As students in Los Angeles return to school, some of them will find a new topic in their class curriculum, inspired by the efforts of the Latin American Institute at UCLA: the Indigenous history and culture of Oaxaca.
Building on a long history of outreach, the institute this summer held its first an immersive monthlong program that brought 18 Los Angeles–area teachers to Oaxaca, the southern Mexican state that is the ancestral homeland of many of their students. The teachers, in turn, will incorporate what they learned into their classroom instruction, providing a glimpse into Oaxaca’s rich and diverse Indigenous traditions.
“I cannot take my students to Oaxaca,” said Karina Villalvazo Bañuelos, who participated in the program and teaches at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights. “But I can bring Oaxaca to my students.”
The unique professional learning experience — originally developed by the institute’s outreach coordinator Verónica Zavala and former director Kevin Terraciano and funded in part by a U.S. Department of Education Fulbright–Hays grant — combined lectures, intensive Zapotec language training, guided excursions and meetings with Oaxacans from all walks of life.
Teaching about Oaxaca and Indigenous Latin American regions has taken on greater importance as the number of immigrants to Los Angeles from those areas has risen in recent decades. It is estimated that there are today some 200,000 Zapotecs — Oaxaca’s largest Indigenous group — who call Los Angeles County home. That has meant a greater portion of Oaxacan-origin students in classrooms, particularly in the Los Angeles Unified School District, whose student body is three-quarters Latino.
“It was important that teachers witness how many of their students’ cultures differ from that of other Mexican migrants,” said Gaspar Rivera-Salgado director of the UCLA Center for Mexican Studies. “Indigenous students have a unique sense of identity, they speak their own native languages. The workshop enabled teachers to understand this context so they’re better equipped to address the diversity of their Mexican-origin students.”
Learning about Oaxaca: A holistic experience
Zavala, the workshop project leader, worked hand-in-hand with the institute’s partner on the ground, Coyote Aventuras EDU, an educationally focused organization with deep roots in Oaxaca, to craft workshop content and resolve day-to-day operational logistics.
Learning Zapotec — three hours a day, four times a week — plus hearing lectures from local experts, meeting Oaxaqueños working in various economic sectors, touring the region and attending cultural events gave the teachers a holistic experience of Oaxaca’s thriving Indigenous culture.
One day, for example, they visited a local market and used their Zapotec to purchase ingredients for a group meal. They then visited the kitchen of Reyna Mendoza, a local chef, who taught them about the major tools used in Oaxacan kitchens and helped them make a traditional meal.
The teachers also visited archeological and historical sites and met with Oaxacan agricultural workers, ceramics artists, people who dye textiles for weaving and a group that maintains a corn bank. There was a lot of learning about indigenous ecology, agriculture and botany, Zavala said.
A major highlight was a dance performance at the annual festival, which attracts tourists from around the world and features four evenings of dancing by different indigenous groups from villages across Oaxaca. Each group develops a dance that reflects their local history or customs.
“One of our teachers was originally from Oaxaca and had never seen a Guelaguetza performance,” Zavala said, “so it was a very emotional experience for her.”
‘Binational lives’: Oaxaca, Los Angeles and migration
Prior to departing for Mexico, the teachers attended online lectures by Rivera-Salgado about the vibrant Oaxacan migrant community in Los Angeles, which maintains close connections to its homeland via village associations.
“There was a huge influx of migrants from Oaxaca into California starting at the tail end of the 1990s, with Oaxaqueños eventually representing one-third of all agricultural workers in the state,” he said. “Locally, they settled in big communities in Pico-Union, Westlake and South Los Angeles.”
Parents of local students bring traditions from their hometowns and follow the goings-on in those towns, something made far easier in recent years by smartphones. Further, many parents go back and forth, and virtually everyone in Oaxaca has either lived in the U.S. or has relatives who have or still do, Rivera-Salgado said. A specific goal of the program was for teachers to witness the impact of this out-migration and return migration on communities in both countries and on their students.
“They essentially live simultaneous binational lives, and when former migrants return, they remain connected to L.A.,” said Rivera-Salgado. “Immigrants are transforming and changing their native communities at the same time that they’re changing and transforming cities like Los Angeles.”
Bringing Oaxaca to students
For the participating teachers — who vary in age, teaching experience and grade levels taught — the workshop was personally transformative, Zavala said. Many are of Mexican descent and embraced the opportunity to explore their own immigrant identities.
“Little did I realize that this trip was guiding me through a journey of self-discovery,” said Bañuelos of Roosevelt High. “I was born in Mexico but raised in Los Angeles. I have … never [had] a complete sense of belonging. The trip gave me that space to heal, become whole and renewed, but better yet, empowered.”
Bañuelos said she hopes to provide her students with similar spaces of healing and empowerment. Based on what they learned through the program, she and the other teachers have developed academic-standards curricula across a variety of subjects to implement at their schools over this academic year.
By reaching out to Los Angeles–area schools through programs like this, Zavala said, the UCLA Latin American Institute helps teachers expose their students to contemporary research on students’ own histories and cultures.
An immigrant herself and a UCLA doctoral student, Zavala said her immersion in Oaxacan culture also changed how she views Mexico as a scholar.
“There are many Mexicos,” she said, “not just one.”