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Back from the brink of illiteracy

Eager students recapture lost schooling

A small group of young Chuj Maya teens had gathered under the shade of a broad-leafed chilacayote tree on this swelteringly hot and humid day in the village of La Lucha. “!Chuc yak’an vico!” exclaimed Diego, the eldest. (“What bad luck we have.”)

Had anyone been eavesdropping on their conversation they would probably have agreed that these young folk had bad luck all right; moreover, they faced an improbable future.

An ancient race, an endangered language and culture

Dating back 4,000 years, the Chuj Maya lived in small adobe huts that clung to the steep and barren slopes of the towering Sierra de los Cuchumatanes. Their majestic peaks soar almost 13,000 feet, eclipsing into the clouds. The inhabitants of San Mateo Ixtatan, the region’s governing and religious center, are one of the least-studied groups of the Maya family, with a language now considered endangered.

Diego and his friends had been born into a penury that extended back centuries to their forebears when the Spanish had conquered and enslaved them. A proud people, noted for fierce countenances and heart-stopping bravery in battle, they have now been reduced to a mere 40,000 members though times of disease and war.

Migrate or starve

In 1996, in this place where age-old Maya ruins still remain, some 25 desperate families prepared to leave the freezing cold winters and chilly cloud-covered summers. One was Diego’s family. They loaded their comales (tortilla griddles) and corn grinding stones, old worn blankets, and precious hoards of corn and bean seeds. Every item had to be carried on backs, food supplies on the backs of fathers, babies on the backs of mothers, toddlers in hand. Thus, these determined pioneers began the arduous three-day mountainous trek. At the end of the road, they hacked their way with machetes through thick forest for another five miles, eventually arriving at a large and fertile valley far west of their homeland, close to the Mexican border.

They christened the sun-drenched valley, La Lucha (The Struggle).

They bedded down the first night and for many more under a piece of flimsy plastic that did little to protect against the heavy nightly rains. Families cleared the land with their one and only tool—machetes that had been filed to razor sharpness. They fashioned rustic huts topped with the distinctive Chuj-styled wood-shingled roofs and painted the multi-colored doors with ancient designs. No running water or electricity existed then—or now. A self-reliant people, they cleared and planted food with the aid of their all-purpose tool, the machete.

No schools existed then, nor a clinic. There was no medic—not even a first-aid kit for that matter. They were wholly dependent on the forest’s medicinal plants and good luck. A badly aimed swing of a machete could be fatal. By age six, boys worked in the fields and machete wounds to the hands, lower legs, and feet of sons and fathers were common. Many times, the only hope of stemming the blood of a deep slash was to use the saw-tooth-shaped leaf of the singuinay tree, masticating and pressing the mushy mixture of spit and leaf into the wound.

Contracting a critical illness or suffering from a serious injury, such as one caused from a felled tree, could likely be fatal. Women confronting birthing complications rarely lived to raise their babies.

Technology aides accelerate students' learning

Illiteracy—an Indigenous legacy

On this particular day, these young teens, enjoying the shade of the chilacayote tree, were not talking about dying. They were talking about living, and in particular, how they were going to feed themselves as they entered adulthood. How were they going to earn a living? “We’ve got our sixth-grade diploma,” mused Catarina, one of the girls.

This truth mattered little because the schooling they had received held little value. It is a known fact that the appallingly bad public schooling of this area leaves children deficient in reading, writing, and math skills. Without education boys labor their lifetimes away on the coffee farms and girls marry as young as 13 and begin bearing children, destined to lives of poverty in dirt-floored huts.

Their dilemma—they could not advance to middle school for lack of primary school skills, and for the same reason, they couldn’t get a job other than field labor or domestic work. Despite having attended six primary grades, they could barely add and subtract. They only grasped a handful of words in Spanish, the school curriculum language, (and their second language after Chuj).

A specialized language teacher guides students

"The State has never been.” Why could they not read and write? The obvious reasons are substandard government schooling, no books or supplies, and rare appearances of teachers. Moreover, there is a shameful and common practice of fraudulently creating report cards testifying that students had achieved their grades, when in fact their numeracy and literacy skills were virtually nil. Why had these young Maya been deceived so? Why had they been abandoned in this shocking way?

Breaking free of illiteracy

Learning math and measuring hands-on

In May of 2021, village leader and one of the fathers who had settled La Lucha years ago, Andres Alonzo, arrived at Maya Jaguar with a request for education for the village children. “Would you give our children another chance to learn?” he asked.

The school director hesitated. It seemed like an impossible request. He knew that these young people could hardly add and subtract, let alone begin to manage grade six math. None could read, and one 13-year-old boy didn’t even know the complete alphabet!

But on reflection a ground-breaking vision emerged.

A second chance for education

Staff at Maya Jaguar assembled at the campus for an intensive brainstorming session. Could this noted educational center with its specially trained bilingual teachers—already severely buffeted by the tempest of a pandemic (which currently requires that they teach classes virtually), take on this additional load? Could such a venture be successful?

“It depends on three things”, School Director Osman Casteñada, declared. “It depends on the parents. It depends on the students. And it depends on us.”

We knew that the parents profoundly wanted their children to have a chance at real education. We had seen the longing in the students’ eyes as they hoped for schooling. Our teachers, despite being critically short-staffed, were inspired and committed to attaining what seemed to be an impossible goal.

Earning a quality education at Maya Jaguar

The decision was made. Later that month, the intensive learning program designated “Second Chance Learning” began. The goal—the students would complete sixth grade level by December and be eligible to enter middle school in January at Maya Jaguar.

Today, eight youth—five boys and three girls—have successfully picked up remnants of their original primary schooling and with the skills of dedicated teachers, and the use of modern technology aides, have advanced through five grades of math! In Spanish language skills, their second language, they have achieved fourth grade level. These bright and ambitious young teens are succeeding!

This time, when they receive a diploma, it will represent what it was meant to. They will have earned a quality education that prepares them for the future.

Will you help give these young Maya the opportunity of education they deserve?

Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala offers education-deprived students a second chance to receive advanced schooling. Our specialty trained teachers, well-equipped library, computers, and modern technology provides them with the resources they need to succeed. With your contribution, we can bring students back from the brink of illiteracy and empower them to reach their full potential.


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