Hi, Carolyn here, from We Teach Well. Our mission is to promote educational equality by providing English and literature teachers wherever they may teach with truly borderless professional development options. We are inviting writers and educators from around the world to share the cultural and historical issues that sit behind the literature of their country. Hi, everyone. Welcome to this episode of We Teach Well’s World Lit podcast. Today we are talking to Milton Villarroel from Bolivia. Milton is working in the United States at the moment, teaching Spanish and has had a number of positions in both Bolivia and the United States. And I’m really excited to find out what he has to tell us about the different cultural forces that are at work in Latin America, and in the West. So welcome to you. Milton,
Thank you, Carolyn, I’m delighted to be here, and I cannot thank you enough for the opportunity.
Well, thank you, we are really thrilled that so many educators, who are all time poor anyway and have so much on their plate, are willing to come and talk to us. Which allows teachers of literature to get a much, much better idea of the cultural beliefs and values that lie behind the literature we teach. Because so much of the literature we teach in English literature classes, is actually not English at all. It is Russian and Indian and Latin American and Canadian, and all of those places, which have very different ways of viewing the world. Can I ask you just as a beginning, and I ask most guests this, what do you most love about teaching?
Well, especially languages, okay. I was fascinated by languages since I was a kid, my brother and I would literally invent our own code to communicate and have our secret, you know, conversations. And also my parents contributed to that, because we would always play with words, etc, etc. So from an early age, I was fascinated with languages. Then I, of course, took up English seriously and I was fascinated by how, I could understand other people talk and start to communicate with them. So that really motivated me to continue, and actually made the languages career that made me, tell my students that by learning the language, you are expanding your area of influence. Such as this conversation, for example, you know, I’m already expanding my opinions to a worldwide audience. And I think, that’s the best example of what I’m saying. Now, teaching literature is just the consequence of the other because, you know, when I started reading, I started living the experiences of those authors. And I found that, the imagination was a lot stronger than any other movie or ways of expression. So sharing literature with my students was another good, fascinating way to be connected with the written word.
Literature is great for that, isn’t it? I mean, when I look around at all the hatred and the rise of intolerance around the world, and you think, you know, this shouldn’t be happening. If people just engaged more with literature and realised, students particularly I think, what I love is showing them that people in the world, are on one hand, no different to them, they have the same issues, and they have the same, universal problems. But then on the other hand, their way of living is not the only way of living. Students who assume that, and we all do it I think, sometimes it’s assumed that everybody else has the same way of doing things that we have in our culture. And literature allows us to stretch that so much.
I would definitely agree with that.
Okay, Milton what would be the primary historical events that authors in Bolivia have responded to?
Well, now that we’re getting into subject matter of this conversation, I think it will be fine if I mentioned those who introduced me to the world of literature. I have one of my first teachers and of course in school, right, and I also had the Miss Judith Rush, as my English literature teacher, one of the first ones who introduced me to this world. Later on, Miss Alice Thayer, for example, showed me a different way of looking at literature. And just lately, because of technology and everything and online courses, I was happy to learn from Dr. Martin Puchner and David Damrosch and some of the best work on World Literature. Putting all that into perspective, I would say that in Bolivia, a lot of the work that you will see, has to do with social situations, for example, we have in our history, a long period of Spanish conquest, for example. And so a lot of new authors there reacted to that to try to explain the situation in colonial Bolivia, for example, or South America, and try to give the other perspective, the other side of the situation there. Also, you know, we also responded to giving voice to women, for example, around the 1950s, because they were in many ways, fighting for expression. Right. I would say it’s a consistent job of trying to react to those elements that are conflict, basically, and show the rest of the world how we feel in regards to those historic movements.
Just slipping this in here. Because that idea of colonisation is what’s behind this podcast, in a sense. And for us, it was in Australia and India, or in many of those countries that were colonisation by the British. But of course, the French and the Spanish, also colonised. And not all colonisation is the same.
Absolutely. And you know what strikes me the most about that, about the process of colonisation, more than the physical occupation of, let’s say, our territories. It’s also the way of thinking, the way of addressing education, for example. Something that is totally alien, let’s say for that population, and then having them fit into their way of educating people. I have to confess that before, you know, the conquest, obviously, we were a lot behind. But you know, with the new education system, we have to accept that, yeah, we grew in that area. But we also grew in areas where we were not probably ready to accept or, you know, prepared to accept, like, for example, having the whole curriculum imposed in Bolivian schools, for example. It’s been a long, long time after that, that Bolivia is starting to react to that process.
Yeah, we have had the recent educative reform, that brings back some of the values that we used to have in terms of education, and, you know, with ups and downs, we have been trying to implement that.
Okay. Still on that note, how big a role has religion played through colonization and such in Bolivia? The reason I ask of course, is that Australia was one of the first countries to actually be settled with no state religion, of the Western culture. The British would have liked to have imposed Anglicanism, but it was a bit hard given that the vast majority of the convicts they sent to Australia were actually Irish Catholics, because they had a far greater ease of being arrested by the British. The Spanish and French were strong Catholic nations. It has that had a strong effect on the development and growth of Bolivia.
Absolutely. Soon after the armies, let’s say The Catholic religion followed. And of course, they made sure that everywhere the army went, they would settle, you know, for example, a church and outposts everywhere they went. At least in my country, we can talk about two different ways of doing things. For example, on the west of Bolivia, we have a very violent occupation. The army came in first, and the Catholic Church was an element of indoctrination, I would say. On the west, however, there was a different branch of the Catholic Church that went and have more than an invasion, let’s say, a blending of cultures. So I have lived in both areas in my country, and I could see a very distinct difference in in the ways that the Catholic Church plays a central role in education and in religious belief.
We, obviously in the West, we know about Argentina, we know about some of the Latin American writers. But it’s possible that for most of us, we are not necessarily up to date with the variations between countries in Latin America. So the things that you have talked about in how they’ve developed in Bolivia? Was the process the results different, perhaps in other Latin American countries? Or was there? Is there a similarity of worldview?
Okay, I would say that countries in the western part of South America have very similar timeline, it was precisely that route to that Spanish took, you know, conquering territories, from the north, all the way to the south. And, you know, countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, even Bolivia, share a very similar history, let’s say, Argentina, on the other hand, had a different occupation. Because Argentina, for example, received a lot of Italian immigrants in their territory. So countries like Argentina and Uruguay have that, you know, different influence, let’s say, Brazil, of course, has, you know, received the occupation of Portuguese who, of course, were competing for the new territories in the new world. And so those are probably the two or three areas I would divide this continent. Chile have a different influence, mostly British, let’s say. And so they carried on a different way of occupation. Because Chile is in a way isolated by the the Andes Mountains, right. So,
It was a totally different way of, of conquest in that area.
Okay. So that’s interesting, because I met a number of people who live in Australia, now, Australia, who are from Chile, and I hadn’t actually made the connection between the colonial power was, and what might lead them to come to a country like Australia. There’s so many countries in Latin America, in South America, given its size, so I have made the mistake, and I’m probably not the only one of them not thinking too closely about the different roads that those country,Bolivar paths those countries went through, depending on who the colonising power was.
Still, Chile adopted Spanish as its official language, let’s say the influence that the British had was basically support of armies, etc. But in general, you can divide the South American continent into Spanish speaking countries, and Brazil, that the only country that speaks Portuguese and of course, north of Brazil, small territories like Guyana, that speak French and, you know, or English.
Third, we expect that Chile deciding to speak Spanish in line with the other countries in its region makes a lot more sense.
And something that makes most of our countries similar in many ways, is the life of Simon Bolivar. Bolivar was the Liberator of five of those nations and that basically unifies the destinies of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia that took up after his name? So those five countries have a very similar history in terms of liberation even, Bolivar had a very big dream of having a big Columbia, okay. But he didn’t realise that our people are very attached to their own territory. And we love to be isolated from the rest, let’s say. So we were very divided in times when Bolivar, liberating the large territory, but the people were not ready for a common history. So he was forced to give up the idea. He died, of course, very early in his life, exhausted after so many campaigns and with the dream in his head, but not being able to unify as much as he wanted to.
That’s interesting, I recognise the name, but probably hadn’t paid enough attention to his what he was trying to do. So you’ve spoken quite a bit about historical context? Are there elements of Bolivian, Latin American cultural context, that are really vital for students to understand, before they can really engage with the literature from those countries?
Oh, sure. As I mentioned, you know, the conquest brought up a very interesting combination, let’s say of what was the white people and the indigenous people, this Mestizo developed a very interesting set of values itself. So, there was a moment in the colony where we had very distinct, you know, stages, like, you were either an indigenous person or a Mestizo, or, you know, white, and the differences were very, quite cut. But now, as time went by, you know, those differences are subtle, but all in general, I could tell you that the Latin American people is polychronic. Okay. There, there are lots of things going on always around us. So we like to be doing many things at the same time. And that’s something that, you know, translates into the literature. For example, you will understand why Latin American authors sometimes digress from the central story, let’s say One of the authors in American literature that took after this was Ernest Hemingway, for example. He lived in Mexico for a long time.
And he and he also went to Cuba. Yeah, that’s right.
He, you know, living in different places. And, you know, he understood that in Latin American context, and he incorporated that in his own writing. Because he said, ‘Hey, this is a very new way of looking at the world’. And if I, you know, incorporate that in my writing, clearly, I will be exploring a different area. And so he did, and that’s something that I would recommend students to, understand that Latin Americans are polychronic, they like to do things sometimes parallel, and explains why some of our texts, digress from a central topic. Another characteristic of the Latin American in general is we’re spontaneous, we usually don’t make long term plans, right? We would like to take things as they come. Probably because of the long time of, you know, fight that we have you you never knew what tomorrow will be like. So we learn to live day by day, let’s say. And that’s also important because, you know, that brings newness to our life. It’s not like we plan things too much, we accept any kind of new element. And we try to live around that, right. So we incorporate a lot of spontaneous thoughts and, and it’s also translated into our literature. Because, you know, many people will probably find that the new chapters in any story, bring totally new elements to the to the story and you know, it’s, we have become less predictive, let’s say in our in our writing. Also, we don’t encase in some patterns like for example, you know, when you write the story, you have to arrive, at a climax and then from the climax, you know, you finish the story. In some of our stories, you know, don’t follow that same pattern. And so, reading, Latin American book will always bring surprises along, you know, and that’s, I guess what makes our literature interesting, not so predictive, and a brings newness to the general context of World Literature, I was also going to mention the colourfulness of our culture in general, you know, you can definitely see a lot of colour in everything we do, like even from our clothing. And that invites very colourful characters to our stories. We try to identify these characters in terms of territory, for example, we clearly define where they are from, by the way they speak, or the way they express themselves, or the way they do things. And so you will expect, you know, tons of very colourful, very fun characters to read about. And, of course, despite all the, you know, the story of women’s liberation and growth, we still have a very manly oriented society, that translates into the work of our writers. We still have, you know, very strong influence of male oriented thoughts. And, you know, I think it’s gonna take still a little while to, you know, change all that. But all in all, I think we were in a process and, you know, that’s more or less what I can contribute to the characteristics of Latin American literature that any students should know about.
Okay, so you’ve worked both in South America and in the United States? Is there a difference? or what is the difference perhaps in the way these cultures view the world?
Oh, very, very different. Of course. In order to understand this, I would like to rescue something that I learned when I was in the United States precisely having a literature course, in Vermont, with Dr. Alice Thayer, she introduced us to a map of culture. The publication was a little old, we could say, but you know, I have been, you know, searching for different ways of doing things. And I’ve seen that mostly new authors have just continued the work of Edward Twitchell Hall, he wrote a book about, you know, the silent language that all cultures have. And in that book, he, he shows a map of 10 by 10, things that we should look for, whenever we go into a different culture, I would recommend that to anybody who travels. And, well, of course, it needs a little updating. but, most of the things that you see there are really, really interesting. It invites everybody to pay attention to, you know, where people do things, for example, where they eat, how they have fun, where do they study? Where do they work, etc etc. So that is something that I use a lot, even in teaching any literature. Because, you know, in order to understand a book that comes from another country, it helps a lot, if you use that map of culture, to identify everything that is going around, even the characters, you can spot the characters on the right places, you know, and you understand them a lot better. It helped me a lot, and I think it could contribute. So in general, what I guess I’m trying to say is that we should stay away from the book report, right? Like, what does the title mean? or how can you identify this character or not? It’s all a matter of appreciation, all a matter of, of observation, let’s say, of the new cultures depicted in the book. So it’s very different to you know, for example, teach in America and teaching my country to different views of the world. It’s very different for these kids, for example, in America to view themselves as in need of learning other languages, for example, or about the literature of the world. They say, why should we because you know, it’s our country that exports all this and you know, there’s no need for us to really study other other literature or other cultures. So, it’s a very interesting process that goes on in their heads, the opposite occurs in Latin America Our kids are hungry for that knowledge that will probably help them in many ways transcend or leave the context, they are living and explore other worlds. So it’s a very different approach to living.
That one is interesting. And there’s probably several red herrings we could chase down there. But that would take us away from what we’re talking about today. So I think we’ll just leave that alone. The next question I’d like to ask you is about the the value systems that sit behind Bolivian or Latin American literature.
Okay. Well, I think I mentioned that my country has undergone a very interesting educative reform. Right, then, thanks to that process, we have unearthed, let’s say, a very interesting set of values that I think simplifies a lot of the things we have. In the colonial times we were indoctrinated to, for example, 10 commandments, right? Through religion. Our own set of values included only three concepts. For example, one of those said in Quechua, which is the native language there, don’t steal, right? For example, if it’s not yours, don’t even touch it. That was the bottom line. Another another one was, don’t tell lies, okay. Again, the truth all the time. And there was still another concept that said, don’t be lazy. So those were the only three set of values that our ancestors have, and they lived, by. So little by little, we’re trying to implement them in our daily lives. And you know, with those three elements, we sort of cover most of the 10 commandments, if you allow me or, you know, any other kind of values that people may see. So those would be probably the values that we can recover from what used to be the Inca empire that spanned from the south in Ecuador down to northern Chile, that would cover a lot of territory. Well, that’s, that’s something that we’re rescuing. And we’re trying to implement.
When I look at Latin American culture I, I use maybe I assume, or I notice that there is a, an importance placed on the idea of family. Is that accurate?
That’s right. Our family, for example, is what we can consider the extended family, there is a very, very strong set of ties that unites all of us. And so the Latin American family definitely is, you know, bigger, we talk about second cousins, etc, etc. All of them are welcome in our family reunions. And not only that, but you know, very strong set of values with the family itself, like family comes first. The concept of the mother being central in the family is also very important. You know, a lot of people have even gone to extremes when it comes to defend the family possessions and name even right, the family name is so so important. Yeah, that would be yet another way of describing Latin America in general,
When we read literature, I had an experience teaching a text in the Middle East. It was one of those horrible tests that, you know, we set for language students, for English language students, we give them a piece of content out of context, and then they have to answer questions. If anything’s going to kill your desire to read, that’s going to be it. But this particular piece had some signifiers in it, that were tied to the winter in Canada. And it was actually the beginning of my exploration of this idea of cultural context and signifiers. Are there things that if you were to think off the top of your head, signifiers, or things that are in Bolivian literature that are encoded, so they’re not specifically talked about, but they’re encoded in the speakers or the characters. One of them I think, I mean, that idea of always being honest.
Okay, yeah, you’re right. I would say that we like to have a lot of our characters show struggle in general. Okay, so whether the story is about, I don’t know, a single mother trying to raise the kids or an underpaid worker who’s trying to struggle and support a family. You know, people trying to survive this difficult times. Latin American economies have always been a challenge for everybody, right. So, we are talking about, you know, our characters really being people who struggle through life, we are also fond of social drama. We try to see how this central character, for example, goes around socially fighting little fights every day and trying to, you know, live a happy life, happiness, that is always one step ahead of us sometimes. And so it’s our constant will to try to, you know, get better, look for better times. Sometimes our stories end in a happy ending, but many times, they don’t, right. And that’s opening a new way of ending stories, not all the time, will you have happy endings, many times, you know, the story ends in a very dramatic way, too. So I would say those are some of the things that you can read in characters in our literature,
Is there a genre of literature that is most suited to the Bolivian experience. The reason I asked, I was talking to Gwee Sui Li from Singapore, he was talking about the idea that for a long time, poetry was sort of the major genre of writing, because people in Singapore were so busy in building nation, that they didn’t have the sort of time that was needed to spend on writing a longer text or reading longer texts. So poetry satisfied a very pragmatic need.
I would agree with that. Even in high school, okay. Our students really go to literature class, sometimes with heavy weight, you know, on their shoulders and saying, Oh, no, right, we need to read, we read about things that we don’t we cannot even pronounce. You know, what I mean? So, many times, you know, I tell my students to write short poems, and, you know, feel, you know, like, for example, we did the Haiku this week. And I told them (my students) to connect with nature, feel and express, and they were so thrilled about that. I would totally agree with those societies, our children, for example, now, lack the patience, I would say, and probably the stamina to, take a long book to read or to write. So poetry is a very nice element, also, short story. I’ve found that kids can handle short story pretty well. And drama. I mean, drama is interesting, because, you know, acting out some of those plays, you know, really encourages them to tackle literature in that way. Bolivia, and all South America is very rich in folk tales, legends, I would even say mythology, we have a lot of things to offer. And so those would be some of the areas that we can explore in South America even further. Now. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this. But Latin America sort of created a new genre called the magical realism. It’s something which we blend those legendary stories with the reality right? So it’s a very interesting way of looking at the world. Yeah,
My business partner loves magic realism. I haven’t managed to get my head around it yet.
I recommend that
I just wondering when you were talking about that, when you spoke earlier about the spontaneity of people in Latin America, that would also lend itself to the idea of poetry and short stories, which are quicker to produce and to consume. They seem to in my mind make sense, would that be correct?
I think so. I think so. Like I said, a newer generations now want something simpler, faster, right, the internet contributed to that. Those are some of the genres that are catching on. Writing something longer will mean, you know, a lot of time investment and possibly, like I said, stamina to read longer. And it has to be something really, really exciting. Like, for example, the Harry Potter saga, I’ve watched my two children, you know, going over that tackling very big books, but there has to be a story as exciting as that one, to keep kids reading.
that idea of the internet, I find that sometimes it’s a tricky one. Because what we’re doing with this podcast, where we can get people from across the world to be able to speak to their literature, we couldn’t have done this without the internet. This wasn’t possible for us, when we started teaching. There’s this sort of tension between the downside of it, but then the opportunities that it gives us for joining with people in different places.
Yeah, something that has worked for me, for example, in literature classes is not having my students read the whole work, sometimes, it’s something I learned, as I was a student, and teachers brought excerpts of stories, and of course, assign the book for extensive reading, let’s say, for pleasure. If you really, enjoy that first sample, you could go ahead. I would go with that, you know, pick up a chapter maybe, or a really important part of the book and give it to the kids and see if they get hooked on the story to check out the book in the from the library or read it on online. But, you know, give them the chance to choose what they want to read, find their way through literature.
I know that one is really good. I mean, I have been arguing for a while, why do we need to have one text for all the students to read? It doesn’t make any sense. We now have the facility, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be some choice. But the idea of actually giving them, it’s like a movie trailer really, isn’t it? Here is a part of the book and see what questions that arise for them that they then want to go and explore around. Oh, I really like that idea.
Yeah. Also, we sometimes picked up, let’s say, central book, a novel, for example, but we ran in episodes. So we kept our kids always, you know, wanting the next one, let’s say. All through the course, we will do similar things, like for example, short stories, or poetry or a little bit of drama, let’s say, and we kept them exploring different genres, but always spacing out the longer productions into I don’t know, daily or weekly chapters. Or combining them with movies sometimes. So they would have a sample of both that way they could even compare, which is better, right? The movie or the book, I get that all the time.
Yeah, One of the things that used to surprise me, there were two that we worked with one was ’12 Angry Men’ the drama, there was a version of it made in the 60s, I think. And then there was a new version made in the 80s. And we would read the play, we wouldn’t read the play, I’d have them up acting out the play. And then once they read the play, we would show them the two different versions. And what I always found interesting was that my students without fail, preferred the old black and white version, to the modern version. That was done in the 80s.
That’s interesting. And you know, it’s liberating, for example, to think about literature that way. Some of those stories are so interesting, even for, you know, young minds, you know, Shakespeare, for example, was excellent, in that it’s only the way the books are crafted. The language that is so dense, let’s say, that exhausts our kids a little bit, but they can, you know, pass through that and see the core of the story. They’re fascinating, right? Epic stories like the Iliad, the Odyssey, for example. They have to be, you know, somehow things that kids love. You know, it’s only the way we, we approach literature, like, you know, the book report, study to the test and all those elements that sometimes cloud the real story, and that’s what we need to rescue in our teaching class,
I’d suggest they always cloud the real story, the whole idea of having to have something that you need to assess, particularly by some sort of standardised method? To me just seems bizarre. Okay, so we have taken a lot of your time which I have loved and I’m grateful for for it. Could I ask, in wrapping up, if you had to choose three texts. Now that could be poem, a play a piece of prose, whatever, three pieces that sort of define your cultures. Texts that if somebody, for instance, myself, picked it up and read it, it would put a light into my understanding of Bolivian culture?
Well. That is one of the most difficult questions you have asked me. There’s so many books I could have mentioned. And I know that whoever is listening, this will always tell me later, why didn’t you mention this or that author? Right, but I think you want three of the ones that tilted, let’s say, the Bolivian literary atmosphere. Maybe I could start with ladies first let’s say, ‘Adela Zamudio’ writes wonderful poetry? Or, well wrote, she was one of the first feminists in Bolivia who gave voice to the feminine authors. And, in fact, we celebrate Women’s Day on her birthday. Okay, October 11. For example, many women don’t know this. No, I didn’t know that. But well, in my country, we celebrate Bolivian Women’s Day on October 11, thanks to Adela Zamudio’s work. She was not only an author, she was an educator, and she advocated the women’s liberation, let’s say from all that oppression. That would be one of my first choice. Another author, who is going through for the classics, I would probably choose ‘Alcides Argueda’ He wrote a book called ‘Raza de bronce’, which means bronze roots, let’s say. And in that book, he really portrays the difference between the indigenous people, the Mestizo, and the white people of the of that time. And that gives you a very strong, you know, insight into the different social classes that exist in Bolivia, even to this day. He talks about the social differences and how people navigate those social differences in everyday life. You know, another person I would probably mentioned is Oscar Alfaro. He wrote anything from children’s books all the way to short stories and novels. And he represents the south and territory of Bolivia. More recently, for example, there is this author who became famous ‘Juan de Recacoechea’, he wrote a book called ‘American Visa’, there is a movie about that, too. It basically talks about the length that, many Latin American people, of course, Bolivian people with the goal to get one of those visas and look for better options and horizons in the world. Right. So lots of Latin American even go to Australia with the same purpose, you know, looking for better ways of making a living. That will help understand what drives a Bolivian to leave the country and to go and pursue different life. And, of course, you know, I couldn’t stop this conversation without mentioning Edmundo Paz Soldán. He was a writer and, you know, he took his writing into becoming a professor at Cornell University, for example, in New York State, he would probably be the contemporary author that has gone the farthest in exporting Bolivian literature to the world. His work has been translated to English and I think it’s sort of going the other way around, right from Bolivia to the rest of the world.
That Awesome, thank you. Some more reading for us to do. One of the things that I’ve discovered in doing these interviews is that I now have a longer list of places I want to visit. And I have a whole new pile of books I want to read. So that’s going to be fun. Milton, thank you so much for your time. It has been wonderful, so much to learn and so much help now for, for teachers when they’re engaging with texts from Latin America and specifically from Bolivia.
Well, the pleasure has been all mine. Thank you for having me. Of course, I’m also dedicating this interview to my own family, my wife, and my two children Giselle and Kelly. In general, as we spoke to all my family who has always supported me and proved to me that I could reach out and I could go as far as I wanted to go,
That is a wonderful place to to finish, just to let the listeners know that I will follow up with you to get the correct spellings, titles of books and such and include them with the show notes when this episode goes live. Thank you very much.
For more information about our organisation you can visit us at we teach wowt.com and if you have any questions or would like to send some suggestions of literature you’d like to know more about, then email us at support at we teach well.com We hope you are enjoying this podcast and please, if you are, make sure to like it, share it with your friends, and subscribe to our mailing list so that you can stay up to date with all of our latest news initiatives and upcoming episodes.