Breaking Through, an autobiography by Mexican author Francisco Jiménez was actually assigned reading. I’m taking a class on multicultural education, and we had to choose a book from a list of options and read it as part of a book club. I’m pretty sure I have to write a paper on it or something later (for anyone who’s not in college yet, it’s a lot of reading, and then writing papers on what you’ve read, so get used to writing, you’ll use it a lot). The book was chosen by our teacher to highlight the challenges that anyone from outside of white middle-class America faces when trying to fit into mainstream culture.
There’s a term used in multicultural education called “cultural capital”. In this case, capital refers to currency or cash, spending power, in short. If we have the money to buy something, we have the opportunity to buy it. In case nobody’s noticed it yet, money can’t buy everything. It can’t magically make you fit in, so we need cultural capital, which includes habits and decisions, what we do with what we have, and what we know. The more cultural capital we have, the better we can fit into the dominant culture. For example, it’s culturally inappropriate in Russia to give someone an even number of flowers unless it’s for a funeral. In Latin American countries, you eat with both hands on the table, not with one in your lap. In The United States, we go to college. It’s practically en expectation. We eat cereal for breakfast. (I’ve read case studies of vietnamese refugees in American ESL classes who lost points when they were asked to draw a picture of breakfast, and they drew fish and rice. They needed more/better cultural capital in order to fit in and excel.) We also use sarcasm; there are some cultures that don’t use sarcasm at all. Hooray for them.
Breaking Through talks about Francisco (Pancho) and his struggles to fit in and succeed. Often, as he’s trying to fit in with Americans, he develops habits that conflict with the Mexican lifestyle that his family is living.
I think the most important thing I learned from this book was that it’s important to make sure we share the cultural capital we already have. There’s a part of the book where Francisco and his brother are taken out to a restaurant by his brother’s boss. They’d never been to a restaurant before and they were trying desperately to copy what she did, because they didn’t know how to behave in a restaurant. She noticed that they were copying here, and then she took care to be deliberate about certain things she did, like put one hand on the table and one in her lap. There’s another part where Francisco uses a telephone for the first time at his neighbor’s house (poverty in the 50s here), and the neighbor asks him the numbers to dial, and then slowly and carefully dials them, making sure that Francisco can see how to use the dial.
From fitting in to fighting racism, the book touches on a lot of themes that have to do with growing up, and it’s an essential read for anyone who will be working with foreigners or foreign youth, in particular. Immigrants would also benefit from Francisco’s experience and take hope in the possibility of “breaking through” the cultural boundaries that often seem to hold them at bay.