Friday, August 26, 2016

Face of Repelón: The Elder Statesman

People that are able to self-teach themselves another language amaze me. I have met a multitude of humans throughout my travels that have learned English or another language solely through movies, music, and self-motivation. Many of these language learners have never taken a formal class or stepped foot in a country that speaks their second or third language fluently. Over the past two years, I have had the privilege of getting to know one such person that fits the above criteria: Rafael Torrenegra Polo.

Born in Repelón in 1961, Rafa is easily the oldest member of my community clases. However, he doesn't let his "wise, old age" hold him back from continuing the learn and improve his English abilities. Growing up, Rafa was one of 12 children. Both of his parents worked extremely hard to raise himself and his siblings. This work ethic was instilled in his parents at a young age - Rafa's mother grew up without a father and his father began working when he was in primary school just to make sure that there was enough food to eat. Despite these tough conditions, Rafa and his siblings have managed to become successful members of society. Today, his siblings hold titles such as doctor, lawyer, pilot, engineer, and mechanic.

As a child, Rafa's mother loved to sing to her children. This helped foster a love of music in Rafa that continues to this day. His father told many stories about the world around them, helping to spark an interest in Engilsh in Rafa at an early age. When Rafa wasn't learning new songs or soaking up new knowledge, he was outside playing with his friends. Their favorite game to take part in was baseball. In addition to baseball, Rafa also enjoyed running, riding horses, and playing an assortment of popular pueblo games.

During school, Rafa was an excellent student who enjoyed reading books and learning new things. He hated missing classes (which is not a sentiment shared by many students today) and truly enjoyed the teachers that instructed him. After high school, Rafa continued his education by taking many courses offered by SENA, which is a Colombian public institution that is focused on the development of educational programs to help foster employment throughout Colombia. In addition to these courses, Rafa started learning hundreds of English words through the assistance of a dictionary and the Bible.

Throughout his lifetime, Rafa has held an assortment of jobs, including a renter of land on the island San Andres, an insurance agent, and a security guard. It is through all of these various jobs that Rafa has met some of his closest comrades in life. One of his favorite aspects of life in Repelón is just that: the people. Walking down the street and being greeted by neighbors and friends is something that isn't found in the cities. However, there is a prevailing culture of poverty that sometimes tends to suffocate the spirit of the citizens in town.

Rafa has had a lifelong dream of visiting Germany. He sees the German society as one of equality and full of lots of opportunities for both its citizens and those that visit this beautiful country. Rafa also would like to visit the United States someday. Through his eyes, the USA is one of the msot powerful and important countries in the world today. The inhabitants of the USA have many opportunities and the ability to enjoy a good, well-rounded life. Rafa feels that Colombia should use the USA as an example of how to further develop in the future.

Rafa's vast prior knowledge of English has brought some interesting dynamics to my community classes. He is always willing to participate and give his thoughts. Sometimes, he is so willing that he overshadows the other students. While many other teachers may become annoyed and quickly fed up with this behavior, I embrace it. This desire to participate and continue to grow after so much time and effort is one of the truly enduring qualities that I will never forget about Rafa.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Crazy Colombian Celebrations

Being a student in Colombia has to be one of the best and easiest things in the world. This country has the most public holidays in the world, which leads to a plethora of three-day weekends and short school weeks. Outside of that, there are always random assemblies, "acto cívicos", and other happenings that make a full, 5-day week in which each class meets as scheduled a rarity. I'm pretty sure that during my time here in Repelón, we have had maybe ONE week in which every class met for the scheduled time. Consistency isn't one of the strong suits of the Colombian coast, to say the least.

Two weeks ago, my school, I.E. John F. Kennedy (IEJFK) partnered up with another school in town, I.E. Maria Immaculada (IEMI) to celebrate the Battle of Boyacá. This battle, which was fought on August 7, 1819, was the difinitive battle that gave Colombia its independence from Spain. To celebrate this monumental day in Colombian history, we paraded through town on our way to one of the baseball stadiums in town. This parade literally stopped traffic as we made our way through town on the one and only highway that makes its way through town. When we reached the plaza, we met up with the students and teachers from IEMI and made our way to the baseball stadium.

The first part of the day was spent watching various performances from both schools. Highlights included IEMI students dressing up like the main commanders of the battle, students showcasing the cumbia, mapale, and the son de negros dances, a group of students performing a rap, and a performance by the municipal student band. This group featured a few of my students from my school, which was really cool to see them involved in something outside of school. Below are pictures highlighting these performances.

However, for me, the ultimate highlight of the day was what happened after these performances. Here in Colombia, as I'm sure I've eluded to in the past, soccer is king. Life stops when both Junior (the local soccer team) and the national team play. Unfortunately, this only happens with the men's teams. The women's national team definitely does not garner as much attention country wide. In general, opportunities for women and girls, including sports, are fairly limited, as teenage pregnancy is an issue many of these small pueblos face. So it was a breath of fresh air when a softball game between the 10th graders from IEJFK and IEMI was held to end the celebration. I was so impressed and blown away by the amount of support that the other teachers and students gave the girls as they gave their all on the field and at the plate.

While there is still a long way to go to achieve gender equality here in Colombia, in my opinion, this game was definitely a step in the right direction. Instead of featuring soccer and putting the spotlight on the boys, as is so often done, these schools chose to feature the female athletes of their schools. Here's to future "days off" that in turn continue to empower and give the girls of this pueblo a chance to shine and showcase their talents.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Faces of Repelón: The Mother-Daughter Tandem

One of the best things about teaching is watching your students steadily improve their knowledge and abilities in whatever subject matter you are instructing them in. Whether it be English, math, science, or social studies, this visible change is inspiring and makes this profession so much fun. This reward becomes even more enhanced when parents become involved and help take charge of their children's education. This is the case with two of my students, Marbelis and Urimarcela. From the start of my classes last April, these two have attended pretty much every single one! It's so refreshing to see the interactions between them in class and how much Marbelis encourages Urimarcela.

Marbelis was born in Repelón in 1982 and was fortunate enough to grow up with a twin sister, Cibelis. Her mother, who was one of 14 children, was a very caring and hard working role model for Marbelis and her sister. Growing up in such a huge family really taught her valuable lessons about what it takes to be part of a successful family. It's apparent that these traits have been passed down to Marbelis.

Growing up, Marbelis and her sister did pretty much everything together. They played, studied, and even dressed the same. This became a bit of a game in itself for them as they loved tricking family and local community members about who was who. Despite, or thanks to the, the lack of technology, much of her childhood was spent outside, playing with her neighbors and other friends.

School was a marvelous experience for Marbelis. She was consistently at the top of her class. She received a scholarship to continue her education after high school and also was able to participate in numerous trips due to her high academic marks. Many of the same teachers that she had are still teaching today and greet her with enthusiasm when they see her. After school, Marbelis studied in Barranquilla, with hopes of becoming a bilingual secretary. She ended up receiving her degree and license to teach Castellana and English. She currently is teaching English at one of the other schools in town, I.E. Maria Immaculada.

Marbelis's first daughter, Urimarcela, was born in Repelón as well in 2004. Uri (the common nickname that everyone uses, including myself) has a younger sister. Her father currently works as a technician. For fun, Uri loves playing with her friends, watching televisión, and spending time with her sister. At school, Uri loves recess (what 12-year old wouldn't) and her English classes. On the other hand, math and PE are her least favorite activities during the school day.

According to Marbelis, Repelón is a very "cozy", safe town that is filled with good people who have a desire to better their lives. However, in order to fulfill this desire to better their lives, many people have to leave and move to surrounding cities, thus depriving Repelón of some of its best citizens. In Uri's opinion, the best part about Repelón is the library where she is able to do her homework with her friends.

Pueblo life is something that suits Marbelis well. She loves her life, her house, her family, and the fact that she gets to give back to a place where she has spent her entire life. At the same time, she does realize that sometimes it is difficult to achieve all that she wants to in life due to certain limitations that the pueblo presents. Uri views life in the pueblo as very tranquil and safe and likes that there aren't high rates of delinquency in town.

Both mother and daughter would love to visit the United States in the near future. Marbelis has had this dream since she was a child and started studying English in school. She sees the United States as a developed country that presents many opportunities for its citizens. She also wants to strengthen her English abilities and knows that living in an English speaking country is one of the best ways to accomplish this. For Uri, the United States presents her with the chance to also improve her English and to visit lots of famous touristic sites.

Personally, it has been an immense pleasure having these two in class together. Overall, parental involvement in their children's lives here in Repelón is lacking. To see that there are parents who care and want the best for their children is refreshing and encouraging. Marbelis is an amazing role model for both her daughters and the other citizens of Repelón. Uri has a very bright future ahead of her that is filled with endless possibilities. I have no doubt whatsoever that both will continue to do great things going forward!