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.


  1. Looks like a lot of terrific learning is taking place! Magnifico!

  2. Great write up. Looking forward to your safe return. What an adventure for all. You have made us proud! :) Osterbergs

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