannot speak to it for I am still learning. I can only share my observations. My understanding filtered through my identity.
I cannot speak to the weight of years of poverty, violence and hardship.
I cannot process the recent memory of the civil war in their families. I can read the names of the 30,000 lives murdered or ‘disappeared’ that have so far been engraved on this memorial wall: The Wall of Truth and Memory. Respectfully, I can be a bystander to a 3 or 4 generation family visiting the memory of their loved one(s) with a rose, touching their name.
Even Oscar Romero’s name is almost hidden amongst the tens of thousands.
The weight of this history is everywhere. The displacement of so many fleeing the civil war and then returning, the as yet unhealed wounds, manifests itself in the ubiquitous security…
whether military in fatigues strolling on the beach,
police checkpoints on highways,
police riding in the back of pickups with fingers on machine guns,
or security guards with guns at every single business,
even the juice bar.
Random roadside stops where you slalom between pylons, and police require drivers to pull up their shirts to search for gang tattoos. Identity.
It contributes to my edge-of-your-seat feeling. It’s so beyond my Canadian reality, identity.
And you drop off your daughter at the central park in one of the gang-controlled suburbs of San Salvador, Quetzaltepeque, where buildings are emblazoned with graffiti identifying which gang is in charge here, and I see one English phrase: “Welcome to death valley.” (Heat? Violence?) There is a program being pursued in this community funded by USAID. Today, they are celebrating its potential. Now, you don’t pull out your iphone as a GPS, you can’t ask for directions, and we can’t hang around the park to wait for Hannah while she attends.
Worry sits like a weight on my chest all afternoon.
She returns with images, stories and a smile. Young people from the community share their involvement in music and dance as a means of instilling a sense of belonging outside of a gang. A new, a different, identity.
And hope is ignited again.