"Many Hands Make Light Work"
Continuing our discussion of Rhetoric and Composition Theory on November 15th, we read Brokering Tareas: Mexican Immigrant Families Translanguaging Homework Literacies by Steven Alvarez. Brokering Tareas details the research Alvarez gathered through an ethnographic study of a grassroots educational mentoring program called MANOS, or the Mexican American Network of Students, which serves the Mexican community surrounding Foraker Street in New York City.
Through his own engagement as a MANOS mentor, Alvarez both witnesses and experiences the struggles faced by Mexican immigrants as they strive for superación, or the desire to proactively better one's life circumstances, in the United States through an intergenerational, multicultural, and community-driven brokering of language, literacy, education, family, and identity (Alvarez, xvi). Alvarez specifically emphasizes translanguaging within bilingual communities as a socially structured literacy practice, which illustrates how these groups “use literacy between and across language systems” (xix) in order to actively and collaboratively broker meaning as part of the immigrant bargain.
After our initial gushing about how much we enjoyed this book, especially the emotion Alvarez portrayed through his detailed descriptions and close relationships with the members of this community, we dove into a conversation about “safe spaces” as represented in this work. MANOS is distinctly labeled as a safe space for both the students and parents in the community, a setting where emergent bilinguals in this community can be comfortable, expressive, and authentic.
MANOS provided this community with a social context outside of the pressures for assimilation in language and culture, outside of the gaze of the public school system, and outside of institutionalized oppression (33-34). Through his participatory viewpoint, Alvarez proves the success of these programs relies on their ability to take place outside of an institutional setting (xxv). Language is linked to culture, context, and identity (50), a safe space is needed to work on learning language, and so a feeling of safety is crucial to the parents and students in this community learning English.
Creating a safe space is responsible for allowing translanguaging to occur. Alvarez observes translanguaging as the key strategy used for meaning making and brokering literacy by emergent bilinguals at MANOS, as centered around the standardized English of homework (xviii). Translanguaging events may be understood as “spontaneous moments when different kinds of literacies are used and participants socially interact across languages in the production of texts and performances that are both critical and creative" (xviii). The MANOS program utilized translanguaging in order to help the families involved in the program, and the entire Mexican immigrant community, negotiate the immigrant bargain, or the intergenerational narrative fueling the motivation, literacy acquirement, and educational goals of immigrant families,and move toward their goal of superación (xvi, xxvii).
Brokering language (or homework) is a position of power granted to the children of immigrants, but with this power comes challenges and great responsibility. Children are tasked with taking on the role of broker in their families, translating for their parents in various contexts, an important function that affects the power dynamics between child and parent (41). Brokering goes beyond just translating to interpreting situations and rhetorical contexts to create meaning between languages (65).
Alvarez describes multiple examples of brokering language observed at MANOS, especially between parents and mentors, which illustrate the advanced literacy skills required by bilingual children serving as brokers. These examples prove that bilingualism is far from a deficit for these students, rather, it is a metalinguistic skill that allows them to utilize the rhetorical power of language (57-61). While this position of power is neither good nor bad, it is a complicated role for children and families to negotiate. These students are required to “simultaneously broker generational expectations, motivations, and languages, communicating in different contexts in their communities," (xvi) and we questioned how this might affect the perception and development of their identities.
As always, we wondered how we might implement translanguaging in our classroom practices. We thought that both monolingual and bilingual students would benefit from translanguaging activities, in allowing students to embrace all aspects of their identity, culture, community, and language, and to see its value. As Alvarez points out, "the MANOS community lent bilingual helping hands" (xiv) and these hands helped shape the children's "sense of moral, social, and personal responsibility" (xiv) providing them the skills to succeed. We ended our discussion of Brokering Tareas by considering why we often feel personally responsible as teachers for helping students master these skills that are gained over a lifetime. This study demonstrates the way many hands really do make light work, as a lesson in the power and significance of community to support education, literacy, self-discovery, family responsibilities, and personal goals.
For further reading on implementing translanguaging practices in the classroom, check out Community Literacies en Confianza: Learning from Bilingual After-School Programs by Steven Alvarez.
Steven Alvarez offered to answer questions we had about Brokering Tareas over Twitter. To see more from this conversation, check out #uwm812 on Twitter or click here.