Chantal Flores teaches at a middle school in Zapotitlán Palmas, a town in Oaxaca, Mexico with a population of 1184 and high rates of migration to the United States. She created the blog Words of Resistance (in Spanish, Palabras de Resistencia [es]) to publish the poems, stories, letters and short essays her students write for her class.
A native of Monterrey, Mexico, at age 18 Chantal went to study Professional Writing and Communication Studies in Toronto, Canada, graduating in 2008. Her last internship was at The Nation magazine in New York:
After that realized I wanted to write my own stories, and to do that I wanted to travel. And also, I was going through this existential crisis: I was away from Mexico almost for 6 years, and I guess that I really try to fit into the societies I live in, and I was losing myself. I was confused, so I decided to come back to Mexico, to travel a little bit and write stories. I always wanted to come to Oaxaca. Supposedly I was only going to be two months in Oaxaca and then two months in Chiapas and then two months somewhere else, but I’m still in Oaxaca.
Five years ago, Chantal developed a literary workshop for young kids and proposed the program to an NGO in Toronto; they liked the idea, but they didn’t like that Chantal was only 21. The project was never implemented, but her experience at the Zapotitlán middle school rekindled the idea of a literary workshop for children.
I spoke to Chantal about the blog Words of Resistance, her students and the idea behind taking their work to the Internet for the whole world to read.
Global Voices (GV): How did Words of Resistance start?
Chantal: I developed this course for a four-week period, and it was a course about teaching kids to express their reality through words. I was going to work with just three or four literary genres, but when I got to the school it was just another world. I saw all these kids who are from 13 to 15 years old and they have an intellectual development of a kid in elementary school. So I would give them a poem and they wouldn’t understand anything, and they barely knew how to write. Now they are writing these stories that are talking about issues that not even some adults will go through in their lifetime.
“At night, there are only scandals. The streets are now filled with unscrupulous people, in the corner there are 30, in the other 20. Kicks and blows, blood here and blood there like a hose destroyed by pain, anger and depression. What will we do? This town has no future. If people continue living with this fear they will die, and die without speaking out and without justice. Children are involved in the gangs; drugs and beer get into the body. Basta! Enough is enough. I can’t do this anymore; let us join our hands and fight. Guadalupe, 13 years old.
Checking their homework at the beginning was really hard for me; I would end up crying from reading their stories, and they would write a note at the bottom of their homework asking me for help. So that’s how I came up with the idea of the blog: that maybe just providing a space and letting them know that someone else is hearing their stories will have an effect on them, and even after one week since we created the blog I could see a change. They are bringing me stories and poems and they are always asking me if I’m going to publish them. They are motivated. They can’t believe we got like 500 visits in one week.
GV: Why the name “Words of Resistance”?
Chantal: To be honest, I was a little hesitant about the name because of two things. One, because people would think that it is something leftist; and second, because “resistance” is such a cliché word. But it just felt right. These kids are writing these stories to resist all the bad things that life is bringing to them. It is also an easy phrase to translate. It would be the same thing in Spanish and English. I just felt like that was a good name.
GV: How did they react to the idea? Did they like it or were they hesitant about having their work published online?
Chantal: They liked the idea but they didn’t believe me. They told me “You are crazy! That’s not going to happen! No one is going to read our stories,” and to be honest deep inside I was a little bit scared too because they were getting excited and I thought “Please God –I don’t even believe in God— help me out!“
One issue that we have is that it’s hard for them to have access to the Internet, so not everybody has seen the blog, and it’s so different when you see the product.
GV: What are some of the issues affecting the community that your students write about?
Chantal: Migration is a big one. In fact, we are working on creating posters and they have to choose a message that they want to transmit to the world. One group chose the subject of migration and I told them, “Write the phrase for me and I’ll tell you if that is OK for the assignment.” I thought they were going to give me a phrase that would say something like, “We don’t want our parents to leave” or, “We don’t want people from our community to leave us,” and when I read the phrase it was something like, “We want the government of the United States to create a law for our parents to work there because here we don’t have any jobs.” It was so well written that I was shocked. I would love for President Obama to read that.
Some family members go in search of work, others to be with their family, but here the story begins. Everybody get on trains, jumping from car to car, and when they reach the limit, some die, others are killed, women are raped and abducted. But they still keep looking to cross to the other side to be able to live peacefully with their family even with the pain in their hearts to have lived through such an ugly experience that all immigrants from different countries or states go through. Brandon, 12 years old.
In the community there are more women and old people than men, and right now a lot of people are coming back from the US because of the situation over there. But it’s weird because these kids are starting to live with their parents after seven or ten years, so the whole family dynamic is changing.
Also, in the community there is this issue of women –wives– who are being left behind by their husbands. They feel abandoned, they are depressed, and they have no stability in their life. So I have found a lot of children who do not have a good relationship with their mother.
My mom cries every night. I don’t ask why anymore, I know well why she does it. Don’t worry, I’ve taken good care of her for all these years. We talked about many things the time we spent together and we still have plenty of things to talk about. I know that day will come soon. Mom is very happy because I already achieved what she wanted and what she wanted was that one day you and me would spend time together. Luis Gerardo, 15 years old.
One of the biggest issues is loneliness and frustration of not being able to change their reality. These kids want to change. One big issue is that they don’t have any dreams, or they do but they don’t believe that they can do something to leave the town or have a career.
GV: What do you want to accomplish with Words of Resistance?
Chantal: That’s a hard question. I’m realizing that it’s going to be a very slow process. My purpose with this project is to let them know that people are listening to them and that people care about them; and that they can change their own reality.
One of the reasons why I decided to come back to Mexico was because when I was working with The Nation I realized that magazines, newspapers and in general the American media were transmitting only two narratives about Mexico –not only Mexico, Latin America in general— and one was about Latin America as this awesome place for social movements, revolutions and all these leftists visions. The other narrative was Latin America as a place for corruption, poverty and all that. Everyone is forgetting the other reality of Mexico; they are focusing on the war on drugs, but they are forgetting about all these other realities and issues that exist in Mexico. So I decided to come back and find another narrative.
GV: You are publishing the stories, letters, and poems they write about their life; but you are a writer, why not write the stories yourself?
Chantal: Now that I came to Mexico, I was talking to all these people, especially immigrants. I didn’t want to write stories about immigrants, but for whatever reason I was running into immigrants and I asked myself, “Who am I to write their stories?” That’s how I remembered the course that I developed 5 years ago and I thought, “Well, it’s better for them to give them a space to write their own stories.”