By Peggy McInerny
International Institute, August 2, 2013 — A workshop on the history, politics and culture of Central America drew 20 teachers from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to Bunche Hall the week of July 15th. The intensive six-day event was organized by the UCLA Latin American Institute (LAI) with funding from a Title VI federal grant of the U.S. Department of Education.
“The purpose of the workshop on Central America is twofold,” explains Cynthia Gómez, Outreach Coordinator at the LAI. “It is designed to provide teachers with the knowledge and tools to enhance their curriculum with Central American content, as well as deepen their understanding of a region that accounts for a growing number of LAUSD’s student population. Central Americans are the fastest-growing immigrant population of Latinos in the United States.”
Based on census figures from 2010, 3.1 million Central Americans live in the United States with Los Angeles County hosting the largest number of Central American immigrants. The rapid growth in the population of Central Americans in the last four decades has been driven largely by increased immigration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and (more recently) Honduras. Central Americans immigrated to the United States, in large numbers, first as a result of political repression and civil war (1970s–1980s), and later, for economic reasons (1990s to present).
Over half of the teachers who attended the summer institute have been teaching in L.A. public and charter schools for over 14 years, ranging from elementary, middle, and high school teachers to resource specialists. Many teach multiple subjects in elementary school, but several are social studies and language arts teachers; one teaches biology. Lively discussions among them, both during presentations and curriculum development sessions, led to a deeper understanding of the cultural heritage, history and struggles of Central American nations and their impact on the students who populate LAUSD classrooms.
“I love taking professional development workshops, especially here at UCLA,” remarks veteran LAUSD teacher Georgina Salazar, who teaches Spanish in the humanities magnet program of Hamilton High School on the Westside of L.A.
Haydee Licari came to the workshop because of a clear student need. Licari teaches Spanish and English as a second language at Dana Middle School in San Pedro (grades 6–8) and in recent years has seen her student population shift from being primarily of Mexican heritage to being increasingly of Central American, Filipino and African heritage. A teacher since 1989 with a master’s degree in education and school administration, Licari remarked, “this workshop was the missing link in my education.”
A rich and complex history obscured by the influence of foreign powers
The workshop featured presentations by professors from universities across California on topics ranging from Mayan civilization and colonial history to Central American folklore and the modern political histories of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as U.S. foreign policy toward the region.
The lectures progressively revealed a region with a highly diverse and accomplished pre-Spanish culture that has been obscured by the impact of Spanish colonization, U.S. economic dominance, the exigencies of the Cold War and economic globalization. The denigration of local indigenous culture, from the burning of Mayan books by the Spanish conquistadors to the outright genocide of Mayan people in Guatemala in the 1980s, continues to affect how Central Americans perceive of themselves to this day.
Working in groups, teachers use black beans,
maize kernels and toothpicks to solve a
series of Mayan number exercises.
(Photo: Cynthia Gomez.)
As Professor of Anthropology and Chicano Studies at UC Santa Barbara Gerardo Aldana explained, In the 16th century, Europeans began constructing a cultural difference between themselves and the native peoples of Mesoamerica. This “otherness,” said Aldana, succeeded in glossing over the diversity of peoples and cultures of Central America at the time the Spanish colonialists arrived.
Not only did the Maya have a written language and highly developed calendar systems related to both human gestational and astronomical cycles, they also lived sustainably within their environment, Aldana explained.
“The challenge,” he urged the teachers, “is to rethink the idea of complexity and simplicity,” noting that the Mayan model of sustainable living was relevant to advanced industrial nations today. Aldana led participants in several exercises that used the 260-day calendar to calculate various dates, including a problem that calculated the planetary orbit of Venus — complete with a demonstration of that orbit in a portable planetarium. As a result, participants gained a better view of the complexity of Mayan scientific thinking and its relationship to the cycles of everyday life, as well as those of the planets.
UCLA Professor Kevin Terraciano showing a slide of the Dresden codex, while workshop participants examine a replica of another Mayan codex. (Photo: Magaly Lopez.)
Kevin Terraciano, UCLA Professor of History and Director of the Latin American Institute, pointed out that when Spain initiated its conquests, Mayans and many other Indigenous groups of Central America lived in hundreds of highly organized city-states, practiced intensive agriculture and possessed extensive trade networks. In fact, in the early 16th century Mesoamerica was the most densely settled and populous region of the Americas, he said. After the arrival of the conquistadors, however, disease, forced labor, and armed conflict decimated Indigenous populations reducing their numbers to only 10% of the preconquest population. Despite this decline, by the end of the colonial period (1820s) Indigenous peoples were the majority of the population of Central America, and many Indigenous groups continue to exist today, with their distinct languages and cultures.
In the same way that the indigenous heritage of Central America has been discounted, so, too, has its African heritage. The transport of huge numbers of slaves to the New World by the English and Spanish empires has had a lasting impact of the culture of the region. As Mario Castañeda (Professor of Education at California State, Los Angeles) argued, “No Latino culture or nation in the region developed without an African presence.”
The missing pages in the histories of young immigrants from the region
The blurred historical legacy of young immigrants from Central America is compounded by ignorance of recent history. Fleeing from state-sponsored violence and brutal civil wars, the parents of many of these children frequently do not speak at all about their home countries or what they experienced there. Nevertheless, the trauma they experienced impacts their children, as clinical psychologist Nikoloas Stefanidis of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles confirmed.
Hector Perla (UCLA Ph.D. 2005), assistant professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at UC Santa Cruz, presented detailed analyses of the historical forces behind the revolutions and civil wars of El Salvador and Nicaragua.
After the wars, said Perla, economic globalization and U.S. policy continued to adversely impact the region. The rise of violent criminal gangs in densely inhabited El Salvador, for example, was driven by the deportation of immigrants who committed crimes in the United States. Perla noted that while Nicaragua is poorer than El Salvador, it does not have gang problems — a boon he attributed to the literacy and self-organization campaigns of the original Sandinista government.
Taking new knowledge into the classroom
Teacher workshops offered by the Latin American Institute are content driven, but include curriculum development sessions that guide teachers through the themes presented by the lecturers, and provide them with a variety of resources with which to create standards-based lesson plans for their classes.
Ingrid E. Fey (center) engages with workshop
participants during a curriculum session.
(Photo: Magaly Lopez.)
The LAI counts itself fortunate to collaborate with Ingrid E. Fey as the “curriculum consultant.” Fey facilitates curriculum sessions during the workshop and meets with Cynthia Gómez during the planning phase to discuss ideas and share resources. Not only is Fey a current LAUSD high school history teacher, she also holds a Ph.D. in Latin American History from UCLA.
In addition to a number of reading assignments and online activities, teachers are required to prepare lesson plans that incorporate what they have learned, in conformance with mandated California learning standards.
Haydee Licari praised the workshop’s format and welcomed the opportunity to bring new material to the classroom, “I learned so much important content about 7 countries in 6 days from the most amazing experts in their fields.”
“The presentations were relevant to our students’ needs and cultures,” she continued, “I cannot wait to face my students in two weeks with the new and fun strategies I learned.” Licari was deeply moved by several of the workshop presenters’ personal stories acknowledging the impact K12 educators had on their academic success. “I feel so proud to be a Bruin alum, to return and see the brilliant minds we [teachers] might have inspired — it is so rewarding to see the fruit of our labor,” Licari stated.
A teacher for almost 19 years, Georgina Salazar said the workshop had also helped her better understand how to reach out to her students from Central America and let them flourish, “I want them to come alive in the classroom, and I want them to bring their experience.” Salazar has attended two previous teacher workshops sponsored by the LAI and now plans her summer vacations around them. “This is a really great program,” she said, “I hope it never ends!”