She sat on a low wooden stool in the darkened kitchen of her family’s crudely constructed hut, garbed in her own hand woven exquisitely detailed blouse that seemed to shimmer with its fine jewel-like patterns in the shadows. Maria lives with her parents and seven sisters in the small Mayan village of Nuevo San Ildefonso.
Our conversation centered on the Adopt-a-Village middle school at Maya Jaguar. “If I could attend classes there,” she asked me, “where would I live?” I told her about the brand new girls’ dormitory that had just been constructed where two girls share a room each with their own bed. Her eyes lit up. Her family of nine shares one sleeping room, with three girls to a bed.
Maria and her sisters are among Guatemala’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable group. Statistics show that only 10 percent of rural indigenous girls in this remote region complete primary school due to poverty and discrimination. Lack of education for girls often leads to early marriage and child bearing, domestic servitude, and unremitting poverty from which they rarely escape. As one of eight uneducated girls in her family, Maria could well suffer this fate.
As we chatted, I learned that illiteracy for girls in Nuevo San Ildefonso is much worse than in neighboring villages. It is very rare to find teachers sufficiently trained to meet the needs of students from indigenous communities. Children only speak their Mam language in their homes; Spanish is a required second language for them and all school subjects are taught in Spanish. A teacher in Maria’s village, according to parents, has spent nine years without providing the children with basic Spanish language skills. Nor could children manage elementary arithmetic. One father reported to me that his son could not even count from one to 10.
Due to lack of government oversite and turning a blind eye to the teacher's activities, this man has had no difficulty in producing false records year after year, giving the students passing grades and assigning them to the next grade at the end of the school year. And every month for nine years, he has been rewarded with a monthly salary.
The village remains educationally bankrupt. It wasn’t only Maria and her seven sisters who would not learn to speak Spanish, despite having spent six years in the one-room schoolhouse. It would be all the children these past nine years.
When Adopt-a-Village staff arrived in the village six months ago to propose its new literacy program, they found the village people disconsolate. They were subsistence farmers—illiterate, uneducated, and thoroughly discouraged with their inability to express themselves adequately to Spanish-speaking authorities. They had watched their children attend year after year of classes and leave no more educated than when they had entered on the first day of school. They tried to protest, but they were brushed off. “The teacher is getting old, he’ll retire soon,” an official told them. This justification has a problem. Guatemalan law states that a government teacher has the right to retire when he wants to. Who’s to say that this particular teacher, with his so-soft job that required nothing more than to write on the blackboard and instruct the students to copy into their notebooks, would retire any time soon? This incredible story mirrors the general attitude of the Department of Education toward the indigenous people of these remote villages. In spite of complaints by the parents, lethargic school authorities have never examined, in all these years, why none of the school children were able to speak Spanish upon graduating from sixth grade.
Six months ago, the State of Jefferson Rotary eClub of Oregon, in partnership with Adopt-a-Village, introduced a literacy program to the Nuevo San Ildefonso community. (See our previous blog post dated April 14, 2017). The program called “Let’s Leave No Girl Behind,” focused on providing girls—Guatemala’s most at risk group—a second chance at literacy. The Adopt-a-Village professional “traveling teacher” Juan Diego spent two days a week in the village for six months teaching the women to speak, write, and read basic Spanish. The program has been enormously successful in assisting both teen-age girls like Maria, as well as illiterate women, to learn Spanish.
Creating literacy opportunities for indigenous girls can change the course of their lives, leaving grinding poverty behind and opening doors to promising and productive futures. It serves as a prototype for future literacy projects in indigenous villages. It gives hope that literacy can provide positive outcomes for hundreds of impoverished Mayan girls.
Maria’s eyes sparkled when she said to me, “Now that I can speak Spanish, I hope I will have a chance to study at Maya Jaguar.” I hope so, too.