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American Conversations

Ellen Bigler

Publication Year: 1999

Growing numbers of working-class Puerto Ricans are migrating from larger mainland metropolitan areas into smaller, "safer" communities in search of a better quality of life for themselves and their families. What they may also encounter in moving to such communities is a discourse of exclusion that associates their differences and their lower socioeconomic class with a lack of effort and an unwillingness to assimilate into mainstream culture. In this ethnographic study of a community in conflict, educator and anthropologist Ellen Bigler examines such discourses as she explores one city's heated dispute that arose over bringing multiculturalism and bilingual education into their lives and their schools' curricula.

The impassioned debate that erupted between long-time white ethnic residents and more recently arrived Puerto Rican citizens in the de-industrialized city the author calls "Arnhem" was initially sparked by one school board member's disparaging comments about Latinos. The conflict led to an investigation by the attempts to implement multicultural reforms in the city's schools. American Conversations follows the ensuing conflict, looks at the history of racial formation in the United States, and considers the specific economic and labor histories of the groups comprising the community in opposition. Including interviews with students, teachers, parents, and community leaders, as well as her own observations of exchanges among them inside and outside the classroom, Bigler's book explores the social positions, diverging constructions of history, and polarized understandings of contemporary racial/ethnic dynamics in Arnhem. Through her retelling of one community's crisis, Bigler illuminates the nature of racial politics in the United States and how both sides in the debate over multicultural education struggle to find a common language.

American Conversations will appeal to anyone invested in education and multiculturalism in the United States as well as those interested in anthropology, sociology, racial and ethnic studies, educational institutions, migration and settlement, the effects of industrial restructuring, and broad issues of community formation and conflict.

Published by: Temple University Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

"So many people deserve mention for the part they played in bringing this book to fruition. I want to first thank the people of Arnhem who gave so freely of their time, but who necessarily have been given pseudonyms and will remain nameless. The willingness of community members to share their time with an outsider, and the cooperation..."

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Introduction: Talking "American"

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pp. 1-19

"Debra Moskowitz (Euro-American Spanish language teacher, age thirty): Why are these [Puerto Rican] kids doing this? Why are they not speaking English when they can? Why aren't they trying to fit into the main stream? ... There's never going to be an American identification if we all have our own areas. They're no different than earlier waves. They ..."

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1. The Making of Amhem, the "Friendly City"

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pp. 20-31

"It was the best of times-period. When Stan Bronowski [age sixty-seven] talks about life in Amhem before World War II, he tells no Tale of Two Cities . . .. 'My father never stopped working in the mills . . . . He never got a pension .. .. Needs were simple .... Everybody was equal. No one was really better than anyone else .... ' With the war came the ..."

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2. Marginality, Mobility, and the Melting Pot

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pp. 32-56

"Contemporary struggles over 'multiculturalism' in the United States cannot be understood without also considering the sociohistorical context in which these struggles have evolved. From the very conception of the nation people of color were excluded from the imagined national community; it is this marginalization and..."

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3. Puerto Ricans Enter a Racialized Social Order

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pp. 57-80

"Puerto Ricans' participation in multicultural debates in the United States cannot be fully understood without first looking closely at the island's mode of entrance into the United States and the subsequent experiences of Puerto Ricans as racialized 'others'. The 'immigrant analogy' would situate Puerto Ricans as only the most recent..."

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4. Telling Stories

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pp. 81-118

"They [seniors] say that their parents or grandparents came from Poland, Ireland, and that kind of thing, Italy, and when they came here they could not speak English either, but it gave them no excuse not to try, go to school, try to be the best you can, try to learn the American ways .... Their grandparents, their parents worked hard in these mills and stuff to ..."

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5. Dangerous Discourses

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pp. 119-161

"When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing."

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6. Inclusion and Exclusion in the Classroom

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pp. 162-224

"Mrs. Lone [reviewing worksheet on selecting the appropriate verb form for a sentence]: This is the one I cringe at: 'I seen that movie last week.' Morio Rivero [Puerto Rican student explaining in English class how a native Spanish speaker might carry over Spanish pronunciations into English]: Sometimes your grand-my grandmother, my grandmother says, ..."

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7. After/Words

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pp. 225-242

"There's no denying that the multicultural initiative arose, in part, because of the fragmentation of American society, by ethnicity, class, and gender. To make it the culprit for this fragmentation is to mistake effect for cause . ... Maybe we should try to think of American culture as a conversation among different voices-even if it's a conversation some ..."


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pp. 243-254


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pp. 255-276


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pp. 277-289

E-ISBN-13: 9781592138104

Publication Year: 1999