“Writing is a struggle against silence,” the Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes once declared. As today’s weekly shows, to tell your story is to cut a stark path through isolated silence towards collective hope.
In Tampico, Mexico, Maru Castañeda is helping turn empathy into action at American School of Tampico (ATS). Last November, Maru took the story exchange into the community. She visited Secundaria General No. 6 Ignacio Ramirez, one of the poorest schools in Tampico, to run an exchange for ninety students in the ninth grade. She was overwhelmed by the students’ stories, many of which had never been shared, and felt grateful to have shown the students that they are not alone. We talked to Maru about the exchange and her plans to expand her community outreach, both in other public schools and with ATS.
Tell us why what drew you to work with this public school for the first exchange outside of ATS?
I chose this school because it is in the northernmost part of the city, so it is further out, and it is where students face many social problems like drugs, kidnappings, and family problems. A friend who works there contacted me about the problems faced by youth. Hearing their stories, I felt they needed to tell the stories they held inside. Often, they felt they are the only ones facing their problems.
What preparation did you and the students do before the exchange?
They prepared some activities during the weeks before the story exchange. I shared videos with them so they could see what empathy was, and I told them about Narrative 4. They saw that what they experienced was not limited to this city, but experienced all over the world. We read some stories about empathy.
Last summer, you told us a little bit about the violence experienced in your community. Is that why you organized the exchange around student experiences with violence?
Yes, sadly, violence still exists in my city and my country today. In Monterrey, a city four hours from Tampico, there was a school shooting by a twelve-year-old boy in which he killed his teacher, several of his classmates, and committed suicide. This was devastating to all of us living in Tampico and made me feel that Narrative 4 needs to expand throughout the world and obviously in Mexico.
Knowing that the students at Secundaria General No. 6 Ignacio Ramirez experience violence daily led me to run my first public school story exchange there. In two weeks, I will run another public school exchange, this time in an elementary school for second-grade students who also live in an environment of violence.
What surprised you about the exchange? How was this exchange different?
I was surprised at how the exchange allowed the boys to say what they had never been able to say before out of fear. That feeling was very strong. As they listened, they began to hug and embrace each other to show support, a physical display that their teachers told me was uncommon. I was sad to hear how young people only 14 and 15 years old already have such intense personal experiences of the disorder and troubles experienced by those who live in Tampico.
What was the response from students or instructors afterwards?
They’ve told me that many students felt their ideas on life changed positively, and they hope to participate in another story exchange.
You’ve mentioned you want to create a program to visit more public schools and be more active in the community. Can you tell us more about what you envision?
I’m beginning to compile Spanish materials for primary and secondary public schools in Mexico, where they don’t use English. I’m also contacting other schools for opportunities to introduce N4 into their classrooms. As I mentioned, in a few weeks, I’ll go to a primary school to run an exchange for second graders. A student from ATS will help me run the activities.
We have many ideas on how to grow empathy at ATS and in Tampico. In April, Empathy Week will be held at ATS, and one of the activities will be to bring ATS students to a low-income community where they will spend significant time and hold a story exchange. I’m just starting to plan this, and it’ll be great to involve not just the students but also the general community members of different ages.
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