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Summer of AT in Mexico, 2006

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Parras de la Fuente, or Parras, is an oasis town in the southern desert of Coahuila, a state of México bordering Texas. Parras is located 120 kilometers directly west of Saltillo, Coahuila’s capitol, and the birthplace of the Parras Summer Co-Director, Dr. Francisco Xavier de la Cabada. 190 kilometers east of Parras lies Monterey, a metropolis in the neighboring state of Nuevo León. From the freeway that runs between Saltillo and the industrial city of Torreón, drivers see a narrow gap in the mountains, through which a small highway connects Parras with the rest of México, and as travelers on this highway draw near to Parras, the cacti of the desert are replaced by vineyards and nogales (pecan trees). Before encountering the town, travelers pass the tall gates and thick adobe walls of Casa Madero, the oldest winery in the Americas, established in 1597.

This was the first sight of Parras that greeted 13 Humboldt State University students and their faculty as they entered the oasis town and site of the second annual Parras Summer Program. For the next 10 weeks, the students and faculty lived and worked in Parras, getting to know the town and its students, teachers, workers, professionals, and government officials, as well as its birds, tortoises, and dogs, learning to speak Spanish, and implementing appropriate technology and cultural projects.

Daily classes were held at the Parras campus of Universidad Tecnológica de Coahuila (UTC), but the whole community of Parras would become the students’ classroom. Students experienced life with a Mexican host family while taking advantage of the opportunity to practice speaking Spanish with their hosts. Many of these families were also integral to the appropriate technology and cultural learning experience. They provided design advice and information on the local climate and culture, helping to locate supplies, and introducing students to their own existing appropriate technologies. Clotheslines, for example, were used in almost every house, making laundry a colorful and aesthetic experience, as well as a “clean” low-energy process.

Another example of a lesson the community of Parras taught students was the benefits of Adobe construction. Many of the host families live in traditional adobe homes, often brightly painted and tiled, with courtyards replete with grape vines and fruit trees – avocado, pomegranate, every kind of citrus, and fig. In the natural building unit, students made almost a thousand adobe bricks and began to construct a dispensary and shelter at the government social service agency DIF (El Sistema Nacional para el Desarrollo Integral de la Familia or National System for Family Development), receiving inspiration from their own experiences living in and among adobe houses. In this way, experience enriched lecture-based learning. As some of adobe’s features and properties, such as thermal mass and acoustic insulation, were explained, this knowledge connected directly with first-hand experience of inhabiting a quiet, cool, and beautiful adobe home.

In addition to being part of a two-week natural building unit, the construction of the DIF Adobe Senior Center comprised a longer-term project managed by students Ariana Madappa and Ana Mari Arruabarrena. For their class, Engineering 480, “Appropriate Technology Projects in Parras,” all students designed, completed, and documented appropriate technology projects in Parras under the direction of Appropriate Technology Instructor and Program Co-Director, Lonny Grafman, and Assistant Instructors Tressie Word and Kiva Mohoney. Students encountered first-hand the difficulties and frustrations of implementing appropriate technology principles in a developing country, but also enjoyed overcoming those barriers, while making friends, improving Spanish-language skills, and teaching and learning from people in the community.

Five appropriate technology projects were begun and completed among the twelve participating students. Mark Ambrosino, Daniel Coleman, and Lauren Lamet installed photovoltaic panels at a local hospital to power a new Sunfrost] refrigerator, manufactured in Arcata. This refrigerator will keep vaccines at a steadier temperature than the previous refrigeration system, and the solar system will provide much more reliable power than Parras’ power grid. Jeff Kinzer and Angela Crane built a prototype solar distiller to test the feasibility of providing drinking water for UTC Parras campus ( project details). Juliana Goldstein and Irene McNaughton planted an organic garden at an orphanage, introducing the young people there to organic gardening and ecological principles through a series of Spanish-language lesson plans ( project details). Aaron Antrim, Tybie Fitzhugh, and Benjamin Grimes designed and built a solar hot water system to heat a swimming pool in winter at Hotel Perote, a resort and winery on the outskirts of Parras.

Tressie Word, who in addition to being an assistant instructor is an HSU International Development Technology masters student, organized a conference for wastewater treatment with the help of previous Parras program student Kendra Cecil in the final week of the program (project details). This topic is receiving increasing attention in Mexico. Currently, Parras has no central wastewater treatment, but the federal government mandated that municipalities the size of Parras have central wastewater treatment by 2007 (though this original deadline has since been relaxed). As in Oaxaca, another Mexican city where HSU offers a summer study program, the community of Parras is earnestly interested in implementing a wastewater treatment program, based on principles of the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, adapted to the different environment of Parras.

Through presentations and conversations, students were able to share with and learn from the community of Parras, participating in an ongoing dialogue on culture and appropriate technology. These interactions with community members were keys to success in the Parras program, both in terms of creating an engaging and rewarding academic experience, and fulfilling the program’s goal to engage more people, in more places, in the pursuit of appropriate technology and cultural enrichment. Cooperative interaction between the HSU and Parras communities was essential to manifesting certain goals of the appropriate technology definition developed by the Parras 2006 team, which stated that appropriate technology strengthens “symbiotic relationships between individuals, communities and their environment” and effectively leverages “local knowledge, materials, wealth and labor.”

The Parras 2006 team’s complete definition, as well as write-ups for all the above mentioned projects, are available on Appropedia, a living library of appropriate technology which anyone can contribute to or edit. “Appropriate Technology,” the first sentence of the reads, “is an analytical, iterative and cooperative approach to supporting health and happiness.” Appropedia, a website begun in Spring of 2006 and powered by the same software that runs the popular free encyclopedia Wikipedia, is an effective tool to facilitate the iterative approach the Parras team called for. 2006 Parras Program students continued projects which had been begun by 2005 students. Future students will work from and continue to improve documents on Appropedia and their corresponding physical projects.

Appropriate technology is more than technology with reduced or eliminated harmful environmental impacts. The definition of the Parras 2006 team states Appropriate technology should support “health and happiness,” empower through education, and consider “cultural, political and historical context.” To create a path to realize these goals of making technology a process appropriate for human beings as well as the environment, students not only studied, but also created art and participated in culture.

The cultural curriculum included visits to some world-class museums in the historic colonial city of Zacatecas. Founded in 1548, after the discovery of rich deposits of silver nearby, Zacatecas is a showcase for colonial architecture. Its museums inhabit gorgeous and historic buildings. The Francisco Goitia Museum is located in a mansion that belonged to the famous painter of the same name. The Pedro Coronel Museum, features works by Picasso and other artists from around the globe. The Rafael Coronel Museum, located in a massive crumbling 16th century convent, exhibits modern photography alongside colonial-era paintings and thousands of intensely expressive indigenous masks, impressing upon visitors the dynamic richness and power of Mexico’s mixed (mestizo) indigenous and colonial culture whose growth and change continues today.

UTC and HSU students, under the direction of Humboldt-area painter Hedvig Lockwood, produced a colorful mural at the entrance to the UTC campus in Parras. The mural has as its central motif a sturdy pecan tree, with five spreading branches representing the races of humankind. The tree is surrounded by representations of the Parras landscape, traditional architecture and technologies, and modern industry, as well as symbols of the natural world derived from petroglyphs to be found in the area. The mural emphasizes water as the source of life, uniting nature and all of mankind.

As a goodbye to the Parras community, students and instructors performed music, theater and poetry, completing a two-way cultural exchange circuit. HSU students performed musical pieces of México including the folk song, “Qué Será”, and “Lontananza”, by Parras composer Pedro Cortinas Piña. This same evening a poetry performance was presented, led by Dr. Lilianet Brintrup, herself a noted Chilean poet, and professor for the Parras Summer Program poetry workshop. Included was a reading of the poem “Tierra de Viento y Sol”, by Amador Peña Chávez, who lived near Zacatecas, describing the nearby desert springs in Cuatro Ciénegas (see photos) which students had visited. Students also presented their own poetry, inspired by the community of Parras, the city of Zacatecas, desert landscapes, and their appropriate technology projects.

The following evening featured theater performances by instructors and students. An original production, based on the super-popular “telenovela” (soap opera) Amor en Custodia, gave everyone a chance to express a sense of humor, in contrast to the many serious discussions about the ecological dangers posed by current technology and the need for new, sustainable development. Through the process of writing, translating, rehearsing, and performing the play, students bonded, improved their Spanish skills, and gave the audience an hilarious good time on performance night!

At the end of the Summer, many people of Parras and from HSU agreed: our goodbyes were not “Adios” (“farewell”) but, for the most part, neither were they an “Hasta pronto” (“see you soon”). Much time may pass before 2006 Parras Program students from HSU return to Parras, or before their friends in Parras will visit the United States, but memories and photos will last, emails will continue to flow back and fourth, photovoltaic cells will generate electricity to refrigerate vaccines, pools will be warmed by the sun in winter, orphans will enjoy the fruit of their organic garden, and families will receive services in an adobe dispensary until new students return to take up where the 2006 team left off.

At HSU, newly bilingual humanities and appropriate technology students alike have returned to their home country to develop, teach, and create policy for new technologies and culture. These students and their instructors are determined to respond morally to global environmental and social problems. As per their definition of appropriate technology, they aim to leave an intact world for that supports “health and happiness” (salud y felicidad) for coming generations in all corners of the world.

Aaron Antrim