Tlacochahuaya – a volunteer citizen says ‘adios’

It’s not enough to become bilingual. As I achieved fluency, I looked for ways to keep my Spanish in use. Eventually left a suburban congregation to join a Hispanic one in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Through my professional contacts I made a bridge to the majority culture. I made friends, and I advocated for them on immigration issues.

Ten weeks of immersion stoked a desire to return to Mexico, not as a gringo tourist but as a contributing member of a community. I volunteered a couple times but the assignments didn’t involve close, personal relationships. I wanted to be involved with people and engaged in their community. Then I volunteered with Fundación en Vía as an English teacher in Oaxaca. The English classes complement the micro-credit and business training the Fundación gives indigenous women. I already knew effective teaching required rapport if not intimacy.

Oaxaca is a small, vibrant city in southern Mexico that retains its indigenous roots and cultures. I elect to live with an ordinary family near the Fundación and teach in the outlying Zapotec town of San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya (thirty minutes by bus from the center of Oaxaca). The three other teachers – Nora, Nicola, and Augie are just out of college or grad school – are also volunteers. They teach the children.

It’s midafternoon when the four of us get off the local bus at the município or city hall and set up our ‘classrooms’ beneath the open air arcade or portales fronting the city hall. Each ‘classroom’ consists of a table, a white board with a few markers, and some folding chairs. We write the day’s lesson plan on the white board along with key words or lessons for the evening. Then we bask in the warmth of late afternoon sunlight while we wait for our students to arrive – three classes for children, one for adults.

Tlacochahuaya (Tcla-co-cha-why-a) is an agricultural community nestled in a broad valley bounded by dark, volcanic ridges rising high above fields of maíz, frijol, calabasas (corn, beans, squash), and maguey, an agave that is se source of mescal, the local liquor. This município sits high on a slope facing the fawn-colored parroquia or church across the square or zocalo. From the portales we look across the valley to the dark mountains beyond.

The Fundación’s curriculum is well-designed for children but I don’t think it will work for adults. As an adult language-learner, I know adult students can learn faster and deeper than children, but I also know they have an adult inhibitions and self-censorship that rarely bothers children. With this in mind, I alter the curriculum activities. As a recent adult language student, I know how they feel; at times I still feel inhibited. As their teacher, I’m also something of a student in Spanish. Our immediate goal isn’t the precise mastery of grammar rules but becoming confident in communication.

My small class consists of Manuel, Elizabet, her daughter Monica. Elizabet is in her late forties and I don’t know if she has a job. Monica is a nurse and new mother in her twenties. And Manuel says he’s forty-five and had English classes many years before. He is entering at mid-term and already more advanced. My predecessor taught his last class the week before I arrived and I have no idea how much or how well he taught them. Our first class is something of a blind date.

What a surprise and pleasure to discover they already know more English than the curriculum provides for and eager to push on. Clearly, they aren’t ‘blank slates’ on whom I will lay the curriculum. They are insipient English speakers and I must begin where they are and go forward from there.

Class preparation hinges on several questions: What do adults find hardest to learn at first? What were my barriers to learning?   How did teachers help me overcome them? What spurred me to learn? I spend more prep time working on the answers to these questions than on grammar. Our classers quickly become interactive – like‘improv’ theater – in which we react to and incorporate what we bring to class in the way of questions and observations.

Their questions of ‘how do you say …?’ or ‘what’s the Spanish equivalent of …?’ are as integral to learning as a lesson about placing adjectives BEFORE the nouns they modify. English goes bottom up, empirically compiling details (modifiers) with the noun as a kind of summary of all: ‘The tall, green fir TREE.’ Spanish is more top-down, categorically starting with the noun and then adding details (modifiers) as subordinate aspects: ‘El ÁRBOL, alto y verde’ (The tree, tall and green). Is there any inherent logic about where the adjective is placed? Their simple, direct questions cause me to think about English in a way I haven’t thought of it before.

Making out vocabulary cards, I choose words relevant to their lives and contain letter combinations and sounds largely unknown in Spanish: ‘th’, ‘ee’, ‘oo’, ‘lk’,’rn’ and many others. Not only must they recognize the sound when they read them silently, but it is important to train their tongues to make the sounds. Elizabet, Monica, and Manuel practice training their tongues on words like ‘with’, ‘tooth’, ‘geese’, ‘born’, walk, and many others.

I know this is harder than it seems. Even if the brain recognizes the word, the tongue either fails to make the sound in speech or rebels against making it. At one time, I had to learn new letters and sounds, such as trilling the double ‘r’ as in perro (dog) or making a ‘yj’ sound for the double ‘ll’ in llamar (to call). Now they see me struggling to pronounce Tlacochahuaya.

My Spanish is very good they tell me and try, gently, to correct my rendition of the town’s name. The ‘tl’ combination is a common sound in indigenous place names: Tlaxiaco, Tlacolula, Tlaxcala, and Tlatelolco. Mexicans say them easily but most Anglos don’t. ‘Tl’ isn’t a consonant combination we recognize in English – we’re familiar with ‘lt’. The ‘tl’ sound starts with the tongue near the back of the pallet and then rolls forward. I practice Tlacochahuaya almost daily for weeks until, at last, I get reasonably close – close enough that no one misunderstands me but still short of a native’s rendition.

Besides the uncommon sounds of English, we work on the structure of sentences, the syntax, the inherent ‘logic’ of putting together nouns and verbs and modifiers in a way that makes sense, in a way that completes a comprehensible picture of an object, a person, or an action. The more I work on this, the more I understand how the relationships among the parts of speech differ from language to language.

The verb ‘to do’ in English is simpler than hacer, its Spanish counterpart. ‘Do’ is an all-purpose verb covering a variety of actions (doing). Hacer not only means ‘to do’ in a general sense, but also means ‘to make’ as in constructing or creating something. For my students, writing and understanding sentences with the verb ‘to do’ is like working with only half of a verb. They need to learn ‘make’ for the other half. Teaching the verb ‘to be’ is much easier because English has only one form while Spanish has two. Prepositions are also trickier because those similar to English aren’t exact. The preposition en means ‘in’ but also ‘at’ or ‘on’ depending on the context. The preposition ‘por’ means ‘for’ in the English sense but may also mean ‘through’, ‘by’, ‘by means of’, or ‘cause of’. Teaching and learning these is a strugge.

Monica, Elizabet, and Manuel are eager learners, and return each time filled with questions about a phrase, or how to say a Spanish phrase in English. As homework, I ask each to take from their library a child’s book in English and read it aloud to themselves. Reading aloud makes an eye-ear-tongue connection. In one act, they recognize the letters, hear them pronounced as a word, and train their tongue to make the sound. For my last class, I want them to read aloud a passage from their book and explain what it means (in English, of course). Their explanations will tell me how well they understand what they read. Manuel brings a child’s story, Elizabet and Monica share a children’s book about Mexico. The reading goes smoothly, I know they can now read, understand, and explain in English.

As the last hour winds down, I tell them this is my last class, and introduce them to their new teacher, a new volunteer with several years’ experience as a teacher. Although they have had short-term, volunteer teachers before, and although I told them I would be with them for five weeks, they seem shocked.

‘When are you coming back?’ Elizabet asks plaintively.

Si Dios quiere, un año’ (God willing, in a year). In my mind, I want to do this again.

And so class ends with the ‘abrazos y besos’ or hugs and kisses that are the customary Mexican gestures of friendship. It’s evening and we wait in the cobbled street to catch the collectivo to Oaxaca.

I loved spending the afternoons with people as beautiful as their valley. Standing beneath the squash-colored portales of the município, I often gazed across the shady park of fig and cedar trees to the dark, hazy mountains beyond the valley. I will miss looking through the small gap where the solitary, palm tree stands shaggy-headed. But I will take away memories of the broad valley lying green-gold in the enchanting amber light that comes just before the puesta del sol. I will miss Tlacochahuaya, whose name defies my attempts to pronounce it correctly. I will continue to practice it until I return to teach again. Adios Tlacochahuaya.

My work in Tlacochahuaya is done and I’m sad to see it end because it is going so well. For a few weeks, we struggled together to produce learning, and in the process, we opened ourselves to each other. That’s the satisfaction of volunteering, it is inherently real work. And work, whether volunteer or paid, is an honorable and integral part of the larger social fabric. As a volunteer, I contribute toward the fabric of Oaxacan society and feel I am something of an oaxaqueño. Volunteering isn’t simply an activity, with a true heart, it may be a form of citizenship.

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