Education: Hope for a new generation of Maya
by Frances Dixon
Isabel was eight years old and crying hard. Another year had passed by and still her father would not allow her to attend primary school. Two years earlier, she had hoped to join her older brother in the local primary school, but Isabel belongs to a culture in which it is common for boys to study and girls to stay at home helping their mothers with household tasks.
As more time elapsed in the small remote mountain village where the family lived, she puttered about the house, helping her mother wash the family laundry and make tortillas, and all the while pleading with her father to give her permission to go to school. The day Isabel turned eight years old, she staged a particularly ferocious battle of tears. Her father finally caved in and agreed to let her begin school.
It would not be easy for her; it was a long hike for her short little legs to reach the school located in a distant village—over an hour each way. Worse, along the way, she had to cross a fast flowing river. It took skill and good balance to tread the three unstable poles slung together from edge to edge of the river. These obstacles meant nothing to Isabel. She simply wanted—more than anything else in her life—to go to school and to learn.
“It was hard,” Isabel remembers, “walking two hours every day through the trails filled with mud and boulders, and when I got home, I was tired. But I never said anything, I didn’t want to be taken out of school.”
A role model for Isabel
School was taught by her favorite aunt, a woman who inspired Isabel in her studies and who became her role model. In those years, not so long after the termination of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war and the onset of education for the Maya of the region, it was highly unusual to find an educated Indigenous woman, less a female teacher!
At age 15, when most of her girlfriends were getting married or were already bearing children, Isabel was packing up her two changes of clothing in readiness to attend classes at Maya Jaguar. She had a dream. “It’s not that I didn’t want to get married and have children,” she confided to me, “it’s just that first, I wanted an education and a profession.”
Isabel tries her wings
This was Isabel’s first time to leave the security of her family and community. Coming from a Q’anjob’al-speaking family, she spoke only a few words of Spanish, the school curriculum language. “I was so scared,” she said, “it was the first time in my life that I had been away from my family. I didn’t understand what people were saying to me. I felt so alone.”
She would spend the next four years at the Maya Jaguar’s isolated residential campus living in 200 acres of protected rainforest inhabited by wild animals, birds, insects, and reptiles.
The school’s fully equipped computer and science labs, non-existent elsewhere in the region, give students valuable opportunities to gain a superior education. As a sustainably managed campus, a satellite system ensures access to the Internet for educational research while a solar energy system powers the buildings. A rainwater collection system supplies water. Students manage the campus’s rain-fed organic gardens and share their knowledge with children in outlying villages through the school’s community outreach program.
It was here that Isabel became a member of the small educational community of Maya students who received an innovative and rigorous education and went on to become nurses, teachers, school directors, computer technicians, and business managers.
Her monthly trips home during school breaks meant a lot to her. Isabel comes from a close-knit family that lives in a small village set in the towering Cuchumatanes Mountains, almost a day’s drive from her rustic dormitory quarters at school. When not helping her mother with household tasks on her school breaks, she would labor alongside her father on his two-acre cardamom plot. This cash crop helped to sustain the family along with the corn and beans he grew for food.
Isabel, as the first girl in a family of six children, is the single serious scholar so far. Her older brother dropped out of school during middle school; her younger brother showed little of Isabel’s drive to study. After a ten-year space of time when her father lived away from home as a migrant, earning money to build a home and buy a small plot of land, he and his wife had three more children.
Isabel, who now works full time at Maya Jaguar as the head computer teacher, spends time home-schooling on her visits home. The three of them, only aged two, four and six, adore their older sister. “When Aldo (the eldest) knows I’m coming home, he waits by the side of the road for my bus. At night, they all beg to sleep with me,” she laughs.
Determination and grit pay off
I met Isabel Ramirez for the first time in 2016, when she arrived at the Maya Jaguar Middle School. She was shy and unsure of herself, only able to communicate hesitantly with her limited knowledge of the Spanish language. Not reading and writing Spanish beyond the most basic level was her foremost hurdle in grasping her studies.
But Isabel’s dream for her future sustained her—and she was goal oriented, hard-working, and determined. Those qualities drove her to immerse herself in this new language and study hard. It was only after she had graduated that she confided in me, “I got up every morning at 5:00 a.m. and studied, using my flashlight to see my lessons.”
Her hard work paid off. In her senior class, I was astounded to observe her transformation. From the quiet girl who stayed in the background, she was now first with her hand up to respond to a teacher’s question and first to offer to present in front of the class. She took on additional study projects. She willingly helped her classmates in their computer studies, the class in which she excelled. During the school’s community service days when students traveled to neighboring village primary schools to help children learn to read, she shone with enthusiasm. Her latent leadership skills had become apparent.
After graduating in 2019 as the top student in her class, she earned a scholarship to continue in computer science studies at a noted computer academy in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second-largest city. Isabel is the first Maya Jaguar student to receive such an award—all the more notable as the computer field is one that is considered to be a male domain in her country.
Isabel is a diminutive young woman who stands at only four feet and nine inches tall, but ever since she was a young girl, she has harbored a large-sized inner drive to better herself. Her steadfast determination over the years clearly was a major factor in propelling her out of illiteracy and dirt-poor poverty to become an educated and self-confident professional and a role model for other Maya girls.