Javier Suarez: To teach is to know!

Javier Suárez Trejo studied Hispanic American Literature and Philosophy in Peru. He holds a Ph.D. in Italian and Hispanic American Languages and Literature from Harvard University. He has received the National Youth Award from the Ministry of Education of Peru for the project Poetic Pedagogies. Currently, he is Professor of Cultural Industries at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. His email: jtsuarez@pucp.edu.pe

Web: https://harvard.academia.edu/JavierSuarez

Videoblog: https://www.facebook.com/lavaperu/videos/.

Read Spanish version here.

To teach is to know!
Latin America through its teachers/educators!
By Javier Suarez

Why did I study Latin American literature? I could say that one of the reasons was that I was born in Latin America, specifically, in Peru. However, saying this doesn't make things much clearer. I could also say it was because Spanish is my mother tongue. Ever since I was a kid, I've been attracted to languages and, moreover, to teaching. I remember that I enjoyed teaching languages to my parents, and although my pedagogical techniques were not very good (because they used to fall asleep probably due to tiredness after work), I never stopped doing it. If you asked me why I was doing it, I wouldn't know what to answer; I just know I liked it.

Máscaras y poesía de cordel. Taller para estudiantes de educación (Ayacucho, Perú 2015).

Back in 2006, when I began my university studies, I found myself focusing on what would be the two passions that have marked my life, namely poetry and pedagogy, or, more generally, the arts and the humanities. In Peru, keeping these passions alive is no easy task: poetry is the most forgotten genre, because reading it is considered difficult or even useless; in the area of pedagogy, our education system has serious institutional problems. Sometimes, I think that, if I had lived in a non-existent ideal country, I would have been a monk fascinated by the mysteries that forgotten manuscripts bring to the diligent researcher. However, I was born in Peru, and I have always thought that such a fortuitous event demands responsibility from me in the face of my country's problems.

The situation of poetry and pedagogy in Peru made me aware of how urgent it is to activate and connect arts and humanities in order to transform my reality. I wonder again, then, why did I study Hispanic-American literature? Because my greatest passion has always been to share the poetry and pedagogy of Latin America.

Pre-Texts. Workshop for teachers with Doris Sommer (Arequipa, Peru 2015).

I remember that when I studied literature in Peru, foreign authors (French and American, especially) were widely read; however, that was not the case with Peruvian ones. Maybe it was a matter of fashion, of taste. Gradually, I started to do some research on the poetic and pedagogical tradition of Peru and realized that there were a large number of Peruvian authors who very few people knew or that (for some reason that I have been trying to understand) we had forgotten. Latin America has a rich tradition of educators for whom art in general and poetry in particular were of vital importance for the transformation of the country. Realizing this, my passions started to take the form of a mission.

Likewise, the poetic tradition in Latin America is vast: the poetic avant-gardes that detonated in the first half of the 20th century have offered us works that have always amazed me by their formal quality, their thematic depth, their ethical and aesthetic scopes. Suffice it to mention three Peruvian poets: César Vallejo, Jorge Eduardo Eielson, Blanca Varela. In the case of educators, there are many who are forgotten. I would like to mention two of them: José Antonio Encinas, who recognized the importance of creative work for learning, and Antenor Orrego who, in his works, expounded what we might call an aesthetic pedagogy, and whom César Vallejo (perhaps the most important Latin American poet of the avant-garde period) recognizes as its master.

Spanish Class! Spanish class at Harvard (Cambridge, USA 2016).

I could continue mentioning several Peruvian educators who, taking into account the arts, tried to transform the situation of their communities. Sometimes, it seems that Peru is only the country of Machu Picchu, of the Incas, of ceviche; while this is also Peru, I believe that anyone interested in Latin America should know that getting involved in their study requires approaching the complexities and difficulties of a continent that has fought for its independence and autonomy throughout its history, and in this work both artists and educators have been of vital importance

I have always believed that teaching is as important as research, hence my work as researcher is aimed not only at the production of knowledge but, above all, at the transformation of the communities to which I belong. Our research is part of who we are; in this sense, it is possible to express, through it, how we are and who we want to be. During my doctoral program, this certainty has remained firm and solid. For this reason, my research has focused on the connection between avant-garde artists and educators in Latin America during the 20th century. I have always wondered why educators are rarely remembered in discussions about Latin American avant-gardes. Poets are visible; with educators, this doesn't seem to be the case.

I began, then, to look for pedagogues who had an impact on avant-garde artistic movements. I also focused on the pedagogies (i.e. ways of teaching) that appear explicitly and implicitly in the works of avant-garde artists. In a recent article, I analyzed the impact of Antenor Orrego's aesthetic-pedagogical ideas on César Vallejo. In 2016, thanks to the Jens Aubrey Westengard Fund, I conducted archival investigation in various cities in Peru. I had the opportunity to present the results of this research at the IV Latin American Congress of Social Sciences (FLACSO) at the University of Salamanca in 2018. This experience as a researcher has strengthened my commitment to educational innovation in Peru. However, research has not been enough for me.

The poetic body. Performance at the awards of the National Youth Contest, hosted by Peru's Ministry of Education (Casa de la Literatura Peruana, Peru 2017).

With this in mind, I participated in Pre-Texts Project at Harvard University articulated by the professor, and my doctoral advisor, Doris Sommer; initiative that aims to restore the civic function of the humanities through the interpretation of texts considered difficult. In fact, during 2016, we went to the Arequipa region of Peru to conduct a workshop for teachers to improve their pedagogical practices through the reading of literary texts. I think that a great way to get to know Peru and Latin America is not only by sightseeing or even researching, but by organizing workshops where we can hear and understand a little more the complexity and problems of Latin American reality. I have always believed that listening and sharing are the most important skills to know something that is different from us.

In 2016, together with a group of friends, I founded the Laboratory of Pedagogical Vanguard (LAVAPERU), an initiative that offers pedagogical tools to teachers through the interpretation of poetic texts. Thanks to my research on Peruvian educators, I designed a teaching methodology that seeks to renew the classroom experience. For LAVAPERU, a classroom is not just a space where a teacher gives knowledge to students. It is, above all, a space for collaborative learning through aesthetic performance and intervention. I have always wondered why teachers' practices have not learned from contemporary forms of art that emphasize, not the passive transmission of knowledge, but the interaction and empowerment of students. I have used these ways to renew my teaching not only at Harvard, but in the workshops for teacher that I have organized with the help of the House of Peruvian Literature. In 2017, the LAVAPERU methodology won the National Youth Award awarded by the Ministry of Education of Peru. It was a very exciting experience and I am very grateful for it!

Patriota. Photo during patriotic parade (Puno, Peru 2016).

I believe that immersing myself in the complexity of Latin America through the arts and education has allowed me to know myself better, and it has also given my life a mission: to transform education in Peru in order to democratize culture, to promote citizenship; and in this work, the arts have been, without doubts, my best allies. Meeting diverse Peruvian and Latin American teachers has also been one of the most important experiences in my work; talking to them has allowed me to learn things that are not taught in classrooms. Remembering and empowering school teachers is urgent today because, as José Antonio Encinas stated in A New School Essay in Peru (1932), "the highest position a citizen can hold in a democracy is that of the school teacher. When today's society shakes the egoism and prejudices that paralyze its most vital functions, and when the teacher, on his part, leaves the routine and becomes a social leader, then the teaching profession will have surpassed in importance any other human activity."


Find similar articles in ReVista's past issues on Education, Universities and Peru