Some of you know that I am obsessed with Newark. In the last year I have just been more obsessed with Guatemala, which might be described as the Newark of Central America. Or maybe Newark is the Guatemala of the United States?

In any case, the link above actually leads to my thesis, which was largely inspired by my sense that the media obsession with Cory Booker was fueled by a fundamental misunderstanding of African-American community politics. So when I heard that Mark “I-have-made-an-entire-generation-of-Americans-profoundly-unproductive” Zuckerberg was giving Booker $100,000,000 to reform Newark schools, I rolled my eyes and groaned a little about white people. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t watch the Oprah announcement, because I am, after all, a middle class Hoosier girl, and I like watching people get lots of money. (And I’m currently underemployed.)

And it served me right, because Cory Booker surprised me. He talked, at some length, about how Newarkers need to develop the policies that will transform their school system.

But when The New York Times weighed in with one of their “Room for Debate” features, they didn’t include a single person from Newark in the discussion. Yes, Pedro Noguera balances out the crazy free-market folks, but isn’t the first rule of journalism that you seek out people with knowledge and experience to interview about a given issue? When the range of educators working in Newark includes people like Junius Williams- a veteran of SNCC and former head of the National Bar Association- and Ras Baraka- the son of Amiri Baraka- you would think that it wouldn’t be too hard to find just one person who could right a coherent three paragraph essay about schools. But that would suggest that The Times actually looked, which seems unlikely.

Of course, columnist Judith Warner would accuse me of feeling “slighted” by “whip-smart policy makers who believe they know best,” as she so thoughtfully described DC residents who recently voted out Adrian Fenty, the patron of my personal favorite, Michelle Rhee. Actually, the column was titled “Is Michelle Rhee’s revolution over?,” and actually went so far as to compare Tea Party rage with the frustrations of parents and community members who were consistently sidelined and ignored during Fenty’s tenure. The elitist edge to this attack is that Rhee and Fenty made people “feel bad,” not that they made serious political missteps. The Times, like most “reformers,” seem to think that criticism from activists and educators who have worked in the field for years can be quickly disregarded because a)these people are part of an establishment that must be completely razed to be reformed and b)critiques of the “top-down” model boil down to people feeling “left out.”

Both of these assumptions are wrong. The utter failure of No Child Left Behind is proof that real reform requires not razing schools, but rebuilding them. To do that, you can’t simply fire every employee with experience and bring in a new staff of former-business executives and Ivy League grads, and then when they fail close the school and ship all the students elsewhere. You have to work consistently and carefully over time to facilitate professional development for teacher, provide interventions for struggling students and build a network of community partners and parents who can support student learning outside the classroom.

You need this network not so you can make people “feel good” but because children learn more when their parents and community are engaged and invested in their development, hence the Harlem Children’s Zone, which famously made the cover of The New York Times Magazine.

Geoffrey Canada was on the Oprah show the day of the announcement, so I can only hope that Booker picked up some pointers. Initial buzz about the announcement suggested that the money would be used to implement the Promise Neighborhoods model (the Obama administration’s HCZ style initiative) in Newark. But, at the end of the day, the people of Newark should, and must, be allowed to take responsibility for their own schools, and the lives of their children.


By the end of my time in the Zona Reyna, I thought I had finally figured out how the literacy groups should be organized to ensure that women actually learn. There should be a municipal coordinator supervising each cluster of 4-5 groups, attending class sessions weekly to monitor attendance and provide feedback on instruction. This same coordinator should offer regular professional development opportunities to facilitators and lead monthly meetings. Each facilitator must have an assistant responsible for child care, even if said assistant only received payment in the form of groceries or additional corn. And most importantly, just as children who read on grade level at the 3rd grade have a much higher chance of success, so the first year- and even the first month- of any literacy program is crucial.

As you might have inferred, P badly botched the first year of the three year cycle, making my job next to impossible. I managed to reorganize two of the groups through sheer force of will, conducting home visits at 7 AM and smuggling desks through the broken window of the school when the women were locked out, and many of the women brought me food and thanked me with genuine gratitude on my last day. But I knew that it was a lost cause: after two years of instruction, less than 20% of the remaining participants know how to read and write. The women are out of time and patience, and after one frustrating experience participants are highly unlikely to try another adult literacy program.

So I did what all good college educated liberals do when they identify an urgent social problem: I wrote a report. A seven paged, single spaced essay in Spanish, offering a blow-by-blow analysis of what went wrong and when, and calling for a full-scale intervention to save the process from total failure. I included detailed descriptions of the dynamics of every group, the strengths and weaknesses of every facilitator, and a long list of bullet-pointed recommendations, and mailed it to everyone I worked with at P.

And like all earnest reports about urgent social problems, it remained unread.

Thankfully, I set up a meeting with me, my boss and J, the coordinator of the Zona Reyna project and one of my few allies at P, where J confirmed my reports of catastrophic disfunction and guilted my boss into agreeing to hire a replacement for me. That was affirming, but probably much too little, much too late.

So when I sat down with the director of the Cuban Yo Sí Puedo program in Santiago Atitlán and learned that they had not one but two local coordinators, childcare services at every site, and an approximate retention rate of 70%, I got a little teary.

Some of you might remember when, back in March, I went on at length about the Cuban school system’s impressive record of combatting inequality. The Cuban adult literacy model is almost equally famous. As I mentioned in my March posting, the 1961 literacy campaign reduced illiteracy from 23% to 4% in one year. But unlike other famous literacy campaigns- most notably in Nicaragua- the illiteracy rate in Cuba has remained low. The Yo Sí Puedo (Yes I can) model developed by Cuban experts is used throughout Latin America. Depending on how you look at it, Yo Sí Puedo, like the Cuban doctors who complete their residencies in the most remote corners of Guatemala and Bolivia, is either an impressive gesture of solidarity or shrewd foreign policy.

Although they are sharply (and probably justly) critical of CONALFA’s institutional inertia, the Cubans have an agreement to work through the organization’s infrastructure and municipal governments to implement their curriculum throughout the country. Yo Sí Puedo started small- one of the Cuban rules is that if you have few resources it is better to concentrate them in one or two municipalities- but in the next few years could become the national curriculum. (That will probably depend on how President Colom’s center-left party performs in next year’s elections, and if the far right Patriota party comes out on top, as is currently predicted.) This curriculum is a three month, sixty hour series of videotaped lessons designed to teach the rudiments of literacy skills. In each segment, a patient, steady teacher offers encouragement to a classroom of students who look decidedly middle-class and literate as they practice writing letters in a shaky hand. Facilitators follow with an additional hour of exercises to practice the concepts explained in the video. The advantage of this approach is that students receive consistent instruction regardless of their teacher’s skills.

I had heard a lot about the wonders of Yo Sí Puedo from my ex-guerrilla coworkers at P, so in my last full week in Guatemala I got J to set me up with his contacts in Santiago Atitlán, a gorgeous Tz’utujil town on Lake Atitlán. Said plan also had the distinct advantage of allowing me to stay with my lovely friend L, who lives in a pseudo-treehouse with an extremely adorable dog named Max. (Why didn’t I do my Fulbright there?) I ended up spending two afternoons visiting groups located around the town with the local coordinator and her assistant, a university student doing her practicum.

So, the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good is that the Cubans have certainly figured out how to mobilize their limited resources to create a structure that ensures that facilitators – who are paid only a very modest stipend- are somewhat accountable and that women learn at least the basics of reading and writing. A two month process of recruitment and motivational workshops for facilitators and students alike precede the start of classes. As I mentioned, the local coordinator visits each group once a week and keeps track of attendance and student progress. Two local women provide childcare so the women can focus on their classwork. Students are assessed at the beginning of the process, and more advanced students serve as assistants for the facilitators, offering encouragement and support to the beginners. There are regular trainings and a final evaluation: all the women write a letter.

I also think there is a useful lesson to be learned from Yo Sí Puedo’s modest scope. P sets high goals for its three year process, but lots of lofty talk of political empowerment doesn’t correspond to a set of concrete benchmarks. The limited time frame also means that it is easier to maintain momentum and motivation. The local coordinators admit that women don’t become fully literate in three months, but at least they know the letters of the alphabet and can write their names- something that women in Rosario Sacubul haven’t managed in a year and a half.

But even with all their expertise, the Yo Sí Puedo model has one obvious, glaring problem: the entire curriculum is in Spanish. And it was painfully obvious that most participants only speak Tz’utujil. Yes, Yo Sí Puedo people told me that the videos and instructional material should be translated for next year, but the fact that no one recognized that language would be a problem going in is unthinkable, illustrating the problems with any prepackaged curriculum. In many of the groups I visited, the women were barely watching the video, presumably waiting for their facilitator to translate the gist of the lesson.

Moreover, it would seem that poverty and petty corruption can undo even the best laid plans of educators. Just as in the Zona Reyna, facilitators struggled to find spaces with electricity and then had to collect money from women to pay for both the space and the electricity. (Yo Sí Puedo- like P- makes no allocation for space.) Overwhelmed by household work, women regularly showed up late and left early, much like the women I worked with in Rosario Sacubul, Saquixpec and Campamac. And attendance in several groups had dropped dramatically after it was revealed that a former local coordinator, who had -unbeknownst to the Cubans- sold  memberships in a weaving collective to women in the groups, had made up the collective and pocketed the collected fees.

And even with additional instructional support, the skill of the facilitators ranges widely. Some seemed apathetic and exhausted, while others were simply working with students to practice printing letters and words from the chalkboard. The only group I visited where all the women seemed equally engaged and excited was in a cramped second floor room of a house located on a run-down street in central Santiago. Light came only through one window, cut into the cinder block. The facilitator was teaching the letter C, alternating between Spanish and Tz’utujil as he invited his students to identify words that began with the sound. Students passed a ball to ensure that everyone contributed an answer, and the facilitator drew a picture on the board to explain the meaning of each new Spanish word. His enthusiasm was infectious, and students giggled as they shyly suggested words. As I watched him zip around the tiny space, I was reminded of the sunny classroom in Harlem where, for three years, I watched a similarly conscientious teacher make skilled use of dialogue to engage students and evaluate their comprehension.

In Cuba’s Academic Advantage, the book I raved about in March, Martin Carnoy emphasizes the importance of context in determining the success of Cuba’s school system. Yes, Cuba is poor, but the extreme poverty that characterizes life in rural Guatemala is practically nonexistent. Less poverty means healthier students and greater social stability, which- when combined with strong institutions- results in higher student achievement. The reason why Yo Sí Puedo is not  the magic literacy bullet is sometimes described as is not because it isn’t a strong model: it’s just a strong Cuban model being implemented in a non-Cuban context. In some strange way, my visit to Yo Sí Puedo was reassuring. Things were bad in the Zona Reyna, but we were also negotiating challenges that we had absolutely no power to change: poverty, machismo, and very, very limited resources. Even if P had started out stronger, it might still have failed to achieve its goals.

I swear, I’ll only go on about the Cubans for one (or two) paragraph(s) more.

It is a dirty little secret that State-department funded students frequently flirt with Cuba during their time abroad. Some take this flirtation farther than others. Maybe we do it because we are desperately trying to save our leftist street cred, maybe we do it because things are just so unimaginably bad in places like Guatemala that Cuba- food shortages and all- starts to sound like a much better idea.

I don’t think I ever completely succumbed to the romanticism that tends to afflict lefty Fulbrighters, but I do think the dream of Cuba still serves as proof that just maybe, Latin American independence is really possible. When we were driving back from the Zona Reyna, J, who was raised in Cuba, told the story of how he Cuban doctors cured him of a nasty case of tuberculosis he had picked up in Mexico. When he was diagnosed at the age of 11 in 1983, he was the first case of childhood tuberculosis that had been seen in Cuba for fifteen years.

In 2001 alone, 2,801 cases of tuberculosis were registered in Guatemala.

“Cuba is an island in place, time and politics,” J said. “Poverty, capitalism, these things are inhuman. But Cuba, Cuba is human.”

“Soy Loca Por Ti América”

September 20, 2010

I am writing you from the living room of the house where I grew up. There are blond wood floors, fat blue couches and one too many wrinkled copies of The New York Times. There are so many books on the shelves in my room that they are stacked horizontally and scatter onto the floor when I jump from my bed.  Outside, a square of dry marigolds rings the plot where my father grows the chiles he dries on the front seat of his red car. When he opens the door, the hot air rolls out heavy with the spare sweet smell of the southwest. This is the country of my childhood, of suburban abundance and rumpled comfort.

My weaving teacher, her son, their cat

It seems strange to think that six weeks ago I lived in a house of wooden boards and tin. When it rained everything was silenced by the clamor of water hurling itself onto the roof. I slept on a cot in the corner of the women’s dormitory, my books and bike and various papers and pots of finger paint spread across the floor and shelves alongside. At night I lit a half-shattered candle stenciled with the silhouette of Virgin rescued from a dusty black bag in the corner of the office. The light threw up the shadow of my solitude to the ridges of the roof, and I closed my eyes and waited for silence.

For the first time in my life, I woke up early, naturally. The sky was so clear and sharp it could have been cut from crystal. The river that ran alongside was cold, powerful after a rainy night and still after a quiet one. I walked through the vines in my swimsuit and high rubber boots and threw myself into the pool that lay just north of the school, hidden behind a bend. I would fight the current to swim upstream, grasping at the stones that cupped red flowers and forcing myself forward. My arms felt firm and long. I felt awake and clean and alive.

It was cool in the morning. By midday the sun scorched. When I didn’t have a ride to get to and from the literacy groups, I would walk. I swung my plastic bag of supplies over my back and felt the sweat heavy on my face and chest. There were three steep places in the road between Saquixpec and Lancetillo, but the stretch from Saquixpec to Rosario Sacubul is nothing but sharp subida followed by almost vertical bajada. I breathed heavily, sweated profusely, and repeated like a mantra: “What would Che do?”

When I was driven, I looked up from the rocky dirt and marveled. The banana plants hung over the houses and coffee and cardamom brushed against their board walls. When we came hurtling around the curves, butterflies rose with surprise and framed us with their fluttering. And every single time we arrived at the crest of the hill in the last village before Lancetillo, I caught my breath with wonder to see the mountains shoot up.

It was Eden. Biblical in its newness. And I was seduced by its lush beauty, so unlike the stark lines of the prairie and the sleek canyons of the city. Come my beloved, I recited to myself as I fought the cold current of the river, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages.

I was a different person in the Zona Reyna. Strong and taught, springing with kinetic energy and fierce determination. I was the best version of myself. I stopped missing everything but strong coffee. I loved cold showers and black beans, and craved only the nutty tortillas the women cooked on their clay comals. I worked every day, all day, for weeks. And when I boarded the buses to return to Uspantán, I pressed my face against the grimy glass and stared reality straight in the eye, without fear.

On Sundays I visited the family of my weaving teacher. I went swimming with her children and helped them shake unripe guavas from the trees. We took dozens of portraits, in their torn play clothes and embroidered formal huipils, and they gave me roasted ayote and sweet atole. We watched the clouds roll over the mountains and her son sang and danced for me. We made occasional conversation, none of it important, but all of it genuine and joyful.

When I went to see them for the last time, I cried. My teacher clasped me close and said, “We won’t ever forget you, Emma, because you lived like the people, and understand the people.”

She gave me a clay vessel for incense. I wrapped it in three layers of t-shirts and packed it deep in my laundry bag, but when I pulled it out of my backpack in Mexico it had been crushed to shards.

The Zona Reyna seems now like an enchantment, a brief moment when it seemed possible to be not just norteamericana but American, in the continental sense. Now I am spoiled with electricity and overwhelmed with job applications. Am I supposed to return to the life I lived before? I am doubtful and uncertain. My arms are soft and limp. My tan is fading and the broken sun- reddened ends of my hair have been cut off.

I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, that I am sick of love.

As he lies dying, the English patient of Michael Ondaatje’s eponymous novel tells Hannah, his nurse, how he painted the dead body of his lover with the colored sands of the desert.  “I believe in such cartography- to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. … All that I wished was to walk upon an earth that had no maps.”

But how do people without maps determine where they are, and where they are meant to go?

So you see, when people ask me about Guatemala, I am not so sure what to tell them.

Where I’ve Been

September 15, 2010

I know, I know, I failed as a blogger. I abandoned this lovely page for two whole months, denying you, my dear sweet readers, the tales of my final six weeks in Guatemala. But you see I was rather busy doing other things. Including (but not limited to)…….

I may have finished the Fulbright, turned in a seven-page single spaced report to P, and somehow managed to fit 30 pounds of books in my carry on backpack to avoid exorbitant overweight fees, but I’m not done yet. I’ve realized now that I am back in the land of the free that I don’t know what to tell people about my last few months in Guatemala, so I’ll be trying to figure that out here, with you.

Check back Friday for my first post-Fulbright post.

Anger and Edge

July 13, 2010

It really annoys me when leftists aestheticize “struggle.” When I say “aestheticize,” I mean that in leftist circles there is much talk of resistance to “neoliberalism” and the importance of constructing counter-hegemonic discourses, and very little action. It’s not that I disagree with these people’s politics. It’s that I disagree with their vision of politics: their understanding of how change happens, and what we can do to bring it about.  Making change requires real struggle: lots of frequently boring, totally un-counter-hegemonic activities like phone calling and knocking on doors and raising money and occasionally making alliances with people who might not pass your political litmus test.  Think Che in Cuba vs. Che in Bolivia.

But I digress. For all my pert opinions, I too am not immune to the seductive power of “struggle.” Because to assume that change will happen without conflict is to aestheticize struggle as well: to imagine change as a linear process that requires that only one person or organization to reason and take action.

Two weeks ago, I fired two facilitators, the sisters from the “disaster” group. Although I was initially horrified by the quality of their teaching, I assumed that if I gave some concrete suggestions they would begin to approve. I also acknowledged to them- a crucial mistake- that I considered their work conditions “difficult.” Which, to be fair, was true. They traveled to RS two days every week to teach, staying the night in a rented room and eating with the women. There was almost never transportation, so we usually walked back together on Tuesday afternoon. And the students don’t have benches, or (until about three weeks ago) books. So, yes, difficult.

But it quickly became clear that the difficult conditions were the only things the facilitators cared about. Every single week they asked me about the possibility of increasing their salaries to cover their travel costs. But they never acknowledged or made any attempt to address my suggestions for improvement. When I held a meeting to review the methodology- and subtly suggest that copying from the blackboard was NOT an acceptable teaching methodology- they showed up an hour late and insisted they needed to leave an hour early.

And when I finally decided to show up for the first day of classes, I made an interesting discovery: the facilitators didn’t come on Mondays. Although classes should begin at 1 PM, they never showed up until 4 or 5 PM. They started work at 8:30 AM on Tuesday morning, taught until 10, and continued for another 45 minutes after a 20-minute recess. Meaning that they were teaching for 2 hours and 15 minutes every week, when our program requires a minimum of 10 hours if instruction every week.  Complaints had emerged as early as April, but it wasn´t until I visited in early June that we realized how frequent their absences were. Considering that we are now a year and a half into the process and the women still can´t read, this is a problem.

By the time I went to Guatemala City for my week of vacation in June, I was convinced that we needed to look for new facilitators. After talking to my coworkers, we decided that C would arrive in RS during my absence, convene the women for a meeting, and decide on a course of action. Except C went to El Salvador for a training, and I went to Tikal with P the next week, meaning that no meeting was convened and no action was taken until I returned in the third week of June. Incidentally it was the same week that my coworkers arrived from the capital, meaning that we had to move quickly if we wanted to interview new candidates for the positions. A decision was taken quickly, without consulting the women, and the decision was that the “disaster” needed to be taken in hand by entirely new facilitators.

  1. Community Work Rule Number 1: Always consult the community before making a major decision about a community program.

And so new facilitators were interviewed, hired and trained, and I was dispatched to deliver the bad news.  I´ve never fired anyone, let alone in Spanish, so I had my speech all prepared, emphasizing how grateful we were for their hard work and support (lie, cough cough) and how we were simply concerned that they could not provide the necessary hours of instruction and how of course we would pay them for May and June as soon as they presented their boxes of materials in our offices. When I showed up and only the younger- and much less aggressive- of the two sisters was present because the elder was at a meeting for her OTHER job (hmmmm), I breathed a sigh of relief. She took the news well, I was proud of my Spanish, it seemed like everyone went home (more or less) happy.

The single most important lesson of the last two weeks of my life is that you should never tempt fate by being too happy.

The next day I showed up in RS to gather the women to inform them of the change and introduce the new facilitators. I wasn´t exactly expecting them to kiss my feet or anything, but I did think they would be pleased that they had heard our complaints and taken action. Instead, the first women we visited were frustrated, and insisted they wanted the old facilitators back. I knew something was wrong when they started talking (in Q´eqchi´), but I was absolutely confounded when my translator delivered the news.

  1. Community Work Rule 2: It´s really good if you speak the language your clients are speaking in. Also, when they complain to you, document EVERYTHING.

I went to the one corner where there is cell phone service in RS, and I called my coworkers to deliver the news. They told me that perhaps we should offer to give Z and S a second chance.

And then the gringa did something bold and brave: she took initiative.

With a confidence that surprised even me, I informed them that we were not giving Z and S another chance. We were having a meeting on Sunday, we were consulting all the women about their opinion, and I was going to convince them that the change was a good idea.

  1. Community Work Rule 3: It is always better to respect the wishes of the community. But sometimes people who are used to their children attending a school where the teachers show up once a month might not always know if they are getting the best service or not, and it´s your job to teach them.

Meanwhile, the Elder Sister called. I didn´t really like her before, but 30 minutes of phone time convinced me that she was actually one of those evil older sisters out of a fairy tale. Who argues with their boss when they call to inform them that they are fired?  And then, get this, subsequently shows up in the community to pressure the women into retracting their complaints?

Yes, dear reader, the Elder Sister, who consistently complained about the difficulties of traveling to RS, managed to show up before noon on Sunday, just minutes before the meeting started. Interesting.

Perhaps predictably given that the facilitator in question was standing around the corner, the meeting was not the model of democratic decision-making that I´d dreamed of. Not all of them showed up, and when I asked them to share their thoughts they admitted that, yes, the facilitators hadn`t always showed up on time, but the students didn´t arrive at 1 PM either. And they refused to vote on the decision, insisting that it was up to me.

On the phone that night with my parents, I cried like a seven-year-old. How had a decision that had seemed so right gone so wrong?

My father, sage Quaker that he is, told me that I “had been gifted a rich learning experience.” And that I should think about it.

So Dad, I´ve thought about it, and I have two more learnings to share.

  1. Community Work Rule 4: Stick to your guns. Change requires doing difficult things that push people out of their comfort zones.

At it happens, the Elder Sister called every P staff person she could get to answer her phone calls over the next few days and tried to convince them to take her back. She was forceful, angry and intimidating, and succeeded only in convincing everyone that she was crazy and that I was right.

  1. Community Work Rule 5: Plant seeds.

I have three weeks left in the Zona Reyna, and there is absolutely no hope that the women in RS will learn how to read by the time I leave. But I can do small things that won´t determine the outcome but might make it more likely. We imagine change as a revolutionary event, but it would be more accurate to describe it as a constant struggle. There is nothing beautiful about this kind of struggle: it´s about as glamorous as me climbing mountains in the Zona Reyna. But afterwards, you are left with a sense of quiet certainty that gives you the strength to keep moving forward.

It is, as the Industrial Areas Foundation calls it, “anger and edge”: “not temper, not ideological fervor, not an abstract commitment to “the people,” a clear sense of what’s wrong, impatience in the face of that wrong, and a drive to address it.” This is what all leftists really need if we have any hope of making change.

En la Escuela

July 2, 2010

I bought this book for the kids in the literacy groups at a mall in Guatemala City. The bookstore was located opposite Zara, across from the McDonald´s, and just down the way from the Chili´s.  It was published in Spain.

Now, we all know that all the schools in Spain or even in the United States don´t look like this. But try to remember what your first grade classroom looked like, and I´ll wager a bet it looked something like this.  At the very least, you probably had a trash can.

This is the school in Rosario Sacubul. There are two classrooms. The two literacy groups work in one when there aren´t classes, which is pretty much every week.

Many of the desks are broken. All are coated with a crusty layer of dust and dirt.

In the school in Rosario Sacubul, there is no bathroom.

The windows are broken. There are holes in the wall. There is no lock on the door.  Needless to say, there are no books.

After the women are finished studying, they clean. We wait outside to avoid the dust.

The school in Rosario Sacubul is not a simple case of neglect that can be resolved by a couple of NGOs run by a group of well meaning college students. It is a product of an education system that intentionally fails its students, in a country where most of the population gets by on less than 2 dollars a day and where 20 families own the vast majority of the land. A country where most of the population is under 30, and less than 3 percent of the GNP is invested in education.

Thankfully, kids everywhere play……

….. and when they find books, they read them.

Because, ostensibly, this blog is about Freire, I haven’t always acknowledged that much the work I do is actually logistical, and many of the problems the literacy groups face are not so much methodological as practical. It could be that Freire might have worked in RS last year if the facilitators had shown up to the classes, or that the women might have learned to form new words if they weren’t focused on providing care for their children. In one class last week, there were 20 women and 25 children- 2/3 of whom were babies- in attendance. As you can imagine, it was not a quiet, orderly class conducive to learning.

Practical concerns don’t really interest theorists like Freire, which is a major problem because in a place like Guatemala, getting poor women to come to class is half the battle. One of my major learnings during my Fulbright year is that what communities, and women, really need are not simply bilingual adult education programs but joint preschool-adult literacy initiatives. Unfortunately, such an initiative would probably require a few more million dollars, and P barely has enough money to buy benches for the classrooms. This year, they did provide large boxes of toys and puzzles, but most of these materials are best suited to 8-10 year olds, not the chew-happy toddlers who need to be entertained while their mothers study. And 2-3 year olds ultimately need LOTS of supervision, not animal/number dominoes.

Since I’m in the Zona Reyna for such a short period of time and am hampered by my lack of Q’eqchi’ skills, I’ve decided that finding a way to organize the kids will be my major contribution to the literacy groups. Although initially some kids were terrified of the weird-looking white person speaking Spanish trying to tempt them with wooden blocks and the beach balls and foam puzzles I bought are not likely to make it to July, I’m happy to report progress. Even really simple activities like bouncing balloons and scribbling with markers have gone over well, and the women themselves got pumped for beach balls and foam puzzles. (A few apparently commented to the “disaster” facilitator that they were bored and wanted to play with their kids, and claimed the beach ball during their break. I thought she might have taken this as a hint to listen to my advice that the women should NOT spend all morning copying words from the board, but apparently not. )

Interestingly, finger painting was a bust. I was really pumped: I made little bibs from old plastic bags and brought two bottles of water to wash. But alas, my visions of hoards of painting children did not come to pass. One older girl painted three pictures and the daughter of the facilitator did a brilliant interpretation of Jackson Pollack on her jeans, but most of the kids just sat there, staring at me blankly, clearly thinking: “Why is this person who is dressed like my father suggesting that I put paint on my hands?” (It’s amazing how something that seems as simple and straight-forward as play can vary so much from one culture to another.)

No matter. My expert mother continues on the case, and I’m on a mission to locate massive wooden block sets and bubble-wand-making materials this week. (Have tried coat hangers to no avail, so I’ll be cutting up fly swatters on Friday.)

I never imagined myself as a preschool teacher, but really it isn’t half bad.

The Great Facilitator Hope group, convened in a comedor

Many of you have probably heard that the Volcán Pacaya erupted on Thursday.  Rest assured, I am safe and sound, although mildly disappointed that Pacaya waited until after I moved to rain ash on Guatemala City. That, dear readers, would have been a good photo post.

By now, you have probably also heard  that tropical storm Agatha passed over El Salvador and Guatemala over the weekend, washing out roads around the country and causing landslides from Guatemala City to Sololá. The Prensa Libre is reporting that at least 150 people are dead, and at least 100 more are missing.  It´s a sobering reminder of how precipitously many poor families live, with just one storm tipping the balance between survival and disaster.

FREIRE finally.

Although it rained in the Zona Reyna for almost 24 hours straight, ironically I probably couldn´t have picked a safer place to wait out the storm. On Sunday the sun came out and the mud began to dry, just in time for the last day of fería. Supposedly a celebration of Lancetillo´s patron saint (in this case, la Virgen herself), fería might best be described as a mix of toned down carnivale and barbecue-less 4th of July. Festivities include a parade, a soccer tournament, lots of kuxa (moonshine) and a beauty pageant to select ¨The Flower of Lancetillo.¨ (In theory, the queen is selected because her knowledge of indigenous culture and language, but the MC went on and on about the ¨beauties of Lancetillo,¨ making me skeptical of this claim.)

Notice that ¨attending literacy classes¨ is not included in the list of fería activities.  What follows is a cautionary tale, a warning of the dangers of mixing fería and the travails of daily life in Guatemala with work.

Decorations for the election of ´The Flower of Lancetillo´

My first week in the Zona Reyna was Busy and Purposeful and Revealing. On Monday, I attended a CONALFA meeting where, illustrating just how few resources the institution really has, facilitators were asked to pay for copies of attendance lists that were to be sent to Guatemala City. In the course of the meeting, it was also revealed that the departmental offices in Quiché have run out of Spanish language text books.

On Tuesday, I attended the first literacy group, which I will henceforth refer to as ¨the disaster,¨ where the 25 women in attendance (and the 20 children they brought with them) sat on pieces of board and stone on the dirt floor because there are neither chairs nor tables. The two facilitators are enthusiastic, but they aren´t implementing any recognizable methodology, Freirean or otherwise, meaning that the participants spent all mornings copying the numbers between 50 to 100 into their notebooks.


There was no public transportation available in this village, so we walked back to Lancetillo. Two hours, uphill.

The municipal hall was crowded and hot, and the competition took hours. I was sleeping on the floor with the babies by the time it was all over.

On Wednesday, I visited a smaller group, which might be called ¨the project.¨ The facilitator is implementing the correct CONALFA methodology and seems anxious to improve, but students still spent most of the class copying an evaluation that the facilitator printed on the board: an evaluation that actually appears on page 70 of the textbooks that everyone, miraculously, has, and brought with them to class. It started raining on the return trip, so I arrived back wrapped like a tamale in borrowed plastic tablecloth because the $50 raincoat I bought in Guatemala City is not, in fact, impermeable.

By Friday, I was feeling overwhelmed, so thank goodness I got to visit the ¨Great Facilitator Hope¨ that is the literacy group of S. The bad news: half the participants from last year´s process have withdrawn because the last facilitator apparently stopped attending classes,  the women meet in a tiny comedor because the school director won´t allow them to use the space, and everyone, including the facilitator, was nursing a baby through the 3 hour class. The good news: said nursing facilitator- who hasn´t finished high school and has never worked for any education program – can teach. Even more importantly, she´s teaching the Freire methodology, and doing it exactly the way I would if I spoke Q´eqchi´.

(Lest you walk away with the mistaken impression that I am puffed up with white woman´s burden zeal, and will soon acquire a verandah and a copy of Cicero to carry in my back pocket, let me reassure you that Q´eqchi´ has put me firmly in my proper place. Despite my best efforts, which included Sunday classes in the city and a week in Antigua, my Q´eqchi´vocabulary consists of about 35 words, and the facilitators teach exclusively in Q´eqchi´.  Making me remarkably useless.)

Dancers leaving the stage- which I couldn´t really see- and a man with a very nice hat

So, I began week two determined to Make Progress. I would 1) encargarme of the dozens of babies, 2) create new instruments that would force the facilitators to actually plan their classes and 3) impose Methodology on ¨the disaster.¨  I bought $40 worth of beach balls and foam puzzles in Cobán and put my mother to work digging up low budget preschool activities. (She rose to the challenge admirably, like the spectacular Children´s Museum employee that she is.) I designed a format for class planning including spaces for signatures. And, I went in search of missing guides from last year, so that the facilitator working with the less advanced women in ¨the disaster¨could give Freire a go.

Unfortunately, this is Guatemala, and it was fería.

Ironically, ¨the disaster¨ was the only group that even met. I was positive I saw the facilitator from ¨the project¨ in the election on Tuesday night, but when I showed up in her community on Wednesday afternoon, her father informed me that she has been bitten by a poisonous worm and had gone to Lancetillo to seek medical treatment.  So no class. (She maintained the same story later, explaining that she was bitten on Tuesday night after the election while staying with her in-laws.  I´m willing to bet this worm is called fería.)

Tuesday I spent trying to track down the missing guide, which involved two visits to the house of last year´s facilitator, who lives down a dirt road that leads up into the mountains. The second time I made the mistake of taking Mercedes, my bicycle, who like her namesake is not designed for six inches of mud. The facilitator was decorating a float for the next day´s parade and so was not to be found, but her mother told me that she gave the guide to the new facilitator, who subsequently quit and gave the guide to the current facilitator, who says the old-new facilitator still has it. So, no guide.

On Friday, I hopefully set out via pickup truck for the ¨Great Facilitator Hope¨ group.  I arrived at the comedor, and no one was there. I waited patiently. No one came.  I tried to call the facilitator, who didn´t answer. Then the cook came out and told me that the facilitator´s son was sick and she had to take him to the doctor, so no class.  (I stopped by her house on the way back to verify that he was not suffering from an acute case of fería, and as it happens the facilitator had told the truth: she had only just arrived back from Lancetillo carrying her son.)

Lesson: In a country where one illness or tropical storm can make the difference between survival and disaster, literacy is not always a priority. And sometimes, a rare opportunity to relax  is more important than holding class.  I need to chill out, and let things move at their own pace.

All was not lost on Friday afternoon. The owner of the comedor took pity on me and gave me a free mug of arroz con leche. And the rains ended,  and we were safe from mud and sinkholes and erupting volcanoes.  And so, I survived to fight my literacy battles another day.  I went swimming in the river. The End.

The Flower of Lancetillo herself, peacing out at 12:30 AM

News of a lynching

May 26, 2010

Journalist Michael Herr wrote that Vietnam taught him ¨that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did. The problem is that you didn´t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later.¨

In January I saw a lynching. The facts are these. At 9 AM on a Friday morning I arrived at my affiliate university, Guatemala´s most exclusive school located in the sprawling, affluent suburbs on the city´s south side. While I was meeting with my advisor, three young men (including one boy) snuck over the barbed wire fence that surrounds the parking lot and robbed a student at gunpoint. By the time I exited the campus around 10:30 AM, word of the robbery had spread, and a crowd of 50 students had caught  the men and begun to beat them. Although the campus police successfully extricated the suspects, students surrounded the traffic checkpoint where they were held and blocked an exit road, preventing additional police from entering the campus. Eventually, ambulances made it through, the purported assailants were taken to the hospital, and that was that, according to the three paragraph long account that appeared in newspapers the next day.

But what I saw, and remember, was this. As I walked out of the campus, through the closely guarded gates and under the razor wire, students from across the campus were running towards the parking lot. The spectacle was blocked by a bus, and so I didn´t see what was happening until I arrived at the bus stop. I for a moment I didn´t realize what was happening, I only saw a group of students dressed in carefully manicured American fashions, screaming and tearing at something. Then the police emerged from the crowd, holding the man with his hands handcuffed behind his back.  His shirt had been ripped off his body, his nose looked broken, his face was bleeding.  He face was taught with fury. The students followed.  One, a boy  in a black striped button up with gelled hair, jumped through the air, lifted his leg, and planted the sole of his shoe in the middle of the man´s naked back.

Too frequently, the violence I witnessed or heard accounts of  in Guatemala City unfolded in close proximity to my comfortable daily routine.  A wave of killings of police officers, possibly an attempt by organized crime to destabilize the center left government now in power, occurred on my route home from work and in my quiet Zone 2 neighborhood. And in the second week of March, my roommate and I were preparing dinner at 8 PM on a Tuesday night, when we heard the sounds of machine gun fire in the street outside our colonia. We learned later that a man in a pickup truck was shot by unknown assailants while driving his car. It was almost certainly a hit, as the assassins were probably waiting on top of a nearby house. The man was killed instantly, crashing into the wall that surrounded a nearby house. The next day I saw the cracks in the wall, now tilted and crumbling, revealing a pomegranate tree bearing unripe fruit within the courtyard.

But when I first heard the shots, I simply poured myself another glass of wine.

I haven´t written about it before because I didn´t know how to.  This period was my most difficult in Guatemala City. I have never felt more alienated, more lost,  more confused.  Because it is easy to list off statistics that illustrate the prevalence of violence here, the lynchings, victims of femicide, and disappeared from the civil war, but it is much harder to reconcile these images of violence with the Guatemala I experience on a daily basis, a place with a culture defined by an unusual mix of deferential formality and ribald humor, where melodramatic love songs are the soundtrack of choice for burly bus drivers and children are cared for as treasures.  How do such cruel cultures of violence emerge, and how is it possible that they are sustained? How can a place be so deeply traumatized that its people perpetuate the cycle of violence they have survived?

A month after I witnessed the lynching, I attended a ceremony that marked the beginning of the excavation of La Verbena, the public cemetery where unidentified bodies were dumped for decades and human rights advocates suspect the remains of the urban disappeared from the civil war can be found. After the various foreign diplomats from the embassies funding the dig gave their speeches, the group moved to the excavation site, a well several stories deep full of body bags. Family members of the disappeared were invited to name their loved ones, and to throw flowers into the grave. One by one, seemingly silent, stoic men and women, many now old, began to sob, screaming the names of their children and sisters, brothers and fathers. It was the sound of keening, grief so fresh and yet so old that it cannot be comprehended.

I would like to take responsibility for what I have seen, but I cannot even pretend that I  have begun to understand it.

Welcome to the Zona

May 16, 2010

This week, I packed up my back packs, moved out of my Zone 2 apartment, and headed north, back to the Zona Reyna. I’m finished up my last few projects at P’s central offices in Guatemala City at the end of April, and so I’ll be spending the last three months of my Fulbright working with the literacy groups here, trying to get to the bottom of this Freire business. Even though working with teachers in communities was always my goal, those of you who have talked to me in the last month know that the move itself was a dramatic affair, resulting in many late night anxiety attacks, much buying of insect repellent, an array of last minute Q’eqchi’ learning attempts (more on that later), and even, occasionally, the utterance of a forbidden phrase: “What was I thinking?”

But the truth is that I knew very well why I wanted to move to an isolated village in the mountains. I would I would never really learn about bilingual education unless I immersed myself in the culture of a place where bilingualism profoundly shapes people’s daily lives. I’m excited to start visiting classes tomorrow, and to fill you in soon after. Until then, I will leave you with a newly discovered pearl of wisdom: roosters are excellent alarm clocks. If I had acquired one to go with my compost bin my junior year, I never, ever would have been late to my 9 AM stats lecture.

These pictures are from a Global Week of Action for Education event we organized at the end of this week in the Zona. I would tell you more, but my computer battery is about to die and I won’t be getting any more generator love until tomorrow. Plus, my new bike named Mercedes wants to go for a ride in the selva before the afternoon rains start.