New UHV literary center helps Texas teachers bring Mexican-American stories into classrooms

Award-winning journalist Macarena Hernández saw the look of boredom on the faces of her students while teaching remedial English classes at La Joya High School in the late ’90s and wanted to do something to reach them.

“You can’t engage students in school if none of the stories they’re reading reflect any of their experiences,” said Hernández, the Victoria Advocate Endowed Professor of the Humanities at the University of Houston-Victoria. “You’ve got to provide a little bit of everything to reach all your students or they’ll slip through the cracks.”  

She started bringing in her own books written by Mexican-American authors for her students to read and saw what a difference it could make with their interest in school.

This idea has blossomed into Centro Victoria, a literary center based in UHV’s School of Arts and Sciences, which is also home to the American Book Review and Fiction Collective Two as well as the only master’s program in publishing in the southern U.S. Inside Higher Ed, a national online source about higher education, called the university an “unlikely haven for humanities publishing” in a Jan. 8, 2009, article.

Coordinated by acclaimed Mexican-American author Dagoberto Gilb as the executive director and Hernández as the managing director, Centro Victoria is a key addition to UHV’s growing array of nationally recognized, literary-based initiatives.

“When I first discussed this initiative with Professors Gilb and Hernández, I could not believe that there were no other centers in the U.S. dedicated to the kinds of projects we were discussing,” said Jeffrey Di Leo, dean of the UHV School of Arts & Sciences.  “I’m proud that our school has quickly become a leader in bringing literature to high school students and teachers.”

Gilb and Hernández have been busy sponsoring workshops for high school English teachers across the state and discussing “Made in Texas,” a bound guide to help teachers incorporate more Mexican-American authors into their lessons.

The workshops have taken off this semester with the next one planned for Saturday in El Paso and events scheduled in La Joya, Mission and Edinburgh in May. The workshops are designed for high school English teachers, but English as a Second Language and social studies middle and high school teachers also have attended.

“We have just begun, and the response has been overwhelming,” said Gilb, who also is a writer-in-residence at UHV.

“Made in Texas” features six weeks of material – everything from poetry, fiction, nonfiction, memoir and lyrics – to teach students who Mexican-Americans are, why they are here, what their literary descendants and contemporaries have written about, and why, Gilb said.

“We’re hitting a nerve because these stories are not just about being Mexican-American; they’re also the stories of Texas,” he said.

Robbin Alexander, an English and speech teacher at Kenedy High School, where about 90 percent of the students are Hispanic, heard about “Made in Texas” from a friend who works at UHV.

She already has used an excerpt from “The Three Wars of Roy Benavidez” by Roy Benavidez, who was born in Cuero and received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor in the Vietnam War before he died. Alexander used the material in her Communication Application class during a unit on leadership.

“We’re going to work ‘Made in Texas’ into our curriculum next year at my school,” she said. “I’ve been looking for more books written by Latino authors to incorporate into my

classroom for years. It’s really going to be good for my students to see surnames that they recognize. I want them to think, ‘I can be a writer too.’”

For Tony Diáz, a Houston author whose fiction piece “Casa Sanchez” is featured in “Made in Texas,” Centro Victoria is providing an important outlet for students to better understand each other.

“You can’t get an accurate picture of Mexican-Americans through films and their stereotypes. Our writers provide the most powerful views of our hearts, souls and dreams,” said Diáz, who founded Nuestra Palabra, a nonprofit organization that promotes and encourages Latino writers, and was the lead organizer of a workshop earlier this month in Houston.

Both Gilb and Hernández want teachers to know that “Made in Texas” is a guide that teachers can use to teach all students, not just Mexican-American students. Teachers are being asked to give their feedback about “Made in Texas” before a final version is printed along with a book that will have all the stories for students.

“This is English literature,” Hernández said. “It’s not just about border issues, and it’s not written in Spanish. At the end of the day, these stories are universal.”

UHV President Tim Hudson said Hernández, Gilb and Centro Victoria are offering an invaluable service to students in Texas and their teachers.

“With the growing Hispanic population in Texas and throughout the U.S., this is the right time for ventures such as Centro Victoria that promote respect of people of all races and encourage more students to graduate and go on to obtain a higher education,” he said.

For more information about Centro Victoria or any of the workshops, e-mail or call 361-570-4101.

The University of Houston-Victoria, located in the heart of the Coastal Bend region since 1973 in Victoria, Texas, offers courses leading to more than 80 academic programs in the schools of Arts & Sciences; Business Administration; and Education, Health Professions & Human Development. UHV provides face-to-face classes at its Victoria campus, as well as an instructional site in Katy, Texas, and online classes that students can take from anywhere. UHV supports the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Opportunities for All initiative to increase awareness about state colleges and universities and the important role they have in providing a high-quality and accessible education to an increasingly diverse student population, as well as contributing to regional and state economic development.

Paula Cobler