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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 12, Number 7, May/June 2000

A journey of discovery:
The Mayan children of Guatemala

by Yves Parizeau

As I sat by Lake Atitlan, surrounded by towering volcanoes in the Highlands of Guatemala, I was suddenly aware of the presence of two little girls. They were Mayans and both dressed in their beautiful traditional clothes. They sat beside me, holding the handmade friendship bracelets they were selling. One of them, 8-year-old Manuela sighed as she said: “We haven’t sold anything today!” followed by: “My mom won’t be very happy!” It was the beginning of our conversation and as you might have guessed, Manuela and her friend were successful in completing their first sale of the day (or was it really the first one!?). My conversation with Carmen, Manuela’s friend, was more limited as she spoke mainly Catchiquel, one of 20 or so Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala. Talking in Spanish (or trying to!) with Manuela, I had a chance not only to discover she was a shrewd businessperson like so many other children who need to work to help their families but also to find out more about her life and how she felt about school. It was one of several conversations I had with Mayan children in Guatemala.

I have now just returned from this amazing country, thanks to a Global Education grant from the BCTF. For the last three years, the school where I teach has been involved in helping and learning from Mayan organizations that are promoting culture and literacy programs in Spanish and Mayan languages. The impetus came from our school commitment to global education and from a meeting we had with Sheila Reid. A former B.C. teacher and social activist, Reid had been working in Guatemala for a number of years and provided us with ideas on how we could help and learn from the indigenous people of Guatemala.

I was fortunate to be able to see first hand how we could be more involved. Up until now our commitment had been limited to a one-time exchange of art work between our students and Mayan children, as well as raising $350 to buy much needed books for a school in a small town by the name of Momostanango. The trip has now given me a much clearer picture of where we can go from here.

Guatemala is a country with a tragic past. As recently as the ’80s and early ’90s, Guatemala was engulfed in a war that killed an estimated 200,000, mainly indigenous people, and forced scores of refugees into Mexico. Whole villages were annihilated. Two years ago, a peace accord was signed but the scars remain. The Truth Commission determined that 90% of the atrocities had been committed by the army backed by the government.

Guatemala’s population is at least 60% Mayan. Guatemalans of Mayan descent are still perceived as second-class citizens and have little political and economic powers. According to a recent report from UNICEF, 75% live in extreme poverty, 60% of the children do not attend school and half of them suffer from malnutrition.

The Mayan organization our school is now involved with is called Pop Atziak (pronounced “pup-pat-tsee-AK”), which means in Quiche (one of the main Mayan languages), “History of Weaving.” Weaving is a very important part of the culture and it is indeed very striking as one travels around to notice the colourful traditional clothes woven on human powered looms. Pop Atziak supports a group of weavers by finding markets offering fair pricing.

Pop Atziak sponsors two literacy groups. Children and adults meet in the evening three to four times a week. Under the guidance of their teacher, they learn Quiche in its written form, Spanish, and the rich Mayan culture. Pop Atziak also provides scholarships for secondary school students; although public school is free, families must still pay for books and uniforms, an impossible task for most Mayan people.

The children and the families I visited lived under conditions that would be considered very poor by North American standards. Their small houses, made of adobe bricks, were often without electricity or running water. All the tasks were done manually and the children were expected to do their share. I witnessed them planting corn in the fields, carrying huge loads of wood for cooking on their shoulders, preparing the corn to make tortillas, starting the fire in a primitive woodstove, carrying water, and washing clothes by hand in basins or in streams. Older kids looked after the younger ones, helped with the weaving, or sold crafts in the streets.

No wonder a lot of them don’t go to school—where would they find the time? Without a redistribution of the wealth that is in the hands of the very few rich and without a true commitment from the government to education and fair job creation, Mayan children will continue to be needed at home because it’s a question of survival.

But some Mayan children do go to school. They go from 07:30 to 12:30, then they go home to work! I was able to visit several schools often unannounced, and was always warmly welcomed. The children were exuberant and their teachers more than willing to share their thoughts on an education system that is not working; they were doing the best they could under difficult working circumstances—underpaid (average wages of $250 a month), lacking in resources and having to face large class sizes. Classes usually have over 40 students; I saw a Grade 4 class of 47 and a Grade 6 class with 65 students!

In all of the schools I visited, I didn’t notice any books except for some provided by non-profit organizations such as Probigua, a language school in Antigua.

Providing books for Pop Atziak’s literacy groups seems to be a logical way for my school to help. Secondly, a few staff members are developing a series of lessons on comparing the lives of Mayan children with the lives of our students. Using the UN Rights of the Child as a framework is something we are considering. Above all, we want to celebrate childhood.

Visiting those families and schools was a very emotional experience and it often brought tears to my eyes. I felt moved by the strength of the people and their determination to survive. As I settled back home, I was struck by how much we waste and how much “stuff” we have. What used to bother me doesn’t seem to be that significant after all; things need to be kept in perspective. I’m also very energized because I know that together we can make a difference. The Mayan children have made a tremendous impact on me. Manuela and so many other children will never know how much they taught me. I’m grateful for what they gave me and I can hardly wait to go back—there is still so much to learn!

Yves Parizeau teaches at Rogers Elementary School, Victoria.

We hope that in the near future the lessons we’re developing will be available to other teachers through Lesson Aids. I am available to talk and show slides to individuals and groups who would like to know more about the project and how they could help. There are also many individuals who have lived or traveled in central America and who might want to share their expertise with us. Some teachers might have developed units on the Rights of the Child or on the lives of children from other countries: we would love to hear from you. I can be reached at Rogers School at (250) 727-0188, fax: (250) 727-2079.

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