In 2009, I traded the concrete jungle of New York City, for my childhood home in Ecuador. I had just finished my service as a New York City Teaching Fellow and completed all the coursework for a Master of Science in Teaching at Fordham University. Ten years later, I travel around the Amazon jungle (some parts aren’t so jungly these days—thanks, deforestation!) doing literacy work in rural public schools.
A lot is the same and a lot is different.
As an NYC Teaching Fellow, I served in Title I schools where most students were both economically disadvantaged and despised for their culture, identity and skin color. Please don’t clutch your pearls. Most teachers of children of color overtly or covertly despise them. Whether it was the young white women from Connecticut who came to save ghetto children and were terrified of dark skinned boys; or the middle-aged Latinx New Yorkers who complained about “those black kids”—it was par for the course.
As a teacher of English Language Learners and students with reading difficulties, most of my coursework, training and experience focused on language and literacy development. Luckily, most of my professors were women of color who made sure we understood the cultural implications of language learning, the importance of identity and family, and the anti-immigrant and anti-black historical and political context within which the education system as a whole—and particularly language education in the United States—had developed. Today, most of my work is in Pastaza, Ecuador’s province with the highest rate of extreme poverty. I do not intend to make a false equivalence between urban and rural poverty nor between so-called “first world” and “third world” poverty. I will say that I qualified for free lunch when I was growing-up in New York City and was food-insecure through my early twenties; yet the fact that the material deprivation and lack of infrastructure makes Amazonian poverty much more punishing should not give way to smug self-satisfaction nor dismissal of inequalities in The Big Apple.
The interesting differences lie in comparing cultural and linguistic diversity in Pastaza to cultural and linguistic diversity in NYC. The province of Pastaza happens to have 7 local indigenous languages, more than any other province of Ecuador, a country where it is estimated there are only 12-14 indigenous languages spoken today.
I’ve spent several years trying to understand the workings of a small multi-ethnic community in the Ecuadorian Amazon, as it relates to literacy instruction.
Cultural and linguistic diversity is my thing. I spoke three languages at age 4 and was shuffled back and forth between countries, cultures, languages and education systems throughout my childhood. Eventually, I settled in Queens, which in my day boasted being the most diverse county in the whole United States. Just considering my inner circle of “bffs” as a teenager, there were 6 languages spoken between us, including non-standard varieties of English and Spanish. Now, lest we equate diversity with utopia, I will also say that at my Queens public middle school I was one of only 6 girls in the top Honors Class of 32 students and one of only 4 latinx students in that Honors class… even though the general student body was easily 70% latinx and 50% girls. And ever since, racial and gender inequality in educational attainment has bugged the shit out of me, enough that I made a career out of studying and intervening about it. Back to the Amazon: unsurprisingly, indigenous students at our multi-ethnic rural school, where the language of instruction is Spanish, fare worse in language and literacy development and girls face gender-based obstacles when it comes to completing their Educación Básica (equivalent to 9th grade in the US) and their Bachillerato (high school diploma). The situation begs a nagging question: with all the brain-science repeatedly proving the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, why is it that children with certain language backgrounds don’t appear to be benefitting? And also, how can we reverse entrenched gender bias that affects the academic achievement of girls and women? I thought the first question would be a piece of cake. This was my thing. I lived it. I studied it. I was trained for it. And I kicked ass at it for years teaching Latinx and other language minority students in the US. I remember what got my first-ever class of ninth grade students hooked on reading: a short story by Ezekiel Minaya about playing stickball with your mother’s broom stick in the projects without getting caught. It was something they could relate to. Written the way they and the people around them spoke. We read poems in Spanglish. Poems and short stories about growing-up Asian American, most notably “They Like You Because You Eat Dog.” We did projects about African history. We did project about oil extraction in Latin America. We read the UN’s declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. No matter what a student’s background, I could make a personal connection to it (thanks NYC!) and I had already read or could easily find some literature or even songs and movies from their culture to include in the curriculum.
As an Andes-centric Ecuadorian from the highlands, I had much to learn about the history and culture of the Ecuadorian Amazon and the various indigenous nations in Pastaza province. My proficiency in the most common Amazonian language, Kichwa, is zip, zero. Accessing a variety of literary and other media (not that there’s an internet signal at school) which centers indigenous or any Amazonian children, much less written by indigenous or Amazonian authors is nearly impossible. I refuse to read chronicles written by colonialist priests. Not that those make for good children’s literature or classroom reading material for elementary and middle school, anyway. In addition to being all around awful, those priests are dry as hell with their prose.
As a get-to-know-you exercise, I asked students to draw self-portraits. They gave themselves peach colored skin and blond hair. When I experimented with this exercise by removing peach coloring pencils and including varying tones of brown coloring pencils; the children did not color their skin at all or used yellow, orange or even white. One seven year-old indigenous girl from the highlands used brown for her arms and legs, but insisted that she needed peach to color her face so it wouldn’t look ugly.
When I invited students to share about their cultural and language backgrounds during classroom activities, they fell silent. When we did our first multicultural children’s literature project (an Amazonian retelling of “Where the Wild Things Are”) a local woman helped me translate the text into Kichwa. When I asked a Kichwa student if he could help us read it, he said he didn’t speak Kichwa. “Your younger brother read it in Kichwa last period,” I informed him. The boy burst into tears. When several students in a class bullied a student from the coastal region (traditionally the focal point of afro-Ecuadorian cultures) by calling him “negro,” the student cried and insisted he was not black and that his father was from Spain (which I later learned was false). This was a far cry from my students in New York who constantly compared their home cultures and languages to US culture and English. They offered to bring books, movies, songs, and even traditional foods to share with the class. An Indian student once gifted me a beautiful shalwar-kameez, which I treasured and wore for over a decade. Students were eager to teach their classmates and me about their cultural backgrounds and the intricate and subtle aspects of language that just didn’t really mean the same thing in English.
How could I use multicultural children’s literature with students who were invested in hiding their identities? How could I harness their emergent bilingualism to enrich their linguistic development if they refused to acknowledge it? Truth be told, in the past, I relied on my students to guide and teach me a lot about their cultures and families in order to better serve their language and literacy needs. They proposed project topics; they brought materials about their culture from home. In Pastaza, it took me over a year to realize many indigenous students were, in fact, from Shuar backgrounds, and not Kichwa at all. Because of the extra layer of racist nonsense Shuar people have to deal with, some parents allowed their children to believe they were Kichwa for fear of discrimination.
I was in over my head. I had to invent, reinvent and experiment. I had to pay for interpreters; travel long distances and talk to people to get access to oral literature because children did not know it or would not readily share it. I had to get used to drinking chicha with indigenous families and Ecuadorian Pilsner with the mestizo teachers. I had to bring artists to school and incorporate visual art into our literature projects because many people in the community (especially indigenous women) did not know how to read and I wanted our project presentations to be inclusive. Countless bilingual books, murals, professional portraits, wordless picture books and mythology/folktale transcribing projects later, I can say that we’re well on our way. With each public presentation of multicultural projects centering Kichwa, Shuar and other brown and black children in a dignified manner: students, teachers and parents began to change. Students argued over who’s turn it was to read a story in Kichwa to the class. Teachers began using the phrase “colores piel” to describe a gamut of coloring pencils instead of “color piel” for the peach crayon. Indigenous mothers began visiting the school more often and attending meetings.
Just a couple weeks ago, seventh graders did a fantastic theater presentation about the life of a local Shuar woman in the very space where years before, Shuar and Kichwa mothers would sit silently and in the back through PTA meetings where only mestizxs spoke. Afterwards, the Shuar woman who was being honored gave a speech and everyone listened. Men. Women. Mestizxs. Indigenous people. Afro-Ecuadorians. Adults. Children. No one made fun of her accent. No man talked over her. No one mestizx-splained her.
The concrete jungle taught me grit, and the Amazon jungle reminded me it’s about the long game.
Stephanie Scott is a mother, educator, artist, writer and dancer. She has a forthcoming children’s book series about the Ecuadorian Amazon, where she heads a small fiscally sponsored organization supporting rural schools. You can like the Facebook page: Construyendo Ambientes Sanos to keep abreast of our fascinating programs, donate, or even apply to apprentice in the rainforest!