Monday, November 19, 2012

A Space of Their Own: “La escuelita de vacaciones” Helps Children Connect With Their Maya Culture

Paulina Yus Lopes, Director and co-teacher
Student lighting center candle

Children transported in pick-up truck to la escuelita
            The early morning routine is more like a meditation exercise rather than a wake-up call for the fifty plus students at the “escuelita de vacaciones.” Some of the children come from as far as San Pedro or Xatinap in the back of a pick-up truck, a thirty-minute drive through rough unpaved roads. Once the compañeras, Magdalena and Teresa, have prepared the inner circle, el corazón del sitio, (decorated with green pine needles as the platform, flowers of the same color scattered throughout, small orange colored candles placed in the outer rim and a large white one at the center), director and co-teacher Paulina Yus Lopes, softly but firmly invites the children, ages 5-10, to sit in a circle of woven straw mats (petates). The large room (el salón), noisy from the hammering and drilling of workmen right outside the windows, is transformed into a sacred place as children intently listen to Paulina, and follow her every word, softly spoken as if to gently stroke their heads. She uses the Mayan calendar to help children find a connection with the wisdom and values within the culture. Friday was the day of the culebra and Paulina describes its significance or application to their daily lives. Snakes use rocks to apply friction to molt their old skin as they free themselves from their worn-out skin and allow their new one to protect them. Helping children use the Maya way of life fulfills both the learning about being Maya and how to follow the spiritual guidance as they work through any negative or dubious feelings to make way for a new beginning.  The ceremony, at once uplifting and spiritual, is the anchor by which the daily activities are organized and carried out. The large candle, lit by a student volunteer, signifies the beginning of a day of learning as members of an engaging community of learners. The momentum is set and children seem to have the confidence to complete any required group activity.  Everyone participates at the same level of enthusiasm, energy, and understanding. No one drops out; each member stays focused on the task, whether they participate as writers, artists, organizers, observers, or thinkers.
            The school is sponsored by an independent, non-profit group, El Grupo Autónomo de Mujeres Mayas, which has as its main goal in this project to promote the Maya-based curriculum in area schools so children are taught to maintain their primary language, K'iché while learning Spanish as well as their culture.  There are approximately 400,000 K'iché speakers, one of the largest language groups in Guatemala.

Focus on Self-Esteem

            The activities focus on children’s expression. Every discussion centers on children’s voices: their ideas, opinions, and responses, and each one is accepted to the fullest extent. Children’s self-portraits hang on the wall; their work folders are artfully decorated reflecting their personalities. The positive social environment allows children to feel that they have something special to contribute to their learning community, and they enjoy participating.
Children work on group project


            A parent meeting was scheduled for Saturday; written announcements were handed out to the children on Friday, and they were asked to invite their parents. Only about a third of the parents attended. The compañeras, Magdalena and Teresa, lead the discussion with a brief ceremonial welcome speaking in K'iché, the language of their ancestors and still today, their mother tongue. The candle, the same one that was arranged as a centerpiece for the children, was lit by one of the parents. Paulina continued the discussion by pointing out that the ceremonial candle lighting was central to the school’s philosophy, helping children connect with their culture, their Mayan roots. She proceeded to talk about the various activities that the children had completed. We presented a photo slide show depicting the children working in small groups and individually displaying their work. The comments by the parents were favorable, but several mentioned that the curriculum should delve more deeply into the Maya culture and religion.

Group picture with teachers: Magdalena, Paulina, and Teresa
            The school provides a space for learning, reflection, and socializing with their peers and teachers during their three weeks of vacation from their regular school. If this school were not available, children would spend their time in non-school-like activities, perhaps, doing household chores or taking care of their younger siblings. Most importantly, it is a school that offers children a very different perspective to learning. At this escuelita children have every confidence that they are accepted, respected, and their identity re-affirmed. They participate in a relaxed, positive, spiritual setting. They’re happy, immersed in a different but vibrant world, even if for a brief three weeks.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hand Woven Textiles Reflect Tapestries of History and Culture

       The Nim Po’t Centro de Textile, a large warehouse and store near the famous arch in Antigua, Guatemala, sells an array of folk, hand crafted art from different regions of the country, reflecting the immense diversity in talents and cultures. Featured in the Bilingual Frontera/Tecúm Umán production slide show, The Nim Po’t Centro de Textiles are examples of the hand woven work represented in the woman’s blouse called huipil. The multi-media production has a subtitle of “Un homenaje a la mujer Guatemalteca” that refers to honoring the talented weavers, the majority whom are women.

     The Department of Sololá (á_Department) has 20 municipalities, a lake, Lago Atitlán, and Volcán Tolimán. Santiago Atitlán, on the shores of the lake, is accessible mainly by boat, and reportedly houses the Museum of the Cojolya Association of Maya Women Weavers.

San Lucas Toliman, Solola
     The huipil is a bright reddish color with detailed designs in the upper area. Small colorful flowers accent the collar giving it an appearance of a necklace.

Santiago Atitlán, Sololá
     The piece is lavender in color with dark vertical stripes. The upper huipil has small squares with designs of greenish and bluish hues.  Medium size flowers adorn the collar as a necklace.

       Sacatepéquez (équez_Department) has 16 municipalities; Antigua is the capital. The city of Sacatapéquez was founded in 1542 but was destroyed by the powerful Santa María earthquake in 1773.

San Pedro, Sacatepéquez
     The huipil has a white color bottom; the upper ¾ has colorful designs of squares, rectangles, and other geometric designs of red, yellow, and blue-green hues.

Santo Domingo, Sacatepéquez
     Mostly in a deep red color with stripes in the shoulder area, the huipil has colorful geometric designs mixing bold reddish and blue colors with pastels of pink, blue, and yellow. Down the middle of the huipil is a ribbon with similar geometric designs.

San Juan, Sacatepéquez
     The huipil features stripes in gold and navy and royal blue; the upper middle has square designs with similar color scheme.

Santiago, Sacatepéquez
     In the lower part, the huipil has checkered red and while squares; the upper features slanted red rectangular designs with small multi-colored blue green and yellow diamond designs interspersed in pattern form.

San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Sacatepéquez
     This piece has a green colored background completely woven with uniquely different horizontal stripes with a variety of designs. The upper part has a floral design.

       Chimaltenango ( has 16 municipalities with half a million residents.  

Tecpán, Chimaltenango
     The huipil has a white color bottom while the top has geometric designs, each with a different color scheme using reds, greens, and blues.  About midway, the huipil has a large strip with floral and foliage designs.

San Juan Comalopa, Chimaltenango
     This piece has horizontal stripes with roses and other floral designs. The bottom part has a row of small vertical rectangular pieces of different colors.

Patzún, Chimaltenango
     This piece features a large bodice of colorful flowers against a maroon colored striped material.

       Huehuetenango ( has 31 municipalities and borders with Mexico. The Mayan city of Zaculeu, later became the city of Huehuetenango, was conquered by a cousin of de Alvarado in 1525. The Mam king, Kayb’il B’alam surrendered and the Spaniards took over the governing reins. Huehuetenango is the second largest department in Guatemala and has the largest numbers of Mam speakers, although several other indigenous groups reportedly reside in the area.

Aguacatán, Huehuetenango
     Made of white material, the huipil has a reddish collar, colorful stripes, and a lacy bottom.

Idelfonso Ixtahuacán, Huehuetenango
     This huipil has maroon vertical stripes against a natural cotton background. It is accented with small geometric designs using same color thread. Tassles adorn the bottom edge of the huipil.

Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Huehuetenango
     In this piece, two like panels are on each side and a different panel in the center. The two outer panels have thin vertical reddish stripes on blue-green material.  The center part consists of square and rectangle designs of blue and red hues. The collar is necklace-like with loops of red thread geometrically laid around the collar area.

       Alta Verapaz ( has 17 municipalities, including Q’eqchi’ and Poqomchi’ speakers. “Verapaz” comes from the Spanish, “true peace,” originating from the fact that the Spanish conquistadors couldn’t conquer the fierce-fighting soldiers, but the Catholic friars won them over with the Christian religion.

Cobán, Alta Verapaz
     This is a bright red piece with simple horizontal designs using the same color thread.

        Totonicapán (án_Department) consists of 8 municipalities, mostly of K’iché speaking residents. In 1820, the indigenous communities led a revolt against the Spanish conquistadors, but were eventually defeated although the leader was declared King Tsul.

     This piece has solid gold-yellow horizontal stripes alternated with motif-studded stripes, using the same color scheme but accented with dark blues and greens.  The bottom has medium size black horizontal stripes against white color material.   

     Quetzaltenango ( consists of 24 municipalities, many of them K’iché and Mam speaking residents. Before the Spanish conquest, the department was part of the K’iché state of Q’umarkaj. The Quetzaltenango town is known as Xela by locals rather than use the Nahuatl name, which means loosely “the land of the quetzal bird.”

San Juan Chile Verde, Quetzaltenango
     This huipil features embroidered nature scene designs with fish, birds, and foliage. In the middle of the huipil is a string of diamond-shape motifs running across horizontally. 


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bilingual Frontera/Tecúm Umán Productions Present EL CANTO DEL K'ICHE

Tecúm Umán, the last leader of the K'iché:
statue on main plaza with black cape
signifying that the town is in mourning.
The following video descriptions are currently in the planning stages. The videos will be available early next year.

El Canto del K’iché
       El Canto del K’iché is a four-part video series that focuses on the lives of children and their families in the communities of El k’iché or Santa Cruz del K’iché in the western highlands of Guatemala.  Featured in the videos, either directly or indirectly is organizer Paulina Vus Lopes who works with the community in an effort to address the various social and cultural issues that confront them. Some of these are of a violent nature, such as domestic vioence; others are laden problems rooted in discord and animosity; and still others are due to a lack of adequate educational programs for children. The economic base is weak and unstable; thus, a large amount of difficulties stem from the lack of resources that affect the peoples’ outlook on life, their daily negotiations with the insurmountable psychological turmoil, and their dimming view of the future and hope for their children.   
       Following are brief summary descriptions of the proposed videos.

When Children Speak
       With Paulina’s leadership, the community works together with limited resources to implement a two-week school, La escuelita: Despierta Conciencia, for 8 to 10 year-olds. Their curriculum is tailor-made to meet the needs of 60 children and their families, focusing on goals of cohesiveness in the community, and working toward solidifying their value system, and embracing the spirituality of their Mayan ancestors.

Women’s Visions
        The wisdom, talent, and visions of women are highlighted in this video. The community centers around those they respect and admire, and conversely, women who are active contributors in their field give their heart and spirit to advance the social and spiritual causes of the community. Thus, the circle of good faith, respect, and giving is repeatedly generated and practiced by the womenfolk.  

The Family That Stays Together  
       In this video, families are featured in an effort to educate the audience about the families’ struggles and difficulties, as well as their triumphs and advances.  The historical context and economic reality put the families to the ultimate test, and their challenges are immense and obstinate. But their vision remains steady and clearly anchored on the horizon, and their success depends to a great extent on family unity.

The Healing Arts
       The use of medicinal herbs and other plants to heal and promote a healthy body and mind are keys to a good, productive life according to Paulina Yus Lopes, the spiritual healer and community organizer. This video highlights her work and philosophy, and how her roles as feminist and community worker have energized her own spiritual well being and healing process.  

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Bringing Out the Untold Stories

With Teresa and Magdalena

     No one can describe the suffering of another, but a voice can share the images, smells, sounds, and textures of a certain place, time, and situation. The connection is fragile since it takes a listener to complete the circle, from start to finish and many times over. Like the hummingbird and the flower, or the river and the parting earth, there is harmony when connections are melded. Thus, stories are told and their secret unfurled so that whoever listens takes their essence and safeguards its gifts. Humans are not only storytellers but story keepers as well.
     When people suffer, they huddle together and try to comfort each other. Somehow, their embrace and gentle caressing of their loved ones also serves to console themselves. Their lives are abruptly changed and whatever belief system they held is suspended, just like everything else. Fear and anxiety permeates the daily existence, emotional pain from losing family members is a constant burden, and not knowing what tomorrow may bring, the uncertainty and doubt, kills every chance for a glimmer of hope.  Poverty itself can kill the human spirit and extreme poverty sucks the life of a human body. 
     The families’ stories of those that I’ve met in Santa Cruz del K’iché are full of sorrow and suffering. Far from the eternal spring that is used to describe the country of Guatemala (“el país de la eternal primavera”), it is rather a land of stark contrast in its people, culture, and language.  Over half of the population lives in poverty and most are members of the indigenous communities. Almost 50 percent of Guatemalans belong to an indigenous group. Tragic circumstances have caused the deaths and ruin of many communities, from natural disasters to horrific wars and repressive dictatorships. Yet, there are so many stories of survival and transcendence, as well as re-births in everything from spiritual awakenings to ideas of solidarity and perseverance. These are the stories that matter the most, the ones that will outlast the tragedies and sufferings, and bring a new dawn to the next generation and the ones that follow. These are the untold stories in search of the listener who holds the keys to its secrets.
La Nueva Escuelita – Despertando Conciencia

Children in El K'iché
     In an earlier blog posting, I wrote about Paulina Yus Lopes, the spiritual leader and community organizer who works with members of K’iché communities. One of their projects is the “Escuelita,” a two-week program for children that includes a specialized curriculum aimed at bringing families and communities together by educating their children about their innermost, invaluable aspects of their culture – their spirituality, language, and values.    
The Upcoming Trip
     The purpose of my next trip to El K’iche and surrounding communities is to document the work of families as they bring their efforts and resources together to bring more solidarity to their community. Their school program lasts for a brief two weeks, but their goal and direction are intended to leave a lasting impression. The curriculum includes teachings of the Mayan culture that will help children and their families become more solidly grounded in their daily existence as a community with strong and enduring ties to the culture and language of their ancestors. Children are viewed as the hope for the future, and their education inclusive of the traditions of their culture is paramount, not only to enrich their lives and to solidify communal and family ties, but as part of the healing process. The lengthy suffering and residual wounds from the impact of a torturous civil war have rooted a kind of new vision and hope for which the Nueva Escuelita plays a central role.
     As part of the documentation, I will film and photograph the children and their families, and bring back products of their work or artifacts such as written stories, drawings, and paintings. I will share these photo and video representations through postings in social networking venues. I will display the children’s expressions via their artistic works in as many different formats as possible, including the social networking forms.
     One of the most important aspects of this project is to educate others about the lives of the children and their families. However, it’s also important for the communities in El K’iché to learn about the work of our communities in the Rio Grande Valley. Indeed, we have commonalities as well as differences, and so much to learn about each other.  Thus, I will make a formal request to local RGV schools to allow me to share the documentation and artifacts with school children.  In so doing, I will ask children to create their own written and artistic expressions that I can take back to the children of the Escuelita, thereby creating an educational channel of cultural exchange.
     In terms of Mayan spirituality, every human being is not only part of the universe but he/she is the universe. Indeed, what I hope to achieve is to learn about the K’iché universe and share its abundance with others. It’s an appropriate metaphor when we consider that we have so many universes to discover and learn about here on earth, in the same continent that we inhabit.