MASKS OF IDENTITY: THE SPACE OF LIMINAL POSSIBILITIES
Abstract: A case study in teaching from 2007-2014 a dual-enrollment university course in Composition & Rhetoric 101 and 102 Exposition and Argumentation (14 semesters) at Cobre High School in Bayard, New Mexico populated predominantly by Mexican American students. The title is drawn from a comment by Professor Dora Ramirez-Dhoore in her essay “Discovering a Proper Pedagogy: The Geography of Writing at the University of Texas—Pan American” discussed in the chapter on HSIs by Dr. Iris D. Ruiz in Reclaiming Composition for Chicanos/as and Other Ethnic Minorities: A Critical History and Pedagogy, 1st Edition, Palgrave/Macmillan, 2016.
I arrived at Western New Mexico University (WNMU) on January 9, 2007 from Texas A&M University at Kingsville where I had spent 8 years as professor of English and Bilingual Gra-duate Studies in education (M.A. and Ed.D.) Important to note is that I had retired in 1999 at age 73 from the Texas State University System—Sul Ross. At WNMU I was appointed Scholar in Residence by Dr. Faye Vowell, Vice President for Academic Affairs, teaching a variety of courses across disciplines in which I had previously held appointments (individually or jointly)—English, Chicano Studies, Urban Studies, Social Work, History, Linguistics, Information Studies, Communications, Journalism, Bilingual Education, Drama, Spanish, French. My first assignments at WNMU were courses in Bilingual and Multicultural Education and with the WNMU Chicano Caucus developing a Chicano Studies Program which turned out to be a Department of Chicano/a and Hemispheric Studies.
That Summer of 2007—almost 10 years ago now– Faye Vowell approached me to undertake the University’s first dual-enrollment course in English Composition & Rhetoric at Cobre High School in nearby Bayard, NM, in the Santa Clara mining district of the region where the Salt of the Earth movie about the Empire Zinc strike of 1950-51 was filmed. She confided in me that none of the English faculty deigned to teach the course because it was to be taught at the High School instead of at the University. Faye asked: Would I take on the course? I agreed. Faye went on to explain that the English faculty expressed disdain for the course since they were professors, not high school teachers. I welcomed the challenge since I had started my teaching career as a high school teacher of French having earned my first teaching credential in English, Spanish, and French in 1952 after 4 years at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) and had only switched to University teaching in English in 1964 at New Mexico State University some 43 years earlier. I organized my schedule to accommodate the Cobre High School class in Composition & Rhetoric. I was excited by the prospect of the class with students who were still in high school and taking college courses. Far cry from the traditional educational scheme of my generation.
My first day at Cobre High School in the Fall of 2007 I met the Principal and Marlene Law, the gracious English teacher whose room I’d be using for the dual-enrollment course. The students were all Mexican Americans. They smiled broadly when they saw me and was introduced by the Principal. I greeted them all in Spanish and English. Their smiles grew broader. When I was finally alone with them I passed out a “brag sheet” about me and told them a little more about myself. I learned this was a senior graduating class and we’d be together during Fall and Spring. I passed out a syllabus (see Appendix), took roll, and asked them to tell me about themselves. The response was animated. The syllabus listed readings with myriad themes by traditional, minority, and marginalized American writers. There were essays by American Hispanic writers—male and female—from my course in Latino American Literature. Over the semester I introduced the students to traditional and non-traditional schemes of writing. (see “Leo and Virgo” in Appendix). There were few absences though as expected a time or two some students fell behind in their work.
What dawned on me almost from the beginning was that I was an essential part of the “content” of the class—the students saw themselves reflected in me. There were Mexican American teachers at Cobre but I was the first Mexican American professor of English they had ever met . . . and a writer—they would read a prize-winning short story of mine. I was one of them who had dropped out of school after finishing the 9th grade during World War II to join the Marines. They wanted to know what war was like. I introduced them to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and how “the paths of glory lead but to the Grave.” I told them about my year in China when we read Amy Tan; and about my four years in the Paris of my youth. Over the semester I told them about Flying School and the need to nourish “inquiry” about themselves and the world around them.
At the end of each semester the families of the students gathered in the classroom bringing Mexican food and engaging me in conversation principally bout their children; but they were curious about me—the Chicano professor who taught their children how to write—and about Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Cervantes.
For seven years the course invigorated me until because of mobility issues I finally could no longer manage the drive and withdrew to the main campus and Chicano students in the traditional university setting.
But all is not serene in the groves of Academe. I’m still the only Chicano professor of English on campus Though this is not unusual considering the paucity of Chicano professors of English. At my current university I’m not called upon to teach American literature—my courses are in other departments. Thus, in Writing Across the Curriculum Chicano students at WNMU are besieged by white mainstream content delivered by faculty representatives of the hegemonic elite preparing them for lives as functionary congregants serving a white society. I have become convinced that I am not selected to teach American literature, in part, because I teach the mosaic, the fullness that is American Literature, not just the canonical white texts.
For that reason, I see on reflection that I was an essential part of the content of the course I taught at Cobre High School. I was one of them [the students], a mexicano professor of English who had experienced the travails they were experiencing as mexicanos in a white space of prescribed possibilities for them in American education. It occurred to me that I was creating a “third space of liminal possibilities” for my students based on their cultural identities. They were free to momentarily remove their masks of identity, masks that gave them safe harbor in navigating the rocks and shoals of American life while holding on tenaciously to their ethnic and cultural identity.
The word liminal comes from the Latin word “limen” meaning threshold – any point or place of entering or beginning. A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place.
The Pier Learning Center: https://inaliminalspace.org/about-us/what-is-a-liminal-space/
Jean Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century political philosopher, observed during his time that “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” We tend to equate that remark with political oppression of the past, totalitarian regimes that actually put their subjects in chains. But the deeper meaning of Rousseau’s statement links up with William Blake’s “mind-forged manacles” which bind people to their own and inculcated oppressive fears and behaviors. A century later, Karl Marx, another political philosopher, proclaimed that “man” had to throw off those mind-forged manacles which shackled him before he could achieve self-fulfillment. In the 19th century struggle for Black emancipation, Frederick Douglas saw clearly that the limits of oppression are set not by the oppressors but by the oppressed. In other words, shedding their “masks of identity”—mind-forged manacles.
As a teacher in the public schools and later in colleges and universities, I have observed with considerable concern the motivational index of people of all ages. Like Par Lagerqvist’s panoramic hordes or Tolkien’s masses, I have seen in those people the endless string of humanity struggling in what is considered the human condition, most of them held in place by socio-political restraints imposed on them, accepting the proposition that all of us have a specified place in the great chain of being, immovable, irrevocable.
In open societies people are not chained anymore, but many people are “enchained” nevertheless by particular kinds of inculcated and internalized notions and behavior particularized by the hegemonic elite. It’s in the space of liminal possibilities where these restraints can be removed by pulling the curtain aside to reveal the wizardry of Oz. “It has been argued that racialized Others occupy a liminal space of alterity [otherness); a position at the edges of society from which their identities and experiences are constructed’ (Nicola Rollock, The invisibility of race: Intersectional reflections on the liminal space of alterity. Available from: https//www. [accessed Feb 17, 2017]. ”They remain at the margins through acts and frequent reminders from dominant groups that regardless of achievement, qualification or status they are locked in the power dynamic and hierarchical racial structures that serve to maintain unequal order in society” (Ladson-Billings and Donnor 2008, 372).
Sadly, many of the oppressed of the periphery (margins) think they are pondering the periphery from the center when in fact they are pondering the periphery from the periphery, though they think they are in the center. Even now, great numbers of Chicanos at the periphery think they are pondering the periphery from the point of view of the center. In this category are found Chicano phenomenologists, existentialists, functionalists, structuralists, formalists, dialecticians, archetypists and Marxists who do not see their relation to the center as one of dependency, ergo domination by the center. For example, Chicano critics who fawn over Harold Bloom’s taxonomy of types don’t ponder the fact that Bloom’s typology comes from a critical theory of the center, external to the experiences of the periphery.
All in all, my 7 year odyssey with Graduating seniors at Cobre High School in Bayard, New Mexico was rewarding made more rewarding by the pedagogical nuggets of Iris Ruiz’s book Reclaiming Composition for Chicano/as and Other Ethnic Minorities: A Critical History and Pedagogy, 2016.
In reality the dual-enrollment senior English (Composition & Rhetoric 101/102) class at Cobre High School was about ethnic identity, not so much by what we read but by the ethnic interactions between me as a Mexican American professor of English and the Mexican American students experiencing those interactions for the first time in English, an engaging farrago of identities. This is not to say the Cobre students in my English class had not experienced interactions with Mexican American teachers before. For there are many Mexican American Teachers at Cobre High School.
The fly in this ointment is that American teachers of English in high schools and colleges are ill-prepared not only for the ethnic diversity of their classrooms but also ill-prepared to teach the diversity of American literature since so few are exposed to the diversity of American literature since the focus of their training has been on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the English literary canon. Like me in 1952, my first year of teaching, when teachers of English stepped into their classrooms all they knew about American literature were the works of what was then the American literary canon, limited to Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain. Nurtured on the Western Tradition, this is what they taught and what they passed on to subsequent generations of American students. Sacrosanct, the illumination of the Western Tradition in literature continued unabated until the emergence of minority movements of the post-Brown v. Board of Education era (Ortego 1971).
WORKS CITED AND CONSULTED
Ortego, Philip D. 1971. “Which Southwestern Literature in the English Classroom?”
Arizona English Bulletin, April.
Copyright 2017 By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Public Policy), Western New Mexico University; Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Texas State University System—Sul Ross