Study Abroad - Tressa Versteeg

tressa ver steegBY TRESSA VERSTEEG ‘11

Last spring semester, I lived in Cochabamba, Bolivia through School of International Training (SIT)’s experiential learning program, “Multiculturalism, Globalization, and Social Change.” I spent the last four weeks of independent research in a rural indigenous Aymara community named Llojjllata—about two hours by bus from the capital city La Paz, and an hour by foot from Lake Titicaca. My project was to create a children’s book about the “Formation and Creative Expression of Identity of Aymaran Children” by having the kids create their own stories and drawings that I would collage into one large narrative that would reflect their identities through their creativity. Here is one very small, portion of what I learned.

“Calixto, they know I’m coming, right?” I asked my project advisor, just to be sure his brother

The potato fields in Llojjlata, Bolivia

Gregorio Quispe knew I would be staying with him and his family for three weeks.

“Ooohhhh noooo, Terreeesssa,” he said calmly, drawing out every sound of every word. “ Y ou are going to be a surprise!” I wanted to scream, punch Calixto, cry, and curl up into a ball in the back seat, but I just sat there, all too aware of the tightening knot in my stomach.

We arrived in Llojjllata—a stretch of clay-brick homes and potato fields along a dirt road (population: “Eehhhh, more or less, not very much” according to everyone who lived there)— dropped my stuff off at the house, and then we visited Calixto’s uncle down the road. Then Calixto asked me if I knew the way back. I didn’t really, but he pointed north and told me 20 minutes. I made it back, after being stopped by many suspicious and concerned neighbors. A short man in a red baseball cap was covering piles of potatoes with straw.

“Hello sister,” he said.

“Good evening. Y ou are Gregorio?”

“Yes! Good evening! Did Calixto leave?”

“Yes. He will bring my friend, another student, to her community now, but I think he will come back here tonight. I think he will sleep here.”

“Will he be back in time for supper?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Well sister,” Gregorio continued, “My brother Calixto brought you here to us. We are living in deep crisis but since God has brought you here, we are so happy to have you.” And the knot loosened ever so slightly.

I was a surprise at Unididad Educativa de Antofagasto, the elementary school next door, as well, but the professors, Moises and Catolina Cuter agreed to help me for the next three weeks. There were 24 students from around age five to twelve, divided into “the

older ones” with Profesor Moises and “the little ones” with Profesora Catalina. I spent a few days as the strange white, blonde gringita who played soccer at recess but eventually was given 45 minutes with each class a day. All I wanted to do the first day in class was learn their names.

I first asked a young boy in jeans and a sky blue WWF tshirt over a once-white long sleeve jersey. He said nothing. I asked the next boy. Nothing. Then I tried to ask one of the girls. Nothing. I went one by one around the classroom. Only small quiet giggles and large looming silences. I didn’t know if they didn’t understand Spanish, didn’t understand my Spanish, were shy, or were being purposely defiant.

At one of the last students, I heard a voice behind me. “His name,” the WWF t-shirt boy said, pointing to another boy across the room, “is Franz. And his name is Wilmer . ” And this is how I learned all their names. No one would tell me their own name, but they were more than happy to tell me the names of their friends. We then went on to draw “what you can see in Llojjllata and at your house.” I helped them write their names on their papers and after 30 minutes, I had my first stack of rainbow houses with ducks in the yard: drawings for my project. The bell rang for recess, but instead of the usual rush for the door, they sat at their desks and whispered. Then Mario, WWF t-shirt, spoke up again. “Why do you look so different than us?”

I spent the long weekend with my host family in the potato fields and knew all my students had done just the same. On Monday, I came to play soccer and Profesor Moises asked me to turn my hands over to prove it. Seeing the blisters where fingers meet palm, he smiled in satisfaction and told me to take the older ones first.

They were bouncing off the walls and were never shy again. Teodora and Julia, the sixth graders, asked anything and everything about food in the United States. The fifth graders, Mario and Luis, tried to teach me Aymara by talking to me in only Aymara, but the third graders Franz and Wilmer would count to 10 slowly for me. I still had trouble with names, because they used different names outside than in the classroom. I never quite understood why there were “soccer names” and “real names” but I didn’t really care.

The little ones mostly had crayon fights, tried to eat the paper, or just wrestled. They also began trying to change their names. “When you asked us our names last week,” said a second grader named Marisol, with two dark braids and wide set eyes, “we didn’t know them, but we asked our moms and my name is Lucina. ”

“And my name,” said her friend Rosi, “is Savia.” They could never pronounce their “real names” the same more than once, but they were adamant and I wasn’t there to tell them what their “real names” were.

Marisol/Lucina and Rosi/Savia turned out to be a pair of whippersnappers. The next day when I was trying to teach a game called “Frogger” they giggled and whispered until I asked, “What is so funny?” Marisol/Lucina looked me straight in the eyes. “You have the eyes of a cat,” she said.

And a wave of snickers passed over the circle. Then Rosi/Savia added, “And the nose of a pig.” And the snickers became enormous laughter and we never learned the game.

I shared this story with my host family, the Quispes, over hot bowls of potato and edamame bean soup.

“The eyes of a cat, sister?” my sister Adelia asked.

“Yes, the eyes of a cat, and the nose of a pig,” I said.

“But sister, the nose of a pig ?” my brother Alfredo asked.

“Yes, the nose of a pig.” I said. The enormous laughter of the little ones seemed to have traveled to our kitchen as well. Once they had stopped laughing, Adelia told my mother Justicia the story in Aymara, and Justicia’s soft laughter erupted into a joyful cackle: “The Ey-hehaha-es of a ca-ha-ha-hat!” When my other brother Edward ducked into the kitchen, they asked me to retell it for him.

“The eyes of a cat, sister, are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes, and the nose of a—“

“Pig!” yelled Adelia. And the same thing happened when my father Gregorio walked in, and again when my brother Jorge David visiting from La Paz, walked in. When I asked them if it was true— if I indeed did have the eyes of a cat and the nose of a pig—they shouted a chorus of no’s and the enormous laughter echoed in the kitchen for days.

Before I left for Llojjllata, I met with a woman named T eresa who had been working to transform rural education for 20 years. “The classroom is a colonial space,” she said. “What they learn and how they learn is rigid and strict. It will be a challenge to break that rigidity. They have learned that there is only one way to do things and one way to learn.” I still felt fairly confident in my project. Even though I was an outsider, a westerner at that, what better way to break colonial rigidity than creative expression, I thought, where there are no wrong ways to do anything?

The next couple of weeks at school, I kept on with the drawing activities because many of them couldn’t write in Spanish very well yet.

“Today, let’s draw the perfect day!” I said.

“What do you mean?” Mario said quickly.

“The perfect day! If you could do anything, or go anywhere, or eat anything. What would it be like?” I think I have gotten the point across until I walk around to each student, and each one asks me what they are supposed to draw. “So can I draw a house?” Juana asks me.

“Sure!” I said, “Whatever you want.” And at the end of the hour, I had another stack of rainbow houses with ducks in the yard. We had a hard time getting past “what you see in Llojjllata.” Any prompt I gave them like ” the perfect day,” “if you could have three wishes,” or “what are you afraid of” resulted in the same blank stares and question: “What do you mean?”

I knew our cultures were completely different, but I thought that them being kids meant that they were just like me when I was a kid. It seems obvious, but at the time, I didn’t realize that our childhoods weren’t the same. I didn’t realize that what I meant was for them to draw something crazy and out of this world. I couldn’t tell them they weren’t being creative enough or that they weren’t drawing the right thing because that would be continuing the same colonial oppression that I was so confident I would break with “creative expression. ”I didn’t realize that their imaginations don’t take them there, because there are other wonderful things to think about—like a beautiful day in the sun playing soccer and eating soup with the family. Their perfect days were everyday.

They like to play and imagine and so did I, but I learned from those kids that creativity and imagining aren’t necessarily idealizing reality, which is what I grew up doing and still do. Out of fear that I was continuing colonialism in the class room with western ideas of “creative activities, ” I changed my strategy to letting them draw whatever they wanted, while we just chatted about whatever they wanted.

One of my last days in Llojjllata, I asked them what their last names were, so I could accredit the illustrations in my children’s book to all of them. Many of them told me they didn’t know their last names, and though Mario and Luis were quick to help me, I was still missing a few . After class, I timidly approached Profesor Moises to help me. “ They know their names, ” he told me, and I said that I would ask the kids again the next day.

The last day came. I was switching from the older kids to the little ones and Profesora Catolina stopped me and asked to see the drawings. I handed them to her, she flipped through them and said simply: “Not one of these names is real. ” My brain and heart froze with the realization that my project was about the expression of identity and I didn’t even know their names, not to mention that I thought we were friends.

I kept trying to say good bye during the last block of the day on Wednesday, sewing, but the kids didn’t understand. Mario/ William was busy not doing his sewing project but kicking a soccer ball against the wall in the same sky blue W WF t-shirt he had worn every day. “So you are coming tomorrow?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“What about Monday?,” asked Julia/Gimena.

“No, I’m sorry.”

“Ever?” asked Luis/Alex.

“Maybe one day, but not soon. ”

And eventually I stopped lingering, and waved goodbye and left. It was not dramatic. It was strangely unemotional and fairly awkward.

My project ended with the book The Brother, The Sister, and The Cow. The story is a journey that represents bits and pieces of rural daily life, Aymara spirituality and Andean cosmovision, and the influences of globalization—all if which shape and form the lives of the kids and families in Llojjllata. Alltheillustrations in the book were collaged from the drawings of the students.

Maybe the names I remember when I look at pictures are not the school kids’ real names but I know the stories they shared, the soccer we played, and the things we taught each other were very real. I first thought of their drawings as redundant and struggled to find creativity in them. But now, in retrospect, it is quite easy to remember how incredibly creative those kids really were, to make up entirely new names on the spot, and pull it off for three weeks. It is hard to get more creative than that.

By the end of my time in Llojjllata I could keep up with the kids counting to 20 in Aymara, and could also ask them how they were and tell them I was good. I knew when my mother Justicia said “mank’sinyani” it was time to eat, and that when she said “mus maow” it meant we loved each other.

[note: The Brother, the Sister and the Cow is being published through Kids’ Books Bolivia, an organization committed to making reading and books accessible to kids in Bolivia. It will be in English, Spanish, and Aymara and hopefully published by late December . Y ou can visit for more information about the project.]