Academic journal article Social Education

Conscientizacao: Latina Women, American Students, and Empowerment in the Social Studies Classroom. (Women of the World)

Academic journal article Social Education

Conscientizacao: Latina Women, American Students, and Empowerment in the Social Studies Classroom. (Women of the World)

Article excerpt

Personal testimonials-firsthand accounts by individuals who witnessed events with the "intent to produce (and record) social change" (1)--offer an extremely effective way of introducing students to women of other cultures. In this article, we explore the testimonials of four Latin American women who grew empowered through their fights for social change, despite "torture, imprisonment, social upheaval, and other struggles for survival." (2)

The experiences described by Benedita da Silva, Domitila Barrios de Chungara, Elvia Alvarado, and Rigoberta Menchu may appear unique on the surface: probably few students have battled the owners of a coal mine or of a banana cartel. Such autobiographical stories, describing a journey toward personal empowerment, however, can serve as a springboard for students' understanding of conditions and issues in Latin American countries. Indeed, Brazilian educational philosopher Paulo Freire has stated that conscientizacao, critical consciousness or the ability to "perceive social, political, and economic contradictions and take action against the oppressive elements of reality," begins with the development of personal empowerment. (3)

When students reflect on who they are, what people and events have most affected them, and how they will construct their future, they start to recognize their source of self-empowerment. Once they acknowledge their ability to change their own lives, they also appreciate their ability to change negative elements in society. The celebrated words of the spiritual "Amazing Grace" refer to a magic that seems to happen in some people's lives. "I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see." (4) We maintain that once a student is capable of critically reflecting upon her own life, that student is ready to construct her own "grace," or fate. Freire concurs, saying, "Reflection ... true reflection leads to action." (5)

The four testimonials of Latin American women discussed in this article can help dents recognize their course to conscientizacao, or critical consciousness. The omen featured in these coauthored autobiographies, Benedita da Silva, Domitila Barrios de Chungara, Elvia Alvarado, and Rigoberta Menchu, who fought for social justice within their communities and nationwide, became renowned political activists in their respective Central and South American countries. (6) Each woman describes the intense political, social, economic, and cultural oppression she faced before embarking on her path to self-empowerment and action in the broader community. An enduring message permeates these testimonials: by first developing a sense of personal empowerment, one can improve one's own life and the lives of others.

The objective of this project is twofold: first, to educate students about the victories against oppression of Latin American women, whose names are unfamiliar to many, and, second, to help students understand the processes by which these individuals attained personal empowerment and conscientizacao.

Just as the four women accomplished, students can gain a sense of empowerment when they critically reflect and begin to act because "the seat of their decisions [is] located in themselves and in their relations with the world and with others." (7) Dynamic activities that encourage students to investigate who they are and why open students' eyes to their personal, communitywide, and global world.

Vignettes About Each Woman

Benedita da Silva

Benedita da Silva grew up in a Brazilian/a vela (an extremely poor neighborhood), without adequate access to health care, education, and sanitation. As a child, Benedita faced discrimination because of her gender, color, and social class; but after learning to read and write, she realized the power of education and became determined to fight against the daily social injustices. Benedita ran for city office in 1982, and by 1994, she became the first black woman elected to the Senate of Brazil. …

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