Las voces de las mujeres de Xelajú

    Lane, T.


    Tess Lane filmed many hours of video in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala during June of 2003 to create this edited collection of twenty 4- to 20-minute interviews. The Mayan and mestiza women who took part range in age from 10 to 78 years and have a wide variety of both educational and life experiences. Their professions include social worker, housewife, teacher, maid, and retail salesperson.

    Listen to the authentic voices of twenty ordinary Guatemalan women as you watch these interviewees share their unique views regarding their values and choices in life. Students of intermediate to advanced Spanish improve listening comprehension while they learn about Guatemalan culture by watching twenty Guatemalan women each answer the same seven questions. The repetition reinforces vocabulary and grammatical structures in a meaningful context. As students compare the women’s answers and formulate their own responses, they develop critical thinking and writing skills. Students can work independently, in groups, or as a class.

    View online – If you want to purchase a DVD of this material, contact NFLRC.

    Introduction and Background

    Las Voces de las Mujeres de Xelajú is part of an ongoing project to bring the voices of women of Latin America to students of Spanish. Videotaped interviews, conducted in 2003 with 20 women from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, present the views, values, and choices of women of many ages (10 to 78), backgrounds, and professions. Each woman was asked the same set of seven open-ended questions in Spanish:

    1. Introducción. Introduction, description of family, profession, personality
    2. ¿Cuáles son las tres cosas más importantes en su vida? ¿Por qué son importantes? What are the three most important things in your life, and why are they important?
    3. ¿Qué problemas tiene en su vida? ¿Qué hace para resolverlos? What problems do you have? How are you trying to resolve these problems?
    4. ¿Cuáles son los valores más importantes que aprendió Ud. de su madre? ¿Cómo pasa estos valores a otras personas? What values did you learn from your mother? How do you pass these values to others?
    5. ¿Hay una experiencia que me pueda contar que tuvo un impacto fuerte en su vida? Is there an experience you can tell me about that had a strong impact on your life?
    6. ¿Qué espera para su futuro? ¿el futuro de su familia? ¿el futuro de su país? What do you hope for your own future? the future of your family? the future of your country?
    7. Si tuviera la oportunidad de hacer cualquier cosa, no importa el dinero, ¿Qué haría? If you could do anything, and money didn’t matter, what would you do?

    Las Voces project uses an ethnographic approach to listening. Blair E. Bateman (2002) eloquently sums up the goal of ethnographic interviews which is shared by this project:

    “Besides providing insight into the interviewees’ culture, ethnographic interviews have the potential to help students learn about themselves. As they come to understand the point of view of an individual from another culture, students become aware of aspects of their own culture that are often invisible until seen in contrast with other cultures. They learn that there are ways of looking at the world besides their own, and begin to comprehend how they are seen by others. This understanding can lead students to a fuller awareness of their own culture and how it influences the way they see the world” (p. 321).

    These listening materials are different from most recorded interviews in that they provide students with many voices answering the same set of questions. Responses contain many of the same vocabulary words and structures, which provides repetition and restatement in listening practice. With the convenience of DVD technology and segmented videoclips, students can select which women, or which questions and responses, to listen to. They can also replay parts of a response multiple times and relocate clips easily.

    Why women’s voices? The voices heard in the media from Latin America are overwhelmingly male voices. Women carry the principle responsibility to socialize their children, and therefore are rich sources of cultural views and information. In my travels, I have found that many women in Latin America are willing to share their views and experiences with me, and through my video camera, with my students. They are pleased that someone cares about what they have to say. Their sincerity and candor in expressing their views provides students with a rich source of both authentic language and cultural insights. This project is possible because these women have opened their hearts and lives by sharing their voices with us.

    In the summer of 1997, I first visited Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, called Xelajú, meaning “a place surrounded by 10 mountains”, en the Mam language, I participated in a program that a student had told me about at Casa Xelajú, a Spanish and K’iche language school that also has a community outreach program in which students can volunteer. I participated in an afternoon tutoring program for children living in a refugee community on the outskirts of the city, called La Pedrera. It was a wonderful experience, with dedicated, competent teachers of Spanish, a full-time social worker who coordinated El Proyecto la Pedrera, caring homestay families, and many interesting activities and field trips. I met so many interesting women who had lived through the difficult times of the civil war and were filled with hope for the future.

    During my graduate studies, I read several articles about an ethnographic approach to language learning (Bateman, Donan, Egan-Robertson & Willit, Robinson-Stuart & Nocon). The idea of students of Spanish conducting interviews with native speakers about different aspects of their culture was a promising approach to teaching listening comprehension and culture together. However, in the state of Hawai’i, there are relatively few Spanish speakers. I decided that technology might help bring the voices of some of the women who I had met to my students.

    I bought a digital video camera and took classes in filming, editing, and production from the local cable company. I also purchased a fast computer and digital video editing softare. I returned to Quetzaltenango, and to Casa Xelajú in the summer of 2003. During this visit, I studied K’iche Mayan and set up interviews with the women I met, many of them teachers and staff of Casa Xelajú, or señoras who opened their homes to foreign students. I saw great progress in la Pedrera community and in the educational initiatives by Casa Xelajú and sensed a new level of hope in Quetzaltenango. I hope that the voices of these women will help students of Spanish to better understand their lives, values, and hopes for the future, and will encourage students to travel and explore Guatemala on their own.


    Bateman, B. (2002). Promoting openness toward culture learning: Ethnographic interviews for students of Spanish. The Modern Language Journal, 86, iii, 318-331.

    Donan, L. (1997). Students as ethnographers. ERIC: ED415699.

    Egan-Robertson, A. and Willett, J. (1998). Students as ethnographers, thinking and doing ethnography: A bibliographic essay. In Students as researchers of culture and language in their own communities. Language and Social Processes Series. Egan Robertson, A. and Bloome, D. Eds. ERIC: ED422153

    Robinson-Stuart, G. & Nocon, H. Second culture acquisition: Ethnography in the foreign language classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 80, iv, 431-449.


    The following activities for Las Voces de las Mujeres de Xelajú have been used with intermediate and advanced students of Spanish. Raphan (1996) suggests three phases of activities in her multimedia approach to academic listening: prelistening phase, listening phase, and postlistening phase activities. I prefer the terms previewing, viewing, and post-viewing to emphasize the visual component of the materials.

    Previewing activities

    Previewing activities designed for Las Voces materials consist mainly of students answering the questions themselves and to share their own answers with the class before listening to the interviews. The sharing of both personal answers and later summary and analysis by students of the women’s answers helps to create a social context and builds community in the classroom, two features of Hovel’s “A model for listening and viewing comprehension in multimedia environments” (1999). This activity is a challenge for some students, as these are not questions most US students have thought about.

    Students also activate important vocabulary and grammar structures that are needed to express their answers in Spanish. Bacon (1992) found that students spent a lot of time activating schema and contextualizing listening passages. This pre-viewing activity might help shorten that time and better prepare students for the listening task. I have used this pre-viewing activity as an opportunity to review or provide important vocabulary and structures with my high-intermediate and advanced students of Spanish. According to Dunkel (1986), this is a crucial step which helps in “establishing common semantic fields between the speakers and the listeners, especially when listeners are from ethno-cultural backgrounds that differ from that of the speaker” (p. 103). Further support for listeners to better understand the background of the speakers is provided through the history of the area and photographs.

    The teacher can also use class discussion of the students’ own answers to help students analyze which questions generate answers that are shared by many students (shared cultural values), and which questions seem to elicit different answers (individual variation). This type of analysis serves as a model for careful generalizations drawn by the students after they listen to the interviews. According to Robinson-Stuart and Nocum (1996), “students should be guided to focus on similarities as an initial point of departure” (p. 436). The authors also state that, “By directing attention first to similarities, the tendency to exaggerate and generalize differences can be undermined with positive affective and perceptual results, producing the opportunity for the synthesis of perceptions and joint understanding that is necessary for subsequent tolerance of differences” (p. 435). Students need to learn to draw careful conclusions about cultural values and norms through inductive reasoning. I have found that the teacher needs to model this process for the students using their own answers before sending students to listen to the voices of women from cultures that are very different from their own.

    Viewing activities

    The principal viewing activity is to listen for the main points of each woman’s answer, and to summarize each response, rather than listening for specific words or forms. Jack Richards (1988) recommends that the design of instructional materials for teaching listening comprehension reflect “a view of the nature of listening and the process it involves” (p. 59). He stresses the importance of activities that encourage top down processing in listening, as this is a more real-life task than bottom up processing activities, such as listening for specific words or grammatical features. These authentic women’s voices provide students with many examples of both social and informational functions of language.

    Each student develops a research question after listening to all of the women’s introductions, which will help them select the women and parts of the interview that they will listen to. Las Voces provides a wide range of ages, education, ethnic identity, marital status, profession, and economic status. Students gain insights into shared values as well as changing values of the three home cultures of these women by comparing their answers. Research questions can seek to compare the women’s responses to the students’ answers, and can analyze various groups’ answers within one culture. For example, students can listen to differences in the problems of older women and younger women within the same culture. Students listen carefully to authentic extended discourse, taking notes as they listen.

    Post-viewing activities and Follow-up project

    Students analyze their notes and look for similarities and variations in beliefs, practices, and attitudes within a culture, and draw conclusions about shared cultural values. Students share their summary and analysis with the class, either orally or in writing. Critical thinking is encouraged as students form research questions and are asked to summarize or paraphrase responses and draw conclusions.

    Students studying a second language need to learn to ask questions and listen carefully in order to acquire communicative competence. These materials model an ethnographic approach to listening and to learning about other cultures. Students can be encouraged to form their own questions and conduct interviews with local Spanish speakers. An ethnographic approach to teaching culture along with foreign language has been shown to be very effective (Donan, 1997; Egan-Robertson and Willett, 1998). Bateman (2002) reported that students in his study who conducted an ethnographic project showed “an increase in understanding of and respect for Spanish speakers” and that “many of them achieved a degree of empathy and understanding for the experiences of their interviewees” (p. 327). However, native speakers of a target language, especially those from more remote regions, are not always readily accessible to foreign language students. Ideally Las Voces de las Mujeres de Latinoamérica should serve as a model to encourage students to engage in conversations with native speakers of Spanish wherever they are.

    Summary of activities for Las Voces materials

    Start with lots of teacher support and work toward independent learning.

    • Introductions – in all interviews Students answer interview questions for themselves before listening to interview review/learn related vocabulary and forms
    • Prediction – What will interviewee say?
    • Listening for specific information Paraphrasing/retelling Comparisons – how are these views different than my/our views
    • Cultural analysis – generalizations and variation – analysis of questions for the type of answers they solicit.
    • Observation and analysis of meta-linguistic features – polite speech, gestures
    • Students write follow-up questions and role-play interview

    The Activities document includes:

    1. Introducciónes worksheet grid for all interviews (beginning to intermediate level)
    2. Las Tres Cosas Más Importantes worksheet grid – students write names of women under catagories (beginning to intermediate level)
    3. Esperanzas worksheet grid for 5 interviews plus student answers (intermediate level)
    4. Independent project (advanced level)


    Bacon, S. (1992). Phases of listening to authentic input in Spanish: A descriptive study. Foreign Language Annals, 25, 4, 317-334.

    Bateman, B. (2002). Promoting openness toward culture learning: Ethnographic interviews for students of Spanish. The Modern Language Journal, 86, iii, 318-331.

    Donan, L. (1997). Students as ethnographers. ERIC: ED415699.

    Dunkel, P. (1986). Developing listening fluency in L2: Theoretical principles and pedagogical considerations. The Modern Language Journal, 70, ii, 99-106.

    Egan-Robertson, A. and Willett, J. (1998). Students as ethnographers, thinking and doing ethnography: A bibliographic essay. In Students as researchers of culture and language in their own communities. Language and Social Processes Series. Egan Robertson, A. and Bloome, D. Eds. ERIC: ED422153

    Hoven, D. (1999). A model for listening and viewing comprehension in multimedia environments. Language Learning & Technology, v.3, n.1, July 1999, 88-103.

    Raphan, D. (1996). A multimedia approach to academic listening. TESOL Journal, Winter, 26-28.

    Richards, J. (1988). Designing Instructional Materials for Teaching Listening Comprehension. Materials for Language Learning and Teaching, ed. Das, B. Singapore: SEAMEO Regional language Center, 59-88.

    Robinson-Stuart, G. & Nocon, H. Second culture acquisition: Ethnography in the foreign language classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 80, iv, 431-449.


    Download activities document [PDF] to use with the DVD

    Download a list of resources [PDF] to learn more about Guatemala