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College of Engineering at The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Exploring Puebla, Mexico

A year in Puebla, Mexico

Fulbright Scholar Peter Sayer makes mark in TESOL
during his stay abroad

It’s December 2011 in Mexico. In a small elementary school in the village of Nealtican 200 children gather in the concrete central patio for the Christmas festival. The school is in the south-central state of Puebla, at the foot of Mount Popocatéptl, and today a tall plume of ash has risen from the volcano. It’s been active for several years, and no one gets too worried. Just now, everyone is turned away from the mountain and facing the large stage erected at one end of the courtyard. The school’s principal, Maestro Eduardo, steps to the microphone and addresses the crowd: “Tlakatilisiluitl, ye neka konetl tlen tlakati to yolijtic, tlen ik yoleua in to yototl, in to olinyol uan ijiyoteotl tlen mostla mochiuas kualtsin.” His words are in Nahuatl, properly called mexica, the language of the ancient Aztecs. He switches to Spanish to translate for the benefit of the non-Nahuatl speakers: “Christmas is like the child that is born within us, that motivates our hearts with the most noble feelings and the hope for a better tomorrow.”


The backdrop has been prepared to highlight the three cultures. The first panel features the local, indigenous culture, where the deity Huitzilopochtli is represented for the winter solstice festival of Panquetzaliztli that took place in December in the Aztec calendar. The second panel reads Feliz Navidad and shows a traditional scene of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus accompanied by Los Reyes Magos, the three wise men in the Catholic tradition. The third panel shows Santa Claus walking by a large Christmas tree. The principal proudly explains that the stage represents the three important cultures: “the one of our heritage, our national culture, and the culture that our migrant families bring back from el norte.” During the festival, each class presents a song or poem in one of the three languages. The sixth graders are wearing Santa hats and have choreographed a dance number to Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

Since the economic crisis hit in 2008, net migration between the U.S. and Mexico has reached zero for the first time in decades, and many families have returned to Nealtican from places like New York and New Jersey. I had a chance to meet with a group of parents who talked about their experiences in the U.S., how they had decided to return to their village, and their aspirations for their children to be able to keep their English as well as learn the language of their grandparents. The principal, Maestro Eduardo, admitted that many parents enrolled their children in the school almost by mistake. There are two elementary schools in the village, the “general” school where instruction is all in Spanish, and the “bilingual” school that belongs to the system of Intercultural- Bilingual Indigenous Education, a department within the Ministry of Education that provides schooling in many of Mexico’s 62 indigenous languages. The principal explained that the migrant returnee parents saw the word “bilingual” on the school’s sign and assumed that it must refer to Spanish-English bilingualism. Initially, they were somewhat disappointed to find out that “bilingual” referred to the children learning Nahuatl. Part of their project, the principal explained, was to do conscious-raising and instill pride in their cultural and linguistic heritage. In this way, he argued, they could reverse the pattern of language loss and revitalize the language and associated traditions within the community.

However, he and the other teachers also recognized the importance of English as a global language, and the fact that more children are returning from the U.S. with some English that their parents want them to be able to A year in Puebla, Mexico Fulbright Scholar Peter Sayer makes mark in TESOL during his stay abroad Peter Sayer is an assistant professor of applied linguistics/TESOL in the Bicultural-Bilingual Studies Department. He recently returned from a year as a Fulbright Scholar in Puebla, Mexico. During that time, he was a visiting professor at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, and collaborated with the Ministry of Education on a research project to document the implementation of the new national curriculum English in primary schools. He also had the opportunity to lead a language education project in a local indigenous bilingual school. He describes the experience to Spectrum. spectrum Features keep and develop. So they approached some of my colleagues at the School of Languages in the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, the main public university where I had just arrived to begin my year as a visiting Fulbright Scholar. They invited me to lead the project, involving four professors and 15 students who were pre-service teachers in the BA TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages Program).

We met with several of the local teachers to learn about the intercultural indigenous curriculum, and how Nahuatl is being taught as part of the community language revitalization program. Nahuatl – properly called mexica – is the language of the Aztecs who ruled central Mexico at the time of the Europeans arrival. It is an agglutinative language (words formed by added pieces or morphemes together) from the Uto- Aztecan language family spoken by 1½ million people mostly in Puebla, Veracruz and Hidalgo. Several common English words are of Nahuatl origin: tomato, coyote, chili, and chocolate. However, many communities have experienced significant language shift and loss of Nahuatl, and in places like Nealtican most children are being raised as monolingual Spanish speakers. Sociolinguists call this process call “intergenerational disruption,” because due to social and economic pressures parents do not teach the mother tongue to their children, or the children develop receptive but not productive skills in the home language – a similar phenomenon as that which is experienced with Spanish in some Mexican- American communities in South Texas.

The challenge in Nealtican was a unique and fascinating one for me as an applied linguist and language educator: how can we make the learning of English relevant and meaningful within the local context? Working with colleagues from the local university where I was a visiting professor, our idea was to approach the question of language education more holistically. We felt that learning English, Nahuatl, and Spanish were not separate goals, but rather part of the same aim to help students become multilingual and multicultural. So we framed the question as: How can we develop a pedagogy that connects the students’ learning of the national language, with their learning of the heritage language as well as English as a foreign language?

One thing that our local colleagues at the emphasized is that the students already experience life in the village in multilingual and multicultural ways, in their grandparents stories in Nahuatl, their interactions with cousins who had recently returned from the U.S., in short, in their everyday reality as indigenous kids in contemporary Mexico. Interestingly, for most of the children who were coming back to the village from the States (or were coming to the village for the first time, since they had been born in the U.S.), in the American schools they had been classified as “Limited English Proficient” or LEP and assigned to ESL or transitional bilingual education classes in the U.S., but in Nealtican they were often jokingly referred to by their classmates as “los gringuitos” or the little gringos, and considered native English speakers. The English teachers used them as teachers’ assistants, to provide language models and help their peers. This not only acknowledged their linguistic knowledge as a valuable resource in the classroom, it helped their transition to the Mexican school.

The project in Nealtican was certainly one of the highlights for me of my year in Puebla. I had the chance to work with the teachers, giving workshops on language teaching and receiving workshops on the indigenous intercultural-bilingual education system in Mexico. Visits to Nealtican were invariably accompanied by food: the parents brought dishes prepared with nopalitos (prickly pear cactus) and other vegetables grown locally in the families’ gardens. At the end of the school year, the school put together another event to celebrate the project, and the kids did both traditional indigenous dances as well as a Texas line dance to the song “Achy Breaky Heart” in my honor! The event was a wonderful way to cap off an amazing year with some of the most generous, creative and friendly people I’ve had the privilege to work with.

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