Hands-On Latin America: Art Activities for All Ages

author: Yvonne Y. Merrill
Kits Publishing, 1997
grades 3-up 
Mexica, Inca, Maya

I can’t imagine why anyone would want to use this book. There’s no information on the pieces children are being taught to make. Any child or teacher with an inquiring mind would ask: Where were the originals of these pieces made? Who made them? For whom were they made? What were their uses? As a teacher who does project-based teaching, I found myself looking for at least photos of the original pieces and any kind of information to answer these questions. And as an Indian woman, I can't in good conscience tell my culturally diverse students that they’re “Latin American art pieces.” That is just not enough.

The food page in particular ranks up there in bad taste. I teach my students that what people ate and thrived on was what grew in their areas and that the availability of food was usually why people came to a certain area. The author's statement—“Here are some of the foods that were new to the world with the Spanish conquests”—is ungrammatical and confusing and sets the tone for the European-American “us-versus-them” perspective that permeates the entire book.

A few glaring misses: The map shows the continent of South America, Central America and a little of Mexico, but does not include the United States or Canada when in fact, some of the art work is purely North American, north of Mexico—the luminarias for instance. The Mexica (Aztec) symbols are referred to as “designs” when in fact each had and has great importance relating to specific aspects of a belief system. The historic pieces relating to belief and ritual—such as Mexica headbands, medallions and rattles—are shown as craft objects, devoid of meaning, easily constructed out of paper, pasta, paint and canning lids. Each design on each piece had a specific meaning; rituals associated with them were sometimes known by all, sometimes known only by initiates. In any event, they were not simply things for children to copy and play with.

To give this book “educational” value, Merrill has incorporated what she considers important to know on several full pages and after many of the craft instructions. These “facts” mostly range from strange to unintelligible to ridiculous. In a paragraph labeled “Health Care and Hygiene,” there is some useful information, followed by this:

The New World natives had an impressive knowledge of the human body, derived largely from human sacrifice and body dissection. Mesoamerican “surgeons” used sharp obsidian knives and were skilled in drilling for brain injuries.

Sacrificed bodies were considered holy and were not defiled by dissection, nor were they used for educational purposes. The “impressive knowledge” in science and medicine was derived from the need to better the human condition, and trephining was done to relieve pain and pressure on the brain. By surrounding the word “surgeons” with quotes, Merrill implies that people were not surgeons, but rather “primitive” people poking around with sharp instruments.

A page about the Maya is illustrated with a drawing of a person’s head, with arrows pointing to “knotted hair,” “crossed eyes,” “filed pointed teeth filled with jade,” “sloped forehead,” and “tattoos.” Above the drawing, Merrill writes, “[A]rcheologists know the Maya had an unusual beauty code.” Her use of the word “archeologists” is incorrect; people who interpret archeological finds to theorize about their cultural relevance are called “cultural anthropologists.” There was always a purpose or reason for everything that was done; in this case, it might have been beauty, spirituality, status or class. Using the term “unusual” here is patronizing, as is “beauty code.” The picture Merrill shows may well be that of someone belonging to a warrior society, possibly jaguar, whose members personified certain cultural icons. In any event, it’s made to look like a frivolous beauty style filtered through a modern European sensibility. This is not a good thing to do.

In “New World Influences,” Merrill writes: “Though their governing power was quickly eliminated, the New World resources and knowledge forever changed the European lifestyle.” Can anyone tell me what this means? Finally, my favorite “doesn't-quite-make-it” quote: “In most cases they called themselves by their indigenous name: the Chimus or Chancas of the Inca empire, the Mixtecs or Toltecs of the Aztec empire.” What else on Earth would they call themselves? Would they use Spanish names they had never heard?

The “Art Today” section is surprisingly good, mainly because there is no history to mess with. Most of the items are highly visible in modern culture and have become popular to display and make. However, there are better sources for teaching students that include photographs of actual pieces with accurate histories that allow children to learn about the original peoples of this hemisphere in a respectful, non-racist way. Not recommended.

—Judy Zalazar Drummond 
(published 4/13/13)

This review first appeared in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin (AltaMira Press, 2005). We thank the publisher for permission.

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