Monday, December 27, 2010

Birthing a Lamb

While my mom and Joe were here, we spent a day horseback riding in the beautiful Sierra Norte community of Benito Juarez. On the way back, we decided to give our taxi driver some extra cash and have him stop for a half hour in Teotitlán del Valle, so we could pay a brief visit to my surrogate family there and buy a weaving or two from Leonor.

It just so happened that Joe had to go to the bathroom, and the bathroom in Leonor's house is right next to the sheep pen. While pausing to look at the sheep, my mom noticed that one of them was lying on the ground in labor.
I ran to tell Leonor. "Otra vez?!" she said, and ran over to see for herself. "Sí, va a tener un bebé!" She ran into a shed and came out with a hypodermic needle and solution in hand, and we watched as this tiny 4-foot woman jumped the fence into the sheep pen with the agility of a 15-year-old, and began chasing after the mother sheep, who had now gotten up and run away in fear.

After recovering from my initial state of awe, I asked if she needed any help. She said yes, she would need someone to help catch the mother sheep and hold her down while she injected her with the solution that would relax her and help her to give birth to the lamb. So Joe and I both jumped the fence and began pursuing the sheep. After a minute or two we cornered her and held her still while Leonor gave her the injection. My mom became the photographer.
After receiving the injection, the mother sheep became a bit more sedate and Leonor began pulling out the lamb with her bare hands. I was holding the mother near her head and could actually hear her sighing in pain and relief like a human being.
When the lamb was born it was still covered in the placenta, and Leonor told us to get her some toilet paper so she could clean it off. It was a huge, healthy baby lamb, about the same size as another lamb that had been born a full week before! It was a boy, and within a few minutes he was already wobbling on his legs and trying to walk! It was lucky we spotted the mother when she had just started going into labor, because it was her first time giving birth and the lamb probably would not have survived without human assistance. The only mishap was that Leonor burned the peanuts she had been cooking. I had the honor of naming the newborn: "Guerito" after his accidental guero saviors, and his white color.

All this happened in about 15 minutes, and miraculously we still had time to look at weavings afterwards! Also, Joe made a new friend of his own.
Sheep are cherished by this family because they are an important part of their livelihood. The sheep are sheered, the wool is carded, spun and dyed with natural dyes, and the yarn is woven on a loom into beautiful rugs and other items, which are then sold to tourists. It all starts here.

If you are interested in buying a woven rug from Leonor, contact me and I will get you in touch, she can package and ship things to the states!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wrapping It Up with some Cultural Exchange

Things got a bit more interesting towards the end of the term both at my "real job" at the Instituto Tecnológico and at my volunteer job in the Teotitlán primary school. With the University kids, I decided I was just plain tired of giving simple level one lessons, and wanted to do some cultural activities, even though the students' low level of English made it necessary for me to use more Spanish in these classes than usual.

During the week of Thanksgiving, I gave the students a short paragraph to read about Thanksgiving, then a series of past tense statements telling the story of the first Thanksgiving. They had a list of questions and had to match each question with the correct statement. But since I can't stand the sickeningly sweet and therefore dubious nature of the Thanksgiving story, I then felt the need to explain in Spanish some info I found on the internet, about the "Second Thanksgiving" that took place 15 years after the first: this time, the "savages" weren't invited because the settlers were celebrating having "conquered" them. Most of my students got an ironic laugh out of this story. Some didn't laugh, and it was kind of awkward. Granted, I think as US citizens we deserve at the very least to have a little of an awkward feeling about our history.

On the other hand, I found that giving my disclaimer to the more innocent, mostly indigenous 6th graders of Teotitlán was a bit more difficult. How do you tell them the sweet Thanksgiving story and then explain that actually, in the United States, we generally treated the Indians even WORSE than they were treated in Mexico? "After the first Thanksgiving, there were a few misunderstandings..." I found myself saying idiotically. I now have a newfound understanding of the challenges facing elementary school teachers, who feel obligated to teach something meaningful about Thanksgiving when the season comes, but must have a hard time thinking up a youth-friendly way to tell the whole truth. Is it OK to teach kids (or students with limited English) the nice parts of history and leave out the gory details? How do you teach kids history anyway if it's mostly made up of gory details that would probably give them nightmares? I've been thinking about this a lot since reading Howard Zinn's "A People's History" over the summer. I'd be interested to hear other people's opinions.

For my last lesson at the Tec I prepared an activity surrounding Adam Sandler's humorous "Chanukah Song." I wanted to teach the students a little about Chanukah since my family is Jewish and there are very few Jews in Mexico, but I also wanted to end off the term with a little comedy. After giving the students a brief background about Chanukah, I played the song and spent the rest of the time explaining Sandler's jokes and who the stars are that he mentions. For the record I think "The Chanukah Song" is a bad way to teach people about Judaism but a really good way to teach about Jewish American pop culture icons from the 80's and 90's, which I guess is somewhat appropriate for an ESL class. It also felt good to at least make the students aware of what Chanukah and Judaism are, since most of them had no idea. Maybe now they will be inspired to look it up on Wikipedia. I hardly even think of myself as a Jew, but funny how you always seem to end up defending your cultural heritage when you are the minority or when it is under attack. The same with being American. I'm not particularly proud of it, but every once in a while being in a foreign country brings out a patriotic feeling I didn't even know I had in me.

My dad, Lee Harper, came for a visit to Oaxaca during what was to be my second to last week volunteer teaching the 6th graders in the Teotitlán primary school. Since he is a children's book illustrator, I thought that would be a good opportunity to have him read a couple of his picture books in English to the kids. The visit was a great success; the kids loved the pictures and seemed to be able to get the gist of the stories even though they still hardly understand any English. I tried to do minimal translating while my dad read; the idea was total English immersion. The first one he read, called "Turkey Trouble," is a Thanksgiving story about a turkey who dresses up as other farm animals to avoid being eaten (which provided me the opportunity to tell the kids a little about Thankgiving). The second one, called "Snow! Snow! Snow!" was interesting for them because most have never actually seen snow. And the third book, "Woolbur", about a sheep who doesn't follow the flock, was appropriate for the kids in Teotitlán considering that it mentions a lot of the steps involved in spinning/dying yarn and weaving, a subject that they are very familiar with. After my dad read his books, he did a little character-drawing demonstration on the whiteboard, which the kids loved, and the students had the opportunity to ask him questions.

My dad's visit also came at a very opportune time because my students' in Teotitlán had been working on their "final project" (really, just as much my project as theirs): to create an illustrated book of stories and legends of Teotitlán, told in Spanish, English, and Zapotec. I had the idea to do this quite a while ago, but it took some thought to figure out how I was actually going to accomplish it while making the students feel as involved in the book's creation as possible. First, I gave the students in all three 6th grade classes a homework assignment: to ask an older person in the community to tell them a story, history, myth or legend from Teotitlán, and to write it down in Spanish. I collected the students' legends, read them over and chose a few of the ones I liked the most, often legends that had been written about by more than one student. I typed up the legends, editing them lightly as I went along, and assigned each class two or three of them to illustrate and translate to Zapotec. I assigned each student a scene from the story to illustrate and a brief excerpt (generally one or two sentences) of the Spanish text to translate to Zapotec (I told them that if they themselves didn't speak Zapotec, they could ask someone else in the community to help them). Then, I translated all the text into English, and my friend Celestino, who is conveniently pretty fluent in all three languages under discussion, looked over the kids' Zapotec translations, edited them and typed them up. All in all, it was probably actually more work for Celes and me than for the 6th graders, but I definitely learned a lot in the process and the final product came out beautifully. You can read the legends and see some of the drawings here.

I put all the drawings and text from the three classes together in a three-ring binder and read the entire thing to each class on my last day there. The kids seem to really enjoy it. They commented on truth or falsity of the legends and were always very curious to know which of their classmates had done each illustration. I ended off the class by showing the students a picture of the "Jersey Devil", some good old New Jersey folklore, just to complete the cultural exchange and show them that legends are not unique to Teototlán or to Mexico. I think I will eventually leave their book of legends with the school or maybe even the town museum, and am going to look into getting funding so I can make a color copy of the whole book to give to each student.

Since the primary school is divided into two groups, a morning group and afternoon group, and since next semester I will be working mornings in the Instituto Tecnológico instead of afternoons, I unfortunately will not be able to continue working with the same students. I considered working with the afternoon group at the primary school next semester, but for my own benefit I'd rather not have to repeat the same exact classes that I did with this group. I am thinking about talking to the director of the high school in Teotitlán to see if I could do some volunteer English classes starting in March, just for a different experience and a new age group I have no experience working with. But I'd have to see how that kind of volunteer position would work out.

Well, now I am on vacation from my "job" for a ridiculously long time and have some exciting things lined up, including more visits from family and friends, a camping trip/pilgrimage to a town called "Juquila" with some Oaxacan friends right after Christmas, a trip to the Oaxacan Pacific coast, and then a month-long adventure traveling in Chiapas and Guatemala (from mid-January to mid-February). I have no complaints about my life right now.

A couple ambitions for next semester (starting in late February), apart from possibly volunteering in the high school in Teotitlán: first, I would like to try to play intramural soccer with a girls' team at the Tec. This semester it was difficult to do that because of my afternoon work schedule. Secondly, I would like to audit a French class at the UABJO (Universidad Autónoma Benito Juarez de Oaxaca). Up until now I have been learning French from a multi-lingual Oaxacan friend in exchange for English classes. But unfortunately he will be leaving soon for Europe to start his PhD in February. A LOT of expats as well as tourists in Oaxaca speak French--who knew I'd have more need for that language here than anywhere else I have ever been in my life? I guess it's not as cool as learning Zapotec, but it's looking a bit more realistic.

Much more to come, thanks to everyone who reads this and please leave comments! I'd love to know how you are doing and hear your reactions to this stuff.