On May 2, 2018 I traveled with a dozen other University of Michigan graduate students to San Juan, Puerto Rico, en route to the fourth annual University of Michigan - University of Puerto Rico Symposium.

For those who don’t know, the annual U-M-UPR Symposium is a joint effort between University of Michigan National Resource Centers (NRCs) that are awarded Title VI funding from the U.S. Department of Education. As part of this funding, NRCs like CMENAS and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies engage local stakeholders and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) to give their international expertise back to the community, a process known as “internationalization.” This year, I was one of several NRC graduate students chosen to present my research, to take part in this internationalization and to explain how our international study could be adapted for use in classrooms in Puerto Rico.

The opportunity to present was a special one for me. Just four days before the Symposium, I had graduated from U-M with a Master of Public Policy and a Master of Arts in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. A few days before that, I had officially submitted my master’s thesis for the MA in MENAS. My thesis proposed a new method of reading global poetry in American K-12 classrooms, using two of my favorite poets as examples – Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish and Iranian Forough Farrokhzad. My thesis was also a rebellion against my American public-school education, which left me surprisingly uninformed about my place as an Iranian-American in the national literary landscape. Presenting my research to a bilingual audience at the University of Puerto Rico – alongside other speakers presenting on the caste system in India and on Chinese-Taiwanese relations – was a humbling experience.

My time in Puerto Rico was also significant as a newcomer to the island in increasingly dire times. Hurricane Maria had hit the island in September of 2017, killing over 1,427 people, in contrast to the earlier official death toll of 64.[1] On the day we arrived, hundreds of Puerto Ricans were demonstrating just blocks away from our hotel, protesting harsh austerity measures made worse by the hurricane’s destruction. One of those austerity measures was a proposed tuition increase at the University of Puerto Rico, our host university, from $57 to $157 per credit, a 175% increase. Elsewhere on the island, primary and secondary school teachers—the intended audience of the Symposium­—were protesting the forced closures of hundreds of public schools.[2]

The impact of the proposed austerity measures was immediately visible when we arrived at the University of Puerto Rico. On the first day of the Symposium, our van rolled up to a deserted campus. Students had boycotted classes for the day, and instead were deliberating how to respond to the possibility of massive tuition increases that would force many students to withdraw. At the same time in Washington, D.C., the Department of Education was only granting disaster relief to UPR sparingly, giving more generously to mainland universities that were not nearly as affected by natural disasters.”[3]I slowly reflected on all this as we walked through campus, taking in the majestic palm trees shading the silent, vacant grounds below.

At that moment, the prospect of “internationalizing” the Puerto Rican curriculum seemed disingenuous. Surely, I thought, the bigger issue was that the world was not paying enough attention to Puerto Rico, and not the other way around? So I began contemplating what I, as a student and diasporic subject of the Middle East, could possibly offer this symposium, and what I could learn from the people and history of Puerto Rico in return. What similarities between Puerto Rico and Iran could I learn from?

There were many learning points for me in the two days of the conference, but perhaps the most powerful take-away came from one of the faculty members at the University of Puerto Rico. In a conversation about how to teach Puerto Rican history, Professor Juan Hernandez said firmly, “Puerto Rico is not a part of the United States. Puerto Rico belongs to the United States.” His message was that, as an unincorporated territory, the relationship between the mainland and the island is one of oppressive ownership and colonization, not one of democratic representation and statehood. He was right. And most Americans are sadly uninformed about this reality. In fact, only 54% of U.S. citizens are aware that Puerto Ricans are fellow Americans, not “foreigners.”[4]

I understood this discrepancy keenly, because I had discovered a similar lack of knowledge in the American curriculum, especially with regards to non-white subjects. While researching global literature in U.S. classrooms, I was shocked to learn that Common Core reading guides overwhelmingly recommended Anglo-American authors for inclusion in the curriculum, with very little mentions of international authors, indigenous authors or American authors of color.[5] Where were the Puerto Rican poets like Julia de Burgos, who moved to New York and helped establish Nuyorican poetry? Where was the poetry of Iranian Ahmed Shamlu, who “first learned about poetry from… the American Langston Hughes; and only later, with this education, turned to the poets of my mother tongue?”[6]

Facing these glaring gaps in knowledge, I wondered if the most effective strategy to increase global understanding is not to internationalize the curriculum, but actually to domesticize it. What if students in American K-12 classrooms were taught about their country’s role in the occupation and continuing colonization of Puerto Rico? What if, as part of their history classes, American students were taught about the 1953 CIA coup that overthrew Iran’s first democratically elected prime minister, an act that was the forerunner for many more politically devastating interventions in Latin America?

I often have difficulty justifying my love for literature in an age of political corruption, crises, and natural disasters, an era with a long and dark history such as this. But then, I remember that poetry is often a light illuminating dark times, and, when done well, connects people in solidarity around the world. During my short time in Puerto Rico, I was reminded again of Ahmed Shamlu, and his appreciation for the poet Langston Hughes. In 1945, Hughes, an African-American, deliberately sat in a dining car reserved for whites while traveling on a segregated train to the American South. The white steward first ignored Hughes and his brown skin, then demanded to know if he was “Puerto Rican” or an “American Negro.” To this, Hughes replied loudly, “I’m just hungry.”[7]

My experience in Puerto Rico gave me a better understanding of this hunger, and of all those who are tired of being sent to “eat in the kitchen / when company comes,” as Hughes’ most famous poem goes.[8] And yet, both in his personal life and in his poetry, Hughes demanded a seat “at the table.” My hope is this – that through our curricula and our policy, the American table will find more seats, and more people will be able to “laugh / and eat well / and grow strong.” For we, too, “sing America.”

- - - - - - - - - - 

[1] Frances Robles, “Puerto Rico Government Acknowledges Hurricane Death Toll of 1,427,” The New York Times, August 9, 2018. 

[2] Patricia Mazzei, “Puerto Rico’s Schools are in Tumult, and Not Just Because of Hurricane Maria,” The New York Times, June 1, 2018. 

[3] Erica L. Green and Emily Cochrane, “In Devastated Puerto Rico, Universities Get Just a Fraction of Storm Aid,The New York Times, May 1, 2018. 

[4] Kyle Dropp and Brendan Nyhan, “Nearly Half of Americans Don’t Know Puerto Ricans are Fellow Citizens,” The New York Times, September 26, 2017.

[5]  Melissa Schieble, “Reframing Equity under Common Core: A Commentary on the Text Exemplar List for Grades 9-12,” English Teaching 13, no. 1 (2014): 155–68, 165.

[6]  Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, “A Well Amid the Waste: An Introduction to the Poetry of Ahmad Shamlu,” World Literature Today 51, no. 2 (1977): 201-06.

[7] Langston Hughes, "Adventures in Dining." The Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945.