composed by Teresa and Crystan
We returned from Guanjuato rather determined to get the ball rolling for our planned English and computer workshops before yet another trip to Michoacán. However, it turned out that there wasn’t an existing curriculum, and it was up to us to create our own lessons. Fortunately, when I was walking back from town, I ran into the local party-planner, Alberto. He offered to give me a ride home. I relayed our Guanjuato trip to him and explained to him our dilemma—teaching classes would be difficult without a curriculum or contact information of interested students. It was important to Crystan and I that we know how many students there would be, their existing knowledge of English and computer skills, and their ages so that we could cater our lessons to be level and age-appropriate. Alberto exclaimed that he was actually teaching English in Pozos a couple of months ago, with students traveling in from Irapuato. Unfortunately, he had to cancel his classes due regulations enacted in response to the swine flu outbreak. The good news was, he had been making photocopies from a book that he himself used to teach himself English before starting public relations work in San Francisco, California. He asserted that his goal for these English classes was to teach his students relevant phrases and vocabulary that his students could immediately apply, rather than waste their time on unimportant words. He gave us his contact information and promised to drop off some photocopies for us to refer to.
Unfortunately, this weekend turned out to be rather rough on Alberto, which I was not able to read through his ebullient personality. He never ended up dropping off the curriculum since he was preoccupied with helping a friend make bail in a neighboring city. Evidently, a Mexican immigrant in California had been keeping in touch with his friend, who is a single mother, for a year or so. The man had grown to really care for Alberto’s friend, and was talking to her about marriage. He began sending her money for her to save (about 10,000 American dollars) so that they could buy a house and start a new family when he returned. When he returned to Mexico, he discovered that she never had any real intention of marrying him, and had spent his money. He rightfully demanded the money back, which she didn’t have. Alberto acknowledged that it was very wrong of his friend to lead the man on and spend his money, but still resolved to help her due to a strong friendship, going to extreme lengths, including selling his Mustang convertible for a mere four thousand pesos, and tapping into his own savings to try and pay off her debt. However, Alberto has his own family to take care of, in addition to his friend’s 8 year old son, so had to pay a visit to her father to ask for additional help. Alberto’s dedication to his friendship embodies selflessness and loyalty. His story also reinforces the importance of addressing immigration problems in Mexico—families are torn apart and future generations are unfairly dragged into the turmoil.
Regardless, we were still able to secure some photocopies of the curriculum from Rodrigo, Bertha’s nephew, who fortuitously turned out to be one of Alberto’s past students. We practice English with Rodrigo, and Spanish with Heidi (a girl from Notre Dame doing research) and brought his photocopies along with us to Michoacán on Wednesday. The ever-so- trustworthy Juan picked us up on Wednesday afternoon to Irapuato, where we spent the night before departing to Patzcuaro the next morning with Adriana, Emilie (Notre Dame), and Anna Rosa, the first person from Tamaula to attend a university. The ride was long, but the landscape was beautiful to look at for the drive. We drove over a lake in which we saw men wading with huge nets to fish with. We later learned that the fish is the symbol for Michoacán, which was omnipresent in the multitude of different crafts, as well as on the streets, where locals sold fish snacks, which they caught and fried every morning, head and all. When we reached Patzcuaro, we stopped to walk by a lake, and a lady let us all try one of the fish snacks for free, which some of us balked at since the head was still attached, but almost all of us tried them. To our surprise, they turned out to be rather tasty after we got over our initial squeamishness. It wasn’t the last of the exotic foods we tried though, since Adriana was nice enough to buy us a piece of pineapple which they use to brew tequila, as well as a different assortment of cheeses that can not be purchased in the United States.
Our first day in Patzcuaro was very leisurely. We strolled along the streets and artisan shops, admiring the details of the crafts and skills of the artisans. In many shops, including some featuring intricate wood carving on furniture and decorations, the owners would be working in the center. We were able to observe their incredible skill and careful attention to detail that allowed them to create masterpieces. They hand-carved and painted sets of colorful furniture, and artisans also painted works of copper with tiny intricate flowers and gold vines. We also talked to artisans working on a Jesus that was larger than life-sized. Since it was so large, they had to work on the sculpture in pieces. The arm by itself was about my height (albeit, I’m short). Everyone found the work to be absolutely stunning, and the afternoon went by quickly as we simply walked from store to store, admiring work which they sold for very cheap prices. Pairs of copper earrings were only 30 pesos, and if painted, a mere 80 pesos. We also saw 4 men dancing a traditional sequence in a nearby town square. They had pink masks on, hats, poles, and took turns stomping around the fountain in perfect rhythm with their fellow musicians. We also visited a very ancient church nearby, which still held services. The floorwork in the church was all original, with weak spots creaking under our weight. Adriana stated that churches with original floorwork are now very rare in Mexico due to necessary renovations to preserve these buildings.
At night, we met up with Gary and Ilana from North Carolina, and talked about their travels in Mexico, including a trip to a volcano that appeared in Mexico in the 1950’s or so. Evidently, it’s the only volcano above sea level whose growth humans have been able to consciously observe. At the end of the evening, we caught the end of a traveling belly-dancing show that was being shown for free in the town square. We unfortunately didn’t get to see the full show, but what we saw was beautiful. The dancers had very ornate costumes and the music complemented the dance movements very impressively.
The next day we left our hostel, located in the heart of Patzcuaro, and traveled to Santa Clara del Cobre, a town apparently quite renowned for its copper mines and artistry. As Adriana noted was characteristic of indigenous town in Michocoan, many of the buildings in the towns were painted half white, half maroon/brick red. Strolling down one of the town’s roads, we were excitedly invited inside one of the stores by a local. Uniquely, this store allowed us to do much more than browse the beautiful copperworks-we actually got to get our hands dirty a bit! Behind the store about 5 artisans were at work, beating large pieces of copper into various different shapes, backgrounded by a huge fire to heat the copper and make it more malleable. As the eldest artisan shared details of his craft with us, we learned that training can begin at 11 years old (there was, in fact, a fellow of such age hand-etching details into one of the pieces), that a basic urn takes about 35 hours to complete, with more time needed for painting and glazing. We watched as a huge piece of copper was pulled out of the fire, orange-flaming hot, dipped into a tub of liquid for a quick cool, placed atop a tree stump, and beaten with huge sledge hammers by five different men working in perfect, rapid synchrony. The head artisan then invited us five ladies to give the same task a try, (though more slowly and carefully, of course) which most of us rather enjoyed. Once the initial shape is obtained, the piece looks a bit rough and coarse on the outside. To make it more attractive, the artisans use a smaller hammer to bring out the smoother, glossier coppery essence. We were invited to try this task as well, learning that too much force in a strike only causes uwanted (yet quickly fixable) dents. It takes a great deal of patience and dedication to be a copper artisan, (or an artisan of any sort, really), for a single thrust of the hammer does not appear to accomplish much. For the first stage, the artisans must physically exert themselves, in an extremely hot environment, on that piece of copper to obtain the initial shape of the urn, vase, sink, bathtub, or other item. The second stage is more delicate, involving glazing and painting intricate designs by hand. In fact, we learned that it takes about 35 hours to complete the basic shape an urn by hammer, then 5+ more hours for painting and glazing. At a price of 5000-6000 pesos for a large painted urn that took approximately 40 hours of work, a rough estimate of a wage for a copper artisan would be 125 pesos ($9.62 in dollars)-150 pesos ($11.54 in dollars) an hour.
On the way to Tzintzuntzan, we stopped by to see an emporium of hand-carved stone sculptures. These artisans were slightly less welcoming than our friends in Santa Clara de Cobre, but they did let us observe them working on a large, life-size sculpture of a horse and a small, hand-held turtle, which takes only 30 minutes to complete. Later we stopped by another place in hopes of checking out pyramid ruins gratis, but admission would not accept American student ideas. Low on cash, we looked around a little at some of the replicas of the pyramids instead, as well as ancient tools used in the areas and an interesting diagram depicting ancient social structure and professions. Our next stop was to Exconvento de San Francisco de Asis. A young boy took us on a short impromptu tour around the former convent’s vast courtyard, pointing out the resting places of individuals who walked the same grounds centuries ago and relaying other impressive historical knowledge. We explored the courtyard more, Adriana careful not to miss photo opportunities of the five of us against massive trees, one of which was completely hollowed out in the middle, but lived on to sprout fresh green leaves. From the tour inside the convent, we learned that, typical of the colonial treatment, the Spanish built their churches over the P’urhepecho structures, but some ruins of old indigenous churches remained, characterized by a bell structure adjacent to doorways. Some of the walls inside the convent bore a striking sight: super-European portraits of Fransciscan divinity, with various strips raggedly torn to reveal the bricks from the P’urhepecho pyramids underneath. Adjacent to the former convent was a church where Ana Rosa, Teresa, Emilie, and Megna received a special blessing unique to the church before checking out what remained of a rare, P’urhepecho church in the back. According to Adriana, these churches are characterized by a small bell structure directly adjacent to a main doorway.
Our next visit was to Santa Fe to meet two families who have benefited from FCB’s work. First we shared a lunch (which included tortillas with blue corn maize, a first for most of us) with a P’urhepecho couple. Both husband and wife work on hand-made pottery pieces (the fish reappeared!), and a little bit was explained about the craft. Their home doubles as their workspace, with one room containing a huge clay furnace to set the pieces. We also learned that the couple primarily speaks their indigenous language, P’urhepecho, amongst themselves and their children. To the untrained ear, the language actually sounds like something akin to Japanese. The wife actually published a book in P’urhepecho about the people and their language. Just a few houses down the street was another family that FCB lent their support to-and the impression was quite firm! Immediately after initial greetings, the family patriarch excitedly showed up photos of he and Adriana, a sort of before and after scenario, to show the progress FCB allowed in the restoration of their home. Adriana told us that before the restoration, the man, quite elderly indeed, feared he would pass on, leaving behind only a house in shambles for the rest of his family. The visit was profound, but short, because torrential downpours arrived shortly after our arrival. The six of us dashed back to the FCB van, a dash that was oddly invigorating, for me at least.
A short and beautiful ride later, (I don’t think I’ve seen a place a Mexico yet where rolling hills on the horizon were missing!), we were back at our hostel in Patzcuaro. Excited inquiries into a good place for dancing quickly turned sour as we learned that Emilie’s backpack and laptop had been stolen while we were out! At first we thought they were simply misplaced by the hostel staff during cleaning, but everyone searched every nook and cranny, all around the hostel, and burglary was concluded. Naturally, Emilie was upset but she very quickly engaged in a “battle plan”, to use Tere’s term, to take care of things. The loss was reported to the police, who sent a detective (wearing orange cargo pants, I found it disconcerting) to ask a few questions. Apparently, this is the first time anything like that had every happened at the hostel. The owner, Enrique, a friend of Adriana’s, was genuinely apologetic and concerned.
Saturday morning we left Michocan for the long ride to Pozos. After a mid-afternoon meal and rest, Teresa, Megna, and I made our way into town to check out the Toltekidad Festival, a huge celebration of pre-Hispanic culture that must do wonders for the Pozos economy. Almost immediately we spotted our friend Marvin, who had returned from Mexico City for the weekend to film the festival for Luis, a local pre-Hispanic expert. The entire town square was filled with various vendors selling indigenous crafts, including Mayan jewelry, which features seven different types of obsidian, pre-Hispanic instruments, and some pretty awesome weaponry. There were also free lessons in Chichimeca, another indigenous language, formerly called Uza. As it appears to be common with languages of native peoples, Chichimeca is primarily oral in nature and does not really have its own writing system. However, in an effort to preserve the language, and also for teaching purposes, the Spanish alphabet has been applied to Chichimeca.
After nightfall, it was time for another big concert at the stadium. There was an interesting succession of three hour long performances-first a solo traditional singer, then a screamo rock band (lots of slam-dancing) and a ska-reggae group. Teresa and Megna gave Marvin a hand with a secondary stationary camera in the crowd for his film. It was Heidi and Megna’s last night in Pozos, so it was great to spend time with them, along with Ana Rosa, Emilie, Dani, Gary, Ilana, Adriana, and Rodrigo.
Around 11:00am the next morning, we enjoyed more performances by native dance groups. The male dancers wore humungous feather headdresses; it must have taken some balance and skill to keep it from falling during the performance. I tried a much smaller headdress on the next day and could barely walk! Some performers were also dressed as Frenchmen to demonstrate the French influence on Mexican culture, as some patron saints in Mexico are French in origin.
Luis’ Chichimeca group was up next. During the performance, Alberto shared with Teresa that dancing, the Chichimeca were the only indigenous group that never surrendered to the Spaniards, and constantly resisted their rule by throwing random attacks on Spanish settlements. Perhaps this staunch colonial resistance is a source of pride for the current descendants of the Chichimeca people.
The next demonstration taught the audience a little bit about Chichimeca health and religious practices. Following tradition, women burned an ancient herb in small pots, as people lined up to breathe in the smoke from the herb to release their inner turmoil and relieve stress. A short dance followed (in which Emilie happily joined in) to prepare everyone for prayers to the north, south, east, west, sky, and earth.
Teresa said goodbye to Adriana, Dani, Emilie, Ilana, Gary, Anna Rosa, and Megna (our whole crew is gone!) before coming home to check on me. A little while later, we make our way back into town together to find the festival winding down to an end and Marvin nowhere to be found! As we wander around town and take in the last few days, we run into Alberto’s brother Hector and his friend at least four times, each time with an invitation to come to a quinceneara later that evening. Teresa and I didn’t know the birthday girl, so I guess we were “party crashers’. We’ve seen and read about this tradition of celebrating a young lady’s 15th birthday as a sort of transition into womanhood in books and articles and on TV before, so it was interesting to experience the real thing here in Pozos. She definitely had to the gorgeous big dress and quince court of her closest friends and family, as well as a heart-warming dance with her father. Different types of traditional Mexican music was played, so it was really cool to see young people truly enjoying themselves to something other than American top 40 or reggaeton. There was even a group dance very, very similar to the electric slide (though it definitely had a little more ‘slide’ to it!).
On Monday morning, we contacted Martha Trejo and Mauricio Robledo, whose numbers Adriana had given us to help finalize the details of our English and computer classes. Mauricio was at work and would not return until around 6, but Martha was home and told us she knew of four children who would be interested in ‘clases de computacion’ but that it would be better to start tomorrow. Next we went to see Janice to ask about details for the Pozos Art Walk this weekend. And lo and behold! There was Marvin! He was surrounded by cameras and wires and cords and things, uploading his material from the festival onto his laptop for editing. Janice was already busy re-organizing artworks around her house for the Art Walk. She showed us one of Geoff’s photogravure pieces, a very labor-intensive process that uses a photographic gel laid over a metal plate to delicately etch in the image through exposure to the captured photograph. Teresa and I are pretty pumped to help out with this amazing event-there seems to be something going on every weekend in Pozos! After Janice’s, we spent some time with Marvin while he was waiting for his material to load, which was great because we love this kid, said goodbye, and headed home.
At home we tried to contact Mauricio again but had to settle with leaving a message. He called back later in the evening, assured us that teachers from Viba would be at the school at 4 to open the building, that he also knew of four more children who would be interested in computer classes and would make sure they came the next day, and that he himself would be at the school at 4:30 for English classes. Teresa and I spent the rest of Monday evening and Tuesday morning finalizing our lessons for our respective classes (me teaching English, her teaching computer skills). Tuesday was also my 21st birthday, so it was great to talk to my family members at home wishing me a happy birthday! Bertha also brought me a gorgeous bouquet of orange hibiscus flowers for the big day, definitely putting out some great vibes for our first day of classes!
We arrive at Viba and there is a little confusion about us having a teaching space or not. First I thought Thomas, one of the teachers, was telling me that we would have to wait until next week to start our classes because there was no room this week. He was actually telling me the opposite, that next week regular school is back in session for the whole town, and that there would be space problems then but we are okay for this week. Whew! We also met Juan, the English grammar, physics, and mathematics teacher, who was very kind and enthusiastic about helping us out. Juan told us that Viba’s classes next week don’t start until 2pm and that Teresa and I could use a classroom (the entire school consists of three classrooms) in the morning, but we need to make sure that works for our students.
So Teresa taught an introductory lesson to the uses and functions of Microsoft Excel to two teenagers, Martha and Erica, while I went over the English alphabet and pronunciation, throwing in some English vocabulary to help illustrate the different sounds, a few greetings (hello, how are you), some adjectives, (angry, happy) and the conjugation of “to be” in the present tense to Paty (13), Luis (12), Sandra (11) and Eric (8). Luis, Sandra, and Eric are siblings and Paty is their cousin. They were eager and attentive students, excited to share the English words they already knew and careful listeners as I enunciated the differences between English and Spanish sounds. Rodrigo hung around for their lesson, although he already knew pretty much all their material. Around 6, Mauricio arrived and the younger kids went to Teresa for their first computer lesson. Mauricio, Juan, and Rodrigo joined me for a more ‘advanced’ English lesson. We quickly went over simple sentences in the first tense (He is my brother, She drinks milk), adjectives, some verbs (to cook, to go), days of the week, and practiced a little conversation.
We walked Rodrigo home and played with his adorable niece Andrea for a little while before heading home ourselves to relax and work more on our future lessons.
Wednesday went pretty much the same way, except that we started at 2:30 and three more students (Anna Karin, Juliana, Esperanza) joining Teresa for computer classes. For her second lesson, Teresa made sure to review basic data input how to program in basic equations before moving on to applications of yesterday’s material. She taught them how to design basic invoices, the concept of unit price, and how to utilize the function tools to determine total prices. It was quite a challenging lesson and she had them apply the mathematical and Excel concepts to create an invoice given only the unit prices and quantities. They did a great job, however, and worked together to generate the proper tables! In my lesson with Paty and Co., we conjugated “to have” in the present tense, went over numbers 0-100, (though after 30, I just gave them 40, 50, 60 and so on and said they could fill in the rest according to the pattern at home if they wanted) and words for family members. Rodrigo and Mauricio didn’t show for their lesson, so I was a bit disappointed, a sentiment I shared with him when we stopped by to say hi and hang out with Andrea again. He’s a big fan of American rock music, so he and a friend played “Otherside” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their guitar as I sang along in English, trying to teach them the lyrics. Not exactly a legitimate lesson, but it was fun. Then we went home, relaxed, and prepared for the next day.
Thursday we finally resolved all the confusion about gaining access to the computers Adriana brought from Irapuato, which were locked up at Luis’ store. We had been playing phone tag for a couple days and had tried stopping by a couple times but no one was there to open the door. It’s totally doable, but quite difficult for Teresa to teach her Excel lessons to four people with only one laptop, so we were a bit anxious to get this taken care of. But at breakfast Bertha told us that she stopped by the store again earlier in the morning, and yay!, someone was there and the computers were in her car, ready for set up at Viba.
So we went to the school and set up the computers, (there was functioning electricity, which was awesome) which excited Paty and Co. quite a bit, especially little Eric. The kids jammed out to Jonas Brothers on my iPod (don’t judge me) while Teresa loaded their lessons on each computer (the school also had two we could use). That day Teresa didn’t get to teach as much as she planned, since a lot of time went into setting up the computers. However, she helped the kids work through a difficult, cumulative practice problem that required them to look back to day 1 material. It was a tricky problem but they were able to generate the proper invoice using functions to determine the answers, rather than calculate by hand and plug in the numbers. With me, the kids learned how to say “I have X brothers and sisters” in English, the sentence structure for “how many” questions, to conjugate “to like” in the present tense, and lots of food vocabulary. Rodrigo and Mauricio were no shows again, but the students in Teresa’s second computer class asked to join me for English lessons the next day, so I am excited for that! We stopped by the house again, this time bringing Rodrigo along so he could finally have a formal English lesson (there was a small family emergency that prevented him from coming; everything’s alright). First, I made sure he knew all the materials from the kids lessons with relative confidence, then we went over time, and about 40 common verbs, and he told me a little bit about what he likes to do in English. For both Rodrigo and the children, pronounciation with soft ‘i’ sounds (hit), the switch between the ‘j’ sound and the ‘y’ sound, the ‘v’ sound, and soft ‘u’ sounds (put) seem to cause the most trouble. Likewise, the ‘rr’ sound, that the ‘v’ sound is pronounced more like a ‘b’, and hard ‘u’ is pronounced more like ‘oo’ that ‘you’ in Spanish throws me off a bit, so it’s great to teach and learn at the same time. Also, our Spanish is of course not perfect, but it has improved greatly since we got here. When preparing for classes, we make sure we know the appropriate words in Spanish to say what we need to say and the kids are very sweet if we make a mistake. It is really quite wonderful to have a bi-directional relationship of help and kindness with the Pozos community.
Friday morning we met Janice at about 10:15am to help her out with the first day of the Art Walk. She went over prices with us at her home and in the dierzmo and sent us to watch out for people coming from out of town and make sure they made it to the dierzmo and her home, which are not listed on the map for the walk. There are, however, about 20 locations of various artisans around town, all with physical signs outside their doors that say “Pozos Art Walk X”. I imagine this event has something to with the reputations for artisanship tourism Pozos has garnered. It’s about 1:30p and we have had maybe 8-10 people coming through, with hopes for more coming later and the rest of the weekend. We’re going to head out for our classes about 2p and have another round of teaching!