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Colección: La Educación
Número: (129-131) I,III
Año: 1998

Xiomara’s Story

Xiomara1 and her family lived a few doors down from me on the northern edge of Santa Lucia, in an urban development called Urbanización Santa Lucia, constructed twenty years ago at the same time that the current secondary school was built. Theirs was the last house on the lane that ran along the hill crest in front of the Liceo Parra (the town’s secondary school), and for weeks before I actually met Xiomara I would see her walking to school as I sat on the patio sipping a morning coffee before heading off to the school myself.

The first member of Xiomara’s family I met was her father, Señor Luis. Señor Luis was a reserved but friendly retired postal worker who took to stopping by in the late mornings or early afternoons to sip a cafecito and chat with my compañero Eduardo while he painted landscapes on the patio. A native of Santa Lucia who had had only six years of formal schooling himself, Luis talked candidly and frequently with us about his children’s career paths, evidencing great pride in the academic achievements of his three older children, all of whom were at various stages of their higher educational degrees; he was equally candid about his concern for his younger son who had never completed secondary school, but instead had married young and was now working in the post office. While he never said so directly, Luis was none too pleased that this son’s life had taken a path similar to his own.

Both Luis and his wife, Señora Josefina, were natives of Santa Lucia, an agricultural town and municipal capitol situated in the Venezuelan Andes. A rather prosperous and thus rather unpicturesque but quite friendly town, Santa Lucia is situated in a verdant and quite picturesque mountain valley, a valley whose temperate climate and accessibility encouraged the development of a horticultural industry that has brought the town continuous and increasing prosperity for decades. Within the national context that is late 20th century Venezuela — oil-rich but crisis-ridden, recently but rapidly urbanized nation — Santa Lucia is something of a national paradox.

Between 1991 and 1992 the town and its secondary school youth became the focus of my dissertation research, an ethnographic study  exploring the ways in which students, in their daily lives, constructed the school as a gendered place and the experience of schooling as a complex of gendered practices. This article is one piece of a more general endeavor to understand the ways in which Santa Lucian secondary students drew upon, reproduced, and rearranged conflicting local and official gender ideological frameworks as they made sense of their school experiences in constructing their futures as workers, spouses, parents, and citizens inhabiting a relatively prosperous town in times of national “crisis.”2

I met Xiomara through her mother, Josefina, who ran a little bodega in town and introduced me to her daughter one Saturday afternoon when she was helping her mother in the shop. Josefina told me, with Xiomara standing there but as though she weren’t present, that her daughter loved English and wanted to learn “como pronunciar mejor” (how to pronounce, or speak, better) and was hoping I could teach her. I’ll never know if Xiomara was too shy to ask herself, or if the idea was her mother’s. When I turned to Xiomara she was looking down at the floor, fidgeting with her hands; the whole conversation seemed to make her rather uncomfortable. So I waited until Josefina had stepped into the back room to resume making the empanadas she sold in the morning with coffee, in order to casually invite Xiomara to stop by my house any time she wanted to practice speaking English with me. That invitation initiated a conversation with Xiomara that blossomed over the months into a friendship.

Xiomara and I had numerous subsequent conversations, but it was from her teachers and not her that I learned she was one of the best students of her class. When I met Xiomara she was in her last year of secondary school (fifth year of the liceo), studying diligently to pass her baccalaureate exam. I soon learned that Xiomara genuinely loved English. She said she loved to listen to it:  “I love hearing how the words sound,”3 she told me on several occasions, expressing the kind of delight with English that I heard from many students her age. Xiomara explained that, although she would have loved to study English at the university, she had chosen the Sciences and not the Humanities track for her last two years of schooling;4 this was because she was “good at Sciences,” and because her parents had told her that there were more job opportunities (“fuentes de trabajo”) in the Sciences.

Xiomara felt no bitterness in following her parents’ — and particularly her mother’s — dictates. In fact, she seemed rather proud of the fact that she was complying with her mother’s wishes:  it was her way of expressing appreciation for her mother’s commitment to her education. As both Xiomara and her older brother — a university student finishing a pre-graduate degree in Sociology  — had told me on separate occasions, the reason Josefina got up at dawn everyday to work at the bodega was so that her children could get a university education. It was also Xiomara’s way of reciprocating the sacrifices her mother had made for her schooling. In this regard Xiomara resembled many of her peers, male and female, who explained their decisions about schooling in terms of their family’s, or specifically their mother’s, needs.5 As Xiomara once commented to me, “When I think about my education and my future, I think about how I can help my parents have a more comfortable life. Because they are the ones who have given me everything .... Especially my mother. She has made great sacrifices for all of us.”6

There was never a question in Xiomara’s mind that she would continue her studies after high school. Or at least I could detect none in the unwavering way she asserted her decision, as though there were no other options. “You have to get your degree if you want to be someone in life,” she explained to me, the implication being that she was one such person who wanted to “be someone in life.”  And while Xiomara never explicitly compared herself to her older siblings, they had set an impressive example. Her oldest brother had just received a Master’s Degree in Engineering; another brother was finishing his undergraduate thesis in Sociology; and her older sister was studying Chemistry — all three at the University of the Andes in Mérida, the principal and most prestigious university of the region.

Over the course of the year I spent in Santa Lucia, I watched Xiomara graduate from high school and take her entry exams to get into a technical program at one of the “escuelas técnicas,” a kind of vocational college outside of Mérida. She had decided to pursue a technical degree (carrera técnica) in computer programming (computación) because it was quick:  she would have her degree in two years, and then be able to find a good job. When I asked her why she had forsaken her original desire to go to the university, she explained it in terms of her parents wishes, and in terms of “the crisis”:
Xiomara: I would like to enroll in a university program. But you know, the situation has gotten more difficult, because of the crisis.
Janise: What do you mean, because of the crisis?
Xiomara: Well, you know, everything is so hard. There’s not enough money anymore. (El dinero ya no alcanza.)  I would have to work while I study. Besides, with all the student disturbances and the way they suspend classes all the time — it can take years to finish a degree!  As my parents say, it’s just not practical anymore. A technical career is more practical.
It was a perfect arrangement:  Xiomara would share an apartment with her older sister in Mérida and commute to the school, which was only 20 minutes away by bus. This arrangement suited her parents tremendously; they, like so many Santa Lucia parents, were none too keen about their daughters living alone or, even worse, sharing an apartment building or dormitory with strange men in the big city. But it is important not to hastily interpret these trepidations (which in some families were so strong as to prevent parents from allowing their daughters to pursue a university degree) as “traditional” or “rural” or “peasant” attitudes towards gender and education — even though some of the students I talked to judged their parents in these terms. They were in fact quite prevalent among urban parents I knew as well. If the modern professional parents of female students in Mérida were more comfortable about their daughters attending the university, it was often because they could do so while living at home. In fact, several female secondary school students in Mérida told me that they were going to have to wait to go to the university because their parents wouldn’t let them apply to programs at universities outside the city unless they had a family member to live with; while others were obligated to study towards degrees they weren’t interested in because the field of their choice wasn’t taught locally.

Nor can parental conservatism be neatly correlated with socio-economic class background. In Santa Lucia (and in Mérida, for that matter), some middle class parents were fairly “open” (as the young women put it) about their daughters’ educational adventures, while others were quite “traditional” — a term which, when used by youth to describe their parents, was usually accompanied by a look of frustrated impatience. More often than not it was the father who set the limits, substantiating the reputation of middle class fathers to be particularly “jealous” (celosos) of their daughters, as they were of their wives. Meanwhile some — though by no means all — working class Santa Lucian parents relinquished their control over and surveillance of their daughters, ostensibly with expectation that a university education would bring their daughters lucrative job opportunities.

But gender ideologies and practices are not so easily overruled by economic need. In the matter of schooling, as with so many other issues where the practices and ideologies of gender, class, and education impinge on and contradict each other, it is hard to discern how individual students and their parents negotiated the variety of conflicting options that presented to them.7 In the two cases I knew of young Santa Lucian women from lower class families who left home to pursue university studies, the fathers had either little authority or little effective control in the house:  one was a constantly binging alcoholic, and the other was a produce dispatcher who was always on the road and rarely at home. When I asked Marielena, the daughter of the dispatcher, about her move to the city, she admitted that her father was none too keen about the situation, and had once threatened to come to Mérida and take her home. She mimicked him as declaring that “it is shameful for my daughter to be out wandering the streets with pretensions of being a university student.”  Marielena excused her father’s position as being typical of Andean men, who are, she said, very “jealous” (celosos). But she also noted, as though reassuring me and herself that what she was doing wasn’t really shameful, that she had a brother and other relatives (familiares) in Mérida to look after her. What is interesting in each of these cases is how students and their families could so unself-consciously challenge and rearrange dominant gender and class ideologies as they improvised educational practices and decision-making, in what were often as not rather conventional attempts to reconcile dominant myths of educational achievement and appropriate gender practices.

Just before leaving Venezuela I visited Santa Lucia and learned that Xiomara had been accepted to the program of her choice at a school outside of Mérida, and was currently looking for an apartment to share with her sister. Xiomara was never one to show much enthusiasm in her voice or on her face, but I remember sensing a considerable amount of indifference, bordering on apathy, as she recounted her plans to me. At the time I thought that perhaps she was masking the nervousness she felt as she prepared to leave her home — and her mother — for the first time. Before I left we exchanged addresses and, while I didn’t really expect her to write, I did expect that by the time I returned to Santa Lucia she would have graduated. I teased her, telling her that soon I would have to call her “Licenciada.”8

It was nearly a year after I’d left Santa Lucia when I learned that Xiomara had never enrolled in the technical school, but had become pregnant,9 and was still at home living with her parents. I was shocked. As far as I’d known, Xiomara didn’t even have a boyfriend!  (While I was in Santa Lucia there had been a short-lived fling with a young man who had gone off to join the national guard.)  By the time I’d learned of the whole matter, the boyfriend had since left town, gone to Maracaibo to study Engineering. Apparently the unforeseen course of events hadn’t interrupted his educational trajectory!

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been shocked; after all, this wasn’t the first time I’d learned of a young woman’s life taking such a turn. In fact, during my stay in Santa Lucia I lost two potential English students to similar fates: one who had been planning to study Tourism, the other Physics. The scenario was all too common: a young woman graduated from high school and began to make plans to go to the university; while waiting to get into one of the programs (the universities are so overcrowded and the competition so fierce that there is an almost inevitable year’s wait, often involving shifts in career plans) she became pregnant, abandoned her plans, was often as not abandoned by the man who got her pregnant, and settled back in with her parents. (I have yet to hear whether any of these young women have since married the fathers of their children; when I left Venezuela only one of the young women maintained a relationship with her child’s father. None of them had returned to school, and one was working for her father’s business in town.)

Perhaps I was shocked because I so wanted Xiomara to go ahead with her plans. Not that I rejected teen motherhood out of hand, and I have to admit that the teen mothers I knew never expressed regret to me. They were all also living with their parents.10 On the other hand, I never heard an older Santa Lucian woman who had been a teen mother, look back on the course of her life history with great enthusiasm. The only positive aspect they could extract was how much they now shared with their children because they were so close in age.

Perhaps I was shocked because I hadn’t allowed myself to really get to know Xiomara and had wanted her to be someone she wasn’t. Perhaps Xiomara didn’t really want to “be someone in life”; or perhaps she did in the abstract but was a little scared of it. Perhaps she didn’t know quite how to be someone in life, while she knew quite well what a mother — or a girlfriend — was, and how to be one. But it is just as likely that she really did want to be someone in life, and really didn’t want to end up pregnant. Perhaps her story was tragically similar to that of another young woman I’d known:  pressured to have sex by her boyfriend, pressured away from contraceptives by the moral strictures of the church (and secretly thinking that if she got pregnant her none too committed boyfriend might marry her), she too ended up with child and without boyfriend. Nonetheless, the news about Xiomara made me remember sadly the vision of her life she had painted for me on one occasion:
I think that if I work hard I can finish my technical degree in about two years. Then I can move back here and help my mother so she can retire. Of course I’d like to have my own family one day, but first I have to think about my studies.
Sometimes language neither reflects nor creates lived experience. And sometimes human motivation is beyond the ethnographer’s short and narrow grasp.

On the face of it, there were ample reasons for expecting Xiomara to go ahead with her plans:  first, she had her parents’ total support; second, her siblings had all gone on to pursue further degrees; and third, she was, according to her teachers, one of the best students in her class. Indeed, Xiomara appeared to be the ideal female protagonist of the populist State’s educational scenarios based on principles of “democratic humanism.”   “Democratic humanism,” as formulated by the leaders of the country’s social democratic party (AD), posited education for the masses as the basis for national democracy, in opposition to a traditional educational system for an elite class (Puerta 1992:20). Supported by a “Teacher’s State” (El Estado Docente) the contemporary education system claimed to be good for the people — offering educational and professional opportunities to all regardless of one’s social position (Romero & Manterola 1985); and also good for the State — educating its citizens in the kinds of technical training increasingly necessary for the continued progress of a developing nation (Puerta 1992:20).

Xiomara also appeared to be the ideal female protagonist of liberal academic models of academic achievement: she had a supportive home environment, good modeling from her siblings, and the will to succeed.11 In other words, according to myths of educational achievement embedded in both populist democratic and liberal social science discourses, Xiomara had everything going for her.

Of course there were always, even in Santa Lucia, a few female success stories, a few young women who went on to the university and who would most likely graduate and find a nice office job in the local bank, or even go on to get a professional degree and then establish a law business or open a dentist’s office in one of the larger cities nearby, or become a teacher at Liceo Parra. There were always enough success stories to keep the myths of female achievement alive. But as national debates established these anomalies as trends,12 I watched some young women in Santa Lucia graduate from Liceo Parra and become single mothers, while others started the university but were forced to leave by their boyfriends who refused to marry them otherwise. Still others sailed through high school with high marks and absolutely no intention of studying beyond the last year of high school; they were merely occupying their time until they were old enough to marry their boyfriends and start a family. Some thought school was fun (divertida) and enjoyed trying to get good grades. Others thought it was boring but kept their grades up to make their parents happy (complacerlos). Yet others dropped out because they simply couldn’t make the transition from high school to the university:  for some reason they could succeed in high school but not beyond.13 For every young woman fulfilling the myth, there were ten defying it. In Santa Lucia, Xiomara’s story was the rule and not the exception.

Xiomara’s story not only confounds liberal myths of educational opportunity, but the equally mythical scenarios of critical educational theories whose important insights into the subjective roles of minority students in the schooling process, and thus in the reproduction of their subaltern cultures and social positions, nonetheless assume that the dominant succeed in school and the subordinate fail. The trajectories of Santa Lucian male students only further confound both these myths. On the one hand, year after year a significantly smaller percentage of the entering cohort of male students finished secondary school than did female students, a statistical fact whose implications I will take up below. But almost all the young Santa Lucian men who did graduate also went on to the university. While it is still too soon for me to know for sure, I suspect, based on what previous cohorts have done, that most of the young men who graduated while I was in Santa Lucia, will also complete their university programs. They will become agricultural engineers, lawyers, doctors, high school teachers. Some will also become fathers, in or out of wedlock or both. But this will probably not impede or interrupt their educational trajectories.

However, the easy achievements of these young men compared to their female counterparts, should not make us concede to myths of male achievement, since so many of their male peers never even made it to graduation. The apparently anomalous performance of male and female students at Liceo Parra compels an inquiry into the factors that account for the anomaly and make it a pattern. It also suggests a more careful look at the implications of so-called minority (in this case female) school achievement. In the rest of this paper I propose to offer sucha an account by looking at the meaning and import of male and female students’ academic performance at Liceo Parra in terms of the relationship between local gender practices and educational ideologies.

I began my observations at Liceo Parra where students began, with the first year of secondary school (the seventh grade of the “Basic Cycle”), and worked my way up. There were two trends I immediately noted. First, with each year, as the students got older, the classes got smaller. The attrition rate over the first three years, through the end of the Basic Cycle, that is, was about 30%. (This was for the school year 1991-92; the attrition rate in 1985-86 was almost 50%.)  Since the end of 9th grade marked the completion of the Basic Cycle, students celebrated a modest graduation ceremony, and ritually marked a logical break in their educational trajectories. In a sense two models of the educational system operated simultaneously: one presented the baccalaureate as the terminal degree, the goal for high school students; the other presents the Diversified Cycle as a preparatory period for a university education, and the baccalaureate as a qualifying degree. As a result, those students who were sure they did not want to get a higher educational degree often dropped out at the end of the 9th grade.

Over the next two years students moved into the Diversified Cycle. These were the years when students — most between the ages of 15 and 19 — were blossoming into adulthood or adolescence (depending on whether one follows local or official developmental schemes). During these years the student attrition rate at Liceo Parra soared: the number of students in the class that would graduate in 1993, dwindled from 112 in the 3rd year of high school to 93 in the 4th year, to 51 in the 5th and last year. Of the 157 students who entered in 1986, 46 graduated five years later with their baccalaureate degrees.14

My intention here is not to explore the reasons for such a high drop out rate per se. In any case, given the various social factors framing the significance of education — such as the relatively recent accessibility of secondary education to the general populace, the relatively low educational levels of most students’ parents, the relatively recent expansion of the job market, and the purely instrumental value most people attribute to formal education — it might be more appropriate to wonder why so many students graduated at all. Nonetheless, if the general attrition rate is meaningful but not surprising, what is surprising is that male students dropped out at a dramatically higher rate than did female students.

At Liceo Parra, the first year classes consistently had a near-equal number of female and male students, as most of the primary school students continued on to high school, aiming their sights at graduation from the Basic Cycle. This had been the trend for nearly a decade: in 1982, the entering class had 96 female and 88 male students; in 1984, there were 71 female and 72 male students; and by 1992, my first year in Santa Lucia, the school’s entering class included 87 female and 84 male students. That year there were 75 female and 35 male students in the 3rd year (9th grade, Basic Cycle); while 37 girls and 14 boys had registered for their last year. At the graduation ceremony I attended in August of 1992, 34 young women and 11 young men proudly received their diplomas. This was the cohort whose entering class had boasted 85 male and only 72 female students.

Here again is a trend which seems to fly in the face of reproduction and correspondence theories of education. To the extent that schools mirror or reproduce social relations of inequality, one would expect the home and classroom to be concurrently, if not collaboratively, disposing boys to succeed and girls to fail school, pushing boys into the work force and girls into the home. Gendered styles of parenting and pedagogy should be working in cahoots with economic factors to push boys through and hold girls back. And indeed that is the scenario presented in many ethnographies of schooling and explained by critical theories of education. But at the Liceo Parra, not only did more girls stay in school longer, they also performed better academically. That is to say, girls generally received higher grades, they generally “repaired” fewer classes over the summer15, and they repeated a school grade less frequently.