“There is no one to teach us”

October 13, 2009

My "abuela" in Mexico, and the one room house in which she lives

My "abuela" in Mexico, and the one room house in which she lives


In the summer of 2007, I participated in a seven week Quaker-funded, leftist-run work camp designed to support the indigenous women’s organization in the Nahuatl community of Z, located in Puebla, Mexico. Our task was to build water tanks and ecological stoves for women and their families. The ecological stoves burn significantly less firewood than open fires and pipe the smoke outside of the house, protecting the health of the women who cook over them. They’re easy to construct- sculpted out of concrete, sand, earth and lime mixed by hand.

Unfortunately, most families wanted water tanks, to collect rainwater for bathing and cleansing. I thought these tanks were fairly useless because the water still wasn’t potable, but we Americans spent a lot of time processing our imperialist tendencies, so I didn’t share my opinion. I was also biased, because I was absolutely no help when it came to actually building them. The organization hired an albañil, or bricklayer, to oversee construction. Maybe he was a little bit machista, maybe he recognized that underneath my spanking-new overalls and work gloves I was absolutely devoid of spade-wielding talent. W hatever the case, the bricklayer wouldn’t let us help. Consequently, I spent a lot of time feeling completely useless.

Now, dear reader, I can deal with my fair share of unfortunate experiences, but feeling like a waste of space and tortilla is not one of them.

As a result, I felt lost and alienated during my time in Mexico. But I remember one woman’s words as a brief moment of insight into the role I could play in confronting the challenges that the community faced. One of the houses where we “worked” was built high on a mountain overlooking a valley. The view was spectacular, and the stone home looked as if it had grown out of the cornfields. To pass the time, one of the women gave us a tour. In one bedroom, a chart was tacked onto the whitewashed walls. With its neat squares and colored letters, it seemed better suited to a high school chemistry lab than a simple bedroom in an isolated Mexican village. “Qué es ésto?” we asked the women. “The Nahuatl alphabet,” answered Doña E in her soft, slow Spanish. “Can you read it?” we responded. “No.” “Would you like to learn?” “Yes, but there is no one to teach us.”

What if Doña E and other women had a teacher, and what if they learned to read? These women are tough: their quiet strength holds the community together in the face of poverty and migration. Many have watched their children leave the town to work in the capital, the northern farms, or the United States. They remain behind, raising their grand children or great grandchildren. They tend the milpa and carry the firewood: they grind the corn and pat the masa into the perfect rounds that are eaten at every meal. Although worn by work, these women welcomed us and cared for us, teaching me the true meaning of hospitality.

echan tortillas

But indigenous women lack power. Men dominate community organizations: at meetings for the women’s group, only the male coordinator spoke. The blouses they embroider are sold to tourists. The women are paid only $2 for 10 days of labor. Moreover, some women are powerless in their own homes. The husband of my “abuela” had deserted the family many years before, and even the wife of the male head of the women’s organization complained of emotional and occasional physical abuse.

In Guatemala, these common problems are compounded by the violent legacy of a thirty-year civil war. Close to three hundred thousand Guatemalans were killed or disappeared by the police and the military, culminating in the massacre of entire Mayan communities in the early 1980s. Sexual violence against indigenous women was common. The United States is complicit in this violence. Not only did the CIA support the 1954 coup that ousted the moderate socialist Jacobo Arbenz, but it also provided training in counter-insurgency “techniques” just prior to the first reported disappearances in 1966. Activists like Rigoberta Menchú have been successful in raising international interest in the plight of indigenous communities, but the memory of the conflict remains a point of violent contention in Guatemala.

I am not foolish enough to believe that simply teaching women basic literacy skills is enough to end centuries of violent exploitation or overturn a global economic system rooted in inequality. But when Doña Elena answered our questions about the Nahuatl alphabet, I realized that as long as they are unable to read and write (and to acknowledge trauma and fear) women like those I met in Mexico will remain dependent, unable to give voice to their collective challenges and shared dreams. At the very least, the classroom can be a space where these issues can be addressed openly, without shame. Obviously, I’m not the first person to connect a lack of education with oppression, which is why I’ve come here to Guatemala, to learn from leftists and indigenous rights activists who have been doing this work for years.

On a more personal level, I owe a debt to the women of Z. As I worked through my frustration with my experience in Mexico, I realized how much they had taught me about power and politics during my time in Puebla. I also recognized that I am not totally useless. I have no skill with a spade, but language is something akin to a trade. Here in Guatemala, I’ll try to put it to good use.


One Response to ““There is no one to teach us””

  1. Amy Rothschild said

    This is a beautiful post, Emma. Wishing you the best in your early days in Guatemala.

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