Re-Reading the Word: Journeys Through Counter-Narratives

Re-Reading the Word: Journeys Through Counter-Narratives

post by Carla España, Member of The Educator Collaborative

Re-Reading the Word: Journeys Through Counter-Narratives

This summer I spent time setting up our new home. We moved from a one-bedroom in Queens, NY to a five-bedroom house in el campo, the countryside. It’s not really the countryside, but I’ve seen enough deer, rabbits, spiders and a snake to remind me that I’m no longer in New York City! In the midst of the journey to home ownership as immigrant children, and all the tensions and learning opportunities that this carries, it suddenly hit me really hard when my husband and I walked into the loft and together said, “this can be our reading nook!” 

When I was in the upper grades in elementary school, I’d join my mom during my summers to the homes she cleaned. Whether we were in Bayside, NY or Westchester, our routine was the same: I’d start helping her clean the bedrooms, followed by a break where I’d get to watch “The Price is Right” and listen to mom’s storytelling over a brief lunch, and then I’d find a reading space in the afternoon while mom finished cleaning. In one home, they had a room just for books and I’d sit there reading, excited to later tell my parents and grandmother what I read. 

It was in those reading spaces where I was “reading the word and the world,” a phrase I’d learn later at Princeton Theological Seminary, in a liberating pedagogies course reading Paulo Freire. My identity as a reader was taking shape during this time, but so was my outlook on the world. I had these intimate moments listening to my mother’s stories, creating our own memories, and growing my list of favorite books. I would often return to my local public library in Corona, Queens, with mamá, a place, and a family routine that I was reminded of when reading Yuyi Morales’ Dreamers (Soñadores in Spanish). 

Who gets to dream? 

Where do we get to dream? 

How do our experiences shape our dreams? 

How can schools nurture our dreams?

I was learning quickly about the assumptions people had of us as Latinx immigrants and of the people who got several chances in life when making mistakes. I translated conversations that gave me glimpses into this reality, including revealing moments with parents’ employers. “Por eso me sacrifico tanto para que no tengas que hacer lo mismo,” mamá would say often, making sure I was aware of the sacrifices my parents were making so that I wouldn’t have to struggle in the same way. 

We live with that incredible tension: those of us with close connections to loved ones that have experienced deep struggles in spaces that haven’t been the most welcoming. We are made aware of the opportunities and privileges, along with the injustices in our own journey. How we navigate these moments says a lot about the lessons we’ve learned, our solidarity with marginalized groups, and how we use our gifts in sustainable ways to keep this work and our health going.

As a bilingual literacy educator, I can now process these childhood moments and name what was missing in my schooling. I can be thoughtful about the kinds of literacies that seeped through my home and community settings. I can name this because I see it as my calling, as my responsibility to support teachers in this journey, to reflect on moments of power and privilege. For minoritized populations, this kind of practice has been denied across educational institutions to the point that it takes at least an entire semester with my students (teachers in graduate programs) for us to process how our own lives are valid texts.   

At the start of the summer I had a transformative five weeks with soon-to-be first-year bilingual (Spanish-English) NYC public school teachers. In our “Teaching Developmental Reading” course, we discussed reading identities and reading instruction. We began processing the formation of our reading identities, thinking back to moments like the ones I just shared. What we found was that the kinds of texts available, the kinds of literacies our families sustained and those not sustained in our schooling, and the limitations placed on our full use of our language practices, have an incredible impact on the way we shape our own reading instruction and our students’ worldview. 

Caption: Front page of course syllabus highlighting authors we would read or listen to in class


The first book we read together in our class was Soñadores (Dreamers in English) by Yuyi Morales. I asked the teachers to share their favorite lines and images. For many, Yuyi’s description of the journey from another place to the U.S., that illustration with the bridge and her holding her child, were opportunities for them to process and share their own journeys. For others, the confusion around communication (from Spanish to English) and loneliness really hit home, as they were recently arriving from places like Guatemala, Peru and Puerto Rico, creating friendships and learning to make their way in New York City. What struck me as a big difference in the reactions was that when many of my friends in the literacy world- who have taken an anti-racist stance in their teaching practices- read this book, we are quick to notice and appreciate the books that Yuyi highlights in those beautiful illustrations showing the impact that the library had on her and her son’s transition. For most of the teachers in this course, these books were new to them. It wasn’t until undergraduate or graduate studies where they read books by Black, Brown and Indigenous authors. 

When I showed Duncan Tonatiuh’s Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, Carole Boston Weatherford and Eric Velasquez’s Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library, and Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise and Paola Escobar, one of the twenty one students raised their hand to say that they had heard about one of these historical figures. Not the books. Not the authors. “Were you ever taught about Sylvia Mendez, Arturo Schomburg, or Pura Belpré?” I asked, and their faces said it all. 








Although the five weeks in our course went by too fast this summer, I appreciate the ways every single teacher thoughtfully selected texts for their bilingual reading notebook responses each week (I arrived to class with two carry-on sized bags full of books), and how they developed systems to grow their own reader identities. 

That is my hope for all of literacy teachers, but especially those of us who have been denied the nurturing environments and critical lenses with which to grow and sustain our identities. Although we just had five weeks to begin this work, I hope you will set up systems and support to do the same. 


  • Think about your reading life autobiography.

Below are some of the questions that got us started in our class:

Guiding Questions in Spanish Guiding Questions in English
  1. ¿Cuáles son los momentos que se destacan en mi vida sobre mi lectura?
  2. ¿Cuáles idiomas leía durante mi niñez?
  3. ¿Cómo aprendí a leer? 
  4. ¿Cual fue mi experiencia leyendo en las diferentes etapas de mi vida (primaria, secundaria, universidad)?
  1. Which are the key moments around literacy from my life?
  2. In which languages did I read during my childhood?
  3. How did I learn how to read?
  4. What was my experience surrounding reading across different stages in my life (elementary, secondary, higher education)? 








Caption: Bilingual First-Year Teachers create their own reading responses to texts they selected: La Mariposa by Francisco Jimenez, illustrated by Simón Silva and All Around Us by Xelena González, illustrated by Adriana M. Garcia


I’m still unpacking some of the boxes and our reading nook in our new home isn’t quite ready yet. My parents have moved in with us, so you know what’s a constant? I’m surrounded by storytellers, writers, and nature–all which continue to breathe life into my own stories.