Harborview students find common bonds with Mexico pen pals

Basketball, subsistence foods among things they share in common

Posted: Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The kids from San Ildefonso Tultepec, Queréturo, Mexico, fish and sing and dance - surprising some Harborview Elementary School students who didn't expect to have so much in common with them.

"They play some of the same games," said fifth-grader Amber Taguchi. She didn't expect to read in their letters that they played basketball.

The Mexican village is on the main highway between the state and national capitals, but away from the highway. Many people don't have electricity.

Marc Olson, who teaches English as a second language at Harborview, began going there in 2002 to teach in the summers. His connection has resulted in two years of letter exchanges between children in the Mexican village and students in Harborview's Tlingit language and cultural program.

"I just thought it would be fun for the kids," he said.

Friday, the students looked at the most recent letters posted in the halls outside their classroom. Olson read an explanation from a girl named Graciella, answering a question about how they plant their corn.

In another letter, Fernando wrote he has to work every day after school to help his father cut rocks in a stone quarry and sell them.

"Yes, we play basketball," he said.

Several explained how they celebrate the Day of the Dead. Another child in Mexico, Maria, wrote that she was interested to read about the bears in Juneau and asked for a picture of one.

Many of the letters came back with new questions:

"How do you make your clay pots? How do you make your embroidery?"

"I thought they were different from us," said Harborview fifth-grader Martin Conches-Michel, who has a grandmother from Mexicali, a Baja California border community.

The kids in Mexico have a harder life because they have to work, but they still play, he said. "I think they're kind of the same."

Minutes later, their teacher, Shgen George, asked them if they could see the similarities.

Basketball was one of the first answers. But the students also noticed that the Mexican children had their own stories and traditions. They also had traditional song and dance.

"How many people know the word 'subsistence?'" George asked. The hands shot up when she asked how many of their families fish or hunt to put food on the table.

They also shot up when she asked how many of them eat herring eggs.

"How many people went to Fred Meyer and bought their herring eggs?" she asked, inspiring the hands to drop.

The people of San Ildefonso plant and harvest corn for their subsistence, George's students told her. They also said the Mexican kids don't go to a store to get their milk.

Students learned their friends in Mexico have to get milk straight from the cow. One letter talked about having to bring water back home in a bucket.

Despite some differences, Olson said some of the similarities between the children were obvious even before the students had the opportunity to find common ground.

On both sides of the correspondence, most were Native kids from families that were trying to hold onto their cultures. The influences of mainstream media aren't as great in San Ildefonso, he said, but he has seen it increasing even in the time he's been visiting. The kids in Mexico learn Spanish in school just as Tlingit children learn English in school, Olson said.

As the project has developed, the Harborview students are getting more than an understanding of how people live elsewhere, he said. "It's helped them focus on being able to communicate about their own culture."

Fifth-grader hunter Lee, who wrote last year with questions about the Day of the Dead, said it's just a fun thing to do. "I like writing to them, and they write back."



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