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Reflections: Popular Education in the Classroom and at Home

Updated: Mar 31, 2022

By Rosario Bonilla (Chayo) and Stephanie M. Huezo

Abstract: In the Spring of 2020, Stephanie M. Huezo taught Popular Education and Social Change in the Americas and asked students to develop a creative project that explained what popular education was for them. After the pandemic hit and students had to return home, a studentsRosario Bonilla (Chayo) decided to work with her mother to read a chapter of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and creatively document their shared understanding of popular education. This post will reflect Stephanie’s experience teaching popular education in a college classroom but most importantly, Chayo will discuss the process of creating the zine with her mother and provide an explanation of the zine.

Keywords: Pedagogy of the oppressed, college, zine, family

In the Spring of 2020, I had the opportunity to teach a college course on the history of popular education in Latin America and the United States. Such a vast history condensed to 15 weeks led me to reflect on what were the most important aspects of popular education I wanted my college students to know. Do I focus on theory, practice, both? What examples in Latin America should I highlight to discuss the successes and challenges of popular education? How do I make this class collaborative, participatory, and dialogical? How do I emphasize a problem-posing education and center a horizontal teacher-student relationship that Freire advocated for in his work? Many more questions invaded my mind as I began to prepare to teach this class at a small liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts. As an educator, a student myself, I chose to start us off with reading Freire’s seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. As we analyzed his discussion on the oppressed-oppressor binary, liberation, dialogue, radical love, faith, and conscientização, we connected it with real life case experiences of popular education in places like Nicaragua and El Salvador. We analyzed how popular education emerges during revolutionary periods but also within social movements. We discussed the challenges of implementing popular education in literacy projects like the Nicaraguan Literacy campaign and in organizing spaces like in the Day Laborer movement in the United States. We discussed the role of music, art, and storytelling in practicing popular education.

But teaching about popular education and practicing it in the classroom were two very different tasks. I integrated participatory activities that allowed students to reflect on how the material at hand connects with their own lives. Students reflected on their own personal experiences with oppression and worked together to discuss ways to make change. We even talked about the irony of practicing popular education in an institution that serves to preserves the status quo of social domination. Even within our own classroom, we discussed how I as their professor still had to grade them based solely on their intellectual contribution and not their personal growth. Even with these critiques, however, students were able to envision how they could practice popular education in their households and in their communities.

When the COVID 19 pandemic hit, however, we had to adjust our expectations for the class as we left to quarantine in our homes across the country. We could no longer meet in person and teaching virtually was less than desirable. To adapt to these new changes, we focused our energy in developing individual final projects that could illustrate what popular education meant to them. One of my students, Rosario Bonilla (Chayo) shares below her personal experience.


In class we explored what popular education is and how it has been used in different countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the United States as a framework and tool for achieving liberation. We used Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed to understand the relationships between oppressed and oppressors and the role a sincere dialogue and education can have in transforming the lives of oppressed peoples by allowing them to understand their relationship to the world and their right to a life where their humanity is valued and respected.

I was still thinking about what I wanted to do for my final project when we were sent back home due to the pandemic. I knew I wanted to center the importance of dialogue in this project because that was something Freire and other people we read about in class used in their popular education programs. I had to adapt my project to the sudden change of being quarantined at home in Los Angeles with my parents, sister, and cousin. Despite the sudden changes I was being offered a rare opportunity of having my family members know what exactly I was studying. Usually there is a disconnect between my parents and I based on generational gaps and generally just differences in opinions that lead to an atmosphere where dialogue is not easily achieved, so I wanted to use the opportunity to hear from them and learn how they understood their experiences about growing up and living in El Salvador and their experience as working-class immigrants in the U.S.

Initially I asked everyone if they were willing to participate in the project but only my mom agreed and followed through. Together, we read a couple of chapters from Pedagogy of the Oppressed and followed each reading session with a reflective conversation about what we thought Freire meant about oppression. In our reading circles, my mom shared a lot about her life in El Salvador and it was great to hear her reflect on Freire’s words. These conversations and the ideas and stories that my mother shared went into notes. Those notes then became the zine we made together. My mom wanted to have a creative project during quarantine, so when I suggested a zine she agreed that it sounded fun. I thought a zine was a good way to showcase our conversations in a fun, creative, and accessible way. Below I detail some thoughts on my experience creating the zine with my mom:

On the first two pages of the zine, we wanted to portray the oppressor-oppressed relationship as well as the internalization of oppressive ideas. The top of the page shows powerful men and women. One man says “eso eres, y eso serás” (this is who you are and who you will be). Directly underneath them is the bent-over body of a person standing over fields, to represent exploited workers of the world, and campesinos in particular. The bubble next to this person reads “para esto naci” (I was born for this).

One of the most important things we talked about while reading Freire is the ways oppressed people internalize their oppression. Freire mentions that oppressed people internalize oppression believing it is part of a natural order of the world, or a destiny imposed by God. When we read this line, my mom brought up her own experiences growing up in El Salvador where she internalized both patriarchal and classist standards. She remembered the times her grandfather would tell her that education was not necessary for girls because “no necesita estudiar uno para ir a dejar almuerzos a los guatales” (you don’t need to go to school to deliver lunch in the fields), implying that a woman's only job was to cook and provide for her family through domestic labor.

The second page continues the conversation about being stuck with the mindset of constant productivity and the need to follow a particular role that directly benefits the oppressors. We placed the word “work” over the image of a person’s mind, with another authoritative figure to the left declaring to give them more work. Underneath this is an image of someone working and asking themselves if they are doing enough. This is to reflect the moment individuals begin questioning their circumstances, or what Freire refers to as people understanding themselves and their position in the world through critical reflection. The center of page two reflects something my mom said about how oppressors benefit from the conformity of oppressed peoples and fear when oppressed people gain education. These images and the questioning of oppressors and oppressive circumstances leads to the third page, where we wanted to begin formulating a shift from the conscious of an oppressed mind to one of action and more reflection.

The questions at the top of the third page, “Where are you going? What are your plans?” were things my mom wanted to include because she felt it reflected part of her experience. She explained that as someone who internalized conceptions of what her role as a woman was, when she came to the United States she didn't plan on studying or doing anything outside of our home. She had to unlearn a lot of what she had previously accepted. Part of what helped her unlearn those things was asking herself similar questions. During our discussion I also shared with her that these are questions I struggle with myself and that I have also had to unlearn certain things in order to have a better understanding of myself.

On this same page we put a quote from Freire that explains how in our struggle for liberation we need to work against the idea that oppressed peoples are not capable of thinking correctly or truly wanting better for themselves. I really wanted to include this because I thought about what my mom had previously shared about her upbringing and how often our own communities and loved ones believe we can’t achieve more. Reminding each other that we are in fact capable of more is a powerful tool. On the bottom of the page my mom wrote that the first step towards liberation is unity.

On the next page, we wanted to tie unity with the importance of building community power in order to achieve liberation and access to rights. The last two pages are representative of our vision for this liberation. When making these pages we asked ourselves “What is liberation?”and “What does a world of liberated people look like and feel like?” We came up with four areas we would like to see included in a liberated society. Although access to education, housing, food, and health aren't the complete vision, these were the ones we could easily agree with. On the back cover of the zine are some closing thoughts about the project and what we felt are important reminders for ourselves as people trying to understand what liberation means and how it can be achieved.

I appreciated working with my mom on this because she spoke a lot about her childhood, and I was able to see how she grapples with her experiences once theory is introduced. Even though I had read Freire for class, I felt like reading it with my mom gave me a very different understanding of some of the ideas I hold. Most of all I'm feeling grateful to her for being consistent and engaged and willing to have conversations with me about both the text and our own experiences. I feel like I truly learned a lot about her vision of liberation and how her vision is similar to my own in some ways and very different in other ways. Working with family is always difficult but with this project, she and I both took this time to listen to each other's point of views and opinions and respect where each of us was coming from. It also opened an opportunity to continue having conversations with her beyond the project.

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