Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Quintessential Experiential Learning Event: Visit to Tlamacazapa

By: Lisa Rawlins
St. Olaf

I doubt that anyone in the social work group would disagree that our visit to Tlamacazapa was the most memorable part of the week. Tlamacazapa is an indigenous (Nahuat) village in the northern part of the state of Guerrero known for its palm weaving. The name Tlamacazapa, which means “people of fear,” reflects the town’s history. During the Spanish conquest of the nearby city of Taxco in the 16th century, the residing indigenous people were forced to flee, seeking refuge in what is today Tlamacazapa. Unfortunately, as we learned during out visit to the headquarters of Atzín (a community development organization that works with the people of Tlamacazapa) on Tuesday, today Tlamacazapa is plagued by numerous problems, including the high levels of arsenic and lead in the well water. The water contamination, along with the lack of food, results in widespread health problems in the community.

Student learning how to weave a canasta (basket)
On either Friday or Saturday, the social work students visited Tlamacazapa to learn more about Atzín’s work and to interact with community members. Our experiences in Tlamacazapa were simultaneously full of joy, hope, empathy, and sadness. In small groups, we learned how to fetch water from the well and tote it on our backs, climbing up steep, rocky hills in scorching heat. I am amazed that the women of Tlamacazapa do this four times a day. In addition to gathering water, at our hosts’ homes, we learned how to make tortillas by hand and also learned how to make small “canastas” (baskets) using the Tlamacazapan palm-weaving technique. Later on, we had the opportunity to meet some of the women in the quilting income-generating project. The women beamed with pride as they eagerly explained their artwork to us. Anita later commented that in the past, the women in Tlamacazapa have been much more modest and shy. She interprets their newfound confidence and sociability as a sign of empowerment and increased self esteem among the women of Tlamacazapa.

During our debriefing session the following Monday, everyone agreed that in addition to being inspired by the quilters, we were inspired by the young “promotoras” (promoters) we met. The Promotoras, are young women from Tlamacazapa who volunteer to facilitate Atzín’s programs, which include the children with special needs program, the children’s nutrition program, and an outreach program for elderly community members. Most of the promotoras are several years younger than us, and yet they are doing such important work! The promotoras taught me that anyone can make a difference, regardless of age. Their example also taught me that the most effective community development occurs through the community members themselves. As social work education literature often stresses, the client is the expert of his or her life, not the social worker. The same principle applies to community development.

In spite of all we learned about the lives of Tlamacazapans and the work of Atzín, we are still left with questions. For example, one huge question we have is “What should we do with what we have learned?” As we discussed during the debriefing session, it is much more challenging to create innovative new policies than it is to simply put band-aids on problems. Hopefully by the end of semester, we will have a better idea of our own roles in promoting social justice.

Students sharing their experiences from Tlamacazapa


  1. Great insights, Lisa! I especially liked what you said about the promotoras - they are certainly inspiring young women!

  2. I was particularly interested in the part where you talked about how there is all this emphasis in social work textbooks about the client being the expert in their own life and not the social worker, and how this is also true for communities. I have to admit, I have never really thought too much about it before, but that really is true. I appreciate your insight.
    Jessie Kemp

  3. Lisa I really agree with everything that you said and the class seemed to come to a consensus of feeling the same. It certainly was a mixture of emotions, ranging from sadness and anger which lead to many questions of what to do next. I find myself always intrigued at the power of human relationships and how important each little conversation and connection can be. Sometimes these small encounters and experiences can change our perspectives forever, and the influence of these experiences should never be downplayed. The resilience and strength shown in the people was certainly encouraging and humbling. I also find it important to note that we were able to receive a strong background on the community and the organization of ATZIN prior to actually stepping into the community. Everyone was appreciative of this background information before our visit, during, and after because it changed the way we were able to understand the community and the view in which we were viewing the community. As we have discussed several times, the importance of history and understanding the context of situations, in this case the community of Tlamacazapa as well as the history of Mexico, is very important in order to understand the current state of the community, and how to best improve the communities overall well being. As social workers it is important to be as informed as we possibly can in order to be as effective as possible and do our best work.

  4. This experience you shared is a great example of community development. It was very inspiring to hear about the community and the Promotoras. I agree with your statement regarding the client being an expert of his or her life. It is so important for us as social workers to remember that concept. It is easy for us to think we know what a client needs and what goals they should have set to work towards. We can accomplish so much more work with a client if we work as a team and empower them to become even greater experts on his or her life.

    Abbie Vander Maten

  5. Sounds like you all learned a lot about some economic problems Mexico faces. I think it meant a lot to the people living there that you were willing to learn from them and they could share their knowledge. As social workers, we can brainstorm and help think of beneficial solutions, but you are 100% correct in saying the client is the expert. By telling us what their needs are, we can use our resources and work as partners to help them help themselves.