by Gabriela Polit
“The most important weapon a person has,” the program coordinator said, “are words.” With this mantra, Ethel Krauze has developed a methodology to help women from the Mexican states of Morelos and Guerrero tell their stories and empower themselves through writing.
During the first week of April, Adriana Pacheco (UT International Board of Advisors), and I spent time in Morelos following writing “instructors” (I use this word for lack of a better one to describe the role of the workshop conductors) in Cuautla and Cuernavaca. Under the guidance of the program’s coordinators Lidsay Mejía and Ana Morales, we were able to observe several workshops and meet the women who participate in them. Sharing the space at these workshops were a retired physicist from the UNAM, a retired housekeeper from a state-owned hotel chain, a young mother, a retired beautician, a rural single mom who had lived as an undocumented immigrant in New York in the 90s, a housewife who decided to become a workshop conductor herself, an illiterate 82-year-old woman who decided to dictate her amazing story to the instructor and handcrafted her own little book, an English woman who used to host international students and came to learn Spanish in Cuernavaca, the list goes on and on. The women were of all ages and came from all walks of life. They all listened with respect and learned from the others’ stories.
Every woman is trained by either Krauze herself or by those who have become certified trainers under Krauze’s guidance. The women in the program have created a community without hierarchies. Some of them continue to meet, expanding the initial workshop experience into other activities related to the literary creation (for example, in Cuautla, they organized events to commemorate Mexican writer Elena Garro’s birthday). The forms of recruitment vary according to the context: there is one strategy to recruit university college students, another to gather women in the central area of a small city like Cuautla, or a rural community, etc. Each demands a different form of communication. Usually, it is the instructors themselves who look for a place to meet and who convene the participants. Now that the program has been running for over nine years, recruitment is easier. For many women I met, it was a poster placed in front of the local movie theater, a friend who had participated in the program and persuaded them to join, or the instructor herself who drew them in.
Women meet two hours per week over a period of ten weeks. The objective is that each of them writes her story, following the methodology Krauze developed, which seeks to help women overcome their fears, enabling them to tell their innermost secrets in a community-based environment. The most important thing is to empower women by helping them to take command of their words.
The program is funded by the Ministry of Culture of the state of Morelos. Lidsay and Ana are the coordinators as well as the editors of the book that comes out of each workshop, in which each woman is granted four pages. Each anthology has 1,000 copies, and every woman receives ten copies of the book that contains her story so that she can share it with her loved ones. They become the authors not just of these small stories, but also of their own lives. I came back from Morelos with almost a dozen books from the different workshops.
When I asked Lidsay and Ana if most of the stories were about violence, they said that 50 percent are about domestic violence, incest, and other forms of violence, but most of them are also about a culture that has educated women to live without recognition, to have low self-esteem, and to internalize those things as natural, both within the family and at work. But even when the stories are directly about violence, writing enables women to transform themselves into strong subjects, and not to see themselves as victims.
Why aren’t men included? I asked. They have been, Lidsay told me. They come to the first and second sessions and then they leave. Women have been socialized to share their emotions easily; in the span of two hours they can go from doubling up with laughter to quiet tears of sadness. That is overwhelming for Mexican men, who, on the other hand, do not possess the cultural tools that would help them deal with strong emotions. It is hard for them.
Krauze is a poet, a professor, novelist, and the mind behind the methodology of the program, named Mujer, escribir cambia tu vida (Woman, writing changes your life). She has been able to share her passion for writing with women who—for reasons that are not only economic—have not been exposed to the virtues of literary creation. She sees this project as a community-building effort, a wave that expands only if the people who sit at a workshop take on the mission of becoming a trainer and make the community bigger and stronger.
I came back from Morelos more convinced than ever that words are certainly our most powerful weapon. The query that the experience posed, however, was neither how to teach students the importance of creativity and words in the learning process, nor how to teach them that words are equally important in engineering, music, biology, the arts, etc. The real question that this visit raised was how to make our students realize that the privilege of their education should inspire and equip them to bring something to the communities that lack it.
Here in Texas, many of the most vulnerable people don’t speak English, so how could they be empowered with words if their words are not the “proper ones”?
Learning Spanish is about much more than the technical elements of a language. It is about connecting to and empowering oneself and others through that language.
Ethel Krauze will be at UT this fall, conducting an intensive three-hour workshop in Spanish for students from all majors. This time the workshop is called Writing Changes Your Life, and its purpose is to empower UT students to write their lives with the hope that they will pay the new skills forward.
For more information:
Professor Gabriela Polit
Department of Spanish and Portuguese