Where do social inequalities come from?: Class divides in Chicana/o-Latina/o literature.

Author:Gonzalez, Marcial


There's no denying that the Occupy movement, aside from everything else it has accomplished since 2011, created ample opportunities in college classrooms for teaching about the super wealthy, or the 1%, and their role in reproducing social and economic inequalities in the United States and around the world. In my own courses, however, I have tried to emphasize to students that there is a marked difference between teaching about "the rich" and teaching about "class." The former implies a focus on the disparities between wealth and poverty; the latter, if conducted properly, affords the opportunity to investigate the structural causes of those disparities and their relation to class power. That is to say, whereas the former tends to be observational or empirical, the latter is potentially historical and critical. In what follows, I hope to explore, even if only briefly, the possibilities of developing a critical pedagogy based on a Marxist conception of class for the study of literature. About half way through the essay, I'll turn to a discussion of a specific literary work to link my theoretical claims and pedagogical practice. In suggesting some basic tenets of a critical Marxist pedagogy for the teaching of literature, I shall propose an approach that not only recognizes the inequalities that exist between people of different social class backgrounds, but one that poses and seeks to answer a question aimed at understanding structural causality: "Where do social inequalities and injustices come from?"

First, some background: I teach literature in the English Department at UC Berkeley and specialize in Chicana/o-Latina/o literature. As one might expect, issues such as racism, sexism and class oppression are robustly represented in many of the works I teach. Lately, my teaching has increasingly focused on works that depict the experiences of immigrant and migrant laborers, including such works as Helena Mana Viramontes' Under the Feet of Jesus, Elva Trevino Hart's Barefoot Heart: Stories of a Migrant Child, Tomas Rivera's And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, Ramon Perez's Diary of an Undocumented Immigrant, Salvador Plascencia's The People of Paper, and Luis Alberto Urrea's The Devil's Highway, among others.

Many of the students who enroll in my courses--and for that matter, a large percentage of students enrolled at Berkeley--are from affluent families, some of which are representative of "the 1%." But as a public institution, Berkeley has a student population that is actually fairly diverse in terms of class--at least in the humanities. In a recent survey of the English Department's 650 majors, 14% self-identified as "low income or poor," 25% as "working class," 37% as "middle class," and 23% as "upper middle class or wealthy." From what I can tell, my own courses usually comprise a similar demographic breakdown.

For me, "teaching about class" to my students involves helping them to reflect on not only the differences between rich and poor, but the causes of social inequalities and injustices through the study of literary works about Chicana/o and Latina/o working-class characters. One of my goals in the classroom is to help students recognize that class divisions and class antagonisms as represented in literature are not caused by "good" or "bad" individuals, but stem from the built-in structural contradictions of capitalism as a system. My aim is not merely to expose students to the realities of poverty and human suffering, important as this task might be, but to teach them to ask questions about the causes of these conditions. One of the most basic questions I pose to my students when studying literary representations of class is "Where do social inequalities and injustices come from?" To help my students answer this question, I employ a pedagogical approach that seeks to understand social inequality as a fundamental, necessary feature of capitalism, constituted by the labor-capital relation--that is to say, a pedagogical approach informed by the theories of historical materialism.

By historical materialism, I mean to convey generally the same definition that Engels assigned to this term in 1892 when he wrote that "historical materialism" designates "that view of the course of history, which seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all important historic events in the economic development of society, in the changes in the modes of production and exchange, in the consequent division of society into distinct classes, and in the struggles of these classes against one another" (23). Specifically, as I hope to demonstrate below, I draw on three implications of Engels' definition of historical materialism that...

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