Grade Level: 8-12
Subject Areas: English Language Arts, Humanities
Time Required: 3-10 lessons (flexibility built into plan)
Prepared by: Trevor Munhall; Lawrence, Massachusetts
Keywords: belonging, borderlands, Chicanx, exile, Gloria Anzaldúa, in-between, Latinx, mestiza, migration, nepantla
Download Full Lesson Plan
Trevor Munhall teaches eighth grade English language arts in Lawrence, Massachusetts, at UP Academy Leonard. His class focuses on Latinx, Black, and indigenous diasporas and narratives. He enjoys bringing rigorous and thought-provoking texts to life, especially for English language learners. Trevor studied at the University of New Hampshire and Harvard Graduate School of Education, and he received the Sontag Prize in Urban Education. Trevor loves traveling. His most memorable trips include backpacking in Colombia and completing a solo, 44-day, coast-to-coast road trip. He enjoys photography, gardening, porches, and his sassy cat. Trevor blogs about teaching and traveling at www.trevormunhall.com.
Migrant writers from all over the world who arrive in the United States have expressed the phenomenon of feeling in-between two or more cultures: those they have left behind in their homelands and those they encounter in the United States. This feeling can be compounded for some by factors such as language and the proximate distance or access to their home culture.
The Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa writes from the perspective of someone who lives in the borderlands of South Texas. A U.S. citizen by birth, Anzaldúa spent her life straddling dominant U.S. cultures, her family’s Mexican heritage, and various subcultures with which she identified. She describes in her seminal work, Borderlands/La Frontera, “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta (an open wound) where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture.” Anzaldúa borrows the Nahuatl (Aztec) word, nepantla, meaning literally middle ground, to describe the phenomenon of feeling like you belong in a third, in-between culture.
Teenagers, whether they are migrants or not, are likely to understand the concept of feeling in between worlds; they exist in-between the worlds of childhood and adulthood and likely navigate the peripheries of other complex social realms in their lives. This unit aims to engage students in an exploration of what it means to be in-between. What conflicts arise from these spaces? How does living in-between affect the formation of identity? Is there a silver lining to operating in-between cultures or groups?
The unit includes three parts:
1. How does the border create a feeling of in-betweenness (nepantla) for people who live near it or cross over it? In what ways is this feeling similar or different from the experience other Latinx - or global - migrants have in the United States?
2. How do various authors present the nuances of and associations with in-betweenness (nepantla) as it relates to the formation of identity or a sense of belonging?How do we identify ourselves in a border area?
This unit is designed with the following College & Career Readiness Standards taken from the Common Core State Standards.
Anchor text printed or digital for student use:
Paper/pen and/or computers for composition in response to short writing/essay prompts
Activity 1 – Introducing In-Betweenness (Nepantla)
This first activity is designed to get students thinking about the ways in which a person’s identity can be shaped by different, and frequently conflicting forces.
Begin by defining the term for students:
nepantla: living in between two forces or cultures
You can expand on this term by explaining that nepantla is a Nahuatl word meaning middle ground. Nahuatl (also called Aztec) is a language indigenous to Central Mexico and still spoken by millions of people who originate from this region.
Next, ask students to consider these question as they listen to Nepantla, by Aurelio Valdez:
Engage students in dialogue (small groups or full class) about their reactions to the ideas of nepantla in Valdez’s song.
Finally, invite students to respond to the following prompt:
Describe a time when you felt nepantla. Consider the roles you play in your family, at school, or in your community. When did you feel like you in-between.
Time permitting, select students to share their writing and engage in follow-up conversations with their classmates.
Possible follow-up or homework assignments might include asking students to revise their writing, respond to a classmate’s writing, or ask a family member or other adult how they feel or experience nepantla in their lives.
Activity 2 – Establishing a Critical Framework
Key Understanding: For people whose identities are shaped by multiple cultures, a feeling of in-between-ness can lead to confusion, conflict, and complexity.
The next step is to engage students in reading and dialogue that helps create a critical framework for thinking about the nuance and complexity of identities shaped by multiple (sometimes opposing) cultural contexts.
Begin by reviewing the definition of the term:
nepantla: living in between two forces or cultures
Pass out paper or digital copies of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera and point out the footnotes in the text that will help students make sense of key terms.
Next, ask students to read the excerpts from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera. Then, engage them in writing and discussion (in small or large groups) using some of these guiding questions:
Activity 3 – Applying the Critical Framework
Activity 3 is better described as activities. This should be thought of less as a singular activity and more as a menu of texts and possible avenues through which you can explore the concept of nepantla.
Each text below could be used to structure at least one full lesson, so you could feasibly have more than a week’s worth of content to explore. If time is limited, choose the texts you feel will best help your students unpack the concept of nepantla.
I have included guiding questions for seven short texts, as well as other texts and multimedia resources you might consider using. The questions I have included could be structured as guided reading, discussion, or writing tasks. Consider which questions will best help your students unpack each text.
Text 1: Child of the Americas, by Aurora Levins Morales
Text 2: Ode to the Diasporican, by Maria Teresa “Mariposa” Fernandez
Text 3: Entre Lucas y Juan Mejia, by Julia Alvarez
Text 4: Exiles, by Juan Felipe Herrera
Text 5: I Am Joaquin, by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales
Text 6: For Ana Veldford, by Lourdes Casal
Text 7: To Live In the Borderlands Means You, by Gloria Anzaldúa
While this unit focuses particularly on Latinx and Chicanx voices, within the canon of migrant and immigrant literature representing every culture, there are numerous texts and media that address nepantla in one form or another. Some further suggestions:
Sonnet: The History of Puerto Rico, by Jack Agueros
The following prompts are intended to be summative/comparative reflections on the concept of nepantla as presented in the texts. While they are composed as writing prompts, they could also be adapted as discussion topics for Socratic seminar, posters, or other forms of assessments.
Create reference sheets or word walls for key vocabulary.
Reading accommodations might include: previewing a text with a student one-on-one or in small groups, read aloud, or using a screen reader. Since all of the texts are relatively short, consider reading them multiple times (teacher read aloud, student read aloud, partner/group read aloud, independent reading).
Create sample outlines or provide graphic organizers to help students organize their written responses to prompts.
Acosta-Belén Edna, and Ilan Stavans. The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. W.W. Norton & Co., 2011.
Anzaldúa Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. Aunt Lute Books, 2007.
My experience in the English classroom has taught me that students are hungry to see themselves and the struggles they face in the literature they read. Exploring the concept of nepantla is one way to engage students in a larger conceptual framework for understanding their own identities and how the struggle of belonging or feeling stuck between cultures or groups affects the formation of identity.