By Nick Cuneo
On the morning of the 16th I awoke early to an unpleasant sensation in my intestines and a need to get the bathroom as soon as possible. While I was expecting to be hit by travelers’ diarrhea at some point during my time in Guatemala, I was on some level clinging onto the hope that I might be spared—especially given how good I’d been so far in observing basic food and water precautions (in contrast to previous, diarrhea-free excursions I’ve had in other developing countries where I was much less cautious). Anyway, I was pretty miserable for a couple hours, not only due to the antics taking place in my gut, but also because I was missing out on time at the Colegio (the Colegio Miguel Ángel Asturias) which I’d really been looking forward to since the beginning of the trip.
The Colegio is no ordinary school, by any measure or standard. Providing a transformative education rooted in ideas of social justice and equality to over 200 students K-12 on an operating budget of just $50,000 a year (no, I did not forget a zero), the Colegio is unique within Guatemala in its approach to education and emphasis on leadership.
Guatemala’s education system was ranked last within Latin America just four years ago by UNESCO and has not seen improvement since—indeed, while Guatemala’s population is growing at an annual rate of 3%, funds devoted to public education are barely increasing at all. What this translates to in practice is a situation in which “of every ten children, only eight step foot in an elementary school, and all but three drop out before the end of sixth grade.” Of the seven not making it to the end of sixth grade, it is without doubt that indigenous children (especially girls) make up the great and disproportionate majority. Manifested in such daunting statistics as a 65% illiteracy rate among indigenous adults (in contrast to a 30% rate among European descendants), the Guatemalan government’s historical approach to indigenous education has been reprehensible, at best. Unfortunately, even after the 1996 peace accords which ended Guatemala’s bloody 36-year civil war and promised greater equality with regard to government spending, not much seems to have changed. Fueled by insidious and inveterate racism towards Guatemala’s indigenous population, inequalities within Guatemala’s education system have resulted in a disheartening 66% of indigenous children’s not having access to basic schooling.
In response to these overwhelming numbers, the Colegio has brought children from Guatemala’s most vulnerable sectors together through scholarships and a well subsidized tuition rate to learn under its dramatically improved version of the government’s curriculum, infused with the methods of Paolo Freire and an emphasis on human rights. Consequently, the school’s primarily indigenous student body has achieved outstanding success in national tests, placing the Colegio in the top 10% of private schools in the nation and flying flat in the face of widespread racism regarding “innate differences” in learning capacities within the country and indeed world.
This is why I was upset about missing out that morning on our visit to the school. Fortunately, I was able to come later on in the afternoon, after my intestines had calmed down a bit. After researching the Colegio a great deal while in the process of applying for a grant on its behalf back in the States (before I had even set foot in Xela), I certainly enjoyed getting a glimpse of how it operates.
After our day at the Colegio we ended up at “el Sabor de la Índia,” a tasty Indian restaurant in Xela, with Jorge Chojolàn—the director of the Colegio and Guatemala’s first Ashoka fellow—and his wife and four daughters. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Jorge at one end of the long table with Pavak, Erin, Catarina, and Russ. Throughout the three-hour-long dinner we got to discuss a variety of topics with Jorge and learned quite a bit about his life, interests, and efforts in establishing the Colegio. Little to say, I left the table completely overwhelmed with respect for the man.
The next day was spent traveling to Nebaj, a destination we have been looking forward to for some time in anticipation to begin our work in the country, the reason we are actually here. After some amazing behind-the-scenes coordination by Carlos and David, we ended up with a van and driver—free of charge—through David’s father’s company. Needless to say, the free and extra space made possible by the van was greatly appreciated throughout the five-hour drive. We arrived in Nebaj late that afternoon safe and sound, ready to begin exploring our home for the next four weeks.
Explore is indeed what I got to do the next day with Russ, Steve, and our Ixil guide, Felipe (quite a cool guy) on a five-hour hike across the mountains of Nebaj to a pastoral, cheese-producing community on the other side of the mountains. I say cheese-producing because its main attraction was the large cheese factory on its outskirts, surrounded by idyllic pastures and many, many cows. After tasting its renowned product, a mild Swiss-like cheese that was actually quite good (Latin America is not known for its cheeses, it turns out), we decided to buy some for the group and head back to the hostel on one of the area’s many “microbuses,” almost identical in setup to the many “bush taxis” or “tro-tros” I took in West Africa. That is, a small van with four rows of back seats into which upwards of 20 people are packed for a small price (in this case four quetzals, equivalent to $0.50).
So that’s that. In just three days, I got to visit a remarkable school, have an unforgettable conversation with an amazing man, and hike through beautiful mountains. Not too bad, if you ask me. And I got to eat some decent cheese, too.