Service and The City

The second Latin American children’s book recommended in this series is Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña with pictures from Christian Robinson.

In the June panel, “How to Talk to Kids About Race,” Latin American college student Manny Leon talked about some of his experiences with race. He occupies a range of perspectives all at once: an older brother, a youth leader, a student scholar, and a resident of Berkeley, CA. Early on in the panel, Manny explains that “People are dealing with some hard issues and we need to start addressing them at an early age.”  He goes on to share, “You never stop learning. You can always change your perspective.”  His perspective resonates with my own Jesuit-shaped attention to service as a way to continue learning outside of the classroom.

Manny’s points highlight two of the major themes needed in children’s books today—service and intergenerational communication.  Not all children’s books need to overtly teach skills-based literacies like counting and the alphabet, or right vs. wrong morality. Manny’s points about addressing “hard issues” at an early age touch upon the importance of learning abstract concepts which help us understand the stratified and complex socioeconomic and sociocultural systems we live in.  Don’t children deserve to begin to conceptualize these realities?

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, with pictures by Christian Robinson, is more than an ode to grandmotherly wisdom. It is a childlike meditation on community and service. Our guides are CJ and his nana, a pair making their way across the city by bus. From church to soup kitchen, Market Street and its hills unfold through CJ’s observations and interactions with city life. Nana is the mediator, guiding the child through the tensions of discomfort and difference.

The hills popping up around CJ and his nana bring San Francisco’s Market Street to mind, but there are Market Streets in most urban American cities a reader can connect to. Children from rural areas can look at Market Streets throughout the country on GoogleEarth or GoogleImages.  Urban life is diverse in ways which can surprise children living in relatively sheltered suburban communities.  Urban life is often unexplored in children’s books because it contends with diverse sets of “basic” lifestyle norms: food instability, lack of access to housing, physical disability, and social deviance.  I recommend Last Stop for children up to six years of age because it does not fall into the trap of equating city life with Black and Brown otherness.  Instead, Last Stop assumes the normalcy of Black, Brown, disabled, and subcultural peoples. The pictures mimic the style of elementary school drawings in crayon with standard shapes and primary colors. But, the questions and observations CJ has about the people and structures around him are not immature. They are honest.

From Last Stop on Market Street, Pictures by Christian Robinson

Here are some of the abstract concepts CJ introduces to readers:

Public transportation as community good.

“How come we gotta wait for the bus under all this wet?”

Senior limitations related to the cost of vehicle maintenance and ability to drive.

“Nana, how come we don’t got a car?”

Community service as a way of life.

“How come we always gotta go here after church?”

Disability as difference, not handicap.

“How come that man can’t see?”

City “dirt” as a foil for natural beauty.

“How come it’s always so dirty over here?”

There are people with different complexions, and of different age groups. Nature, in the form of rain and trees, coexists with city buildings and traffic. It is unclear as to whether CJ is being raised by his grandmother, or if he spends every Sunday with her. Either way, Last Stop on Market Street stresses the importance of a child’s relationship with elders in their family and/or community. Nana accepts all of CJ’s questions as learning opportunities. Nana could reinforce fear and apprehension, but she chooses to reinforce compassion and living in the beauty of the moment. The story ends with nana and CJ serving soup to their friends at the soup kitchen. The pictures and storyline present books, newspapers, music, conversation, tattoos, homelessness, disability, generosity, Blackness, Brownness, and service as parts of everyday life.

Teachers, guardians, and parents can read Last Stop on Market Street to older children and use it to introduce activities on any of the abstract concepts listed above. Teachers should be aware that their students may be experiencing food insecurity and/or be unhoused. In-class activities and questions must not be limited to presenting these experiences as “different and less than us.”  Pedagogically, lessons developed around books like Last Stop on Market Street need to avoid personalizing socioeconomic status by limiting student responses to binary conditions. Make sure points of inquiry can be picked-up and taken in a wide range of directions which are equitable in relation to your diverse student collective. 

Guardians and parents who have intimate knowledge of a child’s exposure to the abstract concepts and real-world conditions touched upon in Last Stop can help a child explore their relationships with their grandparents or community elders.  Families can also dialogue about service opportunities in their community. 

CJ & Nana in Last Stop on Market Street, Pictures by Christian Robinson

While Last Stop on Market Street begins with the end of a church service, the interactions CJ and nana have on their way to the soup kitchen show children that humanity is everywhere. The city is a church, too. Even the graffiti on the side of a building near the soup kitchen declares, “One Love.” Being of service to the community is not always convenient or “fun.” But, CJ shows kids that recognizing the inherent dignity of nature and humanity is liberating. In a two-page spread, we find CJ turned toward the sunset, birds, butterflies, and the city. “CJ’s chest grew full and he was lost in the sound and the sound gave him the feeling of magic.” You may want to ask the children in your life if they have ever felt that way before. Their answers will teach us about their interior world.

Published by Clarissa Castaneda, PhD

Clarissa Castaneda, PhD is a scholar of Latine/Chicane American literature and cultures, indigenous literatures and cultures, film/television/visual/material cultures, archive theory, and poetics. Her dissertation, Latinidades and the Repository Function of the Poetic (2020), is available via ProQuest. And, “Indigenous Libretto and Aural Memory in The Sun Dance and El Circo Anahuac” is available in Displaced: Literature of Indigeneity, Migration, and Trauma (Routledge 2020). Dr. Castaneda is a lecturer in English at Cal Poly Pomona and a faculty associate in Film & Television Studies at Arizona State University. In addition to research, academic writing, and teaching, she is a creative writer, poet, and musician.

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