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