Nuts and Bolts or What I do when I am not writing this blog

December 16, 2009

Dear reader, you are truly blessed with patience. For almost 10 weeks, I´ve gone on about language anxiety and burning piñatas, American education reform and Guatemala City traffic, with only passing allusions to this supposed research that your hard-earned tax dollars are funding. Rest assured, I have not simply been hanging out, reading Freire and snapping photos.  I have, in fact, been working, and the time has come to tell you about it.

I my second blog post, I told you the story of the women of Zoatecpan, who wanted to learn to read the Nahuatl alphabet but lacked  teacher. What I didn´t tell you is that when Doña E told me she didn´t know how to read, I was in the midst of a bold, brave attempt to read Freire during our afternoon siestas. (Freire reading hint: do not attempt to read Pedagogy of the Oppressed after eating, on average, six to eight tortillas, echan de manos, and a bowl of black of beans. Yes, I know, that´s a lot of food, but have you ever eaten a tortilla made from corn grown 10 feet from where you are standing? Do you have any idea how good they are?) But even through my tortilla induced haze,  I managed to make the connection: could Freire´s theories be used to construct a bilingual literacy program? If so, how?

I didn´t decide to apply to Guatemala until the next spring, when I had begun to work on my Fulbright application in earnest. I wish I could say I´d planned it, but the truth is that my choice was less stroke of genius than happy accident, the result of a brief encounter with Greg Grandin´s The Last Colonial Massacre (Thank you Nara!) and my lovely and amazing friend F´s account of her five-day Guatemalan sojourn. (There should probably be a plaque in the Swarthmore cafeteria.)

Happily for my research proposal, Guatemala turns out to be the perfect place to delve into the question. The illiteracy rate is the second highest in Latin America: only Haiti can best Guatemala´s rate of over 30 percent. Indigenous women are much less likely to know how to read and write than their male counterparts, and in some municipalities as many as 65 to 70% of indigenous women are illiterate. (There is frequently a disparity of 20 to 30% between indigenous men and women.) In a country where 23 indigenous languages are spoken, an even smaller number of indigenous women are likely to speak Spanish and their mother tongue with equal fluency. Given the magnitude of the problem, it is unsurprising that the implementation of bilingual, intercultural education programs in public schools was one indigenous demand codified in the 1996 Peace Accords, which ended the civil war.

What I proposed in my application, then, was to research how indigenous rights activists have interpreted and applied Freire´s theories  to create literacy programs for adult, indigenous women, focusing on questions of gender and identity. How do they define popular education, and how does this definition translate into curriculum? I added the obligatory Rigoberta Menchu quote, and wrote a conclusion linking the project to my academic work on women´s citizenship, and Voila! A Fulbright application was born.

(It wasn´t really that easy, as those of you who were in my general vicinity in August and September of 2008 know, but let´s not dwell on that.)

Clever reader that you are, you might be wondering just what I plan to do with all this interpreting of Freire and ruminating on indigenous identity, besides write thrilling (yes?) weekly blog entries. What a good question! The truth is that I never intended to set out, digital recorder in hand, to put my pretty-little-white-girl-head to the task of theorizing indigenous identity. I was always much more interested in translating Freire´s theory into practice: in figuring out how a teacher could actually use Freire on a daily basis in a real classroom. So a practical project, rather than a published academic paper, became my goal. Generally, practical projects are much more useful when conceived and executed within institutions, so I figured I´d find an NGO that offered these fabled bilingual programs and convince them to let me hang out with them, making myself as useful as possible, until I decided what a practical project might actually look like.

I´ll spare you the long, tearful story of how it actually happened, (suffice it to say that involved much white girl angst, sending of emails, and Spanish phone scripts) but thankfully I found just such an organization willing to let me make myself useful. They don´t know I have this blog, and I´d like to write freely about their work without worrying that it will come up in a Google search, so I will refer to them here as P.  P  is large as NGOs go, comprised of a dozen distinct but interrelated projects that address a range of challenges facing indigenous communities but pay particular attention to education reform and community organization. It was founded exactly 20 years ago, after the worst years of the violence and just as an indigenous rights movement distinct from the leftist guerrilla began to emerge. As such, P´s organizational goals make heavy use of the language of human rights and the values of indigenous culture to demand a more equitable, inclusive society. (But there are plenty of pictures of Che on the walls and copies of Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War tucked between the volumes of Freire, as well as several children of urban disappeared on staff, making clear that the contemporary indigenous movement has deep political roots.)

After three weeks, I´m immensely impressed by the dedication of their staff and the quality of their work. The project I work for is relatively new, and is designed to address educational disparities among indigenous women and youth. In cooperation with CONALFA, the government adult illiteracy initiative, P has organized 20 new literacy groups in six departments, identifying municipalities with the highest rates of illiteracy. Approximately 400 women enrolled in the program, and roughly 70% completed the course. These women range in age from 15 to 70, and most are mothers or grandmothers. If they remain in the program for three years, they´ll receive certification for completion of primaria, the equivalent of elementary.

P recruited women from the communities to lead the literacy groups. Originally, they sought women with experiences in elementary education to serve as teachers, or facilitators, but in most communities staff were hard pressed to find any women who had completed the equivalent of middle school. So instead they identified women involved in community work, and trained them to implement the CONALFA curriculum. P is in the process of developing its own methodology, which should be implemented in the coming year of classes. This process of curriculum development and capacity building is what interests me most about P´s work, and I´m starting to conceptualize a project that would speak to my interest in the practice of popular education but also provide concrete assistance to facilitators.  Until I get it worked out, I´ll be going to their office three or four days a week to listen, learn and make myself as useful as possible.

More later, probably Friday, possibly sooner. There will be pictures.

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