Literature as Cross-Cultural Opportunity

In Julia Alvarez’s Return to Sender, Tyler, raised on a Vermont farm, and Mari, a Mexican immigrant who has been hired to help on Tyler’s family farm, become friends. Mari is worried about being deported, while Tyler worries for his family’s farm, yet their friendship withstands their differences. Return to Sender explores the challenges of building a friendship across cultures, even when it means reconciling your own ideas about a topic, in this case, illegal immigration.

There’s been a lot written about how reading fiction helps kids develop empathy and social skills. It also helps kids make and keep cross-cultural friendships. Jan Lacina and Robin Griffith, in their article, “Making New Friends: Using Literature to Inspire Cross-Cultural Friendships” (from the September/October issue of Reading Today) discuss the importance of being able to navigate cross-cultural friendships.

When kids have friends from different cultural heritages, they develop perspective, communication skills, and problem solving. And, as Lacina and Griffith point out, they demonstrate less prejudice. 

The world that today’s American kids inhabit is at once diverse and segregated. The New York Times reported that there are 5 million more students who are Hispanic or Asian today than there were in the 1990s. And, the diversity index, or the chance that two students, chosen at random, are of different ethnic groups has increased from 52% in 1993 to 61% in 2006 (higher numbers mean a more diverse student body).

But, even as diversity increases in America as a whole, individual schools and neighborhoods remain segregated. Earlier this year, when Brown vs. Board of Education turned 60, The Civil Rights Project assessed school segregation and found a disappointing picture:

  • The South has lost any desegregation progress made after 1967, but, despite this regression, it is still the most integrated region for African American students.
  • Hispanic students, which represent the largest minority group, are going to school in significantly segregated classrooms.

Overall, segregation is still the norm for students across the country. In a time when it’s imperative that students understand diverse perspectives and interact with people from different “worlds” than their own, reading about different cultures seem like an easy, foundational step that we can take. I’d love for kids who have grown up reading about cross-cultural friendships to seek out and make friends with people from different cultural backgrounds, and use that understanding to advocate for more diversity overall. The opportunity that students have when reading about cross-cultural friendships, after all, may be lost if there’s no one to befriend. 

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