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History of Ojalá

The Dawning: Ojala Niños Is Born

By Elsmarie “Elsa” Norby, Founder

I’d lived in Mexico since 1997 in the beautiful, small city of San Miguel de Allende, in the desert highlands of Guanajuato. My life had been full: I taught music to numerous children and established a music program in public schools, taught by local people I trained and paid through an established nonprofit. I had always been a doer in the worlds of music and photography, and an activist responding to need and injustice. But by 2007, I was 67 years old and ready to drop out and lead a simple, solitary life.

I was drawn to a rural village called San Miguel Viejo, home to the indigenous Otomí, who first settled in the area around 1540. They were enslaved by the next wave of Spanish conquistadors who seized enormous amounts of property and formed vast working haciendas.

I purchased a small parcel of land owned by a local family. Locals in the area still live on plots of land their ancestors occupied when they were slaves. I built a small, modest house by the standards of most white people. After five months watching the construction by a crew of extraordinary men using no machines or power tools, I gratefully moved into my own home.

The community was predominantly poor: I only saw homes that were incomplete, cobbled together with found materials. My new neighbors all collected wood for cooking in huge pots over an open fire on a dirt floor. There was no Internet, cable or landline phone services, and only intermittent electricity and water from ancient cables and a 500-year-old well. Although the city of San Miguel de Allende is only 3 miles away, there was no bus service. With so little of what many people take for granted, a single white woman living alone in a whole house was an utterly new and bewildering sight.

The children of the village began a daily routine passing by my gate on their way home from the local kinder or primary school. Although extremely shy, they slowed down and peeked in to hopefully get a glimpse of “the woman” and her pets, a small dog named Benji and a beautiful cat named Lucy. I later learned animals are not considered pets to be cared for and loved. But here the pets shared a home with me; yet another strange and puzzling aspect of this new lady in town. As their curiosity grew, I could only imagine the stories they told at home!

One day, I noticed the children frequently carried papers and over-chewed pencil stubs. That gave me an idea, so I ran into the house to fetch a box of new pencils, sharpened and complete with erasers, and handed one to each child. Every face blossomed into surprise mingled with gratitude. Such a small act brought so much joy.

A few days later, eight children appeared at the gate. I invited them into my patio to sit around the table with six chairs, with the smaller children sharing a chair. I gave each child two sheets of plain recycled paper and stood away and watched: The children were thinking about what they could do on their sheet of paper. And using their brand-new pencils, they did everything imaginable to those pieces of paper. Every child was focused, engaged and truly happy.

Then it dawned on me: I’d given the children a space and only two simple materials, yet each child in their own way became creative. Thus was born the educational philosophy that is now the operating principle that gives children of all ages the opportunity and inspiration to discover their authentic intelligence and inner worth. It is simply:


Space • Materials • Ideas • Guidance

This is Ojala Niños.

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