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Mexicolore stage a development education scene for Oxfamwith a local primary school

Mexicolore’s early years in Development Education

This photo epitomizes Mexicolore’s early years, working squarely within the Development Education movement here in Britain. In early March 1982 the Disasters Emergency Committee launched on TV its Central America Relief Fund, and Oxfam’s Campaigns Organiser for London asked Mexicolore to provide some colour and impact to attract press and public to the launch of the national appeal for aid to refugees from the region, outside Oxfam’s shop on Kensington High Street. We suggested involving a school. At short notice (we rehearsed ideas and actions with the kids in the coach en route from the school!) class 4K from St. John’s & St. Clement’s CoE Primary School, East Dulwich, joined us to perform a dance/drama scene depicting confrontation between sugar cane workers and landowners in Mexico, trying to show that the struggle for LAND was one of the main roots of the conflict in Central America... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Dr. David Owen is shown how sandals are made from recycled car tyres by Mexicans in poverty
Pic 1: Dr. David Owen is shown how sandals are made from recycled car tyres by Mexicans in poverty (Click on image to enlarge)

It was a huge success, with the 8-9-year-olds throwing themselves enthusiastically into the event. The launch was addressed by Dr. David Owen (ex-Foreign Secretary in the Labour government), who can be seen later engaging the kids in discussion (pic 1) on the struggle to survive on the margins of society in Mexico. Our teaching team have always used authentic artefacts to bring Mexican culture (past and present) to life in primary schools - the traditional guarache sandals being just one of dozens of every-day objects brought from Mexico for English school children to handle, wear, try, play, and work with (pic 2). Long before the introduction of the National Curriculum, we were free to devise programmes on Mexico that incorporated artefacts, alongside dance, music, costumes, drama/role-play, audio-visual materials and other inputs, and to focus on basic World Studies concepts such as interdependence, cooperation, sharing of resources, equality, fairness and respect for others’ way of life.

Pic 2: Graciela and primary school children in London working with some common Mexican domestic work tools and other artefacts/ Spot the sandals!
Pic 2: Graciela and primary school children in London working with some common Mexican domestic work tools and other artefacts/ Spot the sandals! (Click on image to enlarge)

In the early years of the project Mexicolore received small grants from Oxfam, Christian Aid, and the Greater London Arts Association to produce programmes and teaching resources with a strong focus on development education, such as a 35mm slide pack on Children and Work in Mexico (pic 3). Junior age children respond particularly well to comparing their own lives with those of children in other parts of the world, and were constantly fascinated by the lengths that some children of their own age have to go to in Mexico to bring in money to buy food each week to survive: child ‘employment’ is a common feature of Mexican daily life. Countless teachers around the country have had their shoes cleaned by kids playing the role of Mexican shoe-shines in our workshops!

Pic 3: Using slides to engage children in comparing their lives to the reality of life in Mexico
Pic 3: Using slides to engage children in comparing their lives to the reality of life in Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

We were never prepared, however, to limit our engagement with children to mere ‘soft’ subjects such as making tortillas or lying on a petate reed mat bed. ‘Dev Ed’ is not just about ‘how the other half lives’ but also about the structures of poverty, exploitation and unequal terms of trade. Why should those poor migrant labourers who break their backs cutting down sugar cane in sweltering heat (pic 5) be deprived by large landowners - and sugar companies - of the wealth they’ve harvested for the rich? Have things always been this way? Wasn’t there a revolution in Mexico that had made things more equal? Is this all the fault of the Spanish Conquest?
Big issues! Certainly by 1910 justs 1% of the Mexican population owned 70% of the country’s arable land and 96.6% of rural families were landless, living in worse conditions than under Spain. Not surprising that the rallying cry of the Revolution was Tierra y Libertad... (pic 4)

Pic 4: Children at a south London primary school show off their Mexican history mural!
Pic 4: Children at a south London primary school show off their Mexican history mural! (Click on image to enlarge)

The trouble is, the Mexican Revolution was never completed. The poorest land was distributed to peasant farmers, who were subsequently deprived of state support, and today there is a massive gulf between the large rich commercial export-oriented estates and the mass of tiny subsistence land holdings that form around 60% of all farms in Mexico. Ironically, being the home of maize (corn), Mexico now ranks among the world’s four largest importers of grains. Per capita food consumption of basics like corn, milk and meat have fallen sharply, and one report in the 1990s suggested that nearly half of all children living in rural Mexico were suffering from malnutrition. Work for poor farmers is often (like the sugar cane harvesters) seasonal: today, 80% of the rural population is without steady work.

Pic 5: Experiencing the back-breaking work of harvesting sugar cane!
Pic 5: Experiencing the back-breaking work of harvesting sugar cane! (Click on image to enlarge)

Using Graciela’s talent and experience as a professional dancer and Ian’s love of music, we devised programme scenes that combined several art forms: kids played the role of cane cutters (pic 5) and then divided into musicians and dancers to perform a celebratory harvest dance, only to be confronted suddenly by the arrival of landowners (pic 8) who try to walk off with most of the cane. Teachers were on hand to ensure no lynching took place!
And the dances were authentic too: inspired by the Danza de la zafra from Tamaulipas and by the traditional Flor de Piña ceremony from the Guelaguetza festival in Oaxaca, at the end of which the pineapples were (and are) thrown by the dancers into the surrounding audience. School Health and Safety rules were a little more lax in those days...

Pic 6: Graciela teaching traditional Mexican dances to children in London primary schools in the 1980s
Pic 6: Graciela teaching traditional Mexican dances to children in London primary schools in the 1980s (Click on image to enlarge)

And the dances were FUN (pic 6). In the early years the format for all-day school visits consisted of an intensive morning workshop with one class, followed in the afternoon by a performance by that class, in costume, to the rest of the school - a highly successful formula. In schools where we were lucky enough to work over an entire term or half-term, we could of course go to town, working up scenes on different aspects of Mexican history: pre-Hispanic culture, Spanish Conquest, Mexican Revolution, Mexico Today, etc. One dance that we know has pre-Hispanic origins, the famous Danza de los Viejitos from Michoacán, involves youngsters dressing up as oldies - check out those masks (pic 7!) - and venturing out into the audience demonstrating the spirit of youth, undiminished by age. Timeless...

Pic 7: Performing the Dance of the Old Folk
Pic 7: Performing the Dance of the Old Folk (Click on image to enlarge)

Development education is also, we like to think, about the breaking down of stereotypes and an awakening of interest in life in another part of the world. If ever there is a country that has suffered from stereotyping, it’s Mexico, and we like to think our programmes played a small part in opening up children’s eyes in this country to other cultures, from which we have much to learn. In many cases Graciela was the first Mexican that children had ever met, and it’s true to say they melted before her. Go to our page of testimonials from schools (‘Feedback’, l/h menu) to see how schools have reacted to our sessions. Talking of viejitos (don’t look at us...) we wonder, of course, what’s happened to all those children who we’ve worked with over the years - close to a quarter of a million now! If you remember being involved in one of those early visits, do let us know - we’d love to hear from you...

Pic 8: The landowners argue with the cane cutters...
Pic 8: The landowners argue with the cane cutters... (Click on image to enlarge)

Notes on the pictures/schools involved:-
• Facts: from Mexico: a Country Guide by Tom Barry, Inter-Hemispheric Education Resource Center, 1992
• Main photo and pic 1: photographer unknown (taken 17/3/82)
• Other photos taken by John Goldblatt/Mexicolore
• Among the schools featured are: Montem Junior School, London N7, Wyvil Junior School, London SW8, Walsingham School, London SW4, and Allerton Junior School, Immingham, Grimsby
• Special thanks to Chris Joiner (Head) and the 20 children from St. John’s & St. Clement’s Primary School, East Dulwich, London.

Pic 9: ‘New Internationalist’ special issue on Mexico Jan 1994; Mexicolore slide set on ‘the Aztecs and their legacy’ and advert
Pic 9: ‘New Internationalist’ special issue on Mexico Jan 1994; Mexicolore slide set on ‘the Aztecs and their legacy’ and advert (Click on image to enlarge)

One of our first reviews was written by Naseem Khan, and appeared in Time Out magazine, no. 567 (5/3/81). She wrote:-
Between them, Graciela Sanchez and Ian Mursell manage to present a far more substantial image of Mexico [than that of travel agents’] for children. They do it engagingly, with a deceptive ease and gentleness: the songs, the dances, the artefacts, the cruel division between the few haves and the many have-nots... The children of Argyle Primary, where I saw ‘Mexicolore’, were not surprisingly transfixed.

Pic 10: The Feb 1984 issue of ‘Junior Education’
Pic 10: The Feb 1984 issue of ‘Junior Education’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Returning to our opening story, in an article for Junior Education in 1984 Mildred Masheder, then Senior Lecturer in Multicultural Studies at the North London Polytechnic, captioned the main photo ‘This group enacted a conflict between Mexican workers and land-owners’ and describing the Mexicolore dance-drama workshop she attended added ‘The children’s natural sense of justice simply flows out of the situation and no prompting is needed.’

Get some ideas for using DRAMA from our early work on the Spanish Conquest...

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