The Necessity of Chicano literature in mainstream curriculum

“Our own voice”: The Necessity of Chicano literature in mainstream curriculum

Morales, Candace A

Growing up Chicana in a predominately White neighborhood and educated in predominately White schools, I was segregated from my cultural identity. Most of my friends growing up were White, and I never had problems getting along with other children in or outside of school. As a matter of fact, I was a very friendly child, always bringing over new friends to meet my parents. I don’t ever remember being taught about race. I just knew that I liked certain people because of the way they acted towards others and towards me.

My beloved grandmother would tell me stories of her childhood in Mexico and her migration to the United States. We visited where she grew up in Sonora, Obregon, which is in Northern Mexico, at least once a year. I ate homemade Mexican food, listened to Mariachi music, and only spoke Spanish when she would come to visit or we would go visit her.

However, I didn’t really quite understand how my two worlds fused together to make me who I was-Chicana. When I got into high school is when I began to question my history books and wondered if there would ever come a time when I would be learning about “my history.” My father, who was the first in his family to go to college, told me that that was why it was so important for me to go to college. He said that in college is where I could take Chicano Studies classes and major in it if I wanted to. It was then, in my first year in college, that I began to understand the multiple complexity of the Chicano/a self.

My personal account is included as an example of most Chicano/as who don’t experience racism, yet don’t fully come to understand who they are until much later in life. For those who don’t go to college, their awakening maybe through a negative experience. For this reason, Chicano/a literature is vital to the education of the Chicano/a student.

For the purpose of this paper I will be referring to the Mexican-American population as Chicano/as. Hispanic has been a term usually used to describe the populations which share little more than varying knowledge of Spanish. On the other hand, the term Chicano is a distinctive category among Hispanics which is linked to an indigenous and Spanish heritage. Still, the term Chicano has also been found offensive to some Mexican-Americans, especially the elderly, because it is used to refer to lower class citizens (Godina & McCoy, 2000).

Although the connotation of the term may vary, Chicano/a is still a more relevant interpretation of the culture which encompasses persons of Mexican ancestry, not Cuban, Puerto Rican, or any other portion ofthe Hispanic category. Before discussing the importance of Chicano/a literature in mainstream curriculum for higher educational attainment, as well as personal fulfillment, some historical background on the education ofthe Chicano/a is necessary to understand the philosophy behind Chicano/a literature.

The Education of Chicano/as

According to Acuna (1996), Chicano/as saw education as “the stairway to heaven” (p.289). The public school system had been their main hope of rising above a destiny paved by class and race. Chicano/as supported schools by voting for bond issues and participating in local school board elections. Unfortunately, Chicano/as did not have controlling votes, and as a result, schools with predominately Chicano/a students became overcrowded and run down. As the schools began to deteriorate, teachers began to seek employment in more desirable places. Coupled with residential segregation, Chicano/as attending school in districts such as Los Angeles Unified quickly abandoned their enthusiastic belief in the educational system (Acuna, 1996).

Ortego (1971) argues that the single most significant evidence ofthe educational problems of Chicano/as is largely due tc language. Chicano/a students were expressly forbidden to speak Spanish in school, It’s ironic that schools which were encouraging students to learn a foreign language, at the same time were making Chicano/a students feel inferior for speaking Spanish in school. This “English only” rule was made known physically and verbally with thE intention that by only speaking English, Chicano/a students would learn it faster. Also, since many teachers equated linguistic disadvantage with intellectual ability, many Chicano/a children were assigned tc special education classrooms.

Eventually, Chicano/a students were beginning to lose contact with their nativE language, almost intentionally, because ol the shame and humiliation that followed The following quote by Rodriguez (1982; further explains the dilemma between thE home language and the language of thE school:

I grew up victim to a disabling confusion. As I grew fluent in English, I no longer could speak Spanish with confidence. A powerful guilt blocked my spoken words; an essential glue was missing whenever I’d try to connect words to form sentences. I would be unable to break a barrier of sound, to speak freely. I would speak, or try to speak, Spanish, and I would manage to utter halting, hiccuping sounds that betrayed my unease. (p. 28)

Language is only one part of the problem. Sparks (1994) found that teachers’ attitudes, academic quality, and cultural respect which do not warrant positive childhood experiences greatly influence the efforts of adult students to seek educational attainment. Through Sparks’ (1994) ethnographic study of Chicano/a adult learners, interviews revealed that these Chicano/a students were forced to forget who theywere byremoving themselves from the context oftheir history and their everyday cultural realities. Sad to say that when these Chicano/a students went back to school after having dropped out, Adult Basic Education Programs (ABE) mirrored their demoralizing and degrading youth experi. ences.

Chicano/a children have been seriously traumatized by lack of care and attention from their teachers. As a result, many Chicano/as have had an inadequate education. Since there is little difference between Chicano families emphasis on education and that of other families, (Ortego, 1971) it’s unfair to blame the educational failure of Chicano/as on the home. Education was seen as an escape from labor and an opportunity for job advancement (Rodriguez, 1982). However, schools ruined that chance deplorably by tracking Chicano/a students into lower class jobs, punishment for speaking Spanish, and isolating their learning from more challenging courses.

Chicano/as have a higher drop out rate than any other comparable group in the nation. Chicano/as also have the lowest educational attainment in comparison to Whites and Blacks, and they also have the lowest literacy levels compared to Whites and Blacks (U.S. Department of Education, 1995). Ortego (1971) attributes this to many Chicano/a students being over-age in their grade level. He says that because of language, Chicano/a children are usually one or two grades behind the rest of their peers. Moreover, Chicano/a students who were found to be over-age in grade levels scored lower in achievement tests compared to Anglo groups. As these disadvantagous factors follow them through the grade levels, Chicano/a students begin to develop a negative self-concept; thus, the outlook on leaving school becomes a more attractive alternative. America sets up a confusing allusion for the Chicano/a by characterizing education as the key to success, but at the same time not encouraging them to obtain it.

Ortego (1971) purposes that education for the Chicano/a must involve a coalition of all facets of society. Concepts such as bilingual education, new teaching techniques, and language arts programs need to be redesigned to meet the needs of the Chicano/a learner. To further contend against the victimization of the Chicano/a student in our schools, I purpose the integration of Chicano/a literature into the mainstream curriculum to support Chicano/a students’ cultural differences, and demonstrate how their abilities contribute to the greater good of society.

Chicano/a Literature

Chicano/a literature is the literature written since 1848 by Mexican-Americans who write about the Mexican-American experience. Chicano/a literature, as opposed to Hispanic literature, contains themes specific to Chicano/as such as social protest and exploitation, the migratory experience, self-definition, “La Raza”-the Race which has spiritual connations, “La Causa”-the Chicano Movement of the 1960s, and life of the barrio-the Chicano/a district or town (Shirley & Shirley, 1988). The term Chicano/ain Mexican-American literature has come to signify an identity that carries a philosophical meaning. According to Martinez and Lomeli (1985) this “Chicano/a philosophy” can mean one of two things; either literature that deals with the concepts oflife held by most Chicano/as of Mexican descent, or the beliefs and values of Chicano/as of Mexican descent who proclaim their ethnicity by an unwavering pride and loyalty to “Chicanismo” (Chicano/a culture). Furthermore, Shirley and Shirley (1988) say that declaring a Chicano/a identity is not only being proud of one’s heritage, but a person who is responsible and committed to helping the members of his or her community. This bond of brotherhood is known as “carnalismo” (Martinez & Lomeli, 1985).

Chicano/a literature is particularly concerned with the “search for self.” The Chicano/a is caught in the midst of two different worlds called “raza cosmica,” (Martinez & Lomeli, 1985) which essentially means a Spanish-Indian mixture. The Chicano/a’s Indian past, which is referred to as “indigenismo,” is a contemporary theme used to glorify Pre-Columbian heritage, such as the homeland myth of Aztlan.

Since Chicano/as are linked to social activism due to discrimination and rejection,”indigenismo” (Indian past) has never played such an important role to Mexico as it has to Chicano/as. The struggle between these two worlds is further complicated by Anglo-American culture shaping Chicano/a thought. Chicano/a literature can help Chicano/a students make sense of their dual culture and answer the most pivotal question to one’s life; “Who am I?”

The most constructive method for incorporating the culture ofthe home into the school through books used in the classroom is utilizing an emic perspective. Emic perspective can be defined as an “insiders.'” point of view. In contrast, an etic perspective is an”outsiders” point of view (Godina & McCoy, 2000). An emic perspective is more relevant for interpreting the cultural norms of a particular group. Barry (1998), however, chooses to use the word Hispanic when selecting books on different Latino populations- a label that was initially used by the U.S. Office ofManagement and Budget in 1978 to refer to”a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race” (p. 631).

The use of the word Hispanic is an etic perspective because it tends to lump different Latino cultures based on language (Godina & McCoy, 2000), further perpetuating the stereotype that “they’re all the same.” Furthermore, this misrepresentation also allows students to assume that their Latino classmates are like one another, when in fact one student may be Chicano/a and the other may be from Guatemala. Teachers can eliminate confusion and stereotypes by assessing the target populations within their classroom.

Godina and McCoy (2000) stress that educators need to be aware of Chicano/a literature as a resource for culturally relevant instruction because of the emancipatory potential of these postcolonial narratives. The role of “emancipation” is not strong with literature presently deemed relevant for Mexican background students. In other words, many books seem to affirm a Hispanic perspective, which only accommodates the popular discourses of predominately white readers. Emancipation is the vital link which sets Chicano/as apart from other Latino cultures, as well as mainstream society.

But educators may ask themselves, how can this emancipatory model serve Mexican background students who are compelled to fit into White/mainstream ideology through the teaching of monolingual White teachers? This can be done by all teachers reaching an emic perspective through reading Chicano/a literature and helping their students to understand the similarities and differences between their Mexican culture and the one that they are now living in. An emic perspective actually unifies students of all backgrounds who share a common human experience. Promoting a shared experience, yet fostering an exuberance for one’s own identity, will generate a multicultural classroom that empowers all students.

Recommendations for impletmenting Chicano/a Literature into the Curriculum

Multicultural literature in general suffers from a commercial emphasis by the publishers wanting to attract a more mainstream market. Administrative control within publishing is usually held by a small group of people whose interests largely reflect the mainstream culture. Unfortunately, seeking a wider audience usually means sacrificing authentic representations of ethnic minorities (Godina, 1996). So asking schools to include something so specialized as Chicano/a literature is asking for a complete “paradigm shift” at several levels; schools who have a more skillsbased approach would have to move towards a literature-based reading pedagogy, so implementation of Chicano/a literature wouldn’t be the sole responsibility of the English department, and the perception of multicultural education as a brief tour of foods and holidays would drastically change (p.546).

As Godina (1996) reports, implementation of Chicano/a literature into the classroom has been misinterpreted by faculty and administrators. However, once the parents became interested in the new reading material that their children were bringing home, they also began to attend openhouse visits. When administrators began to notice this parental support, Chicano/a literature is now seen as something to serve their purposes. With the help of the school and the community, Godina (1996) was able to overcome the obstacles of access and funding for books. The following sections offer recommendations of Chicano/a literature which can serve as a foundation for both literacy instruction and critical thinking.

Elementary Level

The traditionally available literature for children about the Chicano/a culture contains a full range of stereotypes which have been defined by Martinez and Lomeli (1985) as using food to describe the Chicano/a culture, comparing Chicano/as by Anglo societal values, only dealing with fragments of the Chicano/a self, historical inaccuracies, lack of concern for the social, economic, political, and educational problems that have oppressed Chicano/as, and finally, a total disregard and lack of respect for the home language.

When choosing Chicano/a literature, it is necessary to use an emic perspective. Although many teachers may be an etic on the subject, this barrier can be overcome by choosing Chicano/a literature written by Chicano/a authors. Chicano/a authors focus on the reality of the Chicano/a experience. Unfortunately, much of the Chicano/a literature that is developed for children is actually designed for adults and has an adult perspective. However, I will discuss briefly some writers, books, and collections that are available for the elementary level. For a more comprehensive list of Chicano/a children’s literature see the Chicano Literature Reference Guide (Martinez & Lomeli, 1985).

Ernesto Galarza, a Chicano scholar, writer, and activist, has compiled a series of Mini-Libros which are like Mother Goose rhymes. These “little books” provide positive interactions with language by introducing children to poetic devices in a lively and artistic way. I will Catch the Sun, I Color My Garden, and Fabulas deAztlan by Nephtali De Leon deal with social, political, and human problems in a way that children can understand. De Leon uses both real and mythical characters in order to comprehend the harsh reality that Chicano/as face, but at the same time stimulates the imagination. Graciela Carrillo’s The Magic Bean and Alurista’s Tula and Tonan employ supernatural and natural phenomenon which is often used throughout Chicano/a literature genres to connect with one’s “indigenismo” roots.

Another prevalent theme seen throughout Chicano/a literature incorporating other languages that constitute the Chicano/a experience, dialects such as pachuquismo Chicano/a urban slang,calo, Spanglish, and Mex-Tex are used throughout Chicano/a literature to affirm Chicano/a identity. Writer Alonso Perales familiarizes children with these different dialects in his book The Owl, Stories ofMy Barrio (Martinez & Lomeli, 1985). A series of Readers have been put out by different publishing companies (i.e., DACBE, CANBBE, University of New Mexico) for use much like basal readers. These collections employ many of the same themes that the aforementioned authors have used in their stories including; women’s issues, folk songs, positive selfimages, and positive portrayals of the barrio.

An important starting point for supporting emergent literacy in children of diverse backgrounds is adorning the classroom with a print-rich environment. Moreover, children should be given ample opportunity to write about their personal experiences and build on those experiences through reading and writing (Au, 2000). Reading and writing are not unique activities to only multicultural literature, or Chicano/a literature at that; however, one activity that I came across that I felt would not only help Chicano/a children relate to the curriculum, but all Latino cultures, is something called the “Me Museum” (Galda & Cullinan, 2000). The “Me Museum” is a classroom which teaches children about diversity and appreciation for culture and personal experiences. Every student in the class has the opportunity to display items which reflect his or her cultural, personal, social, religious, and ethnic identity. This occurs every Friday throughout the year. The child who is “on display” tells about his or her items and reads aloud a favorite book. During the week before the “Me Museum,” the teacher prepares by reading literature and stimulating awareness about the child’s particular culture. This rewarding activity can take place in any grade; however, I recommend it in elementary school because it’s meaningfulness has the ability to influence the lives of students at an early age. Moreover, its a type of instruction that connects to the child, instead of expecting the child to connect to the instruction.

Middle School Level

Since middle school is a time when young individuals are experiencing psychological and physiological changes, literature can play an important part in them understanding those changes. Young adult literature can assist students who are searching for knowledge, truth, and personal identity (Klein, 1992), especially Chicano/a students who are also struggling with their cultural identity. There are two books that show the struggle of the Chicano/a individual which I didn’t have the pleasure of reading until I was in college-Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya and The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

Bless Me, Ultima is about the male Chicano experience and takes place in a rural area. The main character, Antonio, begins his spiritual quest when Ultima, a “curandera” (medicine woman) comes to stay with his family. The story moves chronologically through his coming ofage where Antonio is guided by his mentor, Ultima. Ultima’s shaman-like qualities reveal to Antonio his “indigenismo” heritage and help him (and the Chicano/a reader) make sense of his mythical past (Klein, 1992).

On the otherhand, TheHouse on Mango Street is about the female Chicana experience and is set in an urban area, where Esperanza and her family live in a “rundown flat.”Ezperanza is guided by examples of women that she does not want to be like because all the women characters are “silenced” by their patriarchal guardians. It’s fitting that Ezperanza means “hope,” since Ezperanza hopes for nothing more than escaping the domestic confinement which surrounds her (Klein, 1992).

Many Chicana females are not allowed to leave their family’s home until they marry into a new family. This sad reality cripples the will of the Chicana to advance herself educationally; however, by introducing Cisneros’ novel, young Chicanas can regain their strength and rise above the oppression of “machismo” (male dominance). Although Antonio’s character speaks through myth and dreams, whereas Ezperanza’s passages speak through social and political realities, both of these stories permit Chicano/a students to gain deeper understanding of who they are. Moreover, they are given an empowering voice.

Picture books of Chicano/a stories can also be employed in middle school to support all Chicano/a students, but especially those who are second language learners (Tiedt, 2000). Picture books are usually used at the elementary level; however, they can help non-English speaking Chicano/as understand complex themes and be beneficial for the entire class by stimulating appreciation for art. Tiedt (2000) suggests The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, La Mariposa by Francisco Jimenez, and books illustrated by Jimmy Perez.

Other topics of Chicano/a literature which are helpful for Chicano/a self-discovery include activities which can range from reports, to oral presentations, to field trips. Consider such topics as soldaderas (women revolutionaries), the Legend of La Llorona, the Mexican Sunstone, Mayan Architecture, Futbol (soccer), Holidays (i.e., El Dia Del Los Muertos), Inca Nutrition, the meaning behind Mexico’s Flag, Chicano/a Art, Aztec Gods and Goddesses, Mexican music and dance, the Aztec Calender, Chicano/a film and theater, and role models (i.e., Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, Cesar Chavez, Diego Rivera, Octovio Paz, Edward James Olmos, Loretta Sanchez, Ellen Ochoa, Dennis Chavez, Luis Alverez).

High School Level

Film is often an underused teaching tool. If portrayed accurately, it has the power to recreate an event as if it were actually taking place right before our very eyes. Most Chicano/a film should be reserved for the high school level since some of its themes require a more mature audience. Even at this age, a teacher may still need to have parent permission to address themes of sensitive nature. For example, films such as, El Norte, La Bamba, Stand and Deliver, Mi Familia, and American Me are constructive ways of critically analyzing Chicano/a images; however, language, nudity, and violence are present and need to be dealt with before showing these films.

One film that can be integrated into the Arts (particularly drama), English, and Social Studies is Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez. First a play in 1978,Zoot Suit recreates the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Case of 1942 and the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots (Burrell & Valdez, 1981). Fregoso (1993) describes the film as having “chile,” meaning that it incorporates an historical consciousness using faith, strength, poetry, and mysticism. The main character, Henry “Hank” Renya, is the leader of the 38th Street Zoot Suiter Gang. El Pachuco is the narrator of the story and a two-dimensional identity, Hank’s “other self.” El Pachuco is a glamorous, arrogant, and flamboyant image of what every Chicano/a wanted to be at that time. The wardrobe and dialect of Chicano/ as at that time was marked by a style called “pachuquismo.” The zoot suit was a …new rebellion, yet it was a way to exonerate historical affirmations. It was a style all their own which portrayed the Chicano/a’s collective identity (Fregoso, 1993). In the movie’s last scene, American Navy Sailors attack El Pachuco and strip him ofhis zoot suit. His undergarments are the clothing of an Aztec warrior. Fregoso (1993) equates this traumatic scene to that of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection; “he becomes inthe form of the Aztec, he is crucified when he stripped of his identity, and is then resurrected in the form ofthe Chicano identity.'(p. 36)

Like Hank, Chicano/a students can discover their Indian past and understand how their multiple identities fuse together creating the Chicano/a self. Non-Chicano/a students can move to an emic perspective and accept the rich diversity of the Chicano/a culture, as well as identify with some of the Non-Chicano/a characters of the film who embraced “pachuquismo.” Similarly, this film can be used in conjunction with the screenplay, in order for students to be exposed to reading different types of materials, as opposed to just novels. Students can benefit greatly through “Reader’s Theater,” where they can act out the character’s actions while at the same time taking ownership over what they are reading.

The identity of the Chicano/a is continuously on the defense. Many Chicano/as join gangs to vent their frustration and anger and to experience “carnalismo.” I believe that the character of El Pachuco can help filter that defense to more positive avenues such as getting an education and encouraging the Chicano/a culture to strive for a better life. In America’s one-sided view of history, the incidents of 1942 are a forgotten past. However, in order to embellish Chicano/a students with the passion and pride that El Pachuco exhorts, teachers need to become more emic and expose Chicano/a students to the remarkable power of literature and film.


“In Lak’ech” is a Mayan religious principle which means “you are my other self.” (Fregoso, 1993, p. 25) Chicano/a students need to be made aware oftheir other selvesnot how they lump together with other Latino cultures, but how they relate to their indigenous and Spanish selves. The dominant culture has striven to assimilate the Mexican-American culture since the invasion of their land in 1848. Assimilation, however, is what strips people of their culture and their language, leaving only guilt, shame, and regret.

At the beginning of this review of literature I gave my own personal account of growing up Chicano/a to show another form of assimilation. Although I had never experienced explicit racism, not reading an ounce of Chicano/a literature since my freshman year in college was an implicit racism on the part of the educational system. This sin of omission, as Martinez and Lomel (1985) call it, was committed by my parents as well. My parents thought it be best that I discover my Chicano/a identity on my own, the way that they had. They had experienced the “sit-ins” and the “walk-outs” of the Chicano/a Movement in the 1960s. Professing their identity was more of a reality for them. When I ask them now, why my Chicano/a persona was never discussed, they say that they didn’t want to confuse me, and it happened at a perfect time because being older allowed me to better understand the concept.

Unlike my parents, I believe that children should learn about what the word Chicano/a means and how it fits into their complex identity. After reading literature on the history and culture of their IndianSpanish past, let students decide whether or not to embrace the word Chicano/a. If not, they will be further confused by incidents such as the one mentioned in Godina and McCoy (2000): “a teacher who wanted her students to become more sensitive to the Mexican culture took her students on a field trip to Taco Bell!” (176). These types of etic perspectives on the Mexican culture only pull students further away from curriculum. In the eyes of the Chicano/a student, education is obviously a waste of time if their culture is going to be reduced to a Taco Bell restaurant.

Instead, teachers should begin to educate themselves about the different cultures that they have in their classroom, and particularly as established in this discussion, the Chicano/a culture. As teachers move toward an emic perspective, they should flood their students with richly diverse literature to exemplify the contributions that the Chicano/a culture has contributed to the world. This type of multicultural education will support the Chicano/a students in enunciating their identity with solidarity and pride.


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Candace A. Morales is a graduate student pursuing a Master of Science in Education degree with a concentration in Reading in conjunction with a Reading /Language Arts Specialist Credential in the College of Human Development and Community Service at California State University, Fullerton. She currently teaches in the Adult Basic Education Program at the Brea Community Center of the School of Continuing Education of the North Orange County Community College District, Brea, California.

Copyright Caddo Gap Press Winter 2001

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