Turnaround: La Mesa, Weeks 6 and 7

The week of preparation leading up to our sixth meeting of La Mesa de Conversacion was a time of worry and crippling self-doubt: I had lost hope after three weeks of increasingly frustrating meetings.

The Sunday before each Tuesday meeting usually had found me relatively prepared, with food ordered and activities planned. Yet this week I hadn’t even ordered food, instead opting for plan b: curling into a woeful ball and hoping Tuesday would never arrive. Tuesday arrived. I ordered pizza. Last minute, my expectations were further lowered by a text from Marisol, who couldn’t make it to translate.

SO, I found myself at the Rec Center at 5:45, both worried that people wouldn’t show up and worried that they would.

Things got off to a slow start, certainly. Jane arrived, and I warned her that we might be the only participants tonight. At 6:15, we were surprised by the arrival of Cynthia, a delightfully quirky woman from the community who had attended the second meeting. We chatted for a while, and were just serving up pizza for our tiny group when we were greeted with another surprise: Marisol’s family had arrived, including her dad, a dairy worker who had the night off. We ate, and then paired up and began discussing questions I had prepared (“if you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?” or “how do you get rid of stress?”)

I stumbled through translating during the meeting, oddly liberated without Marisol’s help. Folks were patient with my mistakes; we were all working on our language skills together, we laughed at ourselves together and it was good. We finished up the evening Cumbia dancing under the tutelage of Rosa, a Latina woman who works at the Rec Center and had offered to come do a movement activity during the last twenty minutes. The music and positive energy left me feeling completely reenergized; my low expectations and dread leading up to the evening made its positive outcome all the more affirming. Once again, I was excited to think up ideas for the next week!

Week Seven followed in this same upward trajectory, something I couldn’t have been more grateful for. Tonight I decided to order Chinese food after a request from participants to mix things up. Today, Marisol was again unable to make it due to an issue with her car, but I was overjoyed to see other familiar faces: high school senior Jaqueline and her two younger siblings were there, representing their family after the tragedy they had experienced several weeks ago. Again, we went through a series of questions in small groups. I chatted with the kids (we all appreciated the opportunity to practice our Spanish) while the adults translated their way through the questions, a painstaking process they all were taking very seriously. We ended the evening dancing with Rosa again, and I was boundlessly grateful for her energy and enthusiasm.

Pintamos La Parva! (We painted La Parva!)

Rosa Druker

Pintando La Parva: Afterschool art classes at La Parva school. Viña del Mar, Chile.

Week 7 and 8

We did it. Yesterday I walked through the gates of Escuela La Parva for what very well may be my last time. I gave a speech in front of approximately 30 people in Spanish. We put our final touches on each of the five beautiful murals. We shared sandwiches and cake. I taught my final art class to third graders. I handed out the tshirts that the art teacher and I designed and screenprinted in her house. I hugged everyone goodbye, took the bus home, and took a long nap followed by an empanada in bed.

It is difficult to condense all of the things I´ve accomplished and all of the barriers that I´ve faced in the past three weeks into this post. Firstly, a list of reasons I had to cancel workshops: the school was closed due to torrential rains for two days, the school was closed because the water in the neighborhood was shut off, and because the bus drives went on strike for a day. These minor inconveniences, compounded with the weeks of teacher strikes caused my project to be a bit rocky.  Thanks to the amazing team I´ve had supporting me, the confidence of the school, and the unwavering commitment of the art teacher, we never gave up on our vision. And of course, thanks to the wonderful students who participated.

When the strike ended and school resumed as usual, I took the opportunity to do art projects with first through fourth grade classes. We made paper mache masks, painted a handprint tree, and drew self portraits. I learned so much in this short time about how to get these age groups excited about art. I couldn’t believe how difficult and frustrating it was to try and command their attention. I saw some very sweet children treat other sweet children in a violent manner. I also was surprised by the beautiful artwork they created. I made a lot of little friends and answered a lot of really funny questions about life in the states. (Some of my favorites: Do they have the Simpsons in the US? What day in new years? Do you speak Japanese? If you were born in Chile would you be Chilean?)

Right now, I´m feeling exhausted, but happy. I spent the morning meeting with my community partners, NGO 360, to discuss the successes and failures of my project. My relationship with this organization has been complicated by our culture differences, and we were able to address that today. Learning how my presence has better prepared them to work with foreigners in the future is so gratifying. Next I´m going to travel to Quillota to say goodbye to the family of my best Chilean friend. I´m coming back to Saint Paul on Tuesday, and am truly ecstatic to come home.

This experience has challenged me in so many ways. My Spanish has improved vastly, as has my confidence in public speaking and interacting with young children. I will post one more time to share pictures in the next week.
¡Un abrazo a todos mis amigos Chilenos!

Condensed Disillusionment: La Mesa, Weeks 4 and 5

There are a several problems with getting behind on tasks (like, say, weekly blogging). For me, the guilt of not completing things on time can exacerbate the problem, paralyzing me from getting back on schedule. In the case of blogging, behindness can also serve to airbrush any negative memories. Time really does heal wounds, and I find myself having a hard time recalling in detail the frustration and disillusionment I felt during the fourth and fifth week of my project.

Week four continued in a trajectory of increasingly sparse turnouts: only English-speakers showed up, and so I decided to forgo my plan for the evening and instead discuss our common paths as Spanish learners. The evening was enjoyable and the conversation flowed easily, precisely because we had few cultural or language barriers to navigate. In other words, we weren’t accomplishing any of my goals for cross-cultural dialogue. We talked in depth about immersion, traveling, and the Day of The Dead, but lacked balance in the perspectives represented. I left feeling slightly deflated, hoping this week was just an exception and not an emerging trend.

Week five, however, left me with the feeling that my project really was spiraling downwards. This week, our group was small but diverse, and should have offered opportunities for good dialogue. Yet the topic of the night, learning, didn’t spark conversation the way I’d hoped. Even in this smaller group, people didn’t seem willing to speak up, and the evening went by slowly, as I tried to bring up new topics without much success. After, I felt that it would have better served this group to spend more time working in pairs, rather than sharing in a larger group. Yet the nature of this project is that each week the group is a different mix of our rotating cast of characters, and so I can never fully predict how successful different modes of conversation will be within a given group dynamic. Here’s to a heightened ability to read a room and cater to changing dynamics as they arise.

And now, some pictures:

My materials have slowly been consolidated into one box, containing dishware, silverware, books, handouts, and books!

My materials have slowly consolidated themselves into one box, containing dishware, silverware, books, handouts, and books!

Learning materials set out

Learning materials optimistically set out

A gift from Lark, one of our participants.

A gift from Lark, one of our participants.

Sitting down to la mesa

Sitting down to La Mesa

Week Three of La Mesa: Speedbumps

Week Three of La Mesa de Conversacion had arrived, and I was excited after two great weeks prior as I waited for people to show up. With each previous meeting, “regulars” had arrived later and later while newbies arrived on-time or early. This rendered the time slot from 6-6:20 an awkward introductory period, during which I generally made conversation with newcomers and assured them that others would (probably!) be there soon.

By 6:15 this week, only a handful of people were present: myself, my ever-supportive parents, the rec center liaison Jane, and Marisol, our translator. I was abundantly grateful when two new ladies from the community arrived: Lane, a woman I had known since elementary school, and another community member I recognized by face, Judith.

Soon after, Marisol’s mom arrived with her daughter and terrible news: another regular family couldn’t make it because of the tragic and violent death of a family member back in Mexico. With this news came the realization that as undocumented migrants, the Perez family couldn’t safely return home to Mexico to attend a funeral or support their family. Denied a pilgrimage of grief I tend to take for granted, they were isolated in their loss.

In their home, the Perezes dealt with day one of a tragedy all too common in the modern Mexican narrative. At the Rec Center, we served up fajitas and I introduced the week’s topic, family. I had thought this topic would elicit some good dialogue; instead, reality proved to be fickle.

In this case, I’d underestimated one of the newcomers’ understanding of the group. Most newbies are drawn to Mesa by friends who have attended or informational flyers that explain the group in detail, but apparently Judith had followed Lane to the event with only the vaguest idea of what it entailed. When I began handing out the conversation-starter worksheets that had been so successful the week before, I explained that they were for facilitating learning and teaching both Spanish and English. “Well, I already speak Spanish,” she replied, seemingly irritated. “I don’t want to teach it, though. It’s easy.”

We worked in pairs for ten minutes or so before reconvening, using the same technique as before of introducing one’s partner to the group. After, we began the large discussion. I had just posed the first question (“what did people do for father’s day?”) when Judith interjected, “I’m just curious what you’re doing here.”

Taken aback (and finally clued into the fact that she really was critically confused about the group), I tried to concisely give her my elevator speech. My dad added a comment about how important it is to bring together the anglo and “hispanic communities.”

AAAAAAND the floodgates had been opened. Judith launched into a tirade about his non-PC use of the word “hispanic,” and our conversation was derailed, headed in a sharply different direction and led by Judith. Suddenly, we were discussing the racism she had experienced growing up in a latino community in California and issues of discrimination worldwide. This conversational tangent was not wholly unwelcome; in fact, Marisol’s mom spoke up about race dynamics she had witnessed in our community and it seemed we might find common ground again. But when someone began speaking of solutions, Judith quickly shut them down: “Good luck changing anything.”

Two hours later, our conversation was over and everyone helped clean up and rearrange tables. Folks filed out, and I was filled with disappointment and the sense that I could have done things better. Throughout the project, I’ve tended towards “behind-the-scenes” leadership, partly because age dynamics make taking complete control of the room awkward. Yet in some cases, I’m realizing, it’s necessary to step forward and rebalance a conversation that’s being dominated by one person and their ideas.

La Parva in action

Rosa Druker

Pintando La Parva: Afterschool art classes at La Parva school. Viña del Mar, Chile.

Week Seven

The big exciting news that I mentioned in my previous post? Last Monday, the school filled up with teachers, administrators, and students wearing their uniforms. The past week has been so overwhelming, and so gratifying. After over seven weeks of being on strike, the union of public school teachers accepted that their demands would not be met. I stand witness to the frustration and disappointment of many Chileans– so much time and energy was poured into their movement, and the fact that the essential problems remain unsolved sets a grim precedence for equitable education in Chile´s future. Even as these thoughts swirled through my mind, I could not help but feeling a deep sense of relief. The students of La Parva and returning to normalcy, and that is a beautiful thing. As predicted, my project has accelerated and grown considerably in the past week. I´m feeling overwhelmed and overjoyed.

We held two mural workshops last week. Both were attended by over ten students (including two new ones, and some younger siblings). Tomorrow we will put our first marks on the walls, based on the paintings we just finished.


I love this picture because of Nicole´s little brother in the background.

On Thursday, we achieved a major accomplishment. The art teacher, Belen, and I, took the students on a field trip to Valparaiso. Valpo (that´s what the cool locals call it) is right next to Vina– kind of like Minneapolis to Saint Paul. Valpo is world famous for its street art, and though Vina is close by, it feels like a different world. I rented a bus (only to have it cancel the night before), got a friend who works in catering to make us lunch, and begged everyone to turn in their permission slips on time. I´ve never been put in charge of 15 teenagers, and I´ve definitely lead a field trip anywhere. Thanks to my wonderful team, and my wonderful students I can say that we pulled it off beautifully. We walked through the hills of Valparaiso all day, and though it was cold and threatening rain, we stayed warm and dry.

A few beautiful coincides made the experience special. Firstly, as a we walked down a mural-filled street, we stumbled upon a couple of Belen´s college friends, working on preparation for a giant mural. After getting a great example of what a large-scale mural looks like in process, we went to a the house of another friend of Belen so that the students could use the bathroom. It turns out that he is also an artist, and was working on a large sketch to eventually paint his own mural.


Pedro showing us his work in progress


Random slide in the middle of Valpo. We spent a good 10 minutes playing here. Very educational.

This week I also met with first through fourth grade teachers to plan the workshops I will carry out in their classes for the next three weeks. Things are feeling hectic, but I’m happy to finally be making progress.