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In Venezuela, Words Spread Far and Wide

A literacy program teaches Spanish, the nation's official language, in isolated indigenous villages.

June 13, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

ISLA PEDRO CAMEJO, Venezuela — In a thatch-roofed hut, two dozen barefoot adults and children, a few dogs and a monkey named Pepe cluster around the strange equipment that has arrived by canoe.

Behind the hut, which serves as the village schoolhouse, Alejandro Fernandez fires up a gas-powered generator with five or six pulls on the whipcord, then connects an extension cord to a television and VCR. The snowy display that signals no reception awes the indigenous Puinave assembly.

Teacher, handyman and rare link with the modern world, Fernandez pops in a cassette for the community's first Spanish-language instruction, which begins with a slogan from Cuban liberation hero Jose Marti: "To be cultured is to be free."

This remote island in the Orinoco River is one of the last and most isolated enclaves targeted in Venezuela's vaunted campaign against illiteracy, which in less than a year has taught 1.2 million people, from the slums and the jungles, to read and write in the national language.

By the program's end, the 36 families on Pedro Camejo should have mastered at least sixth-grade Spanish, augmenting their native Puinave and Curripaco languages, which have no written form and are little understood beyond the swift, muddy waters that surround their island.

Until Mission Robinson, the education drive that the government claims will virtually eradicate illiteracy nationwide by the end of June, many indigenous communities were deprived of more than knowledge. Ignorant of Spanish, the tongue of the conquistadors and Venezuela's only official language, residents in Pedro Camejo, for example, could rarely ask for social assistance or healthcare when they made their way to the nearest city, Puerto Ayacucho, a two-hour drive or three-day walk beyond the mainland canoe landing.

Despite decades of disenfranchisement in a country where neither broadcasts nor ballots have been offered in anything but Spanish, many here in the crude outback of Amazonas state, Venezuela's poorest, have yet to be persuaded that learning to read and write in another language will change their lives for the better.

On the day Fernandez inaugurated the Cuban-made video instruction program, the village elder snubbed the event, choosing instead to go fishing. A woman on the far side of the island, whose three oldest daughters have married and moved to the mainland, refused to let her 14-year-old make the trek to the makeshift schoolhouse. She was afraid the girl might follow in her sisters' footsteps.

"There are two other women on the island who don't come to class because they say an old parrot doesn't learn to talk," says Fernandez, a mestizo settler who earns about $80 a month shuttling between here and Puerto Ayacucho to bring in supplies and oversee the classes.

Still, most villagers are eagerly grasping the lifeline to the outside world, even if they can rarely articulate what they expect from a midlife education.

"I want to understand more," says Maria Rodriguez, whose son, Daniel, 18 months, clings to her calf as she uses a freshly sharpened pencil to trace letters in a notebook.

Her brow furrows when she is asked whether she wants to learn Spanish to move away from here, get a job, or communicate with other Venezuelans when visiting the mainland to sell fish or go to market. A nod comes only with the suggestion that Spanish might help her get medical attention for her son if he falls ill. The island has no clinic or doctor, only an elderly woman whose herbal remedies are no match for epidemics of malaria and dengue fever.

For Emilio Diaz, a 43-year-old father of four who has traveled often to Puerto Ayacucho as well as to the Colombian side of the river, which serves as one stretch of the border between the countries, learning to read and write in Spanish is an inescapable parental obligation.

"It won't change my life day to day, but I want to know it anyway. It will help us understand the political life of the country. It will give my children better chances. I have seen the Internet and I want them to know it too, to have access to all the world's information," says the fisherman, who speaks of his own life as if it were almost over.

Unlike most of Venezuela's indigenous peoples, the villagers have some command of spoken Spanish. The Puinave share the island with a smaller enclave of Curripacos, who speak their own impenetrable language, compelling both tribes to maintain a grasp on Spanish to communicate with each other.

Government officials acknowledge that there is resistance among some indigenous groups to assimilation in the country of 24 million. Members of the Yanomami tribe, farther south and deeper into the jungle, have greeted the linguistic missionaries with fusillades of spears and rocks, says Pedro Aputo, deputy director of education in Amazonas state.

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