Translator: William Blair
Photographer: Fernando Bracho Bracho
Dorila Echeto fixes a gaze for seconds. No more than that. And immediately sees looks the other way with the contemplative gesture of one who already knows everything about you and does not need at least to hear you speak to know your nature and intentions. She has seen so much. She has passed through the human heart like an ant through complex tunnels in the earth; and she knows, among a thousand other things, that there is nothing that tenacity can not achieve. Her proof is the place where she receives us: Nekirajaalee Wayuu Sulu > U Piama Akua > ippa Yanama, which is the name in the Wayuunaiki language for the Yanama Intercultural School for Indians (or indigenous peoples), inaugurated on June 16, 2005, as a bolivariana (referring to a political program promoted by Hugo Chavez) school. It has a complex of small buildings that form a half moon; it is located in Guarero, a town in the state of Zulia, in the Guajira region of northwestern Venezuela, some two and one half hours by car from Maracaibo.
The aggregate, arising from a hectare (about 2.5 acres) of land, is composed of fourteen classrooms with walls so high that they seem to have two stories. This is not the case. They were conceived with so much elevation in order that the intense heat of that almost desert-like place ascends toward the roof and favors a breathable atmosphere.
The classrooms exhibit, on the lintels above the doors, the names in the Wayuunaiki language of different places in the Guajira region. There are, likewise, three bathrooms, a computer room with twenty one data terminals with connection to the internet, and a larger cancha (a roof-covered area) that serves equally as an area for sports practice and as an auditorium; its scaffolding is the visible surface of a tank with six thousand cubic meters of water. It is a must to say that one of the classrooms is designated for children with special needs; there gather the children and adolescents with Down syndrome, hearing loss, autism, and different grades of mental deficiencies, and also there are those with visual difficulties, and also gross motor deficiencies, from limited to severe. These students are attended by two teachers and a teaching assistant, who are organized in a manner such that each has a maximum load of eight children. There is also an occupational workshop for youth that are not formally educated. And this is Guaicaipuro square … which is missing the bust of the pre-hispanic hero.
Around the academic area there is an open, covered area that serves as a playground and alongside, without a roof, a small children’s park that incomprehensibly (given the intensity of the scorching sun) is always in use by elated occupants who seem to be immune from the fury of the sun. Behind the classrooms is a garden where the students of all grades plant dark beans, bananas, dwarf bananas, and green beans, among other crops. The children with special needs have an elevated garden box where they plant scallions, cilantro, paprika, tomatoes, pumpkins, and yucca.
The teachers coordinate the direction of the school, they are all bilingual, and they attend school dressed in mantas (a loose fitting, brightly-colored indigenous garment of cotton cloth), adorned in vibrant green with multicolored borders. The children have uniforms
similar to those in schools in the rest of the country (with an exception that we are about to specify), but the children wear red bordered mantas with pictograms of their respective clans, that are also, in a smaller size, on the short sleeve shirts of the children. It is worthwhile to point out that the wayuu society is organized in a complete structure with some 30 clans of a matrilineal character that have their own territory and a totemic animal that functions like a blazon or coat of arms. The students of Yanama display their symbols and from very early childhood recognize and value their symbols and also those of their friends.
Upon entering one of the classrooms of the first grades of elementary school, we encounter the children singing “The baby chickens say…” in Spanish and later they did it in Wayuunaiki. Bilingualism is totally natural for them, including the students with special needs, and is the standard for the school, where all of the signs are in the two languages.
While they offer us information about this impressive school, erected in the middle of the desert, the teachers request that we spread the word about the problems that confront the campus. For example, the class sessions should be until 4 in the afternoon, but for some time they have seen the impossibilities of fulfilling this offering for the children. Despite being a bolivariana school that, accordingly was established by the Ministry of Education, should “Satisfy basic necessities, such as food, preventive health, and cultural interaction – sports”, at the Escuela Yanama they don’t have enough provisions to make breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snacks nor the money to buy them. Another serious shortage, the teachers accordingly point out, stems from transportation: the school is much larger than a small settlement like Guarero would need, but its dimension makes sense because it receives students from the towns and villages in the vicinity.
To comply with this charge transportation is needed. And it is not there. Many of the students can not attend the school because they do not have the means for transportation. Students with special needs, for example, register daily absences of more than 50% (the day of our visit there were 22 special needs students when they have 60 enrolled). On many occasions, the teachers give them money for transportation, including that necessary for them to present back to the classroom in the morning.
To conclude the tour, we have made a return to the “moon”. We find ourselves again at the entrance, where there is located a sculpture of clay that represents a spider. And on the roof there are various earthenware vessels. There we return to reunite with Dorila Echeto, who had neglected to direct some workmen who had come to make some repairs. On asking her why an immense insect dominates the entrance to the complex, she explains that it is about Waleker, the mythical guajirian spider.
–The wayuu -she says- we learn to weave at an early age. From the grandmothers arrive the first lessons and from nature come the colors and the forms. Waleker gave us weaving as an eternal legacy and an element distinct from the rest of the world. So we fabricate hammocks, so we weave clothing, so we make a warp of colors and thread wherein we wrap up life and love.-
Already it is midday. The children are concentrating in the cancha, that is just along side the effigy of Waleker. Rapidly they form into lines to sing the hymn of Zulia, directed by the teacher of physical education. The verses of Udón Pérez reverberate still in the boiling hot space as the children leave as a troop.
In minutes silence comes to the Escuela Yanama, a beautiful and functional infrastructure erected in the desert, thanks to the effort of one woman who was struggling for years because the children of Guajira were counting on an appropriate place to receive an education.
–It exceeded my dream -she says while gesturing to continue the conversation in her house, that is in front of the school. -The truth is that I have dreamed more than I dared.
Who is this exceptional woman with reddish skin and a scrutinizing look, who has made a school bloom on fallow land dotted with prickly pear cacti.
Dorila Echeto was born on 28 May, 1948, in the community of Guarero, in the state of Zulia, some six kilometers from the border with Colombia. Her father, Fernando Paz, was a prosperous rancher, proprietor of almost two thousand head of cattle; and her mother was Ana Joaquina Echeto, a weaver of chinchorros (hand-woven, reversible hammocks with indigenous designs) from the Ipuana clan whose animal herald is the cari-cari, a predacious bird belonging to the family of falcons. Dorila is the oldest of fifteen siblings born from the womb of this bird, but by the father, she is one of 53.
–I had a very lovely infancy – she says -. I was educated at home by a very patient grandmother. There I learned no only the domestic arts but everything necessary to survive in Guajira. At eight years of age I already knew how to strain coffee; about pubescence (between ages 9 and 12 years), I could already gather goats and look for water in a pool. At five in the morning, my siblings and I already had more than 100 goats congregated around the pool. Among our tasks was emphasizing the prevention our herd mixing with that of the neighbors. The water pools of Guajira, that are usually seventy meters deep, are fed from veins (subterranean rivers). Very exceptionally, those pools become flooded, but, I stress that occurs very rarely because in Guajira four years can pass without rain. Because of this, water is to us sacred. Indeed I knew that even before my fifth birthday.-
That basic training included a fundamental differentiation: the water from the cistern, although slightly brackish, is for consumption; for personal cleanliness and washing clothes and equipment, a pool is used, that is the product of the rain and is not precisely clear water. Because of this, to provide water from the pool it is necessary to use ashes and the pulp of cacti, that adsorb the clay and leave space for water without the mud.
In addition to this complex initiation into the demands of the landscape and in the treasures of the tradition (because, in addition to the struggle with the goats and the way with the different and limited waters, little Dorila received from her grandmother lessons about weaving, pottery, and wayuu culture), in addition, well, after all of this, the Echeto children attended the school of Corazón de Jesús, which was where the Escuela Yanama school is now found. There Dorila would go until the third grade, but it worked out that during vacation in the last course, Dorila had her first menstruation. “And they confined me”, she says.
On one hand, her father declared that for his daughter, now a señorita, nobody would lack respect in the school. That done, he cut the adolescent’s hair with a small machete; while he let the remaining curls fall, the man went on advising with respect to the inconvenience of keeping feelings of love hidden and the advantages of not expressing jealousy when, once married, your husband would have another woman: so “unnecessary quarrels” are avoided. And, on the other hand, menarche during puberty means her confinement in a small house of clay four paces away from the home of the family, where a girl stays without even appearing at her window and is visited only by her mother and grandmothers.
–My grandmother had planned two years of confinement, that, in truth, are few to learn wayuu weaving, cooking, and the secrets of life. But I was taught for only one year, complete, if that. There are young girls who have a tether for five years without going out. I would sleep in a chinchorro hanging very high, fastened almost to the roof, so that I could not climb down. At three in the morning three elderly women came to give me advice (in reality, lessons), because it is at this hour when things stay better in your head, they said. An hour later, at about four, I had to bathe myself using a large earthenware vessel. And later my grandmother entered and asked me: “Did you learn well? Did you understand what the women said to you?”
The skin bleaching process for girls starts with a fast of nearly one week during which just potions of herbs are ingested, and a whitish liquid taken from the earth is given to drink, that serves to eradicate any residual from childhood. These depurations produce vomiting that was celebrated by the grandmother and the ancient teachers, because it was the confirmation that Dorila was “throwing out the folly of childhood”. Once this initial phase concluded, she must observe a diet very low in salt “so that the skin would not discolor so”. During the term of seclusion, the young girl could not itch her skin but could rub it with a panito, a small soft cloth: this is part of the pedagogy placing the young girl on a rock so that this communicates her strength and her tranquility: that she is steady and strong like a caryatid, like a statue that supports the house with its shoulders, and that she is domestic and does not wander in the streets.
The nuns who had taught her as a student very much lamented the departure of Dorila: and on two occasions they arrived to assemble at her house in a futile attempt to persuade her parents to permit her to continue formal studies. “But my grandmother”, recalls Dorila with that a slight laugh always capped with a shadow of pain, “harassed them with small heddles (straight sticks of wood), that are used in the looms”.
Upon finalizing a year of seclusion, Dorila was initiated into the secrets of ceramics, including the fabrication of dolls, the carving of gourds, economics (principally, the details of bartering) and dealing with the opposite sex. Now she knew, for example, how to produce large vessels in a few days and her grandmother said to her: “I am going to give you another. Then she threatened, “If you let it fall, I am going to cut your verijas” (or groin). (Verija is a zulianismo, a new vocabulary in the jargon of Venezuela, meaning groin).
–I remained observing the fragments, I wanted to learn about them -recalled Dorila-. To the wayuu the vessels are precious objects. I recalled that some of our relatives came from the Alta Guajira, riding on burros on a five day trip. They brought clay to make the vessels at the site and exchange them for bananas and yuca that, at the time, they dried to take back converted into flour.
Dorila married at 18 years of age Ciro Ángel Cambar, who died after some time. “We fell in love in the church, he painted me birds…”, she explained without smiling, we had five children, two females and three males”.
–Four months ago, (in early 2012) they murdered my son -she says with an absent expression, while the tears fell.
During the unfolding of her life, Dorila became a merchant. But this is an occupation with many drawbacks in Guajira, where the National Guard usually acts without controls nor too many scruples, in a manner wherein many times the wayuu women, who come and bring merchandise between Venezuela and Colombia, two countries that share the same wayuu nation, meet in the ruins because the military force directed to control the borders strip them of their effects on the account that they are smuggling. And later they did not give them information or return that which was confiscated. In the end, Dorila raised her children, maintained her business full of ups and downs, … and pretended to be a teacher, without an appointment nor salary, while she fought for the creation of a school in Guarero, that lacked the group of nuns from her infancy.
–In 1990 -she recounts-, the lutheran church of La Patora, Caracas, offered a contribution to develop a project for the community. The Civil Association of Yanama was formed, the name of the organization alluding to community work. Initially, what we did was to gather the children who sold coffee and empanadas in the headquarters of the customs office, and also those that accommodated the semitrailer trucks. There were many children without a school because they did not have a birth certificate. And, when I went to their house to speak with the mothers, they told me: “you are going to learn about that animal, that it is crazy, it makes no sense”.
Dorila comprehended that the problem was very deep like the wayuu lakes. She resolved to go higher: she convened the elders and the pütchipü ́ü (or palabreros or wordy ones), a kind of justices of the peace who act like mediators to consider all types of arrangements, including conciliation to settle grievances or to prevent them from going higher. These figures of great influence would help to spread the conviction that the children should go to a school … that did not exist.
–I did bring palm leaves from the Sierra de Perijá to make a covered frame hut and, in a house with a rustic floor, founded the first bilingual school, that was inaugurated in 1996, although we had already started with ten children in 1992, by means of a shelter.
One day she rode in a bus with five children and arrived in Maracaibo to get them a national identity card. “The next day various women presented to bring their children to the school. Their real interest was the identity card. I began to take groups of five. We stood in the highway at two in the morning to wait for the bus. And in two years I completed registrations for identity cards for three hundred children. As I had no resources, I bought them bananas for lunch. On one occasion, I hired a bus and brought two hundred children. When we left the Immigration Office I made a pass by the seafront. They were astonished to see the boats. They left happy to have known Maracaibo”.
In those years, the late 1990’s, Dorila and her sister constituted the teaching body of that school. For some duration they counted on furnishings made for the prisoners in the prison of Sabaneta (before that, the students sat on beer boxes, concrete construction blocks, milk pots, and pieces of tree trunk). And the notebooks that the students used were no more than a handful of stapled leaves.
–When I was not teaching classes I was on my pilgrimage to ask that they make us one classroom. I spent years going from office to office. From bureau to bureau. I asked everybody. Until the year 2000, when Vielma Mora arrived at the Customs Office in Paraguachón.
José Gregorio Vielma Mora is a retired official. Born in San Cristóbal, Táchira, in 1964, he participated in a military coup that, on 4 February, 1992, intended to topple the state, and he was named Superintendent of the National Service for the Administration of Customs and Taxation (SENIAT, 2000 − 2008).
Upon Dorila finding out that the new head of the Senate in Caracas would visit Paraguachón, which is near Guarero, they prepared to write him a letter. So, while Vielma Mora went to the customs office, they gave the last touches to the letter and ran to deliver it into his hands. Without time (nor carbon paper) to make a copy, they arrived at the place, and that is where we stopped them from passing.
–We had to make a commotion. Then Marcos Porras, an official, came to ask what was happening. And then he passed before us. When we looked up we were in front of Vielma Mora himself. We asked him to come to see the school. He was doubtful, but asked where the school was, what time he should take to arrive, and if he would have to look for vehicles. My sister, Maribella, and I grasped him, one on each arm, and while we said that a car is not needed, we went walking, and we took him to the school.
“Where is it?” wanted to know Vielma Mora when we stopped at the school.
–Here, this is it -we told him, pointing out the hut and the arbor.
“It can not be that venezuelan children study in this way”, Vielma Mora said to us. And then he kneeled down and pledged to his mother and his children that he was going to construct a school. And, effectively, sent us a plan, but it was much larger than the plot of land where we were. He went as well and bought the land where the Escuela Yanama is now, with a donation made by Corpozuilia (a Venezuelan government organization that works in economic development in the Zulia state), thanks to the diligence of Gilberto Buenaño. But the plan had ten classrooms and I needed fourteen, in addition to a cancha, a computer lab, and a large water tank. So I went to talk with Marcos Porras. I waited from 9 in the morning to 10:30 at night. “There is no money”, he said to me. And I replied: “Venezuela produces petroleum; and many guajirians have died with black lung disease from breathing coal dust at the Carbones del Guasare (state owned coal mines in Zulia state). Do you want a calculation of how much that is worth?”
The school was inaugurated five years later with everything that Dorila requested. It had an educational workforce of 20 teachers and a staff with administrative personnel and a custodian. “But it lacked transportation and daily meals”, she recalled. “That school was made from tears, desire, necessity, and humiliation. How many times I didn’t cry when they scolded me, when they shut doors in my face, when they left me waiting after having made a trip by bus to Caracas during the night to return the following night. How hungry I was, because I would not want to leave the waiting room for an instant as it would be in precisely that moment they would pay attention to me. Now everything makes sense, clearly.”
To ask her what is a teacher, what one does, what one should do, Dorila says that she only knows what has made herself like a teacher: “I have received children that seem like they came from some war. I have bathed them, cut their hair, healed their sores, given them food, bought them sandals, and caressed them. For the teachers I have one instruction: be careful with the stick. Do not touch the children to punish them. Never. In the old school I had a room where the misbehaved had to pass. When they came to me to report that I had a rebel who did not want to obey, I ordered that they send him to the little room. “What will they be doing to him?”, the other children asked, “will they beat them, will they tie them up?”. What I was doing was asking them why they are so brave. Simply, I requested that they tell what it is that disturbs them so. And so I found out that some students felt embarrassed because they didn’t have shoes and others because they didn’t understand the mathematics classes. At that then, I promised to obtain the sought-after items and with that I began to explain: do you see these lemons? Good, I think they are goats. Then, if you take ten goats to the Los Filúos market, and you sell five, how many do you have left?”
The new school was inaugurated with nearly 400 students, coming from many villages of Guajira. Vielma Mora was there all day and was the object of precious gifts: a chinchorro (a special hammock, brightly decorated with indigenous design), a penacho (a headdress of colored bird feather plumes), and a guayuco (a traditional loin cloth). The gratitude that Dorila Echeto retains towards Vielma Mora is so intense that in the first years, each time that a helicopter passed near there (not forgetting that this is a border zone), the children went running from the classrooms, looking to the sky and crying “Vielma Mora, Vielma Mora”.
–There is the school now -sighs Dorila-. It has the shape of a crescent because the moon is woman and in fact, governs our menstrual periods. Indeed it is done. And the large earthenware vessels on the roof are the grandmothers that take care of us.-
Now she can dedicate more time to her work as a potter, which has earned her awards in art competitions in different countries in Latin America. In saying goodbye to me, she gave me one of her pieces, a precious rose and black “guaruru”, a special type of wind instrument, completely spherical, with three small holes, one to blow across and two finger-holes to make the sound that attracts the goats.
And when all are already in the car that will return us to Maracaibo, Dorila stayed on my mind. She fixes on me those eyes accustomed to the arid horizon and says into my ear “you are thinking much about things that are not in your hands to put right. Forget about all of this and rest a while in the arms of your man”.