Review: Of Borders and Dreams

Note: This review originally appeared in a section edited by Linda D. Labbo under the journal editorship of Martha Dillner, and discontinued when the journal was redesigned in July 2000 under the editorship of Bridget Dalton and Dana L. Grisham. Additional reviews posted from May 1997 to June 2000 can be found by clicking here.

Editor's Note: One of the aims of the Reviews department is to focus on professional materials that help us better understand multiple perspectives on literacy development and instruction. The following review describes a fascinating book about a Mexican-American youth and his family and their attempts to cross literal and figurative borders to realize the dream of a successful educational experience. Reviewer Cheri Foster Triplett provides revealing insights into the author's style and message.

The review consists of the following sections:

Bibliographic Information

Of Borders and Dreams: A Mexican-American Experience of Urban Education. Written by Chris Liska Carger. New York: Teachers College Press (, 1996. ISBN 0-8077-3523-X (hardcover); 0-8077-3522-1 (paperback).

Case Study Gives an Insider's Perspective

In Of Borders and Dreams: A Mexican-American Experience of Urban Education author Chris Liska Carger provides an intellectually and emotionally stirring account of a young boy and his family as they struggle to succeed in an environment that doesn't value their language or their culture. This family portrait is set in a Mexican community on the west side of Chicago. Carger, a teacher turned biographer, details the life of Alejandro and his family as they seek to meet Alejandro's educational needs in both Catholic and public schools.

In a story reminiscent of Jonathan Kozol's (1991) Savage Inequalities we see how state, local, and school bureaucracies impede the learning of children--and of one child in particular. Bureaucratic impediments and local prejudices create an environment of constant struggle for Alejandro and his family.

Carger describes her role in the story as a researcher, advocate, interpreter, liaison, teacher, and family friend. The friendship that developed between Carger and Alejandro's family as she followed the boy through the eighth grade and into his first year of high school was deeply personal. She certainly "entered into communion" (Freire, 1970) with the participants in her study. This relationship is emphasized throughout Carger's narrative, which includes the sharing of life stories, the sharing of meals, and the sharing of hopes and dreams for Alejandro's education. For example, Carger describes the trust between herself and Alejandro's mother, Alma, who shares her fears for her son: "I do not take these moments lightly; I cradle them in my heart, grateful that a sister human being has entrusted them to me, has proffered them so sweetly, so genuinely, into the arms of my consideration" (p. 57).

This passage also provides evidence of Carger's love of language, which permeates the entire text. Carger also reveals her love of literature throughout her narrative. For example, she likens Alejandro and his family to the family in John Steinbeck's The Pearl, and weaves this classic and others into the text. By using the words of other writers -- including Gary Paulsen, Langston Hughes, and Maxine Greene -- Carger creates a tapestry of interpretation that goes beyond her own written account. She also uses the family's own Spanish language to enrich the ethnographic picture, describing, for example, sharing a meal of sopa de arroz (rice with sauce), frijoles (beans), huevos (eggs), chayotes (sweet cactus), and pizza with jalapeños (hot peppers) with Alejandro's family.

This description comes from the chapter "Uncommon Ground," in which Carger discusses the differences between herself, a middle-class white woman, and Alejandro, an adolescent Hispanic boy. She provides a humorous account of Alejandro's family staring suspiciously at a dinner she had prepared under the assumption that "everyone likes spaghetti." She details a trip to the zoo, made so that Alejandro could see a swan for the first time. It had not occurred to her that he would have trouble understanding "The Ugly Duckling" because he wouldn't recognize the beautiful bird. Carger realized that some of her own assumptions were contributing to Alejandro's literacy difficulties, but further, she realized that "it was just one more instance in my teacher-student relationship with Alejandro in which he could interpret himself as failing, although this clearly was my failure" (p. 36).

Carger goes on to describe how the social context of schooling and relationships with teachers helped to construct Alejandro's failures and successes in learning. She reveals some of the complexities that other researchers regard as contributing to school reading failure (see, for example, Johnston & Winograd, 1985; Stanovich, 1986). Unfortunately, failures were the norm in Alejandro's schooling. In the school he attended for eighth grade, for example, "there is a clear sense of 'them' and 'us.' 'Those' who need to be educated and 'we' who possess the knowlege, the brains, the right way of doing things" (p. 29). In Alejandro's case, the possessors of knowledge presented barriers to his education. His eighth grade teacher was completely inattentive to his needs as a second-language learner, giving him vocabulary and spelling assignments that were difficult even for the native English speakers. It was also very evident that his school and his teacher did not value his native language. But even more detrimental to Alejandro was his teacher's failure to care about him. He relayed many instances of being cruelly ridiculed by his teacher and questioned the author about his interpretation of his teacher's actions: "Right, a teacher shouldn't shove kids? Right, she shouldn't make fun of the way you talk?" (p. 42). Nevertheless, this teacher was supported by the school administration and considered to be successful.

In Alejandro's case, as in many other cases reported by sociocultural researchers such as Shirley Brice Heath and Victoria Purcell-Gates, Carger discovered drastic differences between school literacy values and practices and those of the home. Rich oral literacy and community-based learning were common practices in Alejandro's family, but were lacking at school. Carger also discovered that Alejandro's class work had little to do with him, his interests, or his culture. At school, Alejandro and his classmates faced lectures, rote memorization, and round-robin reading of text books. His attempts at collaboration were seen as attempts to cheat. These findings cause Carger to reflect on the skills versus whole language controversy: "If ever a student needed a holistic approach to literacy and learning in general, to hands-on experiences with concrete materials, to relevant literature strong in story and context, it was Alejandro Jaurez, Jr." (p. 142).

Competing educational philosophies were also evident in the English as a second language practices of the local schools and classrooms. Disagreements about immersion, bilingualism, and ESL instruction caused irreparable damage to Alejandro's English-language learning. According to Carger, "It was a sad situation for many students, including Alejandro, who needed ESL help and were adversly affected by the lack of agreement on how to construct that help" (p. 31). Cuts in funding, limited time scheduled for ESL, and lack of resources also contributed to failure for Alejandro. "This system is incredibly insensitive and frustrating, and I speak English and have an advanced degree behind me. Imagine how overwhelmed all the Almas of the city feel in trying to contend with it" (p. 128).

Contending with barriers, crossing borders, and sharing dreams are all themes of Carger's narrative. The author provides a poignant ethnography that emphasizes how the context of schooling often fails our students and how a personal relationship with a child can turn us into passionate advocates for learning.

About the Author

Chris Liska Carger is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois, USA. Her work with bilingual students in Chicago and New York began 20 years ago. Of Borders and Dreams grew from her doctoral work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she was nominated for a Distinguished Dissertation Award. Her research and scholarly writing continues to focus on the use of multicultural children's literature with second-language learners and on multicultural education.

About the Reviewer

Cheri Foster Triplett (e-mail is a doctoral student in the Department of Reading Education at the University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA. She is pursuing research related to sociocultural and sociocognitive aspects of literacy development and instruction.


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder.
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Johnston, P., & Winograd, P. (1985). Passive failure in reading. Journal of Reading Behavior, 27, 279-301.
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Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: Children in America's schools. New York: Harper Perennial.
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Stanovich, K. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-407.
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Reading Online,
Posted February 1999
© 1999-2000 International Reading Association, Inc. ISSN 1096-1232