The Mexican city of Guanajuato is surely one of the more dramatic settings for a Waldorf school. This mile-high regional capital of 140,000 people, five hours by car north of Mexico City, was founded in the mid-sixteenth century and built with the vast wealth from its mines, which for three centuries produced a third of the world’s silver. In 1988 Guanajuato was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city’s picturesque colonial center, steep winding streets and tunnels, university of 30,000 students, crafts, traditions, and yearly international arts festival offer Waldorf students, teachers, and families an inspiring physical and cultural setting.
from: Renewal, A Journal for Waldorf Education, 2/2007.
Each weekday morning, students arrive at the gates of Colegio Yeccan Waldorf from all directions and by various modes of transport - by car, by taxi, by way of the funicular cable car running up the steep hillside from the old center, and on foot, through the subterranean tunnels that honeycomb the city. The present campus, set on a hillside above the city with a wide view of the surrounding mountains, has recently been expanded to include a new annex across the street. This provides more classrooms for the school’s 107 students and seventeen teachers, fifteen of whom are full-time.
The student population tends to be drawn from the children of teachers and professors, government workers, professionals, tradespeople, and those involved in the lively Guanajuato arts world who are seeking an alternative to Mexico’s traditional, highly codified public education system. The curriculum is in Spanish, but English and German are taught by bilingual teachers and by guest teachers from Germany who spend a year at Colegio Yeccan as an alternative to military service. Each year, a small percentage of the students come from foreign families, or families in which one parent is of non-Mexican origin. This gives a distinct multicultural flavor to the classes, which until recently ran from preschool through the sixth grade. Hard work by teachers and parents has convinced the authorities that the school can support a high school, which in Mexico includes grades seven, eight, and nine. The school now has a seventh- and a ninth-grade class.
Colegio (meaning “school”) Yeccan (a Nahuatl word meaning “place of good living”) Waldorf was begun in September of 1994 by five concerned professional women and mothers who, in the words of cofounder Gabriela Sánchez Rodríguez, were “interested in an education that used all the human faculties.” It began with thirty-five students and for ten years functioned under the name Villa Educare de Guanajuato. The school eventually changed its name when, in the words of Señora Sanchez, “we came to identify more fully with the Waldorf pedagogy that had refigured our early expectations, and now has grown to interest many other parents who wish to offer a true gift to their children: an education with heart.”
Autumn is an especially festive time of year throughout Mexico, and nowhere more than in Guanajuato, providing an opportunity to bring many different events and cultures into play at Colegio Yeccan. In this city that, in the words of a recent state governor, “breathes culture,” the fall season begins with the International Cervantino Festival, a three-week October gathering of music, drama, and dance from all over the world. Streets, plazas, churches, and auditoriums become a living theater, providing the Waldorf community with a chance to observe and participate in Latin America’s biggest arts festival. Meanwhile students, teachers, and parents celebrate the Festival de la Cosecha (Harvest Festival) in an outdoor amphitheater in the nearby Santa Rosa Mountains with a Waldorf-style Michaelmas dragon play and a potluck picnic.
During Mexico’s vivid Day of the Dead observations, on November 1st and 2nd, traditional handmade alebrijes, little sugar figurines, are sold by artisans in the plazas throughout the city. Meanwhile up on the Colegio Yeccan campus, students delve into this ancient cultural tradition by constructing beautiful altars to the departed, with crafted objects and cempasuchil (marigold flowers), and by preparing a cajeta (sweet jam) spread made of camote (sweet potato), guava, canela (sweet cinnamon), walnuts, and sugar. At the same time, Halloween is celebrated with pumpkins, apple-dunking, orange and black decorations, and songs and recitations in English - “Double, double toil and trouble,” from Macbeth.
“There is actually a north-south relationship lurking in there with Halloween,” explains teacher Michelle Marin. “The origins of All Hallows' Eve trick-or-treating arise from the need to cleanse the Earth’s atmosphere of evil spirits by scaring them, so that on All Saints' and then All Souls' Days, November 1st and 2nd, only the good spirits may enter. Many cultures sense a thinning of the veil that hangs between ours and the spiritual world at this time of year. With all of this in mind, the trick-or-treaters prepare the way for our muertos (the dead) who come to party safely among us.”
In the second week of November, Colegio Yeccan celebrates another Waldorf favorite, the Festival de los Faroles (Lantern Day) with a puppet show accompanied by lyre and recorder music and by candles, paper lanterns, songs, and games. Later in the month, taking advantage of the bilingual and bicultural faculty, the school community celebrates Thanksgiving with a turkey dinner. The year culminates with traditional Christmas posadas (processions), piñatas (candy-filled paper toys), and pastorelas (Nativity dramas).
Michelle Marin’s fifth-grade classroom is a bright, airy space beneath a curved boveda (hand-built brick) ceiling. Wide windows and a balcony afford a spectacular view of nearby La Bufa, Guanajuato’s most prominent mountain peak. Inside the room, by clear morning light, plants, shells, baskets, balls, books, paint brushes, and musical instruments mirror her students’ rich investigation of the world around them and the world within. In this well-ordered but relaxed ambience, a dozen fifth-grade students, alert and engaged, move through the steady rhythms of their school day.
Michelle Marin is a warm, striking woman whose presence invokes natural respect. A self-described “back-to-the-lander looking for alternatives for my children,” she began as a Waldorf teacher in the late 1970s at Colorado’s Lamborn Valley Waldorf School (no longer in existence), studying and learning as she went. From there she moved to Ukiah, California, where she taught at the Waldorf School of Mendocino County for fourteen years. Eight years ago, Michelle came to Mexico on a six-month sabbatical. “I didn’t know there was a Waldorf school here,” she says. Of Mexican heritage and fluent in Spanish, she was asked to help teach until the end of the year. Michelle ended up staying on to teach English, later becoming a class teacher. “I started with this class in first grade,” Michelle says. “I’ll go through sixth grade with them.” Her daughter, Joaquina, also teaches at Colegio Yeccan.
Colegio Yeccan is one of five Waldorf schools with grades in Mexico and, as a developing school, is an active member of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. As Mexico’s delegate to AWSNA, Michelle Marin is well qualified to speak of both the pleasures and the challenges of teaching at Colegio Yeccan and in Mexico in general.
Problems and challenges
“Waldorf teacher training in Mexico is relatively new. There is only one training center for the whole country, in Cuernavaca - a three-week summer course, now in its sixth year. In the States, of course, it’s different; there are many opportunities for training. So we don’t yet have more than one or two fully trained teachers, though all are in training, going to the summer sessions. If the teacher agrees to return to the school, half of the training costs are paid through AWSNA’s program.”
But finding and keeping Waldorf-trained teachers isn’t always easy. Though Guanajuato is a relatively prosperous city, Mexico is not a wealthy country and salaries are low. “We can’t charge high tuition,” Michelle says, “so we can’t pay teachers enough. Many leave after a couple of years.”
Funding at Colegio Yeccan remains a constant challenge. “We have a teachers’ store and we sell things to support teacher training. The Christmas fair raises money. We sell baked goods and books and sponsor benefit concerts. If we’re still short, parents help financially with teacher training. But fundraising is more ingrained in the North American culture. Here, people tend to think: ‘If you can afford to send your children to a private school, why work also to raise money?’”
Tuition charges, while not high by U.S. standards, limit those who can attend. “We do offer scholarships to parents who can’t pay,” says Michelle, “and we ask them to do other things. We ask them to disclose their income and we offer them discounts. And teachers get full tuition remission for their children, so their own children can be educated here.”
Mexican city, state, and government institutions allow independent schools to operate but are not always supportive. Early in the school’s existence, the city helped fund teacher training in return for the school giving local children free workshops in dollmaking, painting, and candle-making, but that has not happened since. And there are official restrictions on the curriculum: “For a long time we were allowed to go only as high as the sixth grade,” says Michelle. “And there’s lots of bureaucracy. They give us required textbooks and send supervisors to check up on us.”
Still, the spirited ambience in classrooms, on the playground, and at the many school events throughout the year, along with a surge of new children swelling the preschool ranks suggest a healthy future for Colegio Yeccan Waldorf. In the summer of 2006, Guanajuato hosted one of the international Kolisko Conferences held that year. These conferences focus on the healing element in education and bring together Waldorf teachers, anthroposophically oriented physicians, and therapists (in music, eurythmy, and the Extra Lesson). The 2006 gathering in Guanajuato brought many Waldorf and anthroposophical visitors from abroad to this Mexican highlands city.
“Parents who value beauty and aesthetics are drawn to Guanajuato,” Michelle says. “By comparison with the States, kids don’t wake up to the hardships of the world as early here - middle-class kids. Innocence lasts longer. And Mexico itself is slower-paced. I’m more relaxed here, and it helps me give more easily.”
At the end of the school day, students leave Colegio Yeccan for homes down in the city center or in the surrounding hillside communities where old mines and churches still stand - continuing the educational conversation between this exceptional city and the school on the hill.