In October 2015, the artists El Mac and Cero unveiled a mural of Nicholasa Mohr as a part of the International Monument Art Project on Lexington Avenue and 111th Street in East Harlem, New York. The mural, which covers the full side of a building, celebrates the work of the first Rican woman to have her work published in English by a major American publishing house (Acosta-Belén 1992). The writer of more than a dozen books, Mohr has been “recognized as a pioneer figure … [with a] decisive role in the development of Latina narrative” (Moreno 2012: 23). Although praised by critics, who have said it “represents the strongest [Rican] woman’s voice of [her] generation,” (Torres-Padilla and Rivera 2008: 10) Mohr’s writing has received a “surprisingly limited amount of scholarly attention” (Lomelí et al. 2016: 195) in mainstream academic journals. Of Mohr’s novels, Felita and Going Home seem to be the least known. In this article I explore how both works examine the emergence of the female subject during times of intercultural tension. Among the elements not yet remarked upon is their sustained attention to the issue of bullying long before the topic became a popular one in young adult literature (Bennet 2011; Hillsberg and Spak 2006; Pytash et al. 2013; Young and Ward 2011). As I will show in this article, the novels raise important issues related to bullying, especially that which is practiced by girls.
Felita (1979) and Going Home (1986) make use of a girl’s first-person perspective to examine bullying and related issues in some detail. Felita examines how the exclusionary practices of one generation can lead to bullying by the next and how the objects of bullying can also turn a critical eye on themselves. Felita’s sequel Going Home (1986) also uses a first-person perspective to show how intercultural and intracultural tensions—which Mohr also examines in two of her essays—can lead to ethnic-based bullying (1986b, 1987). Both texts also explore the roles of adults in both enabling and counteracting bullying behavior. Moreover, the novels highlight the potential of art and of dialogue to promote the re-engagement of the girl who has been bullied.
As the literature suggests, the subject of bullying (once treated as an expected part of childhood and a normal initiation rite) is now recognized as a serious hazard to physical and psychological health. “Aggression is commonplace in U.S. schools: bullying and other forms of proactive aggression adversely affect 30 percent, or 5.7 million, American youth each school year” (Faris and Felmlee 2011:48). Bullying research has expanded over the last half-century from articles published in isolated studies in small journals to global projects investigating both short-term and long-term effects on the perpetrator and the subject of the bullying, and the contexts in which bullying takes place. The roles of authority figures—parental, educative, and community-based—have also been studied, and preventative programs and legislative actions have been put into place at both local and national levels.
Bullying has been characterized as “a form of aggression that can be direct or indirect and includes physical, verbal, or psychological and relational acts, that is intentional and occurs in a relationship characterized by a power imbalance, and is repeated over time” (Mishna 2012: 5). Key research areas include direct and indirect forms of bullying, the roles of gender and ethnicity in determining who bullies and who is to be bullied, and the advantages of cognitive (as opposed to punitive) approaches in counteracting bullying behavior (Day et al. 2014; Jimerson and Huai 2010; Olweus 2010; Swearer and Espelage 2010).
The study of bullying is no doubt an especially complex one and Mohr’s work should not be approached as a treatise. At the same time, it is especially noteworthy how many of the topics mentioned above in relation to bullying are explored in Felita and Going Home, the first of which reflects on the author’s own experiences as a child who experienced bullying and who would later find herself a bystander to a bullying episode. Close readings of the two young adult novels demonstrate how the subject of bullying serves as a through-line in Felita and Going Home, and how the two novels model (in their storytelling and dialogue) ways in which tween readers and their mentors might approach this complex subject.
Background and Context
Even though it shares many of the elements of immigrant literature, that of Puerto Ricans living in the Continental United States is not the literature of immigrants since Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917 (Stevens-Arroyo and Díaz-Ramírez 1982; López 1980; Wagenheim and de Wagenheim 1988). In her preface to El Bronx Remembered (1975), Mohr suggests that while they “did not face immigration laws or quotas, [the migrants were nonetheless] strangers in their own country” (1975: n.p.). In the most general terms, Puerto Rico’s history reveals a pattern of conquest and colonialism (from 1493 to 1897), a few months of some autonomy(1897 to 1898), and more than a century of American domination (beginning in 1898), which many consider another form of colonialism. After nearly 500 years of Spanish control, Puerto Rico became an American possession in 1898. Puerto Ricans were accorded American citizenship in 1917 (see Cabranes 1979; Carrión 1981, 1983).
It was not until the 1950s that Puerto Rico was permitted to write its first constitution since 1897. The Island’s status as a free state associated with the United States had been supported in the plebiscites of 1967 and 1993. During periods of mainland prosperity, labor shortages in the US prompted Islanders to migrate north in record-numbers. In more recent years, periods of economic decline and industrial relocation in the Continental US have led to a deterioration of living conditions and an increase in revolving-door migration. Several decades ago, the US Civil Rights Commission found that the Puerto Ricans living in Continental US cities often experienced a low standard of living, discrimination, and limited educational opportunities—a situation described by others as a form of internal colonialism (Flores 1993; United States Commission on Civil Rights 1976). Recent work, focusing on “the advances that the community has made,” has emphasized the importance of the cultural production of Diaspora writers to “fill a gap in US dominant narratives and … provide a source of validation for the community” (Moreno 2012: 98).
Mohr’s fiction can be read as a representation of the Diaspora during several important historical moments. Nilda (1973) uses the context of the 1940s to explore one girl’s experiences as she takes on greater responsibility for her family. Both El Bronx Remembered (1975) and In Nueva York (1977) include interconnected stories about mainland Puerto Ricans who were part of the Great Migration from the Island from the 1940s to the mid-1960s. The novels Felita and Going Home address a girl’s attempt to negotiate a bicultural identity within the cultures of her native New York City and the Puerto Rico of her ancestors. Two of Mohr’s later works, Rituals of Survival (1985) and A Matter of Pride and Other Stories (1997), are set during the period after the Great Migration, when declining economic conditions made survival in an urban environment even more difficult. A Matter of Pride and Other Stories echoes concerns also addressed in Mohr’s essays (1986b, 1987) related especially to tensions between the sensibilities of both the Continental US and the Island, as well as the roles of gender and custom. For if Mohr’s earlier works (such as Nilda) look to the possibility of dialogue and exchange, her later works, beginning with Felita and Going Home, seem to stress its difficulty.
Affiliation and Bullying in Felita
Felita and Going Home were both published by Dial Books under the imprint of their Young Readers series. Felita, which was awarded the American Book Award in 1981, explores bullying from the perspectives of family aspirations and the proverbial good life. Indeed, Felita can also be read as using a girl’s epistemological perspective to effect a systematic dismantling of clichés in American fiction—witness the ironic relationships between the received notions of a better neighborhood and the behavior of the self-appointed gatekeepers of these imagined communities (Anderson 1991). Like other works addressing mid-twentieth-century life in the United States, Mohr’s story points to a tension between a neighborhood’s appearance of clean streets and apparent respectability on the one hand and its adherence to exclusionary customs and beliefs on the other. Indeed, the novel links personal experience and social history by adapting episodes recounted in Mohr’s 1994 memoir Growing Up Inside the Sanctuary of My Imagination. The fictional narrative explores more fully an episode (recounted in Mohr’s memoir), when her family moved into a new neighborhood.
Back then we [as Latinos] were conspicuous in that racially homogeneous surrounding, and unwelcome … My first attempt to play with the children was quite successful … But when I went down a second time, the grown-ups interfered … I was verbally and physically abused in the presence of adults who joined in the name-calling.(50–51)
In adapting the event in Felita Mohr puts the bullying episode into a larger context by contrasting Felita’s parents’ expectations, with those of the girl herself. One notes the repeated contrasting of the “new place” (18) and “a way better neighborhood” (22) to the old one, and the parents’ shared motivation to move to a district with “better schools” (25). In explaining and justifying the move, family members also minimize any possible inconvenience: Felita’s elder brother states, for example, that the new neighborhood “ain’t far” (22). Although her family seems to connect the move to perceived notions of upward mobility, Felita—who is more concerned with the loss of her old friends—does not. Moreover, as the narrative continues, the implied promises of a “cleaner and quieter” (29) (and by extension, safer) street take on an ironic cast.
The bullying episodes in both Felita and its sequel Going Home are structurally similar. In both novels, when a group invites Felita to join their game she agrees to do so but with some reluctance. The game first proceeds well, until one girl suddenly changes her affect; acting as a ringleader, she then turns the rest of the group against the newcomer who is seen to be challenging her authority.
Felita’s first-person narrative shows the consequences of shunning and bullying through the point of view of the nine-year-old girl. The passage also juxtaposes phrases (and gestures) associated with the parents’ optimism—and the girl’s sense of apprehension—about the new neighborhood. In terms that are richly suggestive, Felita reports that her mother was “busy making curtains, matching appliance covers, and place mats,” and that most of the furniture was “set in place” (28–29). Looking out onto the street, however, Felita assesses the new neighborhood with trepidation:
I stood by the living-room window looking out. The day was warm and sunny. Below on the sidewalk a group of girls were playing rope—double dutch. Some of them were real good. The block was different from my old street. There were hardly any small stores. … The street was cleaner and quieter. There were not as many people or kids outside.
‘Go out and play, Felita. Why don’t you go out and make friends?’ Mami kept telling me this every day.
… ‘Maybe tomorrow.’ … I was just scared to go out into that block with all those strange kids.
… ‘Mi hijita [my daughter], please, por favor, give children a chance to know you.’(29–30)
As an incentive, her mother presents her with a new dress “like a sailor’s suit … [which] would be nice … to wear on the first day you go out to meet our new neighbors.” A bit more self-confident (“I looked nice, even pretty”), Felita makes her way to the stoop—occupying a liminal space as she witnesses the girls’ gestures:
I stood on the stoop, watching the group of girls I had seen from the Window … One of them saw me, then whispered to the others. They all stopped playing and looked at me. Slowly I went down the steps to the sidewalk and leaned against the stoop railing. Then I walked toward them and stood only a few feet away. … They were having a good time … Hopscotch was a game I was really good at!
‘Hi! Hey you!” a girl … called out. “You wanna play with us?’
‘Sure.’ I walked over and waited my turn.(30–31)
In Mohr’s story, the children first agree to invite Felita to join them. Soon, however, differences in the girls’ proficiency at the game and their attitudes toward her emerge. As Felita reports, “We all played. When it was my turn, I got to play over and over because I was the best one” (32). Whereas two girls express welcome, two others assert their own sense of entitlement. Mary Beth states, “I’ve been living [here] all my life,” and Thelma says she has lived on the block “since [she was] four” (33–34). The pattern highlighted here is related to two stages observed in ethnic-based discrimination described in Dale Nesdale’s research that outlines a transition in some children from one of non-discrimination to an attitude of discrimination, based on a variety of factors. At first “playmate preferences [seem to be] unrelated to ethnic preferences or out-group stereotype responses,” even if some of the girls see themselves as being a part of an in-group of residents (2004: 229).
The situation changes, however, after an adult intervenes: a parent, who has evidently been watching the children at play, calls her daughter Mary Beth over for a scolding. When Mary Beth returns, whatever welcome that was expressed is now forgotten. As the rest of the girls huddle together, Katherine—the first to welcome Felita—walks away. The text reflects Felita’s epistemological stance:
The other girls huddled together with the grown-ups. They all spoke in low voices … I smiled at them and waited, but there were no smiles for me … Katherine had already disappeared into her building. Suddenly I felt frightened and all alone.(34)
Following the second stage described in Nesdale’s research one notes that Felita is now regarded as an “outgroup [member who is] despised or hated” (2004: 230). Social cognitive theory “proposes that children learn violence by watching others engage in violence” (Kuykendall 2012: 82). The same girls who invited Felita to play with them now block her way: “As I tried to get by … the girls ran up the stoop and formed a line across the building entrance” (35) while adults watched. In juxtaposing Felita’s expectation with her experiences, the narrative draws attention to the effect of the sudden change.
Felita is then subjected to ethnic bullying. As onlookers encourage them, the children mouth insults they have evidently heard:
‘She should stay in her own place, right, Mama?’
‘Can’t you answer? No speak the English no more?’ The grownups laughed.(35)
After being pushed down the steps and punched, Felita then feels “a wall of arms [come] crashing down” (37). The back of Felita’s new sailor suit, worn to create a good first impression, is torn. Because the author is describing something happening quickly to a character in a state of shock, the general anonymity of those who strike the blows and hurl the insults is retained. When someone uses the N-word to address Felita, an adult reacts, “Shh, don’t say that” (35), as if more upset that the term is voiced in public than that one’s child has used such words. Even as some try to end the episode, their language continues to reinforce an exclusionary message: “‘Let her go,’ a woman shouted. ‘She knows now she’s not wanted here’” (37). As the children repeat phrases they have evidently been taught, the adults’ lesson has apparently achieved its desired outcome.
Focusing on the minor character Katherine, Mohr’s novel then calls attention to the bystander’s difficult position. Before the bullying begins, Katherine leaves abruptly. “‘I gotta be getting on home,’ she murmured” (34), perhaps anticipating the kind of episode she might have witnessed before. Since she does not live in the same building, Katherine has arguably not been indoctrinated as other children had and, thus, refused to follow the mob.
This episode also aligns with a bullying event described in Mohr’s memoir, Growing Up Inside the Sanctuary of My Imagination (1994), this time focusing on her role as a bystander when a friend experienced religious bigotry:
Then one afternoon I was walking with the four girls and we saw Marilyn returning from Hebrew school. “That’s your friend, the Jew girl,” one of them said. I remember wanting to join Marilyn but not daring to go ahead. … Marilyn’s wide smile faded when she greeted me and saw my reluctance … But I just stood there, feeling mute and powerless. (87)
The text then relates the author’s subsequent failed attempts to atone for her lack of courage. By linking fictional work and the memoir, Mohr suggests that an understanding of bullying must consider not only the perspectives of the bullied and the bully, but those of the bystander as well. Mohr concludes the section of the memoir by reporting her promise “never … to keep silent again” (89).
In positioning Felita as the observer, subsequent sections of Felita also echo Mohr’s memoir by highlighting the effects of the culture of bullying on the rest of the family. Bullying that upsets one’s routine existence can create a special vulnerability. “Routine activity theory proposes a model of victimization in which an individual’s behavioral patterns affect his or her risk of victimization” (Popp and Peguero 2011: 2430). Felita’s brother is jumped by several young men, the family’s mailbox is broken into, and Felita’s mother is doused with hot and cold water by an unseen mob when she attempts to bring home the family’s groceries. Felita also observes how her relatives blame one another as well as themselves, for what has occurred.
New Lessons in Managing Conflict and Gaining Voice
Even as she observes her relatives’ reactions, she also reports her own. Having kept her dignity intact as she forced her way through the angry mob of parents and children, and strangers who attacked her, Felita now contemplates revenge thus recasting her role from victim to avenger. Yet as she questions the girls’ motivations (“I didn’t know why they hated us or what we had done, except that we were Puerto Rican. Somehow that made them very angry” (51)), Felita also turns the lens back on herself. Her anger is now matched by self-loathing: “[I felt] bad … and like I can’t stand up for myself” (58). The silence in effect prevents the person being bullied from escaping the stigma of abuse.
In coming to terms with this event, Felita needs to contextualize her inability to stand up for herself. In this context, her grandmother, Abuelita, herself a gifted storyteller, becomes crucial. Their dialogues not only provide antidotes to the despair and self-loathing that follow the bullying episode, but also allow an important re-framing of the event itself. Abuelita’s advice is to reject the hatred based on the “nasty things about them and their families” (59), and the desire for revenge. Moreover, her stories recast Felita’s role from victim to agent through her connection to the imaginative life; Abuelita recognizes in Felita a kindred spirit, and a fellow artist.
In offering a different sort of response to the bullying episode, Abuelita’s stories call on social history as well as cultural myths and metaphors. Her images of Puerto Rico as a “garden” and “a rainbow of earth colors” (60) provide an opportunity for re-framing so that the girl will be better able to cope with other such events in the future. The child’s reference to the flowers at the end of the story signals an affirmation of her identity with its acceptance of her grandmother’s metaphor of a rainbow that reinforces a message of pluralism and tolerance, a message that will be recalled even after the grandmother has died.
In narrating Felita’s involvement in a school pageant and the agency she exercises given her role as an artist in this project, the last chapters of Felita explore the restorative value of art. The Thanksgiving Pageant allows Felita not only to display her talent but also to learn to manage interpersonal conflicts more effectively. After auditioning for—but not being awarded—a speaking part in the pageant, Felita declines all non-speaking roles but agrees to paint the scenery when that job is offered to her. After first shunning the winner of the auditions, who was once her close friend, Felita discovers ways in which to examine her own motivation and those of her friend and to value the friendship they shared. The importance of dialogue, asserted by Abuelita, is realized in the reconciliation at the end of the narrative. As important as this reconciliation is, the episode complements the rest of the narrative in offering the girl more positive approaches to conflict management.
The Problematics of Going Home
The sequel to Felita, Going Home (1986), presents a more complex narrative whose very title points to a problematic aspect of home—the cognitive dissonance between the stories that migrants “had nostalgically presented to their displaced offspring” labeled by Mohr a “false legacy” (1987: 89), and the lack of welcome the offspring later encountered when visiting the Island. These tensions provide additional aspects of the contexts of this novel. Now two years older, Felita looks forward to a summer in Puerto Rico. In Going Home’s first-person narration, Mohr uses the child’s visit to re-examine issues of affiliation and belonging. In so doing, she revisits and problematizes some of the key episodes first highlighted in Felita. The sequel also presents several episodes in which the girl needs to contend with bullies who threaten both her and those close to her. In so doing, the narrative examines Felita’s experiences as both a victim and a witness and it also expands its range from girl-bullying to ethnic-based bullying, involving both boys and girls.
The novel’s first episodes explore Felita’s choices in the role as a witness to bullying when her friend Vinny, an immigrant from Colombia, is taunted because of his accent. The episode shares many characteristics with the sidewalk episode in Felita discussed above in which Felita as a newcomer is also bullied. Here evidently, the price of admission to this imagined community is to speak American slang. As an onlooker to bullying, Felita—unlike Katherine, the passive witness of the first novel—decides to help her friend. Having experienced bullying herself, Felita begins to teach Vinny English “just like all the other kids” after she learns that her friend would be teased “until he learns our ways” (33). The episode is, however, not without its own problems. Felita, who (in the first novel) suffered because of her perceived difference, now becomes an agent of assimilation, teaching Vinny to use colloquial expressions so as to prevent his being bullied again.
In both Felita and Going Home issues of bullying also relate to larger questions of personal dignity that Felita learns to define as a freedom to develop one’s talents and individual traits separate from the imposed views of others. If her grandmother’s stories in the first novel emphasize the common human experience, the girl’s own experience in the second book focuses on gender equality. If in the first novel the girl encounters ethnic prejudice, in Going Home she also witnesses cultural and gender bias both within and beyond her own family. Felita must, for example, react to her brother’s assertion that it is a “law of nature” (20) that girls should not be allowed to have much freedom. As the narrative develops, she counteracts this prejudice, both by what she does and what she refuses to do. Her actions (such as reaching out to a marginalized classmate) earn her the respect of a brother whose routine actions typically demeaned her. Moreover, accepting such a mentoring role enhances Felita’s sense of self-esteem in allowing her to fashion her own response to her brothers’ patronizing challenge: “Since when have you become an English teacher!” (42). By engaging in dialogue she helps her brother understand her position while beginning to appreciate his resentment of their parents’ insistence on the family’s cultural norms such as the need to chaperone his sister.
Felita becomes a witness to bullying once again when her family visits the Island and her brothers are bullied by their male cousins. Here, too, affiliative claims are linked to language use. Here, too, an elder relative’s comments trigger bullying behavior: after an uncle criticizes Felita’s brothers’ Spanish, they are mocked by the relatives who are hosting them. The episode might be read as recalling Mohr’s view that Islanders at times “show disdain and contempt for [her] community,” mocking their dialect, and categorizing them as “outsiders … and newyoricans” (Mohr 1987: 90–91).
In outline, the third bullying episode—this time involving Felita—follows familiar patterns. The girl experiences the newcomer’s marginalization when she attempts to join a social club. Once again, issues of competence are pitted against assumptions about affiliation and entitlement. After Felita establishes her competence at play, the games become increasingly exclusionary: the next one involves Spanish tongue-twisters, evidently designed just for her. As in the earlier sidewalk episode, Felita takes part though reluctantly: “I really didn’t want to play this game, but I also didn’t want to be left out, so I agreed” (1986: 117). Like her friend Vinny, Felita soon discovers that she is vulnerable to the ridicule of others when her answers are judged as being “too slow” (118). When told that she would go last next (which would force her “to [speak] faster than anyone else”) Felita declines, only to be taunted as a “sensitive Yankee,” a “gringita,” and “Ms. Nuyorican … too good to play with us” (118–119). Issues related to affiliation and entitlement emerge here as well. Ignoring Felita’s logic—her suggestion that if the situation were reversed, others might stumble—the ringleader asserts that Felita is “not Puerto Rican,” because she was “not born here” (120). Although Felita responds directly to these insults, her actions give her little satisfaction and much self-doubt:
All my life I’ve been Puerto Rican, now I’m told I’m not, that I’m a gringa. Two years ago, I got beaten up by a bunch of mean girls when we had moved to an all-white neighborhood … They just hated me because I was Puerto Rican … How could [Anita] say those things to me? Even today, back home when anybody tries to make us ashamed of being Puerto Rican, we all stand up to them … At home I get called a ‘spick’ and here I’m a Nuyorican.(122)
She finds cold comfort when told that the bullies like “to tease and act smart when anyone from the States comes here” (118). Although in Mohr’s first novel, Felita took consolation from her connection with her family and its history, in the second her memories of her grandmother’s stories seem, at least temporarily, to have disappeared. Instead, when she returns to her relatives’ home, after having been taunted, Felita lashes out at the relatives who are hosting her, and contemplates leaving the Island.
As in the first novel, Felita’s reemergence is affected when she is able to exercise her agency as an artist. Her demonstrable talent allows her to thrive, even in a hostile environment. After a period of competitive appraisal, Felita (even though she is a newcomer) is put in charge of the club’s large art project—a mural which will provide the backdrop for a pageant to be staged that summer. The art project also allows Felita to gain a deeper understanding of the history that has informed the Puerto Rican culture that she has inherited.
Bullying has been defined as any aggressive activity that damages a child’s self-esteem. Even after she has been asked to supervise the mural project, Felita experiences forms of indirect bullying that threaten the project’s success. Not only is Felita undermined by one of the other students working on the project, but the materials needed to complete the mural are stolen days before a key deadline. Moreover, on the day before the pageant is to begin, Felita discovers that her mural has been defaced with the words, “GRINGITA GO HOME” (167).
A key difference between how bullying is treated in the two novels, however, lies in the authority figures’ response to it. Unlike Felita’s authority figures, who shirked their responsibilities, the program directors in Going Home address the situation immediately by interviewing the key suspects (and their families). Once guilt is determined, the bullies who tried to exclude the newcomer are themselves banished from the community. As the novel ends, Felita returns to her home with a new sense of satisfaction about what she has achieved in defying the biases of others, and asserting her own agency.
The Role of Art
In her memoir, Growing Up Inside the Sanctuary of My Imagination (1994), Nicholasa Mohr reflects on the intersection between the bullying episode in Felita and episodes in her own life. In Felita and Going Home we see Felita overcoming the biases of others to accomplish her goals. Not surprisingly, the girl’s ambition involves the visual arts for Mohr was herself an artist and print-maker before she became a novelist, and her initial experiments in writing began as ways to annotate and contextualize her prints. For Mohr’s characters (in Nilda (1973) and several of her short stories, as well as the two novels analyzed here) the artistic space often provides a quiet retreat from the world and a restorative journey into the self.
In the two young adult novels discussed above, the retreat into art is not simply a private journey but an opportunity for the child to exercise her agency. Her role is not simply to decorate the stage but to construct an imagistic backdrop for all the actors who would stand before it. In the first book, Felita, the role is more mediated: the character is an assistant, and thus takes orders from others. Limited satisfaction and limited agency are shown. In the case of Going Home, however, Felita is put in charge of the scenery, but not before she has proven herself as an artist and has made herself a student of the historical and cultural context that is at the center of the story.
If in Going Home, Felita begins as an informal language tutor (and an ad hoc expert on North American slang) she also shows herself to be a serious student of her own cultural history—a history that was largely ignored in her schools back home. With her mural completed, Felita silences the bullies and gains respect from those who would doubt her. Her art grants her the perspective to see the world in rich images and metaphors and with the wisdom of one who understands both the difficulty and the necessity of going home.
I acknowledge the assistance of Teah Goldberg, and Rains Research Fellows Morika Fields, Elizabeth Rahe, and Katherine Vermillion.
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