I met him at the gate. He was an unannounced youth of some 20 years, wearing a threadbare shirt and pants that hung on his thin frame, with cheap rubber boots, torn away from the soles that invited the road’s dust inside to his feet. In his left hand, he carried an unsheathed machete; in this right, a near-empty sack with something obviously live wiggling in it. I had no idea who he was or from where he came, but this young man clearly had no doubts that it was me that he wanted to meet with. His name was Alonzo.
He explained that he had spent the morning hiking from his small village of Nuevo San Ildefonso, a place I’d never heard of. Then, he stooped down, untied the sack, and amidst a wild fluttering and flapping of wings, a scrawny white chicken jumped out, cackling noisily. I stiffened, because upon seeing this emaciated bird, I knew that Alonzo had traveled this long distance to ask Adopt-a-Village for something significant. According to Mayan custom, I had no choice but to accept the chicken. What did Alonzo want? He explained that because it was in the midst of “dry season,” with no rainfall, water had dried up in his village. The people were desperate. They were hiking a full day to a distant spring, carrying water in earthen jugs on their heads, barely surviving day by day.
Later that week, I trekked to Alonzo's village, a nearly four-hour hike along a narrow winding footpath that eventually ascended to an altitude of nearly 5,000 feet. The lush, verdant mountainside extended in all directions. Far below, one could gaze upon the magnificent and mighty Ixcan River. Tens of thousands of Maya had fled along its banks during the worst days of the Army massacres in the early 1980’s, frantic to reach the safety of Mexico.
Upon reaching the village, I learned how the small settlement was founded. Decades ago, a group of Mam from San Ildefonso, in the eastern department of Huehuetenango, purchased a section of mountain land in a remote cloud forest of the department, two days travel from their home. Their intent had been to leave their soil-impoverished land and seek out a more fertile place where they could grow the cash crop of coffee in a cool climate where it thrived best. However, as the country’s 36-year civil dragged on, their dream languished and when the war finally ended in 1996, they bequeathed the land to their grandchildren.
It was these young people, such as Alonzo, who came to inhabit this wilderness, bringing with them the same pioneering spirit of their grandparents. They named their small community, “Nuevo San Ildefonso.” The challenges they were to face in the ensuing years proven almost insurmountable, but the little settlement of some 12 couples survived the odds against them. Their greatest problem was lack of rainfall during the dry season. Further, no road reached the small crudely constructed village, and men and women alike were obliged to haul all their food supplies, building materials, and other needs on their backs up the steep five-kilometer mountain path. Nor did the land prove to be as fertile as they had expected. Men were forced to find seasonal work in the hot jungle lands far from the village in order to provide food for their families.
Despite these and many more daily hardships, the villagers of Nuevo San Ildefonso have maintained a strong and positive spirit. It has been this spirit and the hardworking nature of the people that inspired Adopt-a-Village to lend a helping hand to the fledgling community over the years. Water catchment tanks were donated, and food aid given during the long period when the men left their work to build the five-kilometer access road to their village. Village mothers have benefited from a three-year organic gardening program, in which seeds, tools, organic fertilizer, a seedling greenhouse, and training from an agricultural technician has been supplied.
But perhaps their greatest struggle, and their greatest disappointment, has been their failure in succeeding to bring education to their children. As they reached school age, parents sacrificed all they had in order to purchase building materials and then construct a small one-room schoolhouse with their own unskilled labor. Despite that, and despite that primary school education is free in Guatemala, the government refused to dispatch a teacher. Determined to see their children educated, parents spent several years soliciting for a teacher. Their eventual success was short-lived. When an instructor was finally approved, he rarely showed up to teach, all the while drawing his regular salary. The villagers’ solicitations for a replacement have all been refused; as a consequence, over a period of ten years the children’s education amounted to no more than a few lessons here and there. This trickle of instruction was not enough to enable the children learn to speak, read, and write the legal and required national language of Spanish.
Last month, 13 young women—great granddaughters of those who had envisioned the community’s creation half a century ago—enrolled in Adopt-a-Village’s inaugural second-language outreach program, led by one of the organization’s first graduates. Finally parents, who for years have longed to see their children educated, can find renewed hope from an innovative program that is offering new learning opportunities for their children.