I was opened up to some ideas and topics that I had never dreamed of before.
This summer, 17 Los Angeles–area schoolteachers in a ten-day training workshop at UCLA learned about Haitian Vodou customs, African influences in Mexican music, and challenges faced by their colleagues at various levels of K-12 instruction. The July 22–Aug. 3 workshop on "Africa-Latin American Intersections: Cultural Synergies through the Centuries" was co-sponsored by UCLA's African Studies Center and Latin American Center, in part through a U.S. Department of Education grant.
From perspectives as different as ethnomusicology and political science, lecturers at the workshop looked at contributions of people of African heritage to the development of Latin America. For example, participants learned about the Abakuá society, a mutual aid society established by Africans in Cuba circa 1836 on the model of similar West African groups. In another session, UCLA Professor Steve Loza pinpointed the African influences in some of the most widely recognized forms of Mexican music, such as the son mexicano.
At UCLA's Fowler Museum, teachers created replica Vodou ceremonial flags as part of an art unit suitable for their classrooms. On the lawn of the campus's Sculpture Garden, teachers learned the steps to a Vodou dance form. With Central African roots, Vodou is a Haitian variant of the religious practices commonly referred to as as "voodoo" in the United States.
Several educators were surprised at the strength of the ties between Africa and Latin America. "I was opened up to some ideas and topics that I had never dreamed of before," wrote Ray Clark, a middle school history teacher, responding to a questionnaire. High school educators were able to discuss pedagogical issues with elementary school colleagues, both face to face and at an online discussion board. To receive credit for the workshop, teachers were required to create lesson plans based on its themes, for use in their classrooms. Workshop leaders also directed teachers to valuable resources including the Outreach World website.
Some of the teachers said they were seeking out links between peoples of African and of Latin American descent in order to respond constructively to the latest wave of racial tension at LAUSD schools. Racially motivated violence has recurred in the district, in part due to false stereotypes about wide differences between Latinas/os and African Americans.
It is the Center's hope that workshops like this one will assist in bringing dialogue and understanding to embattled communities. Because teachers don't take their responsibilities lightly, we are optimistic. "Both sides" need to see their cultural heritages as intersecting in order "to help break down the walls which they have between them," affirms Clark.
Arriaza is outreach coordinator for the UCLA Latin American Center.