I am Cinthia Duran Larrea, an international student from Ecuador and a rising senior at Skidmore College. I am currently pursuing an International Affairs and Dance double major with a minor in Latin American Studies.
Last spring I was successful in finding a summer internship where I could apply all my fields of interest within my majors: social justice movements and indigenous resistance in Latin America, as well as dance as a tool for social change. Yachay Wasi, which translates as “the home of knowledge” from Kichwa to english, is the name of organization that welcomed me as another member of the strong community of social and ecological justice advocates that it is made of.
In order to understand what Yachay Wasi represents today, we need to look back in history a few decades: Following the historical indigenous uprising of the 1990’s, native Kichwa political activists and educators Laura Santillán and Fernando Chimba envisioned a unique educational space within the urban center of Quito, Ecuador. As a result of economic pressures and discrimination many native Ecuadorians have been displaced from their traditional lands and cultures, and relocated in cities. Yachay Wasi was a vision for a school that could be a bridge between worlds, where children of predominantly indigenous backgrounds could acquire a formal education without facing discrimination for, or losing their traditional identity in a modern environment. With the sweat, prayers and support of other migrants who left their Andean communities for the city of Quito, Laura and Fernando’s vision became a reality. Today Yachay Wasi operates as a state-sanctioned Intercultural, Bilingual School. There, children from diverse but often marginalized communities are able to learn in a safe space that empowers them to appreciate their cultural roots and to demand the socio-political recognition that is their right as Ecuadorian citizens.
In addition to this, Yachay Wasi is a community that strongly advocates for ecological justice. According to the Andean indigenous worldview, the natural environment is not simply a resource to be used, but a living being we are all related to. For this reason, Yachay Wasi’s ultimate goal is to recover a profound respect between humanity and environment; between runakuna and Pachamama (humans and Mother Nature in Kichwa, a native indigenous language spoken in Ecuador). Their strategy is to include in the curricular program the practical, earth-centered wisdom of Ecuador’s original native communities, such as: the understanding of the natural cycles in the Andes, the elders´ wisdom on the “breeding” of the Andean agricultural bio-diversity, and the affectionate appreciation of Mother Nature which strengthens the commitment to protect it. According to all members in the Yachay Wasi community, a real “peace” will not exist until we move away from our modern and anthropocentric understanding of “well-being”. Justice, inclusion and respect towards the indigenous populations in Ecuador will not materialize until Mother Nature is considered a subject of rights.
Duirng my time at Yachay Wasi I was another “Mashi” which means “friend” in Kichwa. This is the way children address their teachers, since the school promotes a model of horizontality and communality wherein all members are equal regardless their age or “role” within the community. For this reason, I was their dance “mashi”.
In addition, I was also a substitute teacher for other subjects or activities when needed, including harvesting, planting and cooking. Finally, together with another volunteer at the school I helped raising funds and looking for possible scholarship donors.
Overall, this internship experience allowed me to achieve two main goals: first, I was able to use movement as a tool for the holistic development and empowerment of children and second, I learned about the challenges currently faced and triumphs historically achieved by indigenous groups in Ecuador.
In our dance classes, the children learned movement vocabulary and symbols from diverse cultural traditions in Ecuador. My goal was to use dance as a tool to deepen their understanding of the values and beliefs of such cultures since traditional dances encode the community´s worldview. In addition to this, they also found joy and confidence in movement that became evident in the way they embodied the Inti Raymi ritual we had by the end of June. Inti Raymi is one of the biggest communal festivity for the Andean indigenous nationalities in Ecuador, Perú and Bolivia. It celebrates the corn harvest and there are several dance and music rituals associated with it. The children were particularly engaged and self-assured in the dance rituals we performed all together as a school at the end of June after a month of dance classes, which was very rewarding for all of us.
Regarding the other aspect of my internship experience, I was able to develop a historical awareness of the indigenous resistance movements in Ecuador as well as the current challenges they face, particularly those who attempt to sustain the goal of achivieng social and ecological justice through education. Among the challenges EIBs (Intercultural, Bilingual Schools) face today, the most outstanding are the lack of government funding and support, the still present structural violence against indigenous worldviews, education models and political organizations, and the internalized racism that many indigenous educators have not been able to get rid of. Due to all these reasons, several EIBs all over the country have closed. However, there is a rising indigenous leadership taken on by the migrant youth that is working hard to re-vitalize their cultural heritage. Their succesful approach consist in building alliances not only among themselves but also with other cultural groups such as African Ecuadorian and mestizos, in order to promote a more harmonic, respectful and reciprocal relationship with nature, which is the main principle of the andean indigenous world view.
My experience at Yachay Wasi has been highly rewarding and has given me a better overview of what it means to advocate for the cultural, collective and political rights of indigenous populations in my country, which is what I envision myself doing in the future. Needless to say how helpful has been the Summer Funded Internship Award, since it helped me cover all expenses related to transportation (from the U.S. to Ecuador and within country), housing and food. I would not have been able to intern full time with Yachay Wasi without this support. I feel very grateful for the experience this award made possible.