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Unit 9: Contemporary America

Bullets, Big Sticks, and The Bean Trees: The Effect of American Foreign Policy Past, Present, and Future

by Mary Walsten and David Crocker


Subject Area: English Language Arts / Social Studies (Sociology)

Grade level: High School


Lesson Abstract

This lesson is an examination of the Cold War in Central America and the long term effects on the United States; involves literature, music, and research.


This series of 3 lessons will explore the United States involvement in Central America, during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s; through research, music and literature.  The students analysis of these materials will enable them to draw conclusions on how events from the recent past continue to shape events years later. 

The music that will be examined during this project are “Bullet the Blue Sky” by U2 and “Who Buy the Guns” by Joe “King” Carrasco.  “Bullet the Blue Sky” deals with U.S. involvement in Central America from a broad perspective.  Three lesser known songs by well known artists will also be examined.

The work of literature that will be used to explore this topic is The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver published in 1988.  This book has a subplot which involves the "underground railroad" in the US for the Guatemalan and El Salvadorian refugees, and some specific information about what was happening in Guatemala and what their reception in the United States was like.

In general students should retain two main points from these lessons.  The first point is that events from the past can continue to have repercussions in the future, including some that are unintended and unanticipated.  The second point is that music and literature can be used to enhance the knowledge of historical events by providing additional insight. 

Themes Addressed

California (English Language Arts)

  • Close Reading

  • Analysis

  • Writing Skills

Texas (Social Studies)

  • Writing Skills

  • Critical Thinking

  • Acculturation/Assimilation

  • Immigration/Migration – specifically push/pull factors

Lesson Plans:

Two versions are provided.  One is English Language Arts focused.  The other is Social Studies focused.  They are both designed so you can chose and mix the components that work best in your classroom

English Focused by Mary Walsten

Day One: 

  • For English 1 this occurs after the students have read the first six chapters of The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

  • Play the Peter, Paul and Mary version of “El Salvador” (written by Noel Paul Stookey and Jim Wallis, C. 1983 Neworld Media Music).   Do not pass out the lyrics yet.  Ask students to write down their impressions of the song at the first hearing.  Discuss.

  • Show image; ask if this image fits the song.

  • Distribute the lyrics.  Give students a chance to read through them as you play the song again.  A “junta” is a collective military dictatorship.

  • Ask students to jot down their impressions of the song now that they have read the lyrics.

  • Does the style/tempo/tone fit the words?

  • Give examples of yes and no.

  • Why would the songwriter choose to have such a contrast?

  • What allusions are made to “current events” at the time of the song?

  • Discuss the Poland/Russia situation in the 1980’s.

  • Discuss the killing of the nuns. The nuns referred to were “Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kavel and lay missionary Jean Donovan [who] were abducted, raped and murdered in El Salvador on December 2, 1980.  Five Salvadoran National Guardsmen wearing civilian clothes, and led by Sub sergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Aleman, intercepted the churchwomen’s vehicle on the road from the airport and took them to a remote location where hey raped and executed them.”  See this website for links to information about later “El Salvador Martyrs” who were killed on November 16, 1989: 

  • Show where El Salvador is on the map.  An extensive study of El Salvador and its politics could begin with viewing the PBS documentary Justice and The Generals.  Information and lesson plans are available here.

  • Draw parallels to Guatemala.  Good picture of conflicts in Ireland, Nicaragua and El Salvador are here.

  • Link to characters in The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver:  Estevan and Esperanza.  Assign students to read chapter 7.

Day Two:

  • After students have read chapter 7, focus on attitudes toward immigrants in the U.S. as based upon this chapter in the novel.

  • What does Kingsolver say about the number of legal refugees?

  • Why would America have limited the number so severely?

  • What type of American reaction does Mrs. Parsons represent?

  • What is implied by the interviewer on the TV?

  • What does Taylor say about beauty and Guatemala?

  • In the next chapter, Estevan says that Americans believe “that if something terrible happens to someone, they must have deserved it” (117).  Is this true?

  • Play the Joan Baez and Jackson Browne song, "El Salvador" from the Joan Baez album, Speaking of Dreams. Show images of the war.

  • According to the song by Jackson Browne, what are the two sides in the war?

  • What other conflicts does this song mention?

  • What event is mentioned in this song that was also mentioned in the song by Peter, Paul and Mary?

  • What emotions might someone going through this kind of war have?  What does Jackson Browne mention in his song?

  • Play the White Lions’ song, “El Salvador” and have students record what they hear there about how the individual might feel.

  • How would those feelings be affected by illegally immigrating to a new country?

  • Assign students to read. (The next chapters deal with Esperanaza’s attempted suicide and the revelation that their daughter Ismene was kidnapped to try to force Estevan and Esperanza to reveal the others in the anti-government group).

Day Three—end of book activity:

  • Have students discuss the full story of “Steve” and “Hope” after they have finished the novel.

  • What do you envision for their future?

  • What things are working in their favor that might mean a good life in America for them?

  • What things are working against them?

  • Distribute a copy of the article on immigrants today.  The first part of the article is available here.

  • Play “Bullet the Blue Sky” and then distribute lyrics and replay. 

  • What does this song have in common with ones we’ve listened to prior to this?

  • What metaphors and allusions can you find here?

  • How do they add to the tone?

  • Play “Who Buy the Guns” and distribute the lyrics and replay.

  • Who does the speaker in this song blame for all the destruction?

  • What descriptions help to make Joe “King” Carrasco’s point?

  • How does the story of Estevan and Esperanza fit into a major theme of the novel?  (The importance of names and identity; Starting over—taking chances; Dealing with what Fate/Life hands you; the importance of beauty/love/laughter).  Develop a thesis that explores one of these themes, using Estevan and Esperanza to shed light on that theme.  Your essay should be 3-5 pages in length, with an introduction, 2-4 body paragraphs, and a conclusion, following ms. Form.  You should have the usual 3-5 quotations per body paragraph to support your ideas.  Use standard MLA guidelines (parenthetical notation) to correctly credit your source.  Remember to include title and author in the introduction. 


Additional Resources for Students and Teacher:

Related articles and images:

Social Studies Focused by David Crocker

These lessons are based on a 90 minute block schedule class which meets every other day.  It is also structured for a class that is discussion friendly.  Adaptations to the lesson could include less discussion time in class and more reading in or outside the class.

Day One:

Warm-Up Activity: 

  • As students enter the class they will be given instructions to locate El Salvador and Nicaragua on the map in the class set of atlases.
  • They will then describe the two countries using absolute (exact) and relative (comparative) location.

Research Assignment: 

  • Give the students an overview of the lesson (Lesson Abstract) and explain. 
  • Divide the students into 5 groups and give each group a different portion of the topic to research – countries involved, Cold War, Iran-Contra affair, current information on migrants from Central America, and the murder of four US church workers in El Salvador.
  • Inform the groups that they are to present a 5 minute overview of their topic to the class.  Presentations will be at the start of the next class.
  • Bring in mobile computer labs, or take students to the computer lab to conduct research on their topics.
  • Have specific tasks for each member of the group (Ex. researchers, recorder, organizer, presenter, and illustrator)

Provide the following links to assist research:

Provide assistance to the groups as needed.


Provide a brief preview of how the presentations will take place next class – length, order, and expectations.

Provide readings from The Bean Trees for homework. 

See attached document for suggestions –

Day Two:


  • Have “Bullet the Blue Sky” by U2 playing as the students enter the classroom.  You may want to play it twice.
  • Direct the students to write down their impressions of the song based on the instrumentation, vocals, and significant words in the lyrics

Research Presentation:

Allow students to give research presentations (5 – 10 minute overview).  Keep students on topic.  Be sure to address important points that might have been missed.  Encourage students in the audience to ask question and clarify points that pertain to their research.

Song Activities:

“Bullet the Blue Sky” by U2 and “ Who Buy the Guns” by Joe “King” Carrasco.

Who Buy the Guns

Joe “King” Carrasco, 1985

Song Background

Joe “King” Carrasco, a Texas musician, is considered the king of Tex-Mex Rock-N-Roll.  In a musical career that has spanned several decades he has moved from the  “nuevo wavo” style to the self described “tequila reggae” genre.  Joe “King” Carrasco attracted a large following in the 1980’s with songs such as “Party Weekend” and “Lets Go” that were popular on the spring break circuit.  In recent years his work has included songs of a political nature, such as “Breakdown the Border” on Dia De Los Muertos.  One of his earliest political songs was “Who Buy the Guns” which deals with United States involvement in Central America.  The song deals specifically with the rape and murder of four Catholic church workers in El Salvador during 1980.  It was around this time that Joe was attending school in Nicaragua.  In an interview I conducted with Joe, he recalls visiting the beach to body surf and encountering military advisors from the Soviet Union consulting with the Nicaraguan military.  The song contains lyrics criticizing Ronald Reagan.  This is interesting because the four female church workers were actually murdered prior to his inauguration in 1981.  This may be a commentary on the Iran-Contra affair which was a continuation of the United States policy of supporting repressive anti-communist governments.  The suggestion is that the murder of the “nuns” is the result of these policies.  Joe still plays “Who Buy the Guns” in concert where it is still popular, although he is not sure if audiences are aware of the incident to which it refers.


Lyrics are not currently available online

Recommended Recording

Original Recording: “Who Buy the Guns” performed by Joe “King” Carrasco on Bordertown,  USA: Big Beat Records, ©1985

Discussion Questions

  1. Listen carefully to the song.  Focus on the instruments and the way they are used.  Listen for words and phrases that catch your attention.  What emotions and feelings are reflected in the instruments?  What emotions and feelings are reflected in the lyrics? Answers will vary.
  2. What period of United States/Central America relationship is referred in the line “He had a friend a friend named Uncle Sam, A big shot a big stick”? It suggests Teddy Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” policy.
  3. Based on the information you have learned in class, do you think the song is a fair criticism of United States policy in Central America?  Explain.  Answers will vary.

Bullet the Blue Sky

U2, 1987

Song Background

U2 is a unique band in the modern era.  In a career that has now spanned three decades, U2 has managed to maintain their popularity by reinventing themselves while never turning their back on their social consciousness.  Issues confronted by U2 in their music, and in their action, have included apartheid, debt forgiveness for Third World countries, AIDS, and famine relief in Africa.  On what proved to be their most successful album, The Joshua Tree (1987), U2 chose to explore America and its place in the world.  Specifically, this album focused on American sponsored warfare in the Third World and the harsh tactics of oppressive governments backed by the United States.  Lead singer “Bono” felt that any examination of America would be incomplete without portraying the negative side of the United States along with the positive.  “Bullet the Blue Sky” was the result of a trip Bono took to Central America in 1986 with Amnesty International.  The undeclared war in El Salvador and Nicaragua is described by Bono as the dark side of the American Dream.

Recommended Recording

“Bullet the Blue Sky” performed by U2 on The Joshua Tree (90581-2), Island Records ©1985

Discussion Questions

  1. Listen carefully to the song.  Focus on the instruments and the way they are used.  Listen for words and phrases that catch your attention.  What emotions and feelings are reflected in the instruments?  What emotions and feelings are reflected in the lyrics? Answers will vary.
  2. America is mentioned several times in the song.  Is the singer’s view of America in the song positive or negative?  What examples can you give to support your answer? Answers will vary.
  3. Based on the background information, and research conducted in class, what do you think is the long term result of United States involvement in El Salvador and Nicaragua?  Are there any examples you can give from the song? Answers will vary.  One possible answer is the line “…the women and children, Who run into the arms, Of America” which suggests the push factor for Central Americans immigrating to the United States.  It could also suggest women and children gunned down by “arms” bought with American “aid”.

Wrap Up:

  • Discuss current readings on The Bean Trees
  • Ask students to analyze and compare the readings in The Bean Trees and the songs to their research
  • Assign remaining readings from The Bean Trees.


Day Three:

Warm- Up:

  • Distribute the poem “Arms” by Guatemalan poet Manuel Arce
  • Have students write a brief paragraph response to the poem based on what they have learned so far on this topic.

Final Research Activity

  • Have the students complete a country data sheet for the United States, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
  • Data sheet available here.
  • This info can be found in most World Geography textbooks or online at the sites listed above.

Final Discussion

Lead a class discussion

Points to focus on:

  • Why was the Cold War also fought in Central America?
  • Why was the interest of the United States not consistent with the interest of the average citizens in the various Central American countries?
  • Have the students discuss how the music, novel, and poem reflect or does not reflect the situation in Central America in the late 1970’s and 1980’s.
  • What push factors have led citizens of Central America to migrate to the United States?  What push factors have led citizens of Central America to migrate to the United States? 
  • Are immigrants from Central America more likely to want to assimilate or acculturate into American culture?

Final Assessment

The following projects could be used to assess student achievement.  Students may be allowed to choose the assessment that matches their strengths.  All final projects should show an understanding of the topics that have been discussed in class.  Opinions may vary.

  • Write an editorial on United States involvement in Central America.  The editorial should address the effect of this involvement on our current immigration policy.  An alternative could be about imperialism and American policy in the world today.
  • Compose two poems – one supportive of United States involvement in Central America and one opposed.
  • Illustrate three scenes from The Bean Trees readings.  The illustration should accurately reflect specific passages from the novel.  Each illustration should include the passage and page number of the passage on the back of the illustration.

Sources used to prepare lesson:

  • Carrigan, Ann. Salvador Witness: the Life and Calling of Jean Donovan. 2. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

    Contains description of Jean Donovan’s life, one of the four Catholic Church workers murdered in El Salvador in 1980.  Also contains the poem “Arms”.

  • Flanagan, Bill. U2: At the End of the World. 1. New York: Delacorte Press, 1995.

    Discussion of U2 during the late 1980’s including the motivation behind the songs on The Joshua Tree.

  • Leiken, Robert. Central America: Anatomy of a Conflict. 1. New York: Pergamon Press, 1984.

    General information on the event up to 1984.

  • “U2: The Joshua Tree.” Down Beat 08 1987: 36.

    Review of the album The Joshua Tree

  • Popkin, Margaret. Peace Without Justice: Obstacles to Building the Rule of Law in El Salvador. 1. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

General information on the events up to 2000.

"Joe "King" Carrasco."

"JKC Biography."

"U2." allmusic.

" / discography."