In the last days of June 2011, after a 50-hour journey from Chile (but that’s another story), I arrived in Salta, Argentina. It’s a beautiful city in Argentina’s northwest, close to the Chilean and Bolivian borders. The Andes provide a mystical backdrop, and the trace of the Spanish conquistadores is everywhere: in the old colonial churches and cathedrals, with their magnificent pillars and ornate decoration, in the regimented layout of the city centre – and in the inequalities still evident in modern-day society.
I was there to work at the David Mather Foundation, an organization which runs educational programmes to support students from Salta’s shantytowns. In stark contrast to the richness of the city centre, the shantytowns are sprawling, makeshift zones where families have put together their own houses, piece by piece, using whatever material they can find. But the starkest contrast of all is drawn along racial lines. The shantytowns are inhabited by communities practically invisible in Argentine society: they are part of urban indigenous groups, who are neither represented in the official discourse of the cities, nor in the indigenous rights movements which act to protect rural groups. Physically marginalized on the peripheries of society, unrecognized in population surveys, it’s fair to say that the young people attending the foundation’s centre did not have the most auspicious start in life.
Yet four years on, over 60 of those young people, who were then at secondary school, are now at various stages of university degrees. Many of them are completing their studies whilst also working to support their families. Some are young parents. All are incredibly hardworking, bright, and driven. If you met them, you’d never imagine that they lived in one-room houses with limited electricity and water supplies. They’d hold a conversation with you in Spanish and English at a minimum, and they’d hold their own in any discussion, from politics to pop culture.
I’ve maintained a relationship with the David Mather Foundation and the students in the past four years, and while studying a module on contemporary Argentine literature as part of my Hispanic MA, it seemed completely wrong to me that there was no literature by indigenous writers within the Argentine corpus. I researched it, thought about it, and then I got in touch with the Foundation and put forward the idea of producing a book made up of essays written by some of the students.
Everything happened pretty quickly after that. 10 students wrote essays on a whole range of topics. Ines, a student nurse, wrote an incisive report looking at infant malnutrition in Salta; Rocío wrote passionately about environmental issues and the impact of current Greenpeace initiatives within Argentina; and Franco wrote about the origins of Argentine folklore – and that’s just for starters. All of them touched upon issues that affect their communities and their lives, but they were all more complex and far-reaching than that.
I then recruited a team of student translators from the Hispanic dept. who not only translated the essays, but also began email exchanges with the students in Salta. The result is a set of 10 bilingual essays, which I think have great education potential both in Argentina and here, and hopefully links have been forged between Sheffield and Salta which can be continued. The next step is to find publishers in the UK and Argentina, and in the future, to hopefully develop some teaching resources to accompany the essays.
There is still a lot of work to do on indigenous awareness and equality within Argentina. These students, sadly, are part of a tiny minority of indigenous people who make it into higher education, and their own futures are still somewhat precarious. The David Mather Foundation is now focusing on helping them to finish their studies and finding good jobs at the end of it.
Katy Stewart is a MA Student in the Department of Hispanic Studies.
If you’re interested in contacting any of the students, if you’d like to find out about ways you can help, or if you want more information about this project, you can contact her here: firstname.lastname@example.org.