Combating Illiteracy in Oaxaca

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 7.44.41 PMBy Brooke Gazer

While Mexico has some world renowned authors, the sad fact remains that a large part of its population is unable to read them. Illiteracy is a major contributor to poverty, while education improves people’s standard of living, regardless of location or nationality. Mexico’s 2015 census indicates an enormous gap between urban and rural populations. Oaxaca, which is primarily rural, is a perfect example, with a 13.3% illiteracy compared with a 5.5% national average. This country is making great strides, but it faces significant hurdles.

According to Mexican law, every citizen is entitled to education and it must be provided to communities with five or more children at a given level of education (pre-primary, primary, etc.). With thousands of extremely remote hamlets, this is a challenging mandate especially in Oaxaca, where the mountainous terrain often makes isolated communities inaccessible. In 1971 CONAFE (National Council of Educational Development) was formed to address the issue of providing education in these rural areas.

Many villages are so rustic and remote that trained teachers will not live there, even if funds are available to pay them. CONAFE devised a creative means to overcome this obstacle by offering scholarships to high school graduates. Students from families of limited means who agree to teach in one of these isolated communities can receive funding to pursue higher education. After completing one year in a rural village they qualify for 30 months of scholarship; after two years, 60 months. This grant includes living expenses plus tuition at a university or similar institutions. The graduates who volunteer receive two months’ training during the summer before they begin plus three days each month at a teacher training center. It really is a win -win for everyone involved!

Nothing, however, is ever as easy as it sounds. There are a few catches on both sides of the equation. CONAFE provides the community with teachers and the curriculum, but not a school house; nor does it supply food or lodging for the instructors. These are the responsibility of each community. Many inhabitants of isolated areas are so poor they cannot properly feed themselves, let alone an outsider. In some cases, parents refuse to enroll their children because of their inability to provide food. In our coastal region, many schools are just rustic one-room shacks made of rough wooden planks or sticks. This little shack doubles as the teacher’s home when classes are not in session.

These young volunteers make incredible sacrifices while living among their students. CONAFE provides them with a stipend of $1800 pesos (less than 100 USD) per month, from which they must pay for their transportation to and from their training center and food during the training sessions. They live in very difficult conditions, with the same limited diet consumed by villagers. Two teachers are frequently expected to share one single bed in a cramped wooden shack with a tin roof, no window, and no electricity.

Remarkably, these young people become passionate about their job because so many of the children really want to learn and are excited about the possibility. There is little chance that children in these regions have Internet, TV, toys, or other distractions so school is quite a novelty. As teachers, the volunteers become respected members of the community. For many it is a strong confidence builder that serves them well as they go on to higher learning and indeed throughout their lives.

If you live in or visit Huatulco, it may be difficult to imagine the poverty that exists only a few kilometers away, but it is an unfortunate reality. The Bacaanda Foundation / El Sueño Zapoteco A.C. is a local nonprofit organization that is not affiliated with the government or any church. Among other things, this foundation strives to improve the quality of life for both the volunteer teachers and the children attending classes. Working in cooperation with CONAFE, and with manual labor from community members themselves, this organization is very active.

Over the past several years Bacaanda has built a new teacher training center in Santa María Huatulco as well as schools in 14 communities. They are currently adding separate rooms for teachers in seven of these schools and have two more schools under construction. These buildings, are made with an economical and eco-friendly mixture of earth and cement. The thick walls provide a cooler, more comfortable learning environment and windows put less stain on the eyes! They also provide small comforts for the teachers such as bunk beds, books, and additional school supplies for the pupils.

Dedicated volunteers from Huatulco´s community keep this foundation running, and financial support comes from fundraising and private donations. This concept of “giving back to the community” is just one more thing that makes Huatulco such an exceptional place to live!

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view Bed & Breakfast in Huatulco.