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Passport to the Arts: ArtesAmericas leads teachers on adventure of a lifetime to bring culture of Mexico into their classrooms

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As an art teacher, Leigh Ann Williams knows that teaching students about patterns helps not only their art skills, but also their skills in math, music and spatial reasoning. This year for her students at J.P. Elder Middle School in Fort Worth, learning patterns also became a lesson in culture.

Specifically, Williams taught her students about the Zapotec culture of southern Mexico, which created unique patterns on its temple in Mitla, patterns that are still used today in tapestry, jewelry and sculpture. Williams showed her students photos she took at Mitla in June, as well as tapestry samples she picked up from a local weaver.

Teachers who participated in the Exploring Mexico trip are all smiles at the ancient city of Teotihuacan, where they visited the Temple of the Sun, the third largest pyramid in the world
Teachers who participated in the Exploring Mexico trip are all smiles at the ancient city of Teotihuacán, where they visited the Temple of the Sun, the third largest pyramid in the world.

“We talked about why patterns are important, why this culture included things such as rain, lightning and waves in their patterns, and about modern day examples,” Williams says. “And then I looked at my students and said, ‘Now what can you do with pattern?’”

Williams’s expanded approach in the classroom came directly from her experience as a participant in Exploring Mexico: Performing Arts and Culture. The project took Williams and 14 other teachers from Texas, Arizona and California on a four-week educational expedition last summer to one of the most culturally rich countries in the world.

A program of ArtesAméricas at The University of Texas at Austin, Exploring Mexico was funded by the Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad program.

The 15 teachers skipped many of Mexico’s usual tourist attractions in favor of classical music concerts, modern dance performances and tours of archaeological sites. Whether meeting with cello virtuoso Carlos Prieto or discussing technique with Mexico’s leading artist Francisco Toledo, the teachers soaked up experiences they are bringing back into their classrooms.

“It was an amazing experience,” says Michelle Ford, a music teacher at Otis Brown Elementary in Irving, Texas. “I came out of the trip with a more authentic perspective on Mexican music to present to my students.”

Watch a video about ArtesAmericas' Exploring Mexico tripvideo icon WATCH A VIDEO about ArtesAméricas’ Exploring Mexico trip (opens in a new window).

“Exploring Mexico” video running time—4:23.

The Exploring Mexico trip is one of many programs of ArtesAméricas, the brainchild of Pebbles Wadsworth, director of the university’s Performing Arts Center (PAC). When former President Larry Faulkner called on the university to strengthen ties between the United States and Latin America in 1998, Wadsworth recognized the important role the arts could play in pursuing that goal. She turned to her colleagues across the Americas to create a vision for a program that would foster cultural understanding.

“The arts cross every barrier,” Wadsworth says. “We use the arts as a conduit and a catalyst to open dialogue.”

A joint project of the PAC and the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS), ArtesAméricas shares the university’s expertise in Latin America by serving as a resource for the performing arts throughout the Americas.

A key component of this is bringing the best talent from across Latin America, as well as Latino artists in the United States, to perform on campus and at 52 partnering institutions. Audiences can sometimes be surprised by what they discover, says Joe Randel, ArtesAméricas director. Many people have circumscribed ideas about what constitutes Latin American art.

Auditions at Delfos Contemporary Dance Company in Mazatlan, recognized as one of the most important dance companies in Latin America
Auditions at Delfos Contemporary Dance Company in Mazatlan, recognized as one of the most important dance companies in Latin America.

“They think of it being very folkloric,” Randel says. “With Mexico they think of mariachis and ballet folklorico. But Mexico has incredible contemporary dance companies, world-renowned classical musicians and a vibrant electronic music scene. And that’s representative of all of Latin America.”

From Cuban hip hop to Peruvian dance, Argentine pianists to Chilean singers, some of the most celebrated artists in Latin America have come to the stage through ArtesAméricas. The PAC devotes about one-third of its performance schedule to the program.

But ArtesAméricas does far more than put Latin American artists in front of audiences. It gives audiences a context for understanding the art and the culture that informs it.

“We wanted to bring the full force of the university’s resources in Latin America to bear,” Randel says, “so we created a series of contextualization materials to accompany each of the artists.”

With comprehensive country and culture guides and teacher curriculum materials, the ArtesAméricas Arts Education, Outreach and Cultural Participations Programs put a priority on education for people of all ages.

Artists often offer youth performances and meet with school students as well as with seniors at local centers. And educational materials created by ArtesAméricas and funded in part by the Roy F. and Joann Cole Mitte Foundation are made available free of charge to partnering institutions. In this way, the program offers both entertainment and an expanded understanding of Latin American art.

In Guadalajara, participants visited the Jalisco Symphony
In Guadalajara, participants visited the Jalisco Symphony.

“It’s not really that hard to put on a concert or have a performance,” Randel says. “Anyone with a stage can do that. What the university brings to the table is the ability to do much more to use the arts as an educational tool.”

The Exploring Mexico trip is a perfect example.

Judith Rhedin, assistant director of the PAC, and Natalie Arsenault, outreach coordinator for LLILAS, dreamt up the program and spent years working together to make it happen. They envisioned a month-long adventure that would offer a perspective on Mexico tourists rarely acquire. The teachers traveled to Oaxaca City, Mexico City, Morelia, Mazatlan and Guadalajara.

“What’s so great about Mexico is we can tie in the art, culture and history of the country,” Rhedin says. “It was relevant to artists, but also to teachers in all of the humanities.”

Teachers from states bordering Mexico were selected by application. Beverly Berwick teaches English and runs the media institute at Montgomery High School in San Diego, Calif. Her school is only three miles from the border. Having a strong cross-cultural understanding is critical to her for relating not just to her students, but to other teachers as well.

“Because my school is so close to the border, I’m interested in knowing more about Mexico,” Berwick says. “This was a unique opportunity because they designed for us special experiences. We had a lecture and then an art experience. We also saw a lot of local crafts in villages outside the cities.”

Murals by Jose Clemente Orozco at the Instituto Cultural de Cabanas in Guadalajara inspired teachers to introduce their students to the great Mexican muralists
Murals by José Clemente Orozco at the Instituto Cultural de Cabañas in Guadalajara inspired teachers to introduce their students to the great Mexican muralists.

Berwick has incorporated the Mexico trip into her curriculum in a number of ways, including in lessons that combine Mexican history and the murals of Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. Students hone their powers of observation and make connections between history, culture and art.

“The experiences in Mexico were so well designed,” Berwick says. “To have actual professors lecturing us and then such a carefully engineered itinerary was unbelievable.”

Working with Dr. Robert DeSimone, professor of music and director of the Sarah and Ernest Butler Opera Center, Rhedin and Arsenault created an itinerary jam-packed with lectures, tours and hands-on learning. University professors and local experts guided the group through Mexican art, culture and history.

Some of that history was being made as the group’s plane touched down. Mexico played Argentina in the World Cup of soccer. A controversial presidential election took place. And in Oaxaca, the first stop on the itinerary, a teacher’s strike erupted in violence.

Rhedin says that as late as a few days before departure, the organizers were questioning whether they should go to Oaxaca at all. In the end, they moved their hotel from the city center to the suburbs. Still, teachers were affected by the experience.

“They had the opportunity to go down to the center of town and visit,” Rhedin says. “They went and talked to the teachers who were camping out, who were part of the strike. In a sense it couldn’t have been better timing. Watching these educators maneuver through these events was just amazing.”

Their adventure also included a tour of the Aztec ruins in Mexico City led by Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, the archaeologist who discovered them. They attended a performance by the legendary Ballet Folkorico de Mexico de Amalia Hernandez and participated in a seminar at Morelia’s Conservatorio de las Rosas, the oldest music school in Mexico. Dozens of lectures and hands-on workshops rounded out the program.

The trip was as much about culture as about art. Here a participant captured a girl playing the guitar in Morelia
The trip was as much about culture as about art. Here a participant captured a girl playing the guitar in Morelia.

In the end, each teacher felt they were changed by the experience.

“I found my love for this country is overwhelming,” says Ford. “I know this trip is mostly academic in nature, but the implications of it stretch far beyond what I will teach my students in the next few months or years. I have had so many experiences here that have and will continue to change my whole life, alter my perspectives, create new interests.”

The teachers who participated in Exploring Mexico gathered back on campus in January to attend an ArtesAméricas Professional Development workshop with other teachers and a performance by Mexico’s Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes, a theater company they’d visited on their trip. They also shared examples of how they were using their experiences in Mexico in their home schools.

From projects designing commemorative coins to mark the 1519 encounter between the Spanish and the Aztecs to mask making lessons inspired by the “dance of the little old men” in Michoacán, the teachers are changing the way they approach Mexico in their classrooms. In that way, their month-long journey may affect generations to come.

“We love training teachers because if a teacher gets excited and includes something new in their curriculum, they’re going to do it year after year,” says Arsenault. “Every time they teach Mexico, this program is going to touch that.”

BY Vivé Griffith

PHOTOS courtesy the teachers from
ArtesAméricas’ Exploring Mexico trip

ON THE BANNER: Tour of Templo Mayor with
Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, Mexico City

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  Updated 13 March 2008
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