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Planting cultural seeds

In a village in the Ecuadorian Andes, primary school children listen as their teacher tells stories about their Quechua ancestors. In their imaginations, the stories reveal many of the mysteries of their surroundings and help them to understand such phenomena as the rain, the sun, eclipses, war, heroes, the origins of their peoples, the arrival of the Spaniards, and how birds fly.

These same stories had lain dormant, all but forgotten, until a joint effort by the Ecuadorian Cultural Center and the IDB Cultural Center’s Cultural Development Program rescued them from oblivion. The two organizations collaborated to publish a collection of the stories in Spanish and Quechua versions in a colorfully illustrated book. The children delight in bringing the book home to share with their families and to compare the stories with versions their parents and grandparents remember.

Far away in Mexico, another vital piece of cultural tradition is being preserved for future generations. In San Bernardino Contla, in the state of Tlaxcala, 40 artisan weavers listen to an expert’s instructions on how to use dyes derived from plants, minerals, and animals to color the cotton, wool, hemp, and sisal fibers they will later weave into original works of art.

“Cochineal insect for reds, indigo for blues, murex snail for purple.” explains the expert. “Here’s an example with flowers and tree bark.” In the course of the training, he will also teach the weavers how to clean the raw materials and to wash, dye, dry, and coil the yarn into skeins or hanks. The purpose of the National Master Dyers Workshop, held last September and financed in part by the Cultural Development Program, was to help the artisans improve the quality of their products and increase sales. The techniques discussed at the workshop add environmental appeal to the weavings by avoiding chemical dyes, while salvaging traditional techniques that would otherwise be forgotten.Filling a vacuum. Funding for culture generally has a low priority in Latin American government budgets, particularly for small projects. Such endeavors are largely invisible to directors of museums, monuments, and other national cultural treasures, as well as ministers of education.

With this in mind, the IDB Cultural Center in 1994 set out to design a program to support small cultural projects in the region. “We wanted to fill this gap, which we could see exists in all the countries,” says Félix Ángel, Cultural Center general coordinator. “The idea is to support programs that will bring out new talent, publish books, start up small craft centers, furnish training, give a young violinist a helping hand,” he said. After the activity is launched, the projects become self-financing or find another funding source.

Many of the 39 initiatives the center supported in 2001 gave young people an opportunity to pursue activities that could lead to a possible career. In the city of Santiago de los Caballeros in the Dominican Republic, 30 young violin and cello players aged six to 25 attended classes to improve their technique and interpretative skills. In addition to providing training and motivating the grant recipients, the Violin and Cello Interpretation Workshop culminated in a concert that was widely reported in the local media.

In the Andes, one of the liveliest cultural expressions is dance—pre-Inca, Inca, and post-Inca—through which stories are told about history and traditions, such a farm work, religious rites, family milestones, and warrior exploits. One way of ensuring that these dances endure is to teach them to children. “Clearly, our folklore is safe with them,” reported a newspaper in the Peruvian city of Huancayo in an article about a school dance competition that had the participation of 55 primary school delegations and close to 10,000 attendees. The IDB program supported training for 132 primary school teachers who will later pass on their knowledge of Andean dances to generations of students.

Forgotten voices. In another project, a Honduran radio station received funding to broadcast a series of special programs on indigenous and Afro-Latino cultures that are largely unknown to the majority Latino population. In the Our Voice series, which had an estimated listenership of 250,000, representatives of the Garífuna, Lenca, Tolupán, and Miskito groups discussed their lives, culture, concerns, and needs.

The programs have been a great support to people who describe themselves as in crisis, marginalized, or stripped of their culture. The Lenca have nearly lost their mother tongue and are now fighting to recover it. The Garífuna suffer from poverty and marginalization because of their exodus to urban areas. The Miskito are enduring the devastating impact of drug trafficking. The Tolupán are considered a forgotten tribe. They all express a desire to restore the rich traditions they have lost. The programs, which were later issued in CD format, were a first step in that direction. “Without dignity there is no development,” says the IDB’s Ángel. “This experience with cultural outreach projects has helped us to make a genuine sociocultural contribution in the region. But we can only cover a tiny portion of the needs expressed each year in the countless proposals we receive.“

Other 2001 projects included the publication of 300 portfolios with engravings by 12 women serving time in a Buenos Aires prison. In Costa Rica, a train car was rehabilitated as an exhibit space for art made by handicapped persons. And in Ecuador, the program financed multidisciplinary art workshops for street children and young workers in the informal sector so that they can one day establish microenterprises and become self-employed.

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