Thursday, April 28, 2011

Lost in Translation No Longer: English and Poverty Alleviation in Teotitlán

By Anthony LaMesa, Volunteer, English Program Coordinator

At Fundación En Vía, we are constantly reflecting on how our programs can evolve to better meet the needs of the individuals we serve. A good example of this is the English program’s current effort to revamp its adult curriculum to better reflect the priorities of our students, who primarily work making and selling weavings in Teotitlán del Valle.

Have you ever felt frustrated purchasing a soft drink or asking for directions in a foreign country? What if your livelihood depended on that simple conversation? In Teotitlán, there are vastly more weavings available than tourists to purchase them. As a result, for our borrowers and English program students, every conversation counts – and it counts big. Living in or close to poverty does not afford one the luxury of having a major sale lost to translation.

Recognizing the challenge that many Teotitlán weavers face in communicating with English-speaking tourists – who comprise the vast majority of visitors to the small Oaxacan pueblo – the En Vía English program is now providing its students with the language tools necessary to more effectively engage with non-Spanish speaking customers.

Whereas in the past our English curriculum focused on merely translating the vocabulary of weaving from Spanish to English, in addition to teaching students the language of simple retail transactions, the improved curriculum, under development, empowers students to articulate – with details and persuasion – the tremendous amount of effort and skill that goes into each of their rugs. Such language ability will allow Teotitlán weavers to command the fair prices for their rugs that they deserve to be paid – and, at the same time, allow tourists to better understand the nuances of this fascinating craft.
Faced with the challenge of implementing this dynamic new curriculum, our volunteer English teachers are rising to the occasion. In the picture below, Volunteer Teacher Andy Healy, a veteran educator from the United Kingdom, uses color images of various weavings to engage his students in a simulated retail experience – one complete with questions such as, “How long did it take to make?” “Where was it made?” “How long did it take?” and “Is this unique?”

Simple questions requiring simple answers, but the ability to answer those questions in a convincing manner can mean the difference between a 5,000 peso sale and a tourist taking his or her money elsewhere. By empowering our students to communicate with increased clarity, confidence, and conviction, En Vía English teachers are working in concert with the lending and business training programs to alleviate poverty in Teotitlán one woman at a time.


  1. This post brings me great joy. When I volunteered with the women I struggled with attracting the tourist attention by calling out 'cheap prices'. I tried to help them change to descriptors that spoke to the amount of work that was involved. I am so delighted to see that Andy is helping these hard-working women bring honour to themselves and their wonderful creations.

  2. Thanks, Jo-Anne! Yes, both Andy and Susan have done wonderful work with our group of "beginning" adult women.

    I, for one, was not aware of how physically grueling it was to weave -- just the energy required to operate the looms -- until my En Via tour.