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The Américas Award: Bringing Literature to Life with Primary Sources

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This post was written by Tom Bober, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Audio-Visual Teacher in Residence.

On Friday, September 18th, 2015, the Library of Congress hosted the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. The award, co-sponsored with the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs, recognizes work that “authentically and engagingly portrays Latin Americans, Caribbeans, or Latinos in the United States.” These diverse stories can be highlighted and brought to life through the use of primary sources.

Duncan Tonatiuh was honored for Separate is Never Equal, the story of Sylvia Mendez and her family’s fight to end the segregated schools in California where Mexican Americans were sent to separate schools. Tonatiuh spoke about the little-known court case preceding Brown v. Board of Education. Before Brown v. Board of Education There Was Méndez v. Westminster goes into detail on the court case.

"NO DOGS, NEGROES, MEXICANS." Lonestar Restaurant Association, Dallas, Texas.
“NO DOGS, NEGROES, MEXICANS.” Lonestar Restaurant Association, Dallas, Texas.

Primary sources can allow students to explore and better understand the events and attitudes of the time. For example, supported by the Primary Source Analysis Tool, students can analyze a Jim Crow sign similar to one found in the story to broaden their understanding of where segregation took place regionally as well as what types of establishments were segregated.

Students can also listen to Interview about the Mexican family, discrimination against Mexicans, and life in the FSA camp, a 1941 recording of Jose Flores from El Rio, California. Flores speaks about the discrimination against Mexican Americans in movie theaters and schools, and children’s attitudes towards the discrimination (1:10-3:20). Students may use Flores’ account as well as the Jim Crow sign and Tonatiuh’s story to construct a more complete picture of where Mexican Americans may have encountered discrimination during that time period.

Margarita Engle was honored for Silver People, a story of the building of the Panama Canal told through three fictional characters, Mateo, a Cuban, Henry, a Jamaican, and Anita who is native to Panama. In her speech, Margarita said that she wanted her story to focus on the minorities that worked to build the canal and how they were segregated, given harder work, and paid less.

Spanish Laborers at Work on the Panama Canal. Keystone View Company, 1908
Spanish Laborers at Work on the Panama Canal. Keystone View Company, 1908

Analyzing photos and film from the building of the canal can highlight the differences between groups. Ask students to compare and contrast the men in two photos: Men building the Panama Canal and Spanish laborers at work on the Panama Canal. Comparing the titles of the photos provides additional context about what role each group of men played and how they were valued.

The 1927 film, The story of the Panama Canal, while made 14 years after the completion of the canal, has primary source footage that highlights aspects of Engle’s book. Two interesting parts of the film show jobs Engle wrote about: track shifters, those men charged with moving train track (20:15-20:50) and sanitation workers (7:05-8:44) who, as part of their attempt to kill mosquitoes, mopped land and sprayed water with crude oil. Select questions from the Teacher’s Guide for Analyzing Motion Pictures to help students focus on both the work and its impact on the environment.

Primary sources can be analyzed and studied to enhance works of fiction and nonfiction, especially when students can benefit from additional context. View the entire list of winners, honorable mentions, and commended titles for additional titles that may be enhanced by incorporating primary sources into teaching with literature.

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