The Power of Language, Culture, & Race: Emily Chang

This summer, seven of our undergraduate teacher education students and one intrepid faculty member are spending a month in Peru studying the educational system and discussing their own philosophies of education. They are writing and reflecting on their journey, and we are following along! Read on for excerpts and blurbs from Dr. Gibson and the students’ blogs. You can read more on Marquette Meets Peru and check back for updates here.  

Emily Chang

It was especially tough during the winter seasons and when it rained since it would be cold and dreary and they didn’t have sturdy shoes. It reflected upon me how much these students value their education and how it would serve as an opportunity for a better life for them in the future.

It has been a whirlwind of a week ending our time in Lima and moving onto Cusco! Our days at Fe y Alegria proved to be another great experience for us because we looked into the various types of school systems evident in Peru. I had an amazing time with these students since they were so open to having us in the classroom and excited to get to know all about us. We left with smiling faces and full hearts understanding more everyday how the school seemed to play a big role in students’ lives. The next morning, we had packed our belongings, popped our altitude sickness pills, gave tearful goodbyes to our host mom Chela, and left for an early flight to Cusco with our university advisor Margaret and a student from the university who we considered our “hermana mayor” (big sister), Marisol!

We made our way to the hotel and I immediately fell in love with Cusco. There were cobblestone streets, small shops, and beautiful alleyways filled with rainbow colored flags (the flag of their city) and with locals selling or holding ALPACAS! The streets were filled with parades and loud music because apparently June was a month of celebration for Cusco so it was fun to see locals and tourists out and about watching the buzz that seemed to flow all throughout the city.

The next day, we drove down to a Jesuit retreat house in a small, sleepy town in the mountains called Andahuaylillas, where we would be staying for the next couple of days. We visited another Fe y Alegria school but noticed a difference right away since it was in a very rural area. One of the directors of the school gave us a presentation on this particular school, their mission, and their vision for their students. It was a closer look into the lives of these students since they lacked basic necessities such as electricity and water and some lived way up in the mountains. That meant some of them walked 3 hours just to get to school (2 if they were walking fast or were running!) since they had to hike down. It was especially tough during the winter seasons and when it rained since it would be cold and dreary and they didn’t have sturdy shoes. It reflected upon me how much these students value their education and how it would serve as an opportunity for a better life for them in the future.

There were many interesting parts that stood out to me about this specific school. One was that their mission statement talked about equity alongside serving the needs of their students. Most of the other schools we saw didn’t incorporate that directly into their mission statement, but it stood out to me to see how much they emphasized it since all their students do come from various types of living situations and backgrounds. Indigeneity is a relevant aspect throughout the Cusco region, especially so at Fe y Alegria and this was shown through the fact that this was also a bilingual school. It was not in the sense of English and Spanish being the main languages taught, but instead Spanish and Quechua (the indigenous language of the Incans), so they taught classes in both to preserve their culture and language. The school stressed upon preserving their cultural identity and incorporating this into the mindset of their students, something I believe is so important to integrate in education since it opens our mindset to differentiation and accepting cultural differences. The director explained to us that a lot of students were afraid or embarrassed of their indigenous background since it was rejected in Peru’s society and castellano Spanish was always more valued even by parents. So Fe y Alegria has worked to prevent this and to show students and even parents to be proud of their heritage and their language through several days that celebrate their culture. This connected with one of our readings as it talked about the strong influence of parents in the lives of their children and especially so when it comes to how they will thrive in the future (Lareau). It was interesting to see this since after reading one of our other articles, bilingualism in Peru in Spanish and quechua is not as highly looked upon as Spanish and any other language such as English. This brought a discussion between me and my peers over the connection between social class and the definition of bilingualism in Peru and even in the US and what it signifies.

I loved though that Fe y Alegria attempts to help students understand and construct their cultural identity because culture influences how we think with or without knowledge. There is also an emphasis on keeping girls in schools since most start later since it was not safe nor reasonable to have them walk such long distances at a young age, or they would stop after primary school since they were needed in the household to help their mothers. They have been improving their rates of keeping girls longer in schools but it is still something they are working on.

Looking at this has brought us to discuss if it is possible to philosophize education without addressing race and inequality. I don’t believe it is possible to do this since it doesn’t take into account individual differences or how students from different races fit into the bigger context. Not everyone comes with the same privileges or opportunities. Culture/race is a key part of the context that make up a student and the experiences they are having are what they bring to the classroom. Inequality affects the way we conceive of educations purpose and potential because it can hinder or be an open way for revision and reconstruction. There are different levels of inequality and each one requires a closer look at how educators can frame/create a more effective education for all instead of for a specific group of students.

The experiences I have had in the Andes intersect with my experiences in Lima since it centralizes around the power of language and identity. In Peru, learning English and Spanish is a privilege and signifies a higher SES, while quechua has suffered from discrimination and signifies a lower class. Language shapes identity and is relevant in both areas, especially through the various schools we have visited and seeing how students view themselves. Regardless of social class though, both areas have shown there is an importance in the sense of building cultural knowledge and globalizing their mentality in whatever language they are learning and whatever background they may come from. Language and culture are something that uniquely identifies who they are and the power comes from believing how they can build upon and use those to succeed in their future endeavors.

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