Sueli Zalazar

“I am still self-conscious about myself, but after going to LALA that changed a lot… I am proud now of my heritage, of my hair, of my skin color.”

Sueli’s interest in her Guarani heritage grew from a desire to honor her grandmother.

“My grandma used to teach in one of the most dangerous places in Asuncion…She was known as the teacher of the neighborhood, everyone knew her because of that.” When she died, Sueli wanted to do something in order to thank her for her service to the community and to herself.

“She had been my private teacher my whole life! Back then I was in elementary school and I was so lazy, so, so lazy… other than wait for my hockey practice after school, I didn’t do anything. So I thought about joining an organization, and that’s when I came to Club Escuela Solidaria to teach at this neighborhood.”

The first “open school” in Paraguay, founded in 2017, Club Escuela Solidaria (CES) engages kids in underserved neighborhoods of Asunción with a curriculum that blends sports and arts with languages, STEM, and social-emotional learning. Their classroom is the neighborhood’s soccer pitch. Their students are the grandchildren of the people who Sueli’s grandmother used to teach.

Today, 30 years later, their neighborhood is still considered a really violent place and most kids there do not attend school. “It kind of freaks me out sometimes… I’m proud of myself for being there, but at the same time I’m really sad that I have to go there to teach them and that the government doesn’t give them a safe place and a proper education.” CES aims to break this cycle of poverty through the open school model, adapted to the local reality. Their impact is starting to show in students’ trust and behavior. “The students don’t see us as policemen or someone trying to film them anymore… they used to fight all the time, now they love going to class because they get to choose what they want to learn.” Sueli also mentioned that before attending classes with CES, some students “didn’t even have IDs. Now they do.”

But the impact also went in an unexpected direction. Sueli leads the Spanish literacy and English language classes. Most of her students speak only Guarani, Paraguay’s official language alongside Spanish.

“My students made a huge impact in my life,” Sueli already knew Guarani, but, like most of the Paraguayan society, used to stigmatize it. Being with her students forced her to practice, so that she’s now more fluent and fully proud of her heritage. “Without Guarani we are not anything, it’s part of who I am. I would not be the same without the language. I use Guarani without noticing sometimes, because it is part of our daily life.” As an example, Sueli shared that her older family members use it and that getting scolded in Guarani is way more effective. “There are stronger words in Guarani, and it’s worse when it comes from your grandma.”

In June 2019, reconnected with her grandma and her Guarani roots, Sueli attended the first Mexico Leadership Bootcamp (MLB1), where she encountered an “explosion of cultures” embodied by her cohort peers. There, she realized the importance of her thread among the tapestry of Latin American identities. “My entire self screams Latin America. My hair, my skin color, the way I speak, everything. Many people think that I am Asian because of my eyes. They don’t believe I am from Latin America when they see me. But… I believe that I am Latin America. Every single person living in some part of Latin America represents the entire population, because our culture is so rich. Just one person can do so much for Latin America, because there’s a lot of potential here. And I believe that I have the potential to do that.”

Since MLB1, Sueli has been pursuing her dream of improving access to quality education. In addition to applying to college and covering songs with her little sister in her spare time, Sueli continues to teach students at her grandma’s old neighborhood and will now be coaching teachers at the Ministry of Education, as part of CES’s recent initiative to share the open school model with public schools across Paraguay. This November, Sueli will be attending the LALA Weekend in Alabama to discuss [the role of race and ethnicity in American histories]. In 2020 Sueli will be part of the LALA Pilot Academy in Medellín, Colombia, where she hopes to further explore her call for service and self-discovery - in addition to eating delicious patacones in the land of one of her heroes and church founder Nestor Chamorro.

Right now, together with MLB1 alumni Gyullia Pereira (Brazil), Alessandra Policarpo (Brazil) and Kevin Leyes (Argentina), Sueli is creating LAYFE (Latin American Youth For Education) - a website that shares educational opportunities in Latin America. At this stage, they are using the LALA network to gather knowledge on what youth are demanding, what platforms already exist, and what are the gaps

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