Arizona Republic
September 2, 2007


(Phoenix, AZ)

Author: Linda Valdez, The Arizona Republic Estimated printed pages: 3

This is how Latin America sees us:

Before she arrived from Nicaragua, Meylin Chavarria thought everything was perfect in the United States.

When he left Guatemala, Antonio Xicay figured the United States would be full of ambitious people who were never satisfied with what they had.

Pedro Romero came from El Salvador thinking the United States contained every marvelous thing.

Norma Gallo left Honduras believing Americans were unsocial and power-hungry.

This is how we see Latin America:

At this point, many of you think I am writing about illegal immigrants.
That's all many people expect from south of the border.

This is how it is:

All these people entered the country legally, and every one of them intends to go home.

They and 16 others are part of a group that represents a largely untapped and unappreciated natural resource in our hemisphere: people. Through them, the United States has real power to shape our future by helping our southern neighbors shape theirs in ways that we'll find beneficial.

All are teachers. All went through a rigorous selection process in their home countries to join a program called the Cooperative Association of States for Scholarships, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The University of Arizona has been hosting the program for five years.

They arrived in Tucson in January from rural, economically disadvantaged schools in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. Since then, they have spent four days a week observing at local public schools. They also attend workshops and classes focusing on English, leadership, critical thinking, computer skills and educational strategies.

When they return to their countries in December, they will be ready to take leadership roles and enhance the quality of education, says Dionisio de la Vina, a UA senior research specialist and coordinator of the Tucson program.

"They return as agents of change," de la Vina says.

After months of exposure to the bounty of U.S. classrooms, these teachers do not seem daunted by the challenges of implementing modern teaching techniques in rural schools that often lack running water, electricity and adequate books. They are full of ideas and enthusiasm.

But it isn't just educational techniques that these teachers will take home with them.

There is a political aspect to all international development programs, and the potential in this one gleams like a multifaceted gem.

Those chosen for the program think of themselves as ambassadors of their home countries. They brought along their traditional national costumes and music so they could perform at schools and in the community. They put up fliers at a coffeehouse near the university and offered free Spanish lessons to anyone who showed up.

Because they are housed four per two-bedroom apartment, they also got to know each other. De la Vina says this can present some of the program's biggest challenges. But it also furthers international understanding. For Romero, getting to know people from other Latin American nations helped tear down some long-held preconceptions and prejudices.

Getting to know people from the United States gave them insights that they will carry home and share.

Chavarria has seen poor people here and now realizes that the United States has some of the same challenges her country faces. It's not perfect.

Xicay still thinks we're ambitious, which we are.

Romero, who expected marvelous things in the United States, says he now recognizes there is a wealth of marvels in his own country. Watching U.S.
teachers present lessons about science and the environment helped him see that the vast natural resources in his country represent a huge outdoor classroom where something as simple as a sun-bleached bone can become a valuable teaching tool.

Gallo now says Americans are open and generous in social interactions.

Jesus Orellana, from Honduras, thought people in the United States might discriminate against him and other members of the program. Instead, people "opened their arms to us," he said.

Stories of those open arms, of American generosity and graciousness, will return south with these teachers. That's a powerful and empowering way of turning our neighbors into closer friends and allies.

It makes a lot more sense than building fences.

Reach the writer at
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Viewpoints
Page: V1