Thursday, December 8, 2016

Week Four in Guatemala: Many Memories Still To Be Made

Day 23

Gapsters Entering El Sitio For Their Final Class

Our final week in Guatemala marked the end of our traditional classroom gatherings at El Sitio. The last class consisted of discussion centered around course materials and shared experiences in the field as they related to academic themes from the semester. A few of the conversational topics in our final class once again circled back around to issues of power dynamics, marginalization and oppression, social justice issues, and how one chooses to respond to the various social and environmental injustices we have been exposed to throughout the semester -- but certainly, here in Guatemala. More pointedly, Dr. Fredrickson stressed the importance of cultivating a well-balanced and reasoned perspective on how to address these injustices, stating that as young adults, they need to become more actively engaged in their analysis of news and media information. Particularly in this age of instant gratification and having access to multiple information sources at one's fingertips, Dr. Fredrickson emphasized the necessity of becoming more critical consumers of the news. The group was urged to consider that every news source usually has some level of bias, and that as modern-day learners, we must acknowledge the presence of biases, become confident in our viewpoints, and be able to substantiate our positions with solid, reputable facts. We were further encouraged to analyze the rapid explosion of social media, including an analysis of our personal investments in the techno-sphere. The overabundance of news sources on social media that are not founded on factual evidence challenges each user to determine whether the news source is legitimate or illegitimate. With this overabundance of news sources and instantaneous information, we were confronted with the harsh reality that we cannot be lackadaisical about our news consumption. We were introduced to the idea of 'fact checking' as a countermeasure to this passive habit of assuming the legitimacy of all information on the Internet as being sound and true. 

Gapsters "Cutting A Rug" At A Local Studio

As welcome relief to a class full of weighty discussion, a handful of students participated in salsa lessons at a local dance studio, willfully immersing themselves in a piece traditional Guatemalan culture. Natalie, Bry, Claire, Alexis and Nathaniel shamelessly shared their moves with Martin and the other salsa instructors. After class, and salsa lessons, we headed to the guest house for a pizza dinner celebration and bonfire with s'mores as a thank you to our host families for their generosity and hospitality during the previous two weeks. Many students expressed appreciation for being able to spend their final night with host families in such a light-hearted, carefree way. Conversation between the farmers, their families, and our students was filled with memories and gratitude from the past few weeks. 

Day 24

Day 24 began with a traditional tamale workshop led by Thelma Gonzalez. Tamales are a corn-based dough mixed with tomato sauce and veggies or chicken, individually prepared, wrapped, and boiled until served. The tamales are wrapped in two separate leaves. The first leaf comes from the banana tree, used to enhance the tamale's flavor. The second leaf, mashan, speeds the cooking process, and holds the tamale's form. Conversation with farmers at dinners and workshops lead students to the understanding that this traditional dish is a staple in many Guatemalan Christmas, birthday, and New Year celebrations. One farmer stated that in preparation for Christmas, she makes and sells over 700 tamales, all in two days. Each family we spoke with regarding holiday tradition stated that they recognize the new year by eating a tamale at midnight, ensuring that the first day of the year is spent in conversation and community with each other.

Nate And Bryanna Preparing Tamales

Freshly Wrapped Tamale - Before The Cooking Stage

This workshop, similar to the pepian workshop from week two, graced our students with the opportunity to work alongside local co-op farmers preparing their own meal, while gaining valuable insight into the lengthy tamale preparation process. Spending half of the day creating and consuming a traditional Guatemalan meal with one of the cooperative farmers allowed our students the opportunity to revisit the concept of accompaniment from last week's material.

Day 25

Glimpse of Lake Petén Just Outside Flores

Today's change in scenery came after a character-building 13-hour bus ride from San Miguel Escobar to Isla de Flores in Lake Petén. Before taking off, the Gapsters were encouraged to "unplug" and be conscious of their surroundings both inside the van and out. During the cross-country trip, students were making connections to scenic themes discussed in class. The first scenic connection was an old Kaibil sign. Appearing in the course textbook Silence on the Mountain, we learned that the Kaibil military group was responsible for wartime atrocities during the civil war, included kidnapping, torture, and murder. The second connection made came after the identification of grid patterned hillside communities. According to Buried Secrets author Victoria Sanford, these grid communities were first implemented by the Guatemalan military as "model-villages" during the internal conflict. Additionally, our bus driver informed us that many Guatemalans were displaced because of regular volcanic activity, creating a need to more efficiently use space within cities. The bus ride certainly tested our stamina, but the students stated that the intensity and duration of the trip was well worth being able to analyze Guatemala's scenery, relating their observations back to course readings.

Day 26

Laura And Morgan Looking Over The Ixpanpajul Canopy

Day 26 was a highly anticipated free day, giving students a chance to explore Flores, catch up on sleep and homework, and make connections with loved ones back home. Some students explored Cueva de la Serpiente (Cave of the Serpent), some took a boat to Jorge's Rope Swing for swimming and rope-assisted acrobatics, some took a shuttle to Ixpanpajul National Park, and others wandered the streets of Flores visiting shops, restaurants, and local hang-out spots. Cueva de la Serpiente was home to a system of limestone chambers filled with stalagmite and stalactite formations, wet ceilings and floors, bats, and happy students.

Entering "Cave Of The Serpent"

Jorge's Rope Swing is an internationally known hot spot that offers a unique swimming experience on Lake Petén. For ten quetzales, each student was able to use the rope for as long as they desired. Students had hangtime competitions and splash contests to keep their rope swing and swimming experience as entertaining as possible. Ixpanpajul Natural Park offered jungle canopy zip lining, horseback riding, and suspension bridges. Our group decided to go on the suspension bridge hike, where toucans and howler monkeys were alive and active.

Sunset On Lake Petén Returning From Jorge’s Rope Swing

Day 27

Carlos Explains The Development Of Mayan Water Reservoirs 

Driving through an entrance arch inspired by ancient Mayan architecture, Tikal National Park welcomes its visitors with curvy roads thickly surrounded by exotic plant life, signs warning of crossing wildlife, heavy humid air, and a sense of natural grandeur that evokes unbearable anticipation. After parking, applying sunscreen, and the arguably necessary bug spray, students were lead to the welcome lobby where we were shown a to-scale three dimensional depiction of the park as it appeared before the arrival of Spanish colonizers. Our tour guide Carlos was born in the only remaining village that existed during the peak of the Mayan . Through connections and networking, Carlos became a tour guide for Tikal National Park, working as the primary liaison for National Geographic visits, restorations, and some excavations. His connection with the village and the Mayan ruin site at Tikal has made him an invaluable source of knowledge for individuals and organizations looking to further their understanding of ancient Mayan history. We were incredibly fortunate to have such a superb tour guide.

Family Of Coatimundis Searching For Breakfast 

Our walking time between ruins and points of interest were made special by friendly encounters with coatimundis, and sightings of spider monkeys, toucans, and other unidentifiable jungle birds. Our stops at various temples, altars, courtyards, and residences coupled with a constant flow of knowledge from Carlos substantiated claims and evidence surrounding the advanced nature of Mayan culture, science, and architecture. Two of our students favorite examples of this advanced society were the Mayan method of teaching astrology, and their indescribable ability to create a main plaza that gave birth to the name we now use to reference the ruined city -- Tikal. Students learned that Mayans created a water channeling system that allowed wilful flooding and draining of entire plazas to reflect the night sky. Because there were so many stars, and because they were difficult to distinguish by merely pointing up, teachers and students would stand in the flooded plaza, where teachers would use sticks to point out stars in the water's reflection, rather than trying to describe patterns by pointing to the sky. Secondly, students learned that the word Tikal stems from the Mayan word ti ak'al -- our guide told us that, to the Mayans, ti ak'al meant "place of whispers", but was understood by colonists to be pronounced and spelt as Tikal. The label "place of whispers" originated from the main plaza's perfect acoustics that allow individuals to stand on opposite ends of the plaza and engage in a perfectly audible conversation of whispers.

Temple I And The Central Plaza -- Picture Taken From Temple IV

Our students continuously noted the unfortunate destruction of Mayan culture and theory by Spanish colonizers, and the ignorance of Spanish invaders assuming that Mayans were inferior due to certain cultural tendencies. One such tendency was contemplation before response in conversation. Carlos told us that Mayans (and still most traditional Guatemalans) listen to understand, rather than to respond. This lack of cultural acknowledgement by the Spanish further encouraged our students to be cognizant of cultural differences when interacting with others. Our time in Tikal ended with another temple climb that allowed us a fantastic canopy view of the Tikal jungle, Temple I, and Temple IV.

Temples I And IV Peek Above The Canopy

Day 28

Day 28 started at 12:01 a.m. on a closed down highway en route to San Miguel Escobar. The Gap crew waited for 2 hours while road construction took place. It certainly wasn't the most exciting part of the trip, but it was a certainly a memorable example of what many Guatemalans experience when traveling to Guatemala City and throughout the country. After arriving to La Casona in San Miguel, the Gapsters went to bed, ready for a full night sleep before a free day meant to give students an opportunity to pack, work on papers, and decompress after a long weekend at Tikal. The evening of our free day was taken up by an activity known as Hot Seat/Love Seat. The purpose of this activity was to create an atmosphere of constructive and positive feedback relating to the students semester as a whole. Students shared their opinions on individuals growing edges, and what they appreciated most about having individuals be a part of the cohort. The feedback shared in this activity was meant to be a constructive way of contributing to the individual development and growth of each student. The day before our departure, the cohort ate dinner together at a lovely in-home restaurant where we conducted the final evening meeting of the semester. Students shared their favorite memories from the semester, and shared one last meal before setting off for campus.

This semester has provided our students with countless gifts and blessings. The knowledge, experience, memories, and relationships made throughout the course of this program will stay with our students for the rest of their lives. In the spirit of the Gap Experience Mission, we hope that through this literature, you have gained a glimpse of the experiential service learning our 2016 cohort encountered, motivating you to be a part of the advocacy we attempt to create in our students. With continual exposure to culture, and regular contemplation of that culture, we hope to create a future generation of students that truly advocate for intellectual development, and cultural understanding. This years group certainly brought their A game. Thank you for your support of this years Gap cohort!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Week Three: Land of the Eternal Spring

Day 16

The Gapsters kicked off our third week in Guatemala with a return to Los Patojos school. Once again, we were reminded of how the school creates an environment that fosters development through education and play, rather than through drugs and gang involvement. In class, we have been learning about the theory of accompaniment that was originally proposed by Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez and Dr. Paul Farmer. The topic of accompaniment was particularly relevant to our class conversations revolving around Los Patojos, because the theory is centered in mutuality; we learn as much from those we are with as they learn from us. Our interactions with the children through sports, art, and music gave us the opportunity to impact each other’s lives through simple acts of relationship building, rather than through traditional service (e.g. building homes for Habitat for Humanity). As Paul Farmer wrote, “The process is humbling, since there is always an element of temporal and experiential mystery, of openness, in accompaniment.” These words were especially relevant when pondering the language barriers our students had to overcome while at Los Patojos. Instead of participating in service that does not require intentional interaction with those we were accompanying (such as serving/preparing meals or fixing houses), we embraced the universal language of love in accordance with the mission of Los Patojos. This language of love went above and beyond the necessity of verbal conversation. It forced us to use creativity, supplementing a lack of verbal communication with our actions and feelings.

Gapsters Playing Alongside The Children Of Los Patojos

During class, we had a debate on the positive and negative effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). NAFTA was first implemented as a way to open trade routes between Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In theory, this trade agreement would allow goods and services to flow freely across national borders, thereby eliminating the import and export tariffs previously imposed on goods crossing national borders. The thought was by eliminating export taxes for goods being produced in Mexico, individual citizens would benefit because they would get a higher price for their goods when exporting them to developed countries such as the United States. Realistically, the agreement saw large corporations receiving benefits that greatly outnumbered those of small businesses or individuals. The aftermath of FTAA was similar to that of NAFTA. Developed countries were now able to outsource cheap labor in developing countries, eventually lowering wage standards, and monopolizing industries that effectively hindered the sustainability of small businesses.

Day 17

Day seventeen began with a tour of Guatemala City's National Palace of Culture. The Palace was constructed in 1943 under the order of Jorge Ubico, to serve as Guatemala's governmental headquarters. Ubico was an oppressive leader that mandated inhumane labor requirements for the unemployed, and forced prisoners to construct his grandeur Palace. Upon entering this massive space, we were easily swayed by the extravagant two and a half ton chandelier, finely crafted doors and pillars, the brilliantly polished floors, and a 24 carat gold ceiling. Further analysis of this lavish spending during a time of civil turmoil and governmental corruption lead to a more focused perspective on The Palace's questionable origins.

Chandelier Imported From New York Hanging In The Palace's Ambassador Hall

Coincidentally, we were at a point in our course material, specifically the course text Silence on the Mountain, that emphasized the Guatemalan government's desire to appear wealthy so as to maintain foreign investment fueling political efforts. The Palace was simply a reinforcement of the misrepresentation of Guatemala’s wealth. After continuing our tour, we stopped at the reception hall where a series of stained-glass windows displayed the ten values of Guatemalan government: progress, peace, labor, liberty, justice, honesty, concord, order, institute, and fortitude. We found it interesting that the building housed windows representing the moral values of the Guatemalan government that directly contradicted the government's actions during the civil war.

Stain Glass Windows Displaying Guatemala's Governmental Values

The National Palace has two large patios; one represented peace, and the other represented culture. The Patio of Peace displayed a mural of 29 hands holding up a white rose symbolizing the 28 tribes of indigenous Guatemalans living in harmony with the Spanish. Our tour guide helped us understand that this symbolic depiction was incredibly inaccurate. During the Spanish colonization, discrimination and targeting of indigenous peoples was overwhelmingly common. Many indigenous lives were lost during the Spanish colonization. The Guatemalan government, to this day, provides economic and social incentives to declare nationality as non-indigenous.

Today's activities exposed some pretty ugly truths in Guatemala's history. In addition to gaining more knowledge on national corruption, we learned about the 1996 Peace Accords signed in The National Palace, which technically ended the thirty-six year civil war. As we know from class discussions and site visits, these agreements have not yet been upheld by the government. No actions have been taken to try those responsible for the human rights violations during Guatemala’s internal war. This lack of accountability by those responsible for wartime atrocities is extremely unsettling for many Guatemalans. Fortunately, groups such as Los Hijos combat the attempts by the Guatemalan government to "overlook" and minimize the government's actions during the brutal civil war. Los Hijos was established by children of genocide victims as a way to not only to raise awareness of the atrocities committed by the government, but the group actively pushes back against the government's denials, attempting to holds those accountable for the human rights abuses that were committed, yet perhaps most poignantly, Los Hijos is committed to keeping the memory of their loved ones alive.

Paulo Leads A Los Hijos Tour Through Guatemala City

Los Hijos is attempting to reclaim public space by displaying victim's pictures and stories on city walls, and spreading their message of accountability by educating through walking tours, parades, museum displays, etc. Los Hijos is keeping the memory of disappeared individuals alive despite the relentless efforts by government to remove the posters from public places, and remove the disappearances from people's memories. By listening to the personal accounts of Paulo and his colleagues at Los Hijos, we now stand in solidarity with Guatemalans still searching for answers. With every group Los Hijos educates, their own mission is reinforced and

One Of The Many Walking Tour Displays Recognizing Guatemala's Disappeared

Days 18 & 19

Wednesday and Thursday, we commuted to Jocotenango to spend time with the children of Los Patojos. Most of our time was spent observing and supporting the students as they practiced for an upcoming talent show. It was uplifting to see how dedicated the children were as they practiced their performance sets many times over. Our applause and cheers were a fantastic trade for the incredible entertainment they excitedly provided for us. Time at Los Patojos was greatly anticipated, and even more so appreciated. How appropriate that our last visit to the school was on Thanksgiving Day!

In class, after our final visit to Los Patojos, we shared reflections on our experiences at The Palace and on our walking tour with Los Hijos. We coupled this debrief with a lesson on public speaking. Each student was required to read their reflection papers aloud to the class, as if they were presenting their reflection at a conference. In congruence with developing speaking skills, the activity allowed students an additional opportunity to process their feelings, thoughts, and concerns after a long day in Guatemala City.

Following class, we headed to the Santa Catalina Arch where we departed for a secret Thanksgiving dinner location. We crammed 22 people into one shuttle van, some on top of each other, to deliver pizza. Wait, what? Yes, we delivered a tasty looking combination pizza to a kindly looking man our way to the mystery destination. After an uphill drive filled with song and laughter, we arrived at Cerro San Cristobal, a farm to table restaurant with a mountainside view of Antigua. After exploring the grounds, and singing "Unwritten" as a group, we sat down for a wonderful dinner of pizza, pasta, nachos, smoothies, and more. When dinner was finished, we went around the table sharing our thank you's and appreciations from the previous year. Many were thankful for family, friends, health, education, the wonderful view, and the opportunity to travel freely. Overall, the students agreed that it was a memorable first thanksgiving away from home.

View Of Volcan De Fuego From Cerro San Cristobal

Day 20

After a wonderful Thanksgiving feast, the cohort split up to participate in artisan workshops. This round, everyone picked a workshop other than the sessions they were a part of last week. Some people crushed peanuts into peanut butter, others sewed together burlap or huipil bags, and some labored at woodworking or ironworking shops. Each student was able to create a keepsake as a reminder of the day's activities. It was a humbling experience to once again see how much work the artisan’s put into developing their hand-crafted products.

Roberto Watches Nate Form His Tray's Frame

Aerial View Of Guatemalan Peanut Butter Processing

Days 21 & 22

The Gap students split into two hiking groups. The first group hiked Pacaya, and the second group conquered Acatenango. On the way to Pacaya, Diego, our interpreter from Old Town Outfitters, showed us a little secret inside the Ring of Fire. There is a specific location on the main highway to Pacaya that creates a magnetic field strong enough to pull vehicles in neutral uphill towards the source of the magnetic energy. After experiencing this nifty science experiment, we set off to Pacaya's entrance point. Upon reaching the summit, we enjoyed a nice surprise of toasted marshmallows. There are two open vents pumping out hot air from magma chambers below the volcano's surface, allowing locals and hungry hikers to make a sweet treat in a unique way.

Pacaya Crew Roasting Marshmallows Over A Volcano Vent

After consuming the whole bag of 'mallows, we walked across a field of volcanic rock leftover from a 2012 lava flow where we visited a tiny stand called "The Lava Store". Because of its location (on an active volcano), the Lava Store was recognized by National Geographic as being one of the world's most unconventional shops. It sold silver earrings, branded coconut shell bracelets, and necklaces/rings/earrings embedded with volcanic rock. After our perusal of The Lava Store, we made a small climb to the top of Pacaya for a lunch of cold cut sandwiches, fresh guacamole, fruit, and aloe water. After, a long descent back to the bottom of the volcano, a relaxing drive back to San Miguel was greatly appreciated.

The Acatenango group hiked over the course of two days, guided by Mara, Oscar, and Rodrigo from Old Town Outfitters. The first portion of Saturday's six hour hike passed through the land of an 83 year old farmer named Don Martin. During the next four hours of the ascent, the group climbed through eroded gullies that was the trail through volcanic soil -- walled in by barbed wire to keep hikers out of the surrounding farmland -- and continued the ascent upward. Eventually the group entered a cloud forest, which was home to moss covered hardwoods, bamboo trees and verdant vibrant plant life. Cloud forest gave way to sparse evergreen forest. The hike was strenuous, and the group reached based camp, which was approximately at 11,700 ft. and there the group stopped to share an evening meal around a roaring campfire before attempting to summit Volcan Acantenango the following morning. 

Sunrise On Acatenango

After a night of rest (but not necessarily sleep), we had a 4 a.m. “voyageur start” reminiscent of our time with Outward Bound. Mara stayed back at base camp while Oscar and Rodrigo motivated us to reach the summit. At one point during the morning ascent we reached a dry section of the volcano where one step up meant two steps sliding back down. This one step forward, two steps back phenomenon was noted by our students as being analogical to systematic oppression discussed in this semester's coursework. After the dry patch, and before reaching the top of Acatenango, Oscar pointed out a crater formed by the volcano's most recent eruption in 1972. Each student stated that the hike's difficulty was no match for the beauty at the pinnacle's top most view. Our first three weeks in Guatemala have tested the students physically, mentally, and emotionally. Check back in next week to see how our final week unfolds!

Summit Of Acatenango

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Digging Deeper... Coming Into a More Crucial Understanding of Guatemala's History

First-Hand History: Learning Through Doing, Seeing and Feelings of Solidarity

Multi-Tasking: Artwork With Bean Sorting

Day 9
The students spent their ninth morning in Guatemala working and learning in the homes of four De la Gente co-op farmers. The first group of students was assigned the task of sorting coffee beans in preparation for roasting. The initial step was to sift the beans through a large table-top strainer, separating the product by size and eliminating beans that were too small. Once the beans were separated by size, the students began sorting for quality, removing those with defects or discoloration. While talking to families during the sorting process, we learned that defective beans become fertilizer for next years crop. This sustainable closed-cycle system was reminiscent of our experience at The Plant in Chicago. Every opportunity that the farmers have to reduce their reliance on external goods or services, in turn they increase their self-sufficiency. The second group prepared coffee beans by using a machine that removes the bean’s protective outer layer of parchment, readying them for sorting. De la Gente farmers use as little machinery as possible, but the parchment removal process is necessarily expedited by the machine’s efficiency. The third group opened peanut shells, sorting the peanuts by size, color, and overall quality. As is true with De la Gente coffee beans, the standard held by the cooperative farmers who make peanut butter is only possible because the sorting is done by hand, allowing for an intimate inspection of each nut, and bean. The last student group shaved kernels off of corn cobs, which would be crushed up for tortillas. As any Gap student will tell you, tortillas are an integral part of almost every traditional meal in Guatemala. The families we worked with shed light on the copious amount of time and effort that accompany products we consume on a daily basis. Many of us grab a cup of coffee or a jar of peanut butter and neglect to think about the people and time that went into making the product. This experience encouraged us to think about where we buy from, and the people behind each consumption. In class that afternoon, we discussed the history of Guatemala. We began with a debrief of Mayan life in 800 AD, and continued a conversational progression up to modern day Guatemala. One of the most memorable topics covered in class that day regarded the United States involvement in the 1954 Guatemalan coup. This involvement sparked a thought provoking discussion between students about the negative effects of cultural imperialism, and how the United States frequently intervenes when it benefits us economically, even if it is not in the public’s best interest (as is the case with Guatemala in the 1950’s). Leading up to the coup, democratic Guatemala began redistributing land to farmers in the middle and lower classes, stripping away used and abused land owned by the wealthy, and the United Fruit Company -- who owned 85% of Guatemala’s farmland. This redistribution of land enraged the United Fruit Company, who then called on their American allies for support. Many U.S. investors had large stock investments in the United Fruit Company, and when the stock started to bottom out -- due to the increasing wages the company executives had to make to their Guatemalan laborers (many of whom were indigenous peoples who held no political, social or economic power), the United States covertly authorized Operation PBSUCCESS, a Guatemalan military coup that replaced democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz with Carlos Castillo Armas, a dictator loyal to the U.S., as head of Guatemala’s new government. For the next thirty-six years, the country experienced a sequence of military juntas and abusive dictatorships that resulted in clandestine and horrific violence, public protests, and civil unrest. As we have seen in our daily travels, there is still a significant military presence within the cities, stemming from the original civil unrest back in the 50's,l alongside a nearly palpable distrust in the government and its military forces -- all of which is legitimate distrust.

Eric Learning How To Round Edges On His Mahogany Tray

Day 10
After digesting the lessons from class on day nine, we were viewing Guatemala through a new lense, focused by difficult truths. Armed with a more accurate understanding of Guatemalan history, we were once again able to immerse ourselves in local culture. The cohort split up into five groups, learning and crafting with local artisans on wood working, iron working, sewing of traditional Guatemalan shoulder bags, peanut butter processing, and making up-cycled burlap bags made from De Le Gente coffee sacks. Those who participated in iron working learned skills of the trade from Carlos, who has been iron working for twenty-nine years. Those who joined the woodworking session learned from Roberto, another craftsman with over twenty years of experience. The dedication and commitment shown by these artisans was matched only by their incredible patience when helping us through the arduous creation process. A common theme amongst student's post-workshop chatter referenced the difference between the Guatemalan emphasis on intricacies of the creation process, contrasted to a typical North American ideology that emphasizes efficiences-of-scale, uniform output, and cheap labor.

Claire Getting A Lesson On Chinese Yo-Yo

Days 11 and 12

Wednesday and Thursday started with trips to Jocotenango, which translates to "land of jocote". Jocote, a common fruit found in Central America, is equally as vibrant as the buildings that make up this Guatemalan municipality. Jocotenango is only nine square kilometers, but houses 60,000 people. On our first visit, we learned that Jocotenango is considered a sleeper town because most of its residents work in Antigua or Guatemala City. Our reason for traveling to this tiny town was to visit and work in a school called Los Patojos, translated to “the little ones.” Los Patojos was created ten years ago by Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes. Juan Pablo was a teacher within the Jocotenango community that saw too many students dealing with the negative forces of drugs, violence, and gangs -- which Juan Pablor had been exposed to twenty years prior -- he decided something had to change. Los Patojos was created as a safe place where students could step away from the violence, and avoid the temptation of drugs and gang involvement. Initially, Juan Pablo and his parents converted their home into a community center that offered an after school program. As it continued to develop, Los Patojos became a non-traditional school fashioned to counter the apathetic educational mindset due to a declining public school system. The Guatemalan Ministry of Education dedicates only .15 cents per student, per day, which is certainly reflected by the number of students who don't even make it past primary school, because it is more economical for them to start working, rather than getting a sub-standard education. School days at Los Patojos lack a typical level of structure (compared to our experience in the North American schooling system), because the staff believes that fun, the development of social skills, and community building are crucial to individual growth and fostering a sense of educational desire. Los Patojos has four pillars of development: health, education, nutrition, and art. The school has a small clinic with a doctor that sees students three days a week, free of charge. All of the 270 students receive two meals a day, which for some, are often the only meals they get. In addition to classroom work, students learn how to juggle, dance, paint, play the marimba (Guatemala’s national instrument), ride unicycles, play futbol, and more. The philosophy of the school is love—to love one another in a selfless way. Los Patojos prides itself in being a place where kids can feel safe to grow, think, and be themselves. With this ideology, Juan Pablo and his other colleagues are working with local universities to create a replicable system to implement in schools throughout Guatemala.

In 2014, thanks to his radical philosophy, hard work and passion for education, Juan Pablo was the first Latino to be nominated for the CNN Heroes award. The school is run entirely on donations, although one day they hope to be self sustaining. The CNN Heroes nomination, and the publicity followed, was pivotal for their development. Juan Pablo says that the purpose of developing their program is to empower the people of his country, reminding them that they have all the tools necessary to fix their problems. In the words of Juan Pablo, “You can’t run away from a problem. You have to face it head on.” We were afforded the opportunity to be a part of Los Patojos’ mission by cooking, singing, playing with, and accompanying the kids learning in the classroom. Los Patojos is living proof that this method of alternative education is effective and desirable.  

Students Preparing For Their Class Presentations

Thursday's class allowed us to relate our coursework to our first hand experiences from Los Patojos. We had a healthy competition between the guys and gals in which we presented our views on topics such as the global drug in the Latin American and U.S. economies, governmental corruption, and gang violence in Latin America. Gang prevalence in Latin America is directly linked to a lack of education and social services, and indirectly linked to the regularly occurring deportations of undocumented persons from the United States back to Latin America -- where these dispossessed youth are further disenfranchised from any viable (and legal) economic livelihood. The most profound example of deportations indirectly leading to Latin American gang activity occurred in 2008 under the Obama administration, where nearly 2 million people were transported out of the U.S. Frequently, however, many migrants were deported to countries other than that of their origin, where most were unable to establish community connections, and many faced language barriers, as they did not speak the language native to the area where they had been deported to.

Samuel From The Martyrs Museum Tells Us About His Father

Day 13
There is no shortage of educational moments in this program. Although we did not have formal class on Friday, we gained unique knowledge from our time in the community. We spent the day in Guatemala City expanding our knowledge of the human rights violations that accompanied Guatemala's Civil War. Our first stop was the Martyrs Museum where we met Samuel Villatoro, son of a disappeared martyr, and the museum's founder. Amancio, Samuel's father, was among the 45,000 disappeared people from the Guatemalan Civil war. Amancio was a revolutionary leader during the war, advocating for unions and civil rights. His involvement in social activism against the dictatorial regime made him a target. Amancio knew that his capture (disappearance) and death were imminent, so his family often moved around from house to house, hoping to avoid tracking. Samuel's mother would write down exactly what Amancio was wearing in the instance that he didn't come home that night. This went on for 4 years, until Amancio was discovered and forcibly taken from his home in January of 1982. According to military records, he was tortured for 57 days before his death on March 29th. In 2006, a group of forensic scientists uncovered Amancio’s body alongside five others in a ditch on an inactive military base. The forensic scientists that work with Samuel and his organization believe that these six victims were buried alive due to a lack of significant injuries or damage done to the bodies. A military diary was also discovered with the names of 183 other victims, including various codes that indicated whether they were executed, or if they provided useful counter-intelligence information (which would temporarily save them from being tortured). Only 6 of these cases have actually been tried by the Guatemalan judicial system and considered closed; most families still do not know where their loved ones are, or what happened to them.

It was mentioned that almost everyone in Guatemala knows someone who is among the disappeared: a neighbor, relative, or friend. While talking with the group, Samuel made it very clear that his agenda was not to make people cry and feel sorry for him, but rather, he originally opened the museum as a way to bring dignity to those who have been captured -- to all victims of disappearance. To this day, most of Guatemala's governmental body is either encouraging people to forget these past atrocities and move on, or are completely denying the genocides existence. Without a full confession from the government, without justice brought forth on those who committed the acts of terror, and without a tangible improvement to overall human rights in the country, Samuel and his team will not rest until truth and justice prevail.

After our visit at the museum, we headed to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission to talk with Danya, a Representative for G.H.R.C. which was originally established in the U.S. In 1982, Sally Sogmen, a nun from Minnesota, had been traveling throughout Guatemala and saw the level of civil rights violations and the extreme violence that was plaguing many Guatemalans during that stage of the civil war. She went back to the U.S and began making connections with refugees, eventually opening an official office as a safe haven for those fleeing the civil war violence. In 2011, Ally and the G.H.R.C. saw the need to establish an official office in Guatemala because they were unable to effectively meet the needs of Guatemalans living outside of the states. According to Sally, the organization's focal points are militarization, women’s rights, decriminalization and impunity, truth, justice, historic memory, LGBT rights, and access to land and natural resources. In many ways this organization’s efforts parallel those of the Martyrs Museum. Specifically, in 1990, both the G.H.R.C. and supporters of the Martyr's Museum campaigned against the growing violence that was ravaging their country. Through these campaigns, both groups pressured the Guatemalan government to release classified documents of the disappeared, and such sensitive documents would allow the people to bring to trial those involved in the wartime atrocities. Once the documents were released and declassified, it was discovered that the CIA had authorized a program that trained Guatemalan police and military forces in methods of torture, which were then used on those who had been disappeared. After this information was made public, the United States government discontinued the program, denying any further involvement. Today, although the war has technically ended, the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission continues to document human rights abuses, and advocate for those who are facing civil injustices perpetuated by corrupt governmental powers.

Drive-By View Of Lake Atitlan And The Surrounding Volcanoes

Day 14
Saturday morning, after an incredibly powerful day spent at the Martyrs Museum and the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, the Gapsters were up and out by 5 a.m. We hit the road, destined for Lake Atitlan -- the deepest lake in Central America -- where we were given free time to immerse ourselves in more Guatemalan culture. We took full advantage of our opportunity to explore the town, meet some of the local population, eat traditional meals, hike at a nearby nature preserve, boat to surrounding towns, and swim in the uncharacteristically temperate lake. Because of its elevation, Atitlan should be too cold to swim in, but the surrounding volcanoes and geothermal activity helps keep the water warm. In addition to Saturday's fun and relaxation, we experienced first-hand how our course concepts of cultural imperialism and hegemony were certainly visible in the tourist hot spot of Panajachel. North American pop music played on almost all speakers, logos of North American sports teams were worn by young Guatemalans on every street, buses and taxis were decorated with stickers of North American cartoon characters, and CDs of Hollywood movies were being sold on every block. Overall it was hard not to recognize the influence that American consumerism has played in eroding the remaining native traditions and cultural identities of the 28 indigenous groups that make-up the fabric of Guatemala.

On our drive to and from the lake, we noticed large caravans of finely dressed Guatemalans loaded up in truck beds or packed into vans decorated with balloons and colorful trinkets. Our shuttle driver suggested that the caravans were attendees of weddings or quinceaneras. The number of times we have frequently observed Guatemalans gathering for weddings, birthdays, and holidays are evidence to fact that despite the cultural influence America's pop culture has had on Guatemala, they still place high priority on community and social investment in family and friends. As our next two weeks in Central America unfold, we hope to continue, and deepen, our understanding and respect for what it means to be a member of the small Guatemalan community of San Miguel Escobar and beyond.