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.