The Catholic University of America

July 22, 2013

Students Learn Cultural Lessons at Folklife Festival

  Folklife Festival

Michelle Fuentes, second from left, and Blenda Femenías, fourth from left, pose with the Kallawaya who participated in the Folklife Festival.

Students from The Catholic University of America got a unique opportunity to interact with a group of Bolivian healers and weavers from the Kallawaya culture by serving as volunteers for the “One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage” program at the annual Folklife Festival, co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service, held in late June and early July on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Volunteers at the festival included Theresa Ciletti, a rising senior anthropology major from Ocean City, Md.; Michelle Fuentes, a rising junior anthropology major from Montgomery Village, Md.; and Alejandro Tristan, a rising junior psychology and Spanish major from San Luis Potosi, Mexico.

The students got involved in the festival through the encouragement of their teacher Blenda Femenías, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology. Femenías first became interested in the Kallawaya, who are world-renowned for their healing skills and knowledge of medicinal plants, while studying and working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned her doctorate in cultural anthropology.

Today she specializes in the anthropology of Latin America, primarily the Andes, focuses on the arts, and has a strong interest in language and multilingualism. Her graduate studies included classes in Quechua, an indigenous Andean language spoken by about 10 million people including the Kallawaya, who live in northwestern Bolivia.

In the spring, when a curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage contacted her to see if she would serve as a translator and facilitator for the Kallawaya, she jumped at the chance to help.

Femenías learned that six Kallawaya people would be traveling from Bolivia to participate in this year’s Folklife Festival, which celebrates the diversity of cultural traditions around the world. She recruited Fuentes and Tristan, who are bilingual in Spanish and English, to help the four men and two women, most of whom speak Spanish in addition to Quechua and Kallawaya.

“Interpretation involved not only translation between visitors and participants but also conversing extensively with the Kallawaya participants, especially early each day to find out what they would be doing that particular day,” says Femenías. “Every day they created a ceremony especially for the festival visitors dedicated to different people and places.”

The students had to learn the cultural information for these ceremonies and clearly explain it to the festival visitors.

Ciletti was assigned to the tent next door to the Kallawaya’s dedicated to those who speak Koro, an endangered language in India. She also did some cultural interpretation, explaining elements of Koro culture to visitors.

Folklife Festival  
Alejandro Tristan, center, with two of the Kallawaya women.

Tristan said he jumped at the opportunity to learn from the Kallawaya.

“I was able to be part of the Kallawayan ceremonies, rituals, and blessings, all of which were new to me,” he explains. “After learning about them, I was able to answer many more questions from visitors about the ceremonies and the offerings that were part of them.”

He said he learned a lot from the Kallawaya and their efforts to preserve their culture.

“The most important thing they are fighting for is to preserve their language,” he says. “Their tradition of passing their dialect, Kallawayan, to their offspring that is unique because it is something that can only be passed from parent to child.”

Fuentes said she learned a lot from her experience as well.

“I learned how hard working and determined the festival organizers are to promote awareness in preserving language and culture to the public,” she says. “I also learned just how rewarding the experience of volunteering is and how loving and kind the Kallawaya and everyone I worked with are.”

Femenías witnessed her students connect to and learn things that can’t be taught in the classroom.

“The opportunity to learn not only about the broad strokes of Kallawaya ceremonies, healing, and weaving, but also to get to know each person somewhat was a rewarding experience for them,” she says.



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