The dusty mountain road stretched ahead. I could see up ahead that it was blocked again, this time with a frayed rope hung across it, unlike the rusty chain I’d encountered at the last guard post a few miles back. If I was counting correctly, this would be the sixth stop within the hour where I would be peered at suspiciously and my passport demanded. No “gringos” were traveling in this remote region during the war. I was probably a strange sight to my roadside scrutinizers.
Two ragtag undernourished young men hoisted old M1 rifles over their shoulders as they approached my jeep. They were part of a 700,000 Civil Defense Patrol, local militias, made up of men and boys, some as young as eight years old, who had been forcibly conscripted by the government. They were required to perform unpaid guard duty of at least 12-hour shifts per week. Forced labor was expected as well: members were required to accompany soldiers, provide manual labor for the Army, and participate in combat. To refuse meant fines, beatings, prison or even execution, all without trial.
It was in March 1988 when I traveled that narrow serpentine road that wound through the majestic Cuchumatanes Mountains. The Mayan people would have to endure yet another eight years of war—eight more years of torture, “disappearances” and death— before the fragile peace accords would signal the end of this genocidal war.
The time seemed to drag on interminably at this check point. Finally, I glanced over to the youth holding my passport. “What could be taking him so long to review a simple passport?” I wondered. Puzzled, I leaned forward to take a closer look. He was peering at it intently—but holding the passport upside down. He couldn’t read!
I felt a deep sorrow engulf me. I was learning firsthand some of the reasons for this 36 year Civil War. The most basic needs of life, housing, education, health aid—all were denied the indigenous people. They could only hope that when peace came, they would win those elementary human rights.
Some 30 years later, as I watched our “traveling teacher,” Juan Diego siting on a large boulder with a dozen children happily surrounding him, reading them a story, the memory of that young man attempting to read my passport flooded back to me. I noted the eight and nine year old boys in Juan’s group, the same age as those who had been forced to serve in the Civil Defense Patrol a generation ago. And I observed that these youngsters couldn’t read and write either, even though they had been in primary school for four or five years.
The Adopt-a-Village literacy project was launched earlier this year to help indigenous children learn basic reading in Spanish. Children in this part of Guatemala are raised speaking their native language, but no instruction is provided in school to read and write it. Entering school, they face major hurdles in learning the second, and national, language of Spanish. With teachers not trained to teach a second language, 6th grade graduates leave, only having picked up a smattering of Spanish. As only 30% of rural children complete primary school—the other 70% leave school illiterate. Twenty years after the war, nothing much has changed in this part of Guatemala.
With the help of our friends who donate books and funds to support our “traveling teacher,” Adopt-a-Village is working hard to help overcome this tragedy. The colorfully illustrated books that Juan carries in his backpack as he hikes from village to village, capture the children’s attention, and they gather eagerly around him when he arrives in their village.
During these past few months, he has brought the joy of reading to 90 children in four villages. Those same 90 children can now carry the torch of reading to their younger brothers and sisters. Change is happening. The door to literacy for rural Mayan children is swinging open.