La Frontera: Ditch Digger or City Founder? Asset-Based Development Says ‘Both’

An oral history project taught South Texas high school students to look for strength and pride in things that others dismiss as unimportant. That lesson now undergirds efforts to create the nation's first bilingual university.

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The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is transforming itself into the nation’s first comprehensively bilingual public university. Francisco Guajardo is director of an initiative to help enable that process.

The goal is to create a university where students can do their coursework in English, Spanish, or both. In the context of today’s debate over immigration policy, the university’s ambition is remarkable.

In America’s public K-12 schools, educators may view native Spanish speakers as having an academic deficit, if that skill interferes with their ability to advance in the English-only curriculum. At Rio Grande Valley, the university sees Spanish skills as an economic and cultural asset. Bilingual students are better positioned to find jobs in South Texas. And they are in a better spot to create the jobs of the future, these educators say.

This idea of seeing assets, not just deficits, in rural communities is a cornerstone of contemporary approaches to community development. In this excerpt from Guajardo’s keynote presentation to the “Big Ideas Forum” last week, Guajardo explains how he and the high school students he taught used oral history as an asset-based community development tool.

The Big Ideas Forum was as gathering of rural advocates and policy specialists sponsored by the National Rural Assembly with support from the Duke Endowment.

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I was born in northern Mexico. I grew up in both South Texas and northern Mexico in “La Frontera,” on both sides of the border.

The kind of cultural transmission that we experienced from generation to generation was rich. I knew that there was a lot of love and a lot of care.

But when I went to college, a lot of folks did not see South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley as having any redeeming qualities. They thought there was no cultural richness or wealth there. That was very different from the kind of existence that I understood as a kid growing up.

When I came back from the big city to become a high school teacher, one of the things that I first realized was that our stories were being told by other people. My students and I needed to do something about understanding the real story. So in the early 1990s we began an oral history project. There is no way that I would have thought 20-plus years ago that an oral history project could be such an important part of the change effort. But it was.

The oral history project gave us an opportunity to tell our own stories and to essentially reconstruct the community narrative. That was a big idea, as it turned out.

We trained kids how to have conversations with elders. We trained kids to use the camera. We trained kids how to scan photographs on the spot. How to take still images of the process we were using. How to capture good audio.

One of the first elders we interviewed was Don Isabel Gutierrez. He was born in 1900. I filled a school bus with kids and we went to Don Isabel’s house one day. We went because somebody else in town told us that Don Isabel was one of the founders of the city of Edcouch and we should interview him. We pulled up to Don Isabel’s house and it was kind of a curious thing, because Don Isabel’s house was a small, humble, wood-frame home. “How could he be one of the founders of Edcouch?” the kids were beginning to ask.

We got off the bus and went to his front porch, where he was waiting for us — 97 years old at the time. He’s got a walker right beside him.

Francisco Guajardo.
Francisco Guajardo addresses the Big Idea Forum in Charlotte, North Carolina. The event was sponsored by the National Rural Assembly with support from the Duke Endowment.

There are two kids who are prepared to do the interview. Another kid is going to hold the microphone. Somebody else on camera, somebody else taking still photographs. And if there’s stuff inside the house, we’re scanning it.

Don Isabel had calloused hands. He was about 5’2″, and it was clear that he had been a laborer his entire life.

About 10 minutes into the interview, a student asked: “Don Isabel, this elder on the other side of town said that you were one of the founders of Edcouch.” But he asked the question with kind of a dose of skepticism. “Como puede ser?” Like, “How is that, Don Isabel? That you’re one of the founders of Edcouch?”

Don Isabel was sitting at the time and he stood erect. He looked at the kid and he asked, “Joven!” he said. “Have you ever had any water here in Edcouch?” And the kid said, “Oh, si, Don Isabel. I’ve had water in Edcouch.”

And Don Isabel said: “In 1926, I dug the ditches to lay down the water pipes for the city of Edcouch. Yo!” He says. “Soy fundador de Edcouch.”  “I am a founder of Edcouch.”

How about that, eh? Don Isabel Gutierrez had just given us a history lesson. In that lesson, he turned our way of looking at the world upside-down. It was such a valuable lesson. We wouldn’t have known that had we not visited Don Isabel.

If you don’t construct your community narrative, I would suggest that the big ideas are not as big. I think that when we own the story of our community, I think that that’s a big idea that can lead toward bigger ideas.

We needed to change how we saw ourselves. Everyone was telling us that we were in one of the most economically depressed areas in the entire country. Nevermind South Texas. In the entire country! We had to move from feeling kind of sorry for ourselves. Because that way of seeing yourself does something to kids, it does something to parents. We had to do something to upend that. How do you find the pockets of wealth and community cultural richness? Well, you can’t do it unless you talk to people. You can’t do it unless you figure out what their stories are. And you can’t do it unless you make a big deal out of their stories.

Don Isabel gave us a big idea. Without question. That the people who labored to create our city were its founders.

How about that?

Is that George Washington? No. It’s Don Isabel Gutierrez.

Francisco Guajardo, Ph.D., is executive director of the B3 (Bilingual, Bicultural, Biliterate) Institute at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.

 

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