Past Meets Present: A Small Mexican Town as Classroom

Lee M. Penyak and Pamela Duray-Casares
Though students at our bilingual, multinational school have many opportunities for cultural travel, we wanted to expose them to a more in-depth experience of interactive social learning. We designed an oral history project in which a typical field trip would be converted into a field study project. Our main objective was to use a town as our classroom and turn the students into active participants rather than passive learners. Through interviews with residents in a small town outside the immediate reach of Mexico City, students could learn first-hand the dynamic between indigenous and modern society. A secondary goal was to promote curriculum integration by helping students understand the links among different disciplines. Because symbols and images in the Mexican countryside are so prevalent, contradictory and instructive, we decided that it would be both logical and useful to include an artistic segment to the project.

Group Dynamics
The American School Foundation, A.C. (Mexico City) offers U.S. and Mexican programs to a diverse student population. In an attempt to promote multiculturalism and solidarity among students, members from all four years of high school were invited to attend. Twenty-three students filled out application forms. The student group of thirteen boys and ten girls consisted of fourteen Mexicans, two Americans, two Japanese-Mexicans, two Japanese, two Brazilians, and one Italian. Of that group, six were Seniors, six Juniors, four Sophomores, and seven Freshmen. All were at least bilingual (English and Spanish). Four adult chaperones, including the authors, attended the excursion.

Selection of Site
Foremost in our selection criteria was the desire that oral history be conducted in an area off the beaten path and not prone to tourism, and that the area lend itself to the themes of nation building and modernization which we had promoted in the classroom. The nature of the project, moreover, meant that students would need to interview in small teams and, for that reason, accompanying teachers could not be expected to be with each group simultaneously. Therefore, the chosen location would have to be safe enough to allow student mobility without constant supervision. A small town would be preferable, but it would have to be large enough to insure secure accommodations and access to emergency medical services. Finally, we sought the availability of local attractions such as nature trails, monuments and pyramids to add depth to this trip's educational opportunities. We enlisted the help of a private educational/ecological agency to help with the selection process.
We chose the town Cuetzalan in the state of Puebla. Its populace of twenty thousand contrasted nicely with Mexico City's twenty million. Located six hours away from our school by bus in a mountainous region in the state of Puebla, Cuetzalan enjoys a rich indigenous and Spanish colonial past. The glory and power of pre-hispanic Mexico is apparent in the nearby pyramids of Yohualichan and the ethnicity, customs and indigenous languages of many of the town's residents. The strength and lasting influence of the Spanish conquest is apparent in its colonial architecture, churches and institutions. Known for its security, Cuetzalan boasts a small hospital that specializes in both modern and indigenous medicine. Not one of our students had visited Cuetzalan previously.

Some integration activities promote student enjoyment but not necessarily social education content. Aware of this, we decided to employ guidelines established by Alleman and Brophy. These are incorporated in seven questions that integration activities should take into account in order to maintain "the coherence and thrust of Social Studies." (Alleman and Brophy, 290-91.) Their checklist not only served to keep this activity focused, but also helped students to understand the scope and importance of the project. Teacher responses to these questions are recorded below.
1. Does the activity have a significant social education goal as its primary focus?
The single most important objective of the activity was to conduct interviews in order to learn about history, culture and traditions.1

2. Would this be a desirable activity for the social studies unit if it did not feature across-subjects integration?
We had emphasized the themes of nation building and modernization in previous classroom units. Field-study participants were asked to build upon these themes during daily work sessions. Even if students did not have the opportunity to integrate language and graphic arts into their field study experience, this project could stand on its own as a valuable social studies activity.

3. Would an outsider clearly recognize the activity as social studies?
The oral history projects centered around interviews with local politicians, members of the indigenous women's labor association, teachers, students, health care professionals, doctors, business leaders, town historians and others. Other activities, meant to diversify and amplify the learning experience, were planned around the established agenda. (Totten, p. 114.)

4. Does the activity allow students to develop meaningfully or apply authentically important social education content?
One of our major objectives was for students to take responsibility for the success of this project. In order to help students simultaneously take ownership of the project and "apply" their acquired knowledge, we presented them with a challenge: a final written and visual group project based upon an overall theme that they would choose themselves during field work.

5. Does it involve authentic application of skills from other disciplines?
In coordination with our school's Humanities Department, art and photography students had to fulfill specific requirements as well as participate in oral history projects. In addition, the interview process provided native English speakers the opportunity to foster Spanish speaking skills, whereas daily writing projects afforded native Spanish speakers the opportunity to foster English writing skills.

6. If the activity is structured properly, will students understand and be able to explain its social education purposes?
Daily activities were carefully structured, including the elaboration of a detailed hourly itinerary. Morning prep sessions would help students focus on the task at hand and evening wrap-up sessions would be designed to emphasize historical and cultural themes. Students would be asked to produce daily written accounts that reinforced the social education purpose of this excursion.

7. If students engaged in the activity with those purposes in mind, would they be likely to accomplish the purposes as a result?
Two after-school meetings with students and their parents elaborated upon requirements and expectations. Group work during those after school meetings emphasized interviewing techniques and the writing of possible questions. Daily workshop exercises during the excursion included specific writing projects that reiterated our purposes and reinforced the scope of the project to students.

Oral History Group Project
Bakers, indigenous women artisans, an eighty-year old carpenter and town historian, the municipal president, folk medicine practitioner, the bank president, coffee planters, school children: these and other town residents taught us about Cuetzalan and themselves and made history come alive. Some spoke freely and shared personal experiences. Others chose to focus on historical events. All helped our students to learn the importance and difficulty of oral history.
Data gathering was so extensive that complete restating here would be impractical. Nonetheless, selections from students' notes are included here to demonstrate the richness of the documentation.

Municipal President: Elected to a three year term that ends on February 15, 1996. He is a member of the ruling party, the Institutional Party of the Revolution. He told us that another party, the Popular Socialist Party, took over the municipal palace for one month to contest the original election.

Baker: The Popular Socialist Party won the [above mentioned] election. The electricity goes off frequently. The police are ineffective.

Carpenter: Almost eighty years old. He knows the town's oral history. The original name of the town was Atxolxique, which means "water sleeping" in N‡huatl, then it was changed to Quetzalan after the bird [Quetzal], and then Cuetzalan, which means "place of the fox."

Middle aged woman in town square: We then went to talk to a lady but she ignored us. We then went to talk to another lady. A man came up to us while we were talking to her and wanted to know what we were doing this for. The lady then [stopped talking] because she was intimidated by her male cousin.

Elderly woman in town square: Then we found an older woman sitting alone. She told us about her family. The females sew, cook and embroider. She embroidered her own clothes. The males work in the field on their ranch. They grow coffee and other crops. She told us that she didn't know much about politics, but she said that the devaluation [of the peso beginning in December, 1994] was bad and that things were very expensive. She didn't know the history of Cuetzalan.

Indigenous women artisans: Then we went to a store run by women to sell their artwork. They told us about women's rights and that the place was started when some students doing social service told them about women's rights. They also try to teach women to grow their own nutritious food.

Middle-aged man in town square: We met a man who told us some customs of the people of Cuetzalan, like planting chile using human feces as fertilizer, eating buzzard to avoid getting rabies, bowing to the sun and the moon.

Young boy: He lives two hours away. His companions don't eat breakfast.

Pharmacist: We talked about the yearly October 4 festival, when a woman is designated as Miss N‡huatl based on the best command of that language, the best clothing and manners. He was like an encyclopedia.

One of our concerns was that students should not simply interview, but that they formulate a thesis statement based on their collective observations of Cuetzalan, and thus take ownership of this project. To facilitate this objective, we divided students into groups during the first evening's work study session and asked each to elaborate a one-sentence statement. Their responses fell into two basic categories. Some noted that "we've seen Indians on one side and modern Mexico on the other. . . it's a real clash, with traditional versus modern," whereas others stated that "everything seems to be blended together here . . . the joining of two cultures." Proponents of each theory engaged in heated discussion.

During the second evening's workshop we presented students with a thesis statement based on their own observations. Our goal was threefold: (1) make students think analytically and write critically; (2) help students understand that historians interpret information differently just as they were doing; and (3) create an assignment that brought congruency to the project. (Arrato Gavrich, p. 151.) Each student was given ten minutes to write his response. Below follow the thesis statement and selected responses.

Thesis statement: Modern Mexican society promotes parallel culture rather than cultural integration. Write an argument that either supports or refutes the above statement.

"Modern society . . . unconsciously changes the way of life of generations without caring . . . In an indigenous house, maybe even a lot of their ancient religion may be there and, if asked about it, he will respond [that] it is an old saint . . . We know parallelism is there, they have not completely accepted the new ways . . . of modern society. [We must] also realize that you cannot come and suddenly collapse a culture that has existed for centuries, just by imposing a religion . . . ."
"The indigenous and 'white' cultures live parallel lives. Although they live in the same towns, eat the same food, and have the same government, they are very separate from each other . . . 'White' Mexicans, although they are a minority, hold many government positions, including [municipal] president. 'White' Mexicans almost always have large, or at least more than adequate, amounts of money, while indigenous Mexicans . . . are mostly poor. Indigenous peoples live in small towns (like Cuetzalan), whites in big cities."
"Cuetzalan is keeping its own culture . . . the traditions should not be mixed so that they do not lose the original and most important parts. The man in the pharmacy . . . was saying that he respects other cultures and loves them as he does his culture and traditions . . . ."
"In Mexico, modern society has its own culture and doesn't blend with the others . . . Traditions are kept apart, separate. Typical [native] clothing is never used in Mexico City, global fashion is adopted instead."
"Modern society tries to change [indigenous] cultural groups. Sometimes they succeed. If they don't succeed, modern society adopts the plan of ignoring them."
"Most people are afraid to mix and get to know other cultures in order to avoid conflict . . . The majority of people who live in extreme poverty are those who belong to different cultures. Modern society is pushing and isolating cultures like the Nahua and Totonaca."

"The town [of Cuetzalan] is still living-up to what its ancestors did long before we [foreigners] arrived but no, it is not the same; it has changed . . . [Now] we have a big mixture of culture. Today I went to see a curandero [medicine man] which existed long before the Hispanics [came]. Today I saw this curandero pray in N‡huatl to the Virgin Mary."
"Not true. I have seen posters full of pictures that include the sharing of many different cultures, points of view . . . ."
"The [Catholic] Church is trying to give salvation to all the people . . . The [broadcast of] three languages [at the local radio station] is not an attempt to choose one, but to promote them . . . The head [supervisor] of the bank at Cuetzalan told me that [indigenous] people are just afraid of new things, but once they get used to them, they absorb them and make them part of their culture."
"False . . . it is not modern Mexican society . . . but the unwillingness of a person in a culture to integrate to one which is new to him. If someone is to blame, it should be the indigenous culture, because modern Mexican society has put a government to handle them, but the indigenous people do not vote and do not accept the idea of someone unknown ruling them for they still have a cacique [local indigenous ruler] in the pueblo . . . The true indigenous people still would rather go to their curanderos [native medicine men], than go to doctors of modern medicine . . . My point is that modern Mexican society is trying to integrate the cultures, in this case Cuetzalan's culture, but the true indigenous people do not want to go into a new system, due to various reasons. They were living okay according to their standards before modern Mexican society came . . . ."

Student evaluations and parent feedback were positive. Students responded that participation in the oral history project was their favorite activity. When asked to note what made this learning experience different from others, they emphasized the friendliness of the town's inhabitants, peer bonding and teamwork, and learning about different ethnic groups and cultures. Many expressed interest in studying another town that is even more remote from modern Mexico than Cuetzalan. Parents acknowledged that their children participated in an activity that yielded more lasting effects than simply touring a museum. A new site is being located for the next school year.

1For an annotated list of oral histories that address social issues, see Samuel Totten, "Using Oral Histories to Address Social Issues in the Social Studies Classroom." Social Education 53, no. 2 (February 1989): 116, 125.

Alleman, Janet, and Jere Brophy. "Is Curriculum Integration a Boon or a Threat to Social Studies?" Social Education 57, no. 6 (October 1993): 287-291.Arrato Gavrich, Michael J. "The Historian as Detective: An Introduction to Historical Methodology." Social Education 59, no.:3 (March 1995): 151-153.Cheoros, Peter. "Californio to American: A Study in Cultural Change." Teaching With Historic Places. Social Education 57, no. 6 (October 1993): 1-12 (supplemental section).Totten, Samuel. "Using Oral Histories to Address Social Issues in the Social Studies Classroom." Social Education 53, no. 2 (February 1989): 114-116, 125.Lee M. Penyak and Pamela Duray-Casares are social studies teachers of high school students at The American School Foundation, A.C. (Mexico City).

Lee M. Penyak received his Ph.D. in Latin American History from the University of Connecticut.
Pamela Duray-Casares received a Master's in Inter-Cultural Education from the University of the Americas (Mexico City) and a Master's in Secondary Education from the University of Alabama. They wish to thank Julie Juliano for her collaboration and artistic guidance during the field study project. Steven Gende helped determine site selection and coordinate daily activities. Kevin Conway and Paul Williams provided valuable criticism of earlier drafts.