El Sabor del Caribe / A Taste of the Caribbean (An analysis of the symbolism of food in the oral and written literature of the Caribbean)

Elsa M. Calderon


The intent of this unit is to infuse Caribbean culture into the Spanish curriculum, with a focus on Puerto Rico. The vehicle for this is literature, both oral literature and written literature. The oral literature includes popular children's songs and "refranes." The written literature includes poems, short stories, and books by modern Latina authors. These authors use food as a symbol for identity, patriotism, religious hypocrisy, and nostalgia. Caribbean in this unit refers to two Caribbean islands that are Hispanic: Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Mexico is included, although part of North America and not the Caribbean, because of the proximity of Mexico and the contributions of a Mexican-American writer, Sandra Cisneros. This does not preclude the possibility of other islands, such as Cuba. The area thus defined as Caribbean is rich with different cultures and traditions. There does exist, however, a common language: Spanish, and similar traditions and cultures. The islands share a common or similar history. The culture is a mixture of the Native Americans, the Spanish, and the Africans. This is referred to as "criollo" (creole). The Caribbean has developed a culture of itself and different from the rest of Latin America.

This unit is part of a continuum of Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Units. Two of the authors, Rosario Ferre and Sandra Cisneros, have already been discusssed in prior Yale-New Haven Teachers Institutes. See Vavzquez, Doris. Rosario Ferre: una cuentista puertorriquena contemporanea (A Contemporary Puerto Rican Storyteller ) in Volume I, 1987. See Galluci, Frank. Puerto Rico, Its Land, History, Culture, and Literature , in Volume I, 1987 for an introduction to Puerto Rico. The rich legacy of Puerto Rican literature and Latin American literature has been covered in prior curriculum units. (Volume V, 1982; Volume I, 1987, Volume III, 1989;Volume I, 1990; Volume II, 1993). See Volume IV, 1993 for Sandra Cisneros' contributions as a Mexcian-American writer.

The topic for this unit is literature in the Caribbean and the subtopic is food. How does the literature of certain modern Latina authors include the theme or symbolism of food? Is this symbol central to their works or peripheral? What do these foods symbolize? Food is symbolic of many things in these works: friendship and decay in El Regalo , by Rosario Ferrewa Hispanic background in The House on Mango Street , by Sandra Cisneros, an idyllic rural life in When I was Puerto Rican by Esrgeralda Santiago, nostalgia in When the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent , by Julia Alvarez, and childhood pleasures in the poems Mango and Quenepa by Isabel Freire Matos. What foods keep emerging in this literature and why? What does this say about the culture being described? If we examine the oral traditions of children's songs and "refranes" what meanings are attached to these foods? These questions provide a general framework for the class.

Specific foods have been selected for analysis in this unit: rice, plantains, guava, mango, and quenepa. These foods meet the following criteria: they are popular items in the Caribbean cuisine, they are found in "refranes", they have cultural meanings independent of the literature, they are often connected with notions of identity, they are readily available in New Haven, and they are mentioned in at least one of the literary selections.

This unit is appropriate for all high school students of Spanish 2 or higher, Spanish for Hispanics, and honors Spanish courses. English high school teachers may adapt the unit for their classes, selecting poems and short stories and books in English. The House on Mango Street is in the reading list for some high school English classes. Teachers of other disciplines may adapt the unit for their classes. (e.g. Social Studies, English as a Second Language, Bilingual Program) It is being used in a Spanish 2 class to enrich the textbook, Saludos , with literary selections and cultural activities. Lesson 17 of Saludos has a "Lectura Cultural " about a brief trip home to Puerto Rico. Lesson 22 of Saludos has a "Lectura Cultural" that mentions the foods of Spain, Mexico, the islands of the Caribbean, and Argentina. Lesson 23 of Saludos is organized around the different words in Spain, Mexico, and Puerto Rico for the same objects. (bus, blanket, green beans, peanuts, grocery store, and bedroom) These lessons are possible starting points for this unit. This unit could be used by teachers, whether Hispanic or non-Hispanic, to supplement the meagre "Lecturas Culturales" in their textbooks. Much too often teachers have to develop their own materials in order to teach culture in the Spanish classroom. Much too often, teachers are not familiar with Latin American culture and specifically, Puerto Rican culture, and need supplemental materials. This unit is written in response to this need.

Presently, the New Haven curriculum for Spanish at the high school level (not including Spanish for Hispanics) includes the islands of the Caribbean and specifically, Puerto Rico, in Spanish 1 and 2. The materials, however, cover the Caribbean and Puerto Rico in a perfunctory fashion. The students first encounter Robert and Lupita, from the United States and Mexico, respectively. The next few chapters introduce two friends from Colombia. Saludos , which is used in Spanish 1 and 2, hardly mentions anyone from Puerto Rico, with some exceptions, such as Lesson 17! The textbook for Spanish 3, entitled Amistades , includes an optional reading selection about Roberto Clemente, a famous Puerto Rican baseball player, and a "Lectura Cultural" about Menudo, a Puerto Rican singing group. When Puerto Rico is mentioned in Saludos , it is often grouped together with other Caribbean countries or with Latin American countries. The two countries that are emphasized are Spain (Spanish 1,2) and Mexico (Spanish 2,3) Some other countries mentioned to a lesser degree are Argentina, Chile, and Colombia.

In contrast to this paucity of materials about Puerto Rico, the Hispanic students in New Haven are predominantly from Puerto Rico. Some Puerto Rican students are recent arrivals and are in E. S. L. or Bilingual Programs. Some Puerto Rican students have been in the New Haven school system for most of their school years and are English-dominant. Therefore, these students might be found in a Spanish class, a Spanish for Hispanics class, an English class, or a Social Studies class. Their heritage and contributions to this country should be covered more adequately by the New Haven curriculum. Spanish teachers need materials in support of this curriculum. One way that to accomplish this is by following ths unit. This unit enables the students in Spanish 2 to study authentic literature, participate in cultural activities, and sample some Puerto Rican cuisine.

If a teacher has Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, or Mexican-American students in the class, these students could play a pivotal role in the presentation of this unit. They could share their personal experiences. A student that has tasted a mango will bring a different experience to the reading of the poem El Mango by Isabel Freire Matos, as compared to a student who has never tasted this delightful fruit. A student who has tasted a plantain and is familiar with the oral tradition of "refranes" will understand the connotations of the phrase "la mancha del platano", synonymous to the Puerto Rican spirit or identity.

The activities and lesson plans included herein were written for my Spanish 2 and Spanish 3 classes at the high school level. The students are mostly non-Hispanic. Very few students have traveled to Puerto Rico or other countries of the Caribbean or Latin America. Very few students are familiar with the geography, culture, and literature of the Caribbean island. (Two of my students are Jamaican. Two students have a Hispanic parent.) Very few students have sampled the rice dishes, plantains, and fruits of the Caribbean. (Most of my students confuse Mexican food with Caribbean food and with food from Spain. Some of my students think "tacos" and "burritos" are typical cuisine for all Spanish-speaking countries.) The curriculum as it now stands does not include sufficient cultural information and cultural activities about the Caribbean. This unit attempts to address these deficits in the curriculum.

This unit includes geography, foods, and literature (oral and written) of the Caribbean. The activities are meant to motivate the students to read more and to capitalize on their natural curiosity about the Caribbean and its cuisine. Many activities suggested are hands-on and involve active participation and cooperative group activities. One component is student research so that students gather information on their own about Puerto Ricans in New Haven, and make their own Puerto Rico and New Haven connection. If the school does not have a large Puerto Rican population, the teacher can provide guest speakers, such as community leaders, Puerto Rican educators, and staff of local agencies. Field trips into the Puerto Rican community are a central part of the unit.

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