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  Number 326 | Septiembre 2008
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El Salvador

An Educational Adventure Loses Its Midwife

Popular education was the password in the history of the Segundo Montes community, which emerged during the war from a Salvadoran refugee camp in Honduras. The midwife of this educational adventure, Mercedes Ventura, died unexpectedly, but she worked right up to her death dreaming of new educational projects.

Xavier Ruiz Ribes

That Tuesday dawned with the threat of rain in Morazán, the northeastern department of El Salvador. As it does every winter, the area’s cool, damp climate turned the paths to never-ending mud, and rivers rose in only a few hours, swollen by the abundant water falling day and night. That day was no exception: everything pointed to more rain and cold winds.

At two o’clock in the afternoon last July 8, a pick-up truck headed north up the road from San Francisco Gotera carrying four young Catalan volunteers from the University of Gerona, two heads of the Local Education System of Meanguera (SILEM) and the daughter of one of them. All seven women, committed to the cause of strengthening education and with many projects and dreams in their futures, were about to embark on collective living for several weeks in the region.

At kilometer 174, just outside the canton of El Aceituno, in the Yoloaiquín municipality, various fatal circumstances combined to cause a tragedy: it may have been a mechanical fault, perhaps the poor road condition, the weather, tiredness… The pick-up had an accident and the two Salvadoran women from the SILEM lost their lives right there in the fertile earth of constant struggles where they had been born. The others were injured to different degrees, as well as psychologically traumatized.

They left us a legacy

This story could be just one more among the thousands of traffic accidents that happen daily on Salvadoran roads and cause too many avoidable deaths. But those who lost their lives on that road that day were not anonymous women.

Already before the accident Eugenia Hhow the Popular Education Project was born at the end of 1981 with Mercedes Ventura as one of the main forces behind it. The project was based on the principle that the enemy could only be confronted and defeated with a literate and aware population. “Enemy” was how they characterized the brutal army that razed whole settlements in Morazán and in December 1981 engaged in the terrible slaughter in El Mozonte, led by the notorious Atlacatl battalion.

Later on in the eighties, the camp managed to get basic services: water, light and some production workshops. As Darío Chicas, one of its leaders, said, it was the people’s participation and their ideological tenacity that made social progress possible: “While in exile all our minds were focused on hopes of the revolution. People were thinking along those lines. They expected changes, not only political ones but social and economic ones too. That’s what made it possible to live as a community.”

They called it “Segundo Montes”

In 1989 the First International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) was held, and within the scope of the Peace Accord negotiations, the first steps were taken with the Honduran and Salvadoran governments to make repatriation possible under the direct supervision of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It was in that context, as Mercedes Ventura told us so many times, that a person who ended up being essential to this community process arrived in the area. “Before we were repatriated, Father Segundo Montes visited us in the Honduran refugee camp. He was very impressed with the degree of organization reached by our community and by our people’s educational level. He asked the community to reproduce the same model once we were repatriated to El Salvador.”

Once back in El Salvador, it was decided that the final location of the group of exiles from Colomoncagua would be on some land in the Meanguera municipality, close to the highway and main access routes. In recognition of the support given by Spanish priest and sociologist Segundo Montes, assassinated together with five other priests, their housekeeper and her daughter by the Salvadoran army at their residence in San Salvador’s Central American University in 1989, the new community was named after him. Some 1,500 trips by truck were necessary to transport all the people and the possessions they’d accumulated over nearly ten years.

“Something happened
to our consciousness”

Just as Father Montes had suggested, the new organizational structure was communal, as it had been in the Honduran refugee camp. After the Peace Accords were signed a foundation was set up to complement local democratic institutions, improve development management and lead towards a model of self-sustainable living. Having legally stable counterparts made it possible to consolidate international agency support. They made a conscious decision to move past the paternalistic, charity-minded model.

Miguel Ventura, president of the Segundo Montes Foundation, describes the evolution achieved by the community’s people as a historic mission, in the sense of wanting to modify the ways of thinking and the social structure imposed by a repressive state via its army. This change of consciousness is key to understanding how a group of people defied an unjust reality and transformed it to build a new society.

Says Ventura: “Something very special happened in the minds of the people of Morazán in the seventies. When faced with the inhuman reality being imposed on them, they collectively stopped, analyzed it objectively and didn’t let it have an impact on them. This brought them together in an extraordinary way to become a solid organization that could transform reality and give them back their dignity.”

A unique experience

This is the context in which one has to understand the Segundo Montes community venture into popular education and the educational system initially set up in the refugee camp, not in opposition to the official system but rather appropriated by the community as part of its own growth and development. It was a quality educational alternative based on the social experience of a group of people who would participate directly throughout the entire formative process. In Mercedes Ventura’s words it, was “an education that harmonizes the physical, natural and social setting; an education for life that responds to the communities’ social, political and economic necessities and expectations.”

The whole experience was systematized and published in a book by Antonio Iraheta and Ana Patricia Marín titled The educational system of the Segundo Montes community: its current and future circumstances, 1997-2003. The book includes another study of the community’s grassroots schools and is worth reading for a better understanding of the process.

1994: SILEM is born

One of the returned community’s key organizations was the Meanguera Municipality’s Local Education System, established in 1994 as a means of negotiating, planning, implementing and administrating the resources with which to achieve educational development for Meanguera residents, including those who didn’t belong to the Segundo Montes community.

The aim was to work integrally, joining the different stakeholders’ forces in negotiating and implementing projects aimed at developing education in the municipality. The Meanguera mayor’s office, governed by the FMLN, has played an important role during all these years, and other members of SILEM include representatives of the health and education ministries, parents, students and community leaders, the church, the radio station and international cooperation. Although the participation of cooperation agencies and the health and education ministries of a rightwing government in a “grassroots” school system is questionable, nobody can deny the fact that it is an innovative model.

Peace arrives: A conflictive process

Getting this far hasn’t been easy and has entailed some contradictions and confrontations during the discussion about establishing a formal link with the Ministry of Education (MINED). Once the Peace Accords were signed, the debate was retriggered with MINED, when trying to get it to recognize the grasssroots teachers’ efforts during and after the armed conflict, mainly in areas like Morazán where the FMLN had managed to gain military control. The foundation of the CEES (Educational Negotiation for El Salvador) was supposed to fulfill this purpose, bringing different organizations around the same table to negotiate the ministry’s recognition of the years of struggle and work of grassroots teachers in Chalatenango, Usulután, San Miguel, Cabañas, Cuscatlán and Morazán.

At the time, the Segundo Montes community, together with other organizations, belonged to the CIAZO network, one of the most active associates in the CEES. Angélica Paniagua, the CIAZO executive director who led the negotiations, recalls that they were particularly conflictive: “It was hard for the government to accept that an educational sub-system was functioning in the margins and had its own means and ways of working, with a lot of experience getting different stakeholders to work together and accompanied by support organizations such as the SILEM.”

Ideological and
pedagogical contradictions

There were two reasons for this clash between the government and the grassroots teachers and their representatives. One was the ideological factor, given that they based their work on principles close to Paulo Freire’s ideas and conducted critical contextual analysis in order to form new political actors who would transform society with social justice and equality. The other was the pedagogical venture that the community had built based on everyone’s full participation, including parents and students, taking responsibility for their education as a way of changing reality.

Obviously these principles didn’t coincide with the model MINED wanted to impose. As Angela Paniagua remembers, this meant that “the meetings with the MINED representatives were long and consisted of lots of confrontations and distrust, given that their intention was to negate everything that had been achieved and not accept the proposal to legalize all the gains.”

One of the main points of disagreement was the recognition of grassroots teachers who didn’t have university degrees, but had been the means by which the children, youth and adult population had gained access to basic education and literacy skills in those areas not covered by MINED in the years of armed conflict.

EDUCO: Education neoliberal style

The international recognition being gained by SILEM has also played a key role in obtaining resources or technical assistance and training. Contributions by decentralized Basque and Catalan agencies, twin town agreements made with other municipalities and the work done with the University of Girona stand out in particular. The latter culminated in a course for 40 grassroots educators who received their basic education teaching diploma and most of whom still work in educational centers in the Segundo Montes community

Towards 1994 the Segundo Montes community decided to withdraw from the CIAZO network and started direct negotiations with MINED. Mercedes Ventura led those negotiations and tangible agreements were obtained, but they didn’t have the approval of all the people involved in or close to the process. Juana Jiménez, a grassroots educator who worked at the Segundo Montes Foundation, remarked on the instability of the method adopted.

Although the teachers taught classes in the schools, education remained under the framework of the EDUCO program, as in many of the rural areas,. A “model” for the application of neoliberal policies in the area of education, the EDUCO program doesn’t guarantee the continuity of teachers who work in it. Educators work with one year contracts and have no pay or seniority scales.

What happened to the
grassroots organization?

Perhaps one of the greatest crises came in the wake of the community’s ideological breakdown. It involved divisions and fighting between groups with different concepts of the political times El Salvador was going through and different ideas on how to deal with it. The necessary and almost indestructible unity of the time in exile broke down in a new context of peace and the construction of supposedly democratic models. Contradictions flourished and political references were juxtaposed to a different set of priorities. All this also affected the educational model, SILEM’s daily work and the Segundo Montes community itself.

Miguel Ventura points to two crucial and extremely interrelated aspects in this crisis. The first he identifies as “a tendency to minimize or downplay grassroots efforts and the awareness of civic pride.” This is related to the vague architecture of an incipient democracy that for many people in the area didn’t live up to the expectations raised after the guns went silent. The determination of the traditional community leaders to promote at all costs a militant vote with which to win both local and national spaces of formal power sparked contradictions. As Miguel says, “In a process of structural change, it is the mature civic awareness of the majority that sustains these processes.”

The second aspect mentioned by Miguel Ventura is directly related to the issue of popular education. He believes that party ideology has diminished the force with which the educational model that historically led the population to acquire a critical and analytic conscience was being built. “Party militancy is in a very important phase now,” he says, “but a strong social movement is the determining factor in sustaining any popular historical project. I believe that party membership has taken precedence in our case and little energy has been put into remaking or strengthening grassroots processes, especially in popular education.”

SILEM’s four pillars

Mercedes Ventura was SILEM’S president and the key point of reference since the founding of the association. She ensured that the whole process can today be considered an important educational experience, even with the shadows that are accompanying its bright spots. In a brief but interesting 1996 study, Francisco Álvarez Martínez of the Chilean Education Research and Development Centre listed four basic principles that guided the community educational model and were used by SILEM as its points of reference for more than a decade:

1. Education as a means of appropriating language and other instrumental knowledge in order to seek and express a community’s identity. In this sense, learning to read implied acquiring a greater quota of individual freedom.

2. The construction of learning based on people’s needs and previous knowledge, enriching itself through the interaction-mediation of those who knew more. This idea was based on the principle that “everybody has to teach everybody else” and borrowed from Freire: “We all know something and we are all ignorant of something. That’s why we’re always learning.”

3. Investigation/action as a strategy for teaching and learning with a constant evaluation of the progress and results in order to make the necessary changes. Doing so means centering oneself in the daily routine.

4. The construction of living spaces in the educational community, creating real arenas for participation in order to delegate tasks and responsibilities to others, thus building daily practices of democracy and respect.

The system’s perverse routine

The construction of this methodological praxis in the Segundo Montes community went beyond theory and couldn’t avoid many difficult moments. There was criticism along the lines that knowledge wasn’t being generated, since there was just a repetition of the same written materials, always with the aim of receiving the official certificate, which was prized above learning. This relegated the task of consolidating a popular education methodology in the official school system to second place.

Angélica Paniagua, however, insists that in spite of everything the SILEM popular education model “is based on a critical and deeply participatory pedagogy that allows the development of a truly active teaching-learning process where knowledge is constructed collectively as a process.” In any event, she says, the main gaps are MINED’s doing because it “gave participation another meaning and relegated it to the purely administrative, where parents hire the teaching staff and pay them their monthly salary, but have no other power to decide.”

That could be one of the weaknesses to fight in a more “formal” model endorsed by MINED. Angélica sums it up accurately: “The daily grind of observing the curriculum, programs and administrative processes it demands have gotten in the way of the grassroots educational approach.” Grassroots educators can end up being sucked into this perverse routine. Taken to the extreme, this even implies letting go of the ethical and political commitment to those excluded by the system, which has always been the greatest strength of grassroots education in Morazán.

The museum: Her last dream

This process started in exile, in the tough conditions of Colomoncagua, grew and was strengthened in the Segundo Montes community, and has been a joint effort of many people, although both Eugenia and Mercedes, dead before their time, contributed a greater degree of energy and passion. During the past few years they dedicated their lives to consolidating SILEM and providing educational support for a new generation of children. Their last hours were occupied with encouraging new projects. They worked till the end, without respite.

One of Mercedes Ventura’s last dreams came true before her death. Aware that the grassroots education system’s history was inseparably linked to the accumulated life experience of the community’s inhabitants, she fought for the SILEM building to be converted into a museum. She wanted to open up the SILEM’s administrative area so people’s memories could fill its rooms.

She went from house to house looking for interesting materials: photographs, posters, flags, old clothes that people kept from the time of the refugee camp. With all of this, she designed a museum tour that explains the Segundo Montes community’s history: its progress, determination, difficulties and triumphs. Fons Català and the Meanguera municipal mayor’s office supported the idea from the beginning and it culminated in a huge inauguration in November 2007.

But tireless and always up for new challenges, Mercedes was already thinking about other ideas and projects. In the community people are certain that they will be realized even though Mercedes and Eugenia are no longer there to push them.

The day after their funeral, Decía Geovanny Díaz, Meanguera’s mayor, was already reorganizing the association’s management and carrying on. This is the great lesson to learn from a process that never depended on a few people but rather permeated all of its inhabitants.

Take the blindfold from your eyes

Three days after the accident, Miguel Ventura wrote these words: “In a country where the Salvadoran oligarchy used to exploit ignorance as a strategy for keeping the people down, Mercedes and Eugenia put their gifts as educators at the service of this people, removing from the eyes of the marginalized the blindfold of ignorance that makes us all easy prey to the interests of the exploiters.”

This is Mercedes’ last lesson: that a process lasting so many years must continue with new voices and generations, taking the blindfold off the eyes of many more.

Xavier Ruiz Ribes is the Central American Representative of the Fons Català Cooperation for Development.

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