ABOUT: NALAC 2018 NFA GRANT PROjeCT // BOdies of Agua


"Altar-ing" is one facet of “Bodies of Agua,” a literary research project supported by the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, Southwest Airlines, and the City of San Antonio Department of Arts & Culture through a grant from the NALAC Fund for the Arts Grant Program.


I will conduct academic research and embark on ethnographic fieldwork. Armed with a clear research plan, I will travel  and focusing with an Anzaldúan lens, I will travel to five South Texas bodies of water that are intrinsically linked to five generations of my matrilineal line. I will document ecological, political, and historical landmarks with autohistoria: journals and photos that will be presented real-time @bodiesofagua and presented on bonniecisneros.com. I will compose five 20-page creative nonfiction essays to be published in a chapbook. Finally, I will create a supplemental curriculum to be taught in Mexican-American Studies classes of South Texas

Altar-ing MAS Unit by Bonnie Cisneros (pdf)


ALTAR-ING: MExican-American memoir in the Borderlands



Mexican American Studies/ Mexican American Literature 

Memoir/Autohistoria Unit

Grade Levels: 

Middle - High School

ELA, MAS, MAS Lit, Creative Writing  

Bonnie Ilza Cisneros, author

Andres Lopez, consultant

This curriculum is one facet of Bodies of Agua, a literary research project supported by the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, Southwest Airlines, and the City of San Antonio Department of Arts & Culture through a grant from the NALAC Fund for the Arts Grant Program.

Altar-ing is aligned with TEKS for middle through high school classes in the hopes that it can be implemented with  a variety of students.. 


For my daughters &  my mama.

For my students & their students.

For the South Texas maestras/escritoras 

whose passion for learning and teaching led me here:

Ms. Cavazos, Mrs. Longoria, Mrs. Villarreal, Ms. Anzaldúa: 

whether they stayed on the rancho or left for the academy, 

these trailblazers are forever lighting my path.


Gleaned from various readings and copious notes taken at Mexican-American Studies conferences in San Antonio, Texas, the purpose of this unit is to decolonize the literature class, empower our students, center their voices, create spaces, and mobilize them to justice. By tapping into community knowledge and cultural memory, and by utilizing interdisciplinary approaches, Mexican American Literature works as both a window and a mirror that can lead to conocimiento.

Recognizing the power of seeing oneself in literature, the lessons are designed to inspire students to see their stories as not only valid, but beautiful, to be inspired to dig up history that has otherwise been excluded or diluted, and to discover the cultural goldmine in their own backyards by collecting oral histories in their own familias in order to both preserve and generate knowledge. 

In conjunction with Bodies of Agua, the following lessons encourage students to go outside traditional classroom tomes and texts in order to reconnect with cultural and natural facets that compose South Texas.

In addition, lessons spiral from exploring students’  individual family histories to collective cultural elements such as music, food, icons, and landmarks. The lessons feature Mexican-American authors writing memoir, or autohistoria-teoría, a term coined by Gloria Anzaldúa to describe writing that weaves together elements of  “cultural and personal biographies with memoir, history, storytelling, myth, and other forms of theorizing…..(to) create new stories of healing and self-growth, cultural critique, and individual and collective transformation” (Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro)


Bonnie Cisneros spent five years teaching public school at an inner-city academy. She never meant to land in middle school, but fate propelled her to help launch the first 8th grade c at Nathaniel Hawthorne Academy, which was, at the time, the jewel in the crown of San Antonio Independent School District. 

Her mentors at Hawthorne had already laid the foundation for her; a group of exemplary teachers thought outside the box and made Hawthorne a school where inner-city students could flex their thoughts and not be bound to humdrum curriculum. 

Its charter declared Hawthorne a Core Knowledge school (curriculum with systematic syllabus of topics designed to give educators a way of knowing what students have experienced in school and to give students a common foundation on which to build additional learning).

Core Knowledge stems from the idea that “cultural literacy” should be taught, and Bonnie wholeheartedly agreed with the theory. For example, students are taught  aphorisms and sayings like “can’t hold a candle to” and “make ends meet” because learners  who are not exposed to the sayings of the dominant culture will surely run across them in their readings and conversations throughout their formal education.

Bonnie was sold on Core from the start, and found great pleasure in delving into the curriculum and content, though it was always clear that her culture, and that of her majority Mexican-American and Mexican-immigrant students, was missing. Where were the Mexican dichos and poesia Tejana, not to mention the history and literature, of the indigenous, Mexicans, and Tejanos? 

Bonnie’s path pivoted several times. She spent five years teaching at Hawthorne. In 2011, she took a job at San Anto Cultural Arts as the El Placazo Barrio Newspaper coordinator. At SACA, the theories and skills synthesized,which is probably the topic of another paper, but a lightbulb moment occurred when members of the SACA community showed her Precious Knowledge, the documentary about the fight to keep MAS in Arizona Public Schools. That movie really moved her! 

After SACA, Bonnie had babies and earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University. Writing MAS curriculum is a project in communication with Bonnie’s ancestors and mentors, and she’s wondering whether it is a good choice to write this in third person. 

I’ll switch it back to first person.

All of the energy given to me over the years inspires me to gift Altar-ing to all the South Texas teachers and students who continue to do the real work---blurring the boundaries of what the state says we should teach and learn. 

This is the time to remember where we came from and point students in the directions that led them here. South Texas, after the colonies and missions, after the wars and treaties, after the bridges and walls, has much to teach. 

Altar-ing is an attempt to rebuild. 


I know how 45-minute segments, five days per week, can both be too much  and yet not enough time. Some of these lessons may stretch out, and others may fizzle out after a day. 

It is up to your students to help guide the ship. Allow for their interests to steer the direction and be attuned to their excitement or lack thereof. 

I honestly believe that this unit would be best placed towards the end of the school year when trust has been built, and they’ve been exposed to a plethora of Mexican American Studies/Literature. 

I’ve left the final project guidelines somewhat open so you can tailor it to your students’ needs. Music plays a central role in this journey. You might want to invest in some decent speakers if you don’t have some. 

Time is always a factor, so remember that each lesson is designed to be a possible facet of the final project. Assignments may be revisited throughout, revised and tweaked, in an attempt to model how formal research and creative projects happen in real life. 

That’s one of the things that bugged me when I was teaching---that feeling that we were regulated by time/bells, classroom/walls, rules/standards. I’m hoping that we can use Altar-ing as a map to get you, at least intellectually and emotionally, beyond these boundaries.

Families are going to be a key component to doing this. It’s their stories, customs, music, recipes that will take take center stage. Keep them in the loop with newsletters, texts, and maybe even social media. 

Once all is said and done, the final product could very well be a family heirloom.


Andres Lopez, a San Antonio native, has taught English Language Arts for over 15 years in San Antonio, Houston and Austin, Texas, Boston, Massachusetts and Guanajuato, Mexico. Of his 16 years in the classroom, 13 were in middle schools.  For the last three years, Andres has taught on-level and dual credit English at Stevens High School, where he established San Antonio's first high school Mexican American Literature class. He obtained his teaching degree at the University of Texas at Austin, a master’s in education at Boston College and a master’s in English Literature with an emphasis on Chicano/a rhetoric and literature from Texas State University. He was recognized as Northside I.S.D.'s 2018 Educator of the Year and was the district's 2018 nominee for the Trinity Prize for Excellence in Teaching. Andres is also an active member of Somos MAS, a group of educators organized to support MAS in San Antonio and Texas.

Preguntas to unfold over the course of the unit:

Search out one’s past

Open windows into your life

Make sense of the past and find how it led to the present

Who are we? What have we become? What are we becoming?

Repeat stories about choices, perspectives, responses, results

Explore both good and bad, living and dead, real and mythological

CELEBRATE people and places that might otherwise be overlooked

build an altar of words, artwork, research.


The unit is composed of 10 lessons that culminate in a final project. Lessons are intended to tap into students’ personal history and cultural memory by reading a variety of Mexican American authors and participating in activities that keep them talking, thinking, writing, sharing, and listening. 

A lexicon of the borderlands will be built as a class, the Tex, Mex, Latinx  vocabulary that has been traditionally excluded and even vilified in the classroom will be uncovered and admired. 

Technology, music,  film, photography, fine and folk art, murals will supplement and enhance lessons. 

Final projects/products and presentations may include a variety of products such as murals, altars/ofrendas, slideshows, documentary videos, essay collections, original mixtapes, poetry chapbooks, and graphic novels.

It may be that this unit will work best at the end of the school year, when testing is complete and everyone is allowed to breathe again. There is an attempt on the authors’ part to create a suggested timeline, but all teachers know that lessons sometimes expand and other times fizzle out. 

Finally, it is recommended that teachers take the time to compose their own writing assignments ahead of time in order to provide their students with authentic examples of the reading, researching, reflecting, writing, revising, performance/product cycle. 

If you’d rather write with them watching, that’s cool too. 

All English teachers started as voracious readers and avid writers, so this unit asks that you tap into that passion..  Be curious and sensitive and willing to share with them, and they’ll meet and exceed your expectations. 

Maybe it’ll help you shape your own memoir!


Lesson 1: A Foto is Worth a Thousand Palabras 

Memories make us who we are. Photographs capture events and preserve the basic facts. In this lesson, students will analyze a favorite family photo for sensory and emotional memories and use poetry to transform the photo into their own “Stenciled Memory.”


  • To analyze visual text in the form of a family photo for time period, setting, cultural markers, family history, body language, clothing, and emotional connotations. 
  • To write a poem conveying the importance of the photo in connection to their own identity. 
  • to synthesize the handout and the photo


6-8th Grade: 4A; 8A; 15B

9th-12th Grade: 3A; 7A; 14B



  1. Warm Up: Teacher models activity using their own family photo. Describe the scene in the photo. Talk about how your memory of the event both parallels and differs from what is shown in the frame. 
    1. Though the photo is a visual representation of the event, discuss other senses that can be gleaned about the event.  What do you see and how can you infer what senses were captured in the photo: sounds, smells, feels, tastes?
    2. Teacher talks about emotions that the photo evokes. 
    3. Teacher tells some details or facts that the picture does not show.
  2. Read “Stenciled Memories” aloud as either line by line popcorn read, partners, or whole group. 
    1. Discuss the following:
      1. Our memories are often composed of senses: what an event looked, sounded, felt, tasted, smelled like. Make a quick five column graphic organizer in journals labeled with five senses. Partners dissect poem for sensory details (sweet sap, trilling crickets, bitter lemon song, etc..)
      2. How does the poet include sensory elements  to fill in the “stencil” of the speaker’s memories of grandmother?
      3. “Always making do” is a key line in the poem. What does it mean to “make do” and what are some ways your elders make do on a daily basis? 
  3. In small groups, students analyze their photos using Photo Analysis Handout (linked above). 
  4. On their own, students reflect on the same details that the teacher modeled in Step 1:
    1. sensory memories evoked by photo can be listed in a five-column graphic organizer. 
    2. list emotional memories
    3. remember five details that the photo does not show. 
  5. In journals, students will use “Stenciled Memories,” their photo analysis handout, and the pre-writing from Step 4 as sources to compose a poem inspired by their photo and findings.
  6. Share poems and keep as a possible resource for the final project.
  7. Extension: students may scan photo, type out poem, and use design software  to create a visual and verbal meme. 

Lesson 2: Arbol de Mi Familia / Your Roots and Branches, Tus Raices y Ramas

Trees are the lungs of the planet. We use our breath to speak language, express emotion, and communicate with each other. Texas is a land of many languages, all of equal beauty and importance. In this lesson, students will remember the names of their ancestors and understand the power of knowing/using/uttering both English familial terms and their Spanish/TexMex equivalents: from abuelo and tía, to tatarabuela and suegra. They will also learn the names of common Texas trees and the features that identify them, hopefully connecting the dots between their own roots and branches and their connection to Texas air, soil, and water. 


  • to learn the names and identifiers of various South Texas trees. 
  • to compare and contrast how a family is like a tree, or even a nopal. 
  • to confer with their parents and grandparents to construct a graphic representation of their ancestors. 
  • to learn vocabulary in English and Spanish for genealogical terms: grandparents, abuelos, ancestor, antepasado, aunt, uncle, tía, tío, and so forth. 

*If possible, students may access ancestry.com to help find names and documents relating to their family.  

*In the case of students who may not have access to biological family members, this lesson will have to be adapted with great sensitivity. Modify according to student’s interests and allow them to voice ideas for an alternate project.


6th Grade: 23C

7th-8th Grade: 23B; 

9th-12th Grade: 21B




  1. Warm Up: Ask students to open their journals and give them two minutes to draw a tree, any tree, any style. Partners share their drawing and talk about similarities and differences between their drawings. 
  2. Teacher draws a simple tree outline on the board and leads a class discussion using the following questions: 
    1. How is a tree like a family?  
    2. What are a family’s roots, branches, leaves, fruit? (Here, you may choose to include the Spanish equivalents to these words: raices, ramas, hojas, fruta.)
    3. Ask students to name types of trees and talk about the importance of trees (breathing, shelter, ecosystems, soil erosion, materials, beauty)
  3. Project photos of various South Texas trees: mesquite, live oak, palm, cypress, pecan, nopal (I think you should google these and choose the images you find particularly pretty.)
  4. Divide class into equal groups representing types of common South Texas trees, such as mesquite, palm, oak, cypress, pecan
  5. Allow time for groups to research botany, climate, growth, symbolism, uses, fun facts. Determine what format students will use to gather information and presentations.
  6. Present findings.
  7. Extension opportunity: Take a nature walk around campus. Take photos of trees and/or sketch a favorite specimen in journals.


My Name, Mi Nombre handout (linked above)

Take a walk with an elder/family member and look for examples of various trees. Collect specimens such as mesquite pods, leaves, pecans, acorns in provided baggies to bring back to class for use in final projects/altars. 


*TEACHER NOTE: You need your family tree today. You also want to be sensitive to students with little to no knowledge about their family history. 

  1. Warm Up: Review tree vocabulary and how to identify species. Take a moment to share specimens and talk about their nature waournals, students reflect on the following prompt: 

Why is it important to know the names of things? 

  1. Teacher shares their family tree with the class. Point out interesting facts such as: recurring names (Jrs and Srs), surnames and what they mean or where they come from, if one branch is top-heavy or skimpy and why, where the ancestors were from and how they moved around or didn’t. Point out that familial terms are labeled in English and Spanish. 
  2. Students fill in Family Tree handout as much as possible. Include full names, birthdates, place of birth, death dates. 
  3. In journal, choose one of the tree species that most represents your family. Why? Reflect on how the tree is both like and unlike your family. 
  4. Extension: Choose one of the local tree species that best represents their family and create an illustrated family tree in the form of their chosen tree.


 Students confer with family to add more names to Family Tree handout for use on the final project. 

LESSON 3:  What’s in a Name? 

Not that long ago in South Texas, our ancestors’ names were mispronounced, mocked, or even Anglicized and changed. In this lesson, students will explore the meaning (denotation) and the feeling (connotation) of their given names and learn that their identities are worth studying. 

This lesson is dedicated to all the Blancas who were forced to become Blanches and all the Rogelios who were renamed Roger. 


  • read Sandra Cisneros’s “My Name” from The House on Mango Street. 
  • research the story of their given, middle, and last name. 
  • consult with parents to find out why they picked their name and research online to discover the origins of their names. 
  • analyze the connotation and denotation of their given names. 
  • use their family tree to compile their last names going back and back in the Spanish tradition (father’s last name, mother’s maiden name, father’s mother’s maiden name, mother’s mother’s maiden name, and so on). 
  • compose a vignette about the connotation and denotation of their names.


6th-8th Grade: 2E, 8A

9th-12th Grade: 1E, 7A 


For name research:




DAY ONE: (Reading)

  1. Warm Up: Teacher introduces lesson by telling class the story of their name. This can be presented as a list of points or, preferably, a vignette in the style of Cisneros’s “My Name,” composed in advance.  

Questions to consider: What do you know about why your parents chose your first and middle names? Are you named after someone? What do you know about that person? What does your name mean; where does it originate? (see above websites) How do your feel about your name? Has the feeling changed over time? Do you have nicknames? What do you know about your last name? Do you feel like your names suit you? Do others have trouble pronouncing your name? Would you ever change it? Why or why not? 

  1. Students read Cisneros’s “My Name” aloud as a whole group or in small groups. 
  2. Discuss Esperanza’s relationship to her name. 

  • What does Esperanza's name mean literally in English and Spanish? What is the denotation of her name? 
  • What connotations does she associate with her name? Why does her name mean sadness or waiting? 
  • What images does Cisneros use to make the connotations clear? Why are they effective? 
  • What personal details does the passage include? What cultural information is included? 

4. Teacher reviews the terms "connotation" and "denotation" using the surefire Quick Tip below. **

5. Independent work: complete Connotation/Denotation T-chart  individually in order to prepare for the writing assignments.


An easy and memorable way I’ve taught connotation and denotation is to use the example of the word cockroach (cucaracha). Ask students to define cockroach: a scavenging insect that resembles a beetle, having long antennae and legs and typically a broad, flattened body. Several tropical kinds have become established worldwide as household pests. That definition is flat, unemotional, it’s the denotation. 

Now, discuss what feelings arise when you hear or picture a cockroach: asco, disgust, shudder, gross. Those feelings evoked are the connotation

Even further, with the word “cucaracha.” Some students will have Spanish words to define (denote) the word, and others will have the association of the song “La Cucaracha.”  You can play the Cuco Sánchez version linked above, and give some historical context for the lyrics. This is a rabbit hole, but that’s sort of the point. Students may appreciate seeing the teacher get excited about words, and how they  contain bottomless chasms of meaning and story. Most kids won’t forget the cockroach connotation/denotation lesson, but the excitement and borderline surprise they’ll glean from “La Cucaracha” is worth the time this detour takes. 

Learning, and feeling excited by research, is the gift that keeps on giving. 

DAY TWO: My Name, Mi Nombre 

  1. Warm Up: Review connotation/denotation using example vocabulary such as: snake, baggage, home, rose.
  2. Class shares homework findings. In small groups, allow time to talk about what they discovered about the origins of their names. 
  3. In journals, students will use “My Name” and the teacher’s vignette as examples to write their own vignette about their own name, how it connects to where they come from, and why names are valuable to their own identity.
  4. Students may share their drafts. 

Remember, you’re squirrelling away these notes and discoveries for use on the final project. Remind them of this!

LESSON 4: Recipe for Remembering 



the undoing of colonialism, the latter being the process whereby a nation establishes and maintains its domination over one or more other territories; the term also includes the intellectual decolonization from the colonizers' ideas that made the colonized feel inferior.

In this lesson, students will tap into food and kitchen memories as a source of ancestral knowledge and cultural pride. 

Note to teacher: This lesson involves ingredients from your own pantry and/or the grocery store, plus TEN small plastic containers with lids.


  • to access kitchen memories in order to write out a family recipe. 
  • to compile group recipes in a book in order to preserve and pass on the ancestral ingredients and techniques. 
  • to analyze how food and family are intrinsically linked.  
  • to collect a family recipe and write it out in both story form and instructions/steps. 


6-8th Grade: 4A; 8A; 15B

9th-12th Grade: 3A; 7A; 14B


  • Decolonize Your Diet recipe list
  • common spices such as garlic, cinnamon, comino, anise, oregano, onion, vanilla and other ingredients with familiar smells such as: maseca, manzanilla, cilantro, all in small plastic containers labeled 1 -10. (Make a list of which ingredient is in each container to make life easier.) 
  • molcajete, comal, lime squeezer, molino (common Mexican-American kitchen tools)
  • "Cornflowers" by Brenda Cárdenas (one copy per student)
  • Journals 


  1. Warm Up: Class pairs off into partners or groups of three.

In journals, students number the page from 1 - 10. 

Pass around containers and give them a minute or so to smell containers without opening them and guess at the contents until all containers have been passed around..

  1. Whole group talks though list and guesses. Ask: which smells are unmistakable? Which ones are hard to pinpoint? What does each scent remind them of?
  2. Teacher goes over the answers by tallying student’s guesses on an impromptu tally chart. Reveal mystery results!
  3. Ask students to choose the smell that stirs up the strongest kitchen/food memory for them and put a star next to that number on their list. 
  4. Read “Cornflowers” with a partner and highlight all the words that evoke the sense of smell. (corn tortillas, honeysuckle, papaya, etc..)
  5. Discuss: 

  • How many smell words did you highlight? 
  • What is the connotation and denotation of “I raise an eyebrow”?
  • What might it mean that even after applying shampoos, the speaker’s hair still smells like tortillas?
  • What is the difference between artificial and natural?
  • How does the speaker’s sense of smell lead them back to “ancestor grasses”?
  • What is the effect of comparing the speaker’s hair to maiz?
  • How do “hybrid rows of words” connect to decolonization? 

7.  In journals, students draft a poem about the ingredient that evoked the most memories for them. They may use “Cornflowers” as an example of a three-stanza poem that connects an ancestral food to their present physical self.



from Decolonize Your Diet website:

What is decolonization?

Decolonization is the ongoing process to end oppression and servitude and to restore respect for indigenous knowledge and ways of life. Decolonization requires both spiritual healing and political resistance. To heal, we must acknowledge that Indigenous and African traditions in spirituality, music, literature, and food were never completely suppressed by the colonizers but kept alive, sometimes surreptitiously, in daily acts of resistance that include storytelling, recipe sharing, and ceremony. Decolonization means reclaiming and honoring our histories, our stories, and our traditions as a way to fight for our common humanity.

  1. Warm Up: Display the common kitchen tools and ask students if they know what the names and how the tools are used. This is just for fun and to make a connection from home kitchen to the classroom.
  2. Allow students time to explore the decolonizeyourdiet.org website. In journals, they will take notes on the term “decolonization” and list recipes that seem appealing to them. Decolonization is a concept that can, at this point, be explored in terms of food.  

A possible way to tackle this can be a Colonization/Decolonization T-Chart with simple definitions and examples.

  1. Whole group discusses findings. . 
  2. Teacher projects one of the recipes from the website. Champurrado is a good example, as it includes history and most students will find it familiar.  Read through the recipe together, noting stylistic features of research-based, procedural/How To website writing. 
  3. Journal Writing: Students choose a family dish that encapsulates the spirit of their home/kitchen memory. They will write the home/family recipe from memory in the recipe format: title, introduction, list ingredients, steps.
  4. Homework: Read over the recipe with a parent/grandparent. Edit the recipe for exact measurements and instructions to make it as accurate as possible.
  5. Extension 1: The recipes can be collected in a classroom cookbook (students interested in design might take charge of compiling it!)
  6. Extension 2: Students may research teosinte, a Mexican grass that is grown as fodder and is considered to be one of the parent plants of modern corn.

LESSON 5:  Let Me Tell You About My Tía/o

Rhythm exists in writing, just as it does in music. Poetry is meant to be heard. 

“Tía Sofia” pays homage to an ancestor, musically. In many Mexican-American families, a favorite tía or tío can provide guidance, love, and support as much as a parent or grandparent. In this lesson, students will pinpoint an influential aunt or uncle and compose a tribute poem/song written with the intent to be spoken ALOUD. 


  • read Dr. Carmen Tafolla’s “Tía Sofía” and understand how bilingual/bicultural texts can mirror the way we speak (“a little bit in english, a little bit in spanish”), as well as the way we write. 
  • make inferences based on key details in the poem. 
  • listen to examples of musicians namechecked in the poem and discover how music can influence the rhythms of literature.  
  • use brainstorming techniques to analyze how an elder in their family has influenced them and compose a “Tía Sofía” style homage to their own beloved tía/o. 


6-8th Grade: 4A; 8A; 15B

9th-12th Grade: 3A; 7A; 14B



  1. Warm Up: Teacher tells a prepared story of their favorite tía/o (a family member who changed their life or saved their life or lived a life that taught them something integral to becoming the person they became)  and leads the class in a discussion of what makes an elder family member important, influential, and a source of support to them. 
    1. Ask students to close their eyes and listen to Carmen Tafolla read “Tía Sofia.”. Allow time for students to share their first impressions of the poem. 
    2. Hand out copies of poem and allow students to listen to the clip again, following along with the page with their finger to notice line length. 


  • Notice how the line breaks align to form rhythm of Tafolla’s delivery. 
  • How is different to hear the author read her own work? 
  • What does her voice tell us about the speaker’s emotions about Tía Sofía?
    1. Teacher asks them to close their eyes again and asks: “Who is your favorite tía or tío?”  Ask them to make a T-Chart in their journals, one column labeled “Tía Sofia” and the other column is the name of their tía or tío. 

2. Class reads “Tía Sofía” aloud, line-by-line, highlighting all examples of Spanish or Tex Mex language.  Discuss: 

  • How does code switching help tell the story of Sofía? 
  • What would be lost or gained if the piece was written in one language?
  • How does music help the speaker of the poem define Sofia?
  • What are some details about Sofia that the family does not appreciate or approve of that the speaker sees in a different way? 

3. Give time for students to list “What We Know” about Tía Sofía from the poem on  their T-Chart. Share inferences as a whole group.

6. In journals, students fill out the  tía/tio column. Brainstorm various memories and facts such as: music, jokes, hobbies, style, moments. Take time to fill in the details. This will serve as the map for their poems.

7. Beginning with the first line “Mi Tía/o ______” students will write a tribute to their favorite tía/o, code-switching throughout, if possible, in their journals. 


Handout: Mexican Music is More than Selena (attached)

Students will confer with family to define the following musical genres: ranchera, conjunto, cumbia, tejano, mariachi, polka, huapango, banda, corrido, rock en español,  son jarocho.

LESSON 6: Música is Memory

Music is the soundtrack to our memories. Sometimes students are disconnected from ancestral sounds, songs, lullabies, or they may not be aware of the diverse and myriad of genres that make up Mexican/American/Latinx music. This lesson is a primer, a starting place for students to scratch the surface and hopefully embark on a lifetime journey down the rabbit hole called música. 

Note: There are more genres than the examples listed, and you can gauge which you want to include based on your region and class interest. Are they into reggaeton? Add it. Do they listen to bachata? Add it. The point here is to get them thinking about the vastness of Latinx music and the fact that genres arise from historical, geographic, and cultural shifts.


  • recognize the difference between natural and man-made borders. 
  • understand that music is a multi-faceted component of Mexican American  culture and heritage. 
  • distinguish between common genres of Mexican music (ranchera, conjunto, cumbia, tejano, mariachi, corrido, son jarocho). 
  • research the roots of music genres to learn about geographic, political, cultural, historical factors that contribute to the evolution of music. 
  • understand the influence of Afro-Latinx, indigenous, Middle Eastern, and European immigrants whose music and culture synthesized in songs. 
  • understand how the primal elements of voice, rhythm, rhyme, chant lead to modern day music in all its forms
  • analyze poetry 
  • recognize how artists seeks inspiration through nature


6-8th Grade: 4A; 8A; 15B

9th-12th Grade: 3A; 7A; 14B


DAY ONE  “Help me Catch her Music with Words” // Pat Mora’s “Bribe”

In an ideal world, this lesson would take the class outdoors. It is up to you, your administrators, and parents how this will go. The dream is to get them to a local nature preserve or park. This can also be modified to a walk around campus and a drawing/writing session in the most natural/inspiring area you can find. 


  1. Read “Bribe” as a whole group line by line. 
  2. Discussion Questions: 

  • List the musical terms included in the poem (chanting, singing, croon) and compose quick definitions of each. How do the terms differ? What are the connotations of each?
  • The speaker says they hear and see women chanting “long ago.” How does the influence of ancestors affect and inspire your life?
  • “Bribe” is one long stanza.  How would the poem read aloud differently is in was arranged in couplets or single lines? 
  • The speaker burys pen and paper in the desert. What are they hoping for?
  • Many cultures consider nature as a mother. Many artists consider nature to be a muse. How does the poem illustrate these roles? 

3. Students reread the poem and sketch a visual interpretation of the poem. Take time to add detail, reread, add color, share results. What are some common elements that stand out? Did anyone draw anything not so obvious?
4. Take the class outside, field trip or campus stroll, with the intent to let “the land smile” on them, and inspire a reflection on “Bribe” in the form of a poem. 

5. Share poems outdoors, if possible.


  1. Project outline map of the Americas. Ask students to study it and note where the lines occur (where the ocean meets land, Great Lakes outlines, in other words, where water meets land) 
  2. Project topographic map. Ask which areas are illustrated (oceans, mountain ranges, and lead them to the term natural borders (a natural border is a border between states or their subdivisions which is concomitant with natural formations such as rivers, mountain ranges, or deserts.) Ask: What natural border separates the U.S.A. from Mexico? What border separates the U.S.A. from Canada? 
  3. Project political map. Notice how the lines multiply. Ask them how these lines were marked, who decided what was where, and when? (They might not have answers to this, but that’s sort of the point.)

Tell them that music is borderless, but it develops out of regional and historical roots. 

4. Review homework and add facts from Teacher Cheat Sheet to their Música chart. 

5. Play a song snippet (again, you should make this mix out of songs you feel best exemplify from each genre when its column has a solid working definition. Students choose one genre that particularly moves them. In their journals, they may write about the feelings, associations, and memories the music inspires.


LESSON 7: All the Palabras // Intro to Anzaldúan Vocabulary 

Each previous lesson is meant to open the channels of students’ unique cultural memory and whet their interest in learning about “forgotten” ancestral knowledge. The writing of Gloria Anzaldúa is a guide that can further encourage students to see the beauty of the borderlands. 


  • analyze literary elements.
  • discuss themes related to Mexican-American identity.
  • apply a feminist and critical perspective to Anzaldúa’s work.
  • analyze the hybrid structure of Anzaldúa’s work.
  • compose interpretative, persuasive, narrative, and comparative responses to various prompts.
  • apply key concepts from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands theory in order to build a foundation towards creating autohistoria-teoría in the form of the second tier of the Altar-ing final product. 

TEKS: 6-8th Grade: 10A, 10C, 10D  9th-12th Grade: 9A, 9C, 9D



  1. Warm up: define boundary. Start with an independent stab at defining the word, then partners confer and compare definitions, and then the whole group brainstorms to create a class definition. (Simple definition: a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.)
  2. List boundaries that exist on the T-Chart, both physical (walls, fences, lines on a court, etc) and invisible (rules, money, age, gravity, etc...) 
  3. Pass the skein of yarn around the room from student to student (read the class list alphabetically as a way to guide the passes and tell them to hold onto one end of the yarn while passing the skein itself to the next person) to create a web of boundaries. Note that the more the yarn is passed, the smaller sections become. Teacher walks around the web naming boundaries and asking students how that boundary might be transcended (a wall can be knocked down, the value of money can fluctuate) and with each “broken” boundary mentioned, teacher can use scissors to cut a line in the web. What happens when sections are cut? 
  4. Return to T-chart of boundaries and brainstorm ways each boundary can be defied. 
  5. Read intro from MA Literature anthology, p. 238, together as a class. In particular, pull out the terms mestizo, mestizaje, conciencia. 
  6. In journals, students will write definitions for the three terms and expound on how the terms relate to their own identities. What mixture makes up who you are? What is the mixture that makes up your class, school, city, country? How does consciousness change over time and how does it stay the same? 

Day Two: The Blurry Beauty of the Borderlands

  • read and analyze Gloria Anzaldúa’s “Towards a New Consciousness” 
  • define what it means to live in the borderlands.



Divide the classroom into three to four “regions” with ribbon or tape. Each region of the class will confer to discover what resources they “own” (tables, electric outlet, window, door) and what resources are shared (air, ground, sounds, light). What happens if one region decides to turn off the light? What if another won’t share their electrical outlet? What is one decides to open the window? What if you want to leave, but the door is not in your region? Tear down the lines. Repeat the activity and note the change in ownership and sharing. 


  1. Review terms: mestizo, mestizaje, conciencia. Share excerpts from previous lesson’s journal assignment.
  2. Whole group read “La Conciencia de la Mestiza” p. 239. Discuss: where are the Borderlands? What other borders define our place and space in time? Which borders are bendable? Which borders are permanent?
  3. Divide the class into seven groups and assign each group a section of Towards a New Consciousness” (each new heading counts as a section, from “Una lucha de fronteras” (p.239) to “By Your True Face We Will Know You” (p. 248)
  4. Choose one of the following prompts from Diana López’s Instructor Resources for MA Literature anthology (linked above) to assign to corresponding small group: 

1. Why does Vasconcelos call the Mexican people a “cosmic race”?

2. Anzaldúa discusses three types of conflict: person vs. self, person vs. person, and person vs. society. Analyze each type of conflict by examining the sources of tension. What solution to these conflicts does Anzaldúa propose? Do you agree or disagree with her solution? Explain.

3. Ask students to list various groups they are a part of. Tell them that inaddition to cultural groups, they can consider groups at school, work, orchurch, their neighborhood, family, or friends. Have them journal abouta time the values of two groups clashed. What was the source of conflict,and how did they resolve it? Did they find themselves choosing onegroup over another, or were they able to reconcile the groups’ differences? If Anzaldúa had been presented with a similar situation, whatwould she have done?

4. Research the story behind the Mexican flag and view a picture of it.Briefly summarize what you have learned. Then interpret the followingline from Anzaldúa’s essay: “At some point, on our way to a new con-sciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between thetwo mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shoresat once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes.”

5. What does Anzaldúa mean when she says, “The possibilities are numer-ous once we decide to act and not react”? What is the difference betweenacting and reacting, and why is one preferable to the other?6. Anzaldúa uses the singular pronoun “she” instead of the more common“he.” What does this choice tell us about her attitudes toward gender? Inwhat way is her essay also a feminist text? How has Anzaldúa’s identityas a lesbian influenced her ideas about gender and about the treatmentof the “other”?7. What does mythos mean? Describe the current American mythos. Whatdoes Anzaldúa mean when she says that we must create a new mythos?8. Anzaldúa inserts poems into her essay. Examine the poems and discusshow each relates to the essay portion of the text.9. How does the inclusion of poems reflect Anzaldúa’s theme of a newconsciousness?10. How does Anzaldúa’s code-switching reflect the theme of a newconsciousness?11. What does machismo mean to you? Does it have a negative or a positiveconnotation? What does it mean to Anzaldúa? How does she account forthe various attitudes associated with the term?12. Anzaldúa presents a call to action. Who does she call to action, and whatdoes she ask them to do?13. Describe Anzaldúa’s attitudes toward gays/lesbians, straight men, andAnglos. What type of emotional reaction did you have as you read thesepassages? For example, were you confused, offended, or nodding inagreement? Did her statements ring true or false to you? Explain.14. Anzaldúa uses several metaphors in her essay. Interpret the followingexamples:a. I am an act of kneading.b. Indigenous like corn, like corn, the mestiza is a product of cross-breeding, designed for preservation under a variety of conditions.c. She puts history through a sieve, winnows out the lies, looks at theforces that we as a race, as women, have been a part of.d. They’d like to think I have melted in the pot. But I haven’t, we haven’t.15. Anzaldúa makes this statement: “Nothing happens in the ‘real’ worldunless it first happens in the images in our heads.” Do you agree or dis-agree with this statement? Explain and provide examples (historical orpersonal) for support.

5. Allow time for groups to respond to prompt and prepare a short presentation. 

6. Present.

LESSON 8: Role Model Rules

What makes you laugh? How do funny memories differ from other memories? How do writers use humor to bring memoirs to life? 


  • read Michele Serros “Role Model Rule Number 1: Never Give Up an Opportunity to Eat for Free” 
  • create a list of rules for role models. 
  • write a personal essay that details a time their role model (or they themselves) either did or did not follow this rule. 
  •  understand the role of humor as a form of healing and resistance. 

TEKS: 6-8th Grade: 7A, 9A, 10A, 16A. 9th-12th Grade: 6A, 8A, 9A



  1. Warm Up: In journals, make a web with “role model” in the center.  Give students five minutes to brainstorm ideas that relate to/define the term. Share results on group web. Ask:  Who are your role models? What characteristics make you look up to them? Are role models flawless? Are you anyone’s role model? What do all role models have in common?
  2. Share Serros’s biography. The LA Times obituary linked above is a good intro for students who might connect with the idea that a person may be gone, but their influence remains bright. 
  3. Read “Role Model Rule Number 1” in small groups or independently. 
  4. Discussion prompts from Diana López’s MA Lit Anthology Instructor Resource guide:

1. Write a characterization of Serros as she’s portrayed in this story. Usetextual evidence for support.

2. Serros has a self-deprecating sense of humor. What does this mean?Illustrate with examples from the story. Does her sense of humor makeher more or less sympathetic as a character? Explain.

3. Serros’s situation is complicated by a series of false assumptions. Identify false assumptions in the story and discuss their consequences.

4. This personal narrative follows the standard plot pattern of conflict, climax, and resolution. What is the source of conflict? How does Serroscope with it? What is the climax of the story, and how is the conflicteventually resolved?

5. A theme in many Mexican American stories is the loss or the preservation of the Spanish language in a country that values monolingualism.How does Serros deal with this theme? In what way is her experience with the Spanish language different from the experience of other au-thors in this anthology? Explain.

6. In this story, Serros is a beginning poet with three tried-and-true poemsthat she carries in a Pee-Chee folder. Read the poem she writes in response to the woman who has ridiculed her inability to speak fluentSpanish. How does the inclusion of this poem serve to further characterize Serros and to develop the story’s theme?

7. The title is in the form of advice: “Role Model Rule Number 1: NeverGive Up an Opportunity to Eat for Free.” What does this advice mean to you? Also, examine other instances of advice presented in the story.Which is most useful or relevant to Serros’s situation? Which might beuseful for you?

  1. In journals, make a list of 10 rules your role model might follow. Alternately, you can make a list for what NOT to do as a role model.
  2. Extension: Choose one rule to detail in the form of an essay,  that details a time a role model (or they themselves) either did or did not follow a particular rule. What was the lesson? Use humor, if possible, to match Serro’s style.

LESSON 9:  I Will Always Remember 

Sifting through memories can be daunting. Fragments arise, but for their final projects (ofrendas), students will be asked to piece together an entire altar with three distinct levels.  In this lesson, music will help fragments arise and form a bigger picture, mosaic-like. 


  • analyze the tone of a popular Selena song to tap into memories.
  • create a playlist of songs that represents an important era or chapter in their life story (ideally, these memories may very well be intergenerational.) 
  • compose a list of unforgettable memories that will serve as an archive for their final projects. 

TEKS: 6-8th Grade: 14A

9th-12th Grade: 13A



  1. Memories make us who we are. Teacher reads their memory, a story of something they will always remember. This can be a prepared story with a beginning, middle, and end, or, depending on your storytelling skills, off the top of your head. Be detailed and keep story to five minutes or less. Be honest and brave and your students will likely reciprocate.
  2. Play “Fotos y Recuerdos” youtube clip linked above.
  3. Ask students what makes the music and vocals (even if they don’t understand Spanish) reflect the idea that our memories fade, just like photographs. The more we “play” a memory, the more it gets embedded in our heads. 
  4. Students take time to write a quick reflection to the Selena song and how music is attached to their own memories. 
  5. Partner share reflections.
  6. Now that everyone is nice and reflective, explain to students that their job is to excavate their own memories attached to music.
  7. If needed, you can get them brainstorming with the following exercise, tell students to fill in the following frame. They can jot down words that bubble up, and keep listing until time is called:

I will always remember the song _______ because ________

I will always remember the song ________ because ________

I will always remember the song ________ because _________


  1. Students read yesterday’s list  aloud to themselves. Teacher can play music to buffer the voices, but it’s important to HEAR the memories aloud. Tell them to put a star next to the memories that pull up the most emotion when they are recalled, or the memories they would “save” if they could only save two or three. Choose two or three vivid memories to “save.”
  2. Write a paragraph for each. 
  3. With a partner, read the paragraphs aloud and ask them which memory they are most interested in knowing more about. Which feels the most vivid? Which of the two or three memories would you keep if you could only keep one? That’s your project topic.

LESSON 10: Anything for Selenas //  Heroes, Villains, Archetypes

At this point, the story of Selena Quintanilla is embedded in Mexican-American consciousness as the ultimate TexMex rags-to-riches fairy tale, good girl who was always good, always pure and puro, love of our lives. That her life was cut short by gun violence, at the hand of a family friend/fan, seems sadly….familiar to most Mexican-American Texans. We’ve lived this tragedy many times before.

Selena’s assassination, I’ll go ahead and call it that, only illuminates her Tejanidad. But her music remains, those Mex-Tex pop canciones that strike us in all the feels. This real-life Tejana, who only knew English and was later self-taught Spanish, who legitimized Spanglish through song, this Selena connects with students can pull from her story to learn literary archetypes. All families have their lost heroes and anti-heroes


  • determine characteristics of heroes and anti-hero using popular Mexican American figures. 
  • analyze how archetypes and memory are related. 

TEKS:6-8th Grade: 14A, 16A9th-12th Grade: 13A



  1. Write HERO on the board and have students make a web their journals and brainstorm a definition. Do the same for the term Anti-Hero. Share results. 
  2. Students will have Selena on the brain from the Fotos y Recuerdos lesson, but collective memories of the Selena story have gone past story and into legend.  Ask: What is a legend? What are the characteristics of local and global legends? How are legends passed down and who determines what gets remembered? 
  3. Watch a clip from Selena linked above. Lead a class discussion on the concept of “twice as good.” What are the two sides? What does it mean to be both? How does Selena exemplify the sides?
  4. View Deborah Paredes talks Selenidad clip.
  5. Lead discussion on key concepts: Selena’s moment in history (NAFTA, the 2000 census, immigration, the Latin Explosion), the outpouring of grief but also the celebration of promise/potential), the redefinition of what it means to be a Texan-Mexican and how citizenship, cultural pride, and how the industry woke up to spending power/marketability, how her live performances still resonate with people over Youtube and how those performances are steeped in both Mexican and American influences, how current political events along the border, being a hot commodity and also a suspicious citizen/alien.
  6. Students write about family “legend,” a hero who chased a dream, or had a talent, or is gone too soon, saved someone’s life, or changed the world somehow. 


For the final project, the students will create a three-tiered inter-genre, mixed media altar. It is my hope that after the course of their semester with you, the previous lessons have prepared them to see themselves as the latest installment in a very long story.   Each tier has a corresponding song as its primary text.  Start with the bottom tier and build up. Projects might not take the form of a physical altar, but students should be encouraged to see the three levels as unified elements. 

Level 3 is the base of the altar: the land, the sea, the trees, plants, animals that make up , for lack of a better word, Latinoamérica (North American to Central America to South America to the Caribbean islands). 

Level 2 is the center, students will zoom into South Texas: the family, the culture, the language, the stories.

Level 1 is focal point: the student herself. 

Please share the results using the hashtag #altaringproject.I would LOVE to see what they create. 

TEKS:6-8th Grade: 14A-E, 15B, 17A, 22A, 23B, 24A, 25A-C9th-12th Grade: 13A-E, 14B, 15A, 20A, 21B, 22A, 23A-C 

LEVEL THREE: “Vamos dibujando el camino”To see oneself as part of the grand scheme of things is an empowering moment. If students can see themselves and their ancestors as part of the Americas, maybe they’ll see how the land is a gift that should be treated as such. Maybe they’ll see the interconnectedness of land, animal, plant, person, ocean, and how they themselves are integral to the story. They belong here. 

TEXT: Calle 13 "Latinoamérica"

*Lyrics are attached in Spanish and English

Suggested activity: Listen to the song and complete a side by side reading of lyrics, with and without music, pull out key lines to construct a frame poem using the refrain:

Soy/I am ______________

Soy/I am _____________

Soy/I am _____________

Soy/I am ____________

Encourage them to write from the perspective of the land, to define America as a series of images that are descriptive and include literary elements to bring the lines to life. This can take the form of a poem, song, rap, or essay. They should look back through writing assignments to get ideas. As they draft and revise, the frame can “break.” Let them be creative as they draw a path. 

LEVEL TWO: “San Antonio, Corpus Christi, y McAllen / Una tercia que nunca podré olvidar”

 Texas is for remembering. So much has gone down on this land, and here we  are: waking up from a long sleep. Steve Jordan’s song evokes the love many feel about this homeland and prods us to remember what it means to be “de Tejas.” 

Text: Steve Jordan "Soy de Tejas"

In level two of the project, students will choose one ancestor or landmark that represents South Texas. They will conduct research on the subject and weave together findings to compose an Anzaldúan essay (autohistoria-teoría), piecing together fragments of memoir, history, storytelling, myth, dream, theory. Again, encourage them to reflect on their writing from throughout the unit to help narrow down their ideas. The essay might morph into a collage, a painting, a corrido,  or a series of photographs. The point is that the product will illustrate why they think the person or landmark “cannot be forgotten.”

LEVEL ONE:“Soy yo / Soy, soy, soy, soy, soy, soy, soy /Yo, yo, yo, yo, yo, yo, yo /Soy yo” 

Traditionally, the topmost tier of an altar “identifies the dead person who is being invited to the altar,” but we’re altering that. The student will complete their altar to celebrate themselves: where they’re from, where they are, and where they want to go. 

TEXT: Bomba Estereo "Soy Yo"

Level three can be viewed as a self-portrait and may take the form of a short film/documentary, a memory playlist/DJ set,  or an actual altar with ofrendas. Again, encourage them to utilize artifacts, drafts, photos collected throughout the unit. The teacher can supply materials scrapped from home or family donations: fabric scraps, ribbon, magazines. The goal of the third level is to celebrate the beauty of “being you.” 

When all three levels are complete, students should confer with each other and the teacher to workshop and decide how to synthesize the three elements. 


ALTAR-ING: LAtinx memoir writing workshop