I have now been in Guatemala for a little over two months. As I walk down the streets taking in the smells of fresh rain and corn tortillas, I am overcome by an incredible feeling that this is exactly where I need to be. This country is an incredibly rich place; the convergence of cultures and astounding natural beauty never cease to leave me with a magical feeling I have never quite experienced before.
I am constantly impressed and astounded by is the dedication of the children who come to our after-school English classes at Cooperativa. These kids already speak Kaqchikel and Spanish, and are now pushing themselves to learn a third language. A concern I have had about teaching English is that it has the potential to diminish the importance of local culture and language. I believe it’s important to constantly reflect upon what we do as community development workers and the effect we are having on the communities we work with. In a quest to understand the complexity of teaching English, I have spoken to a few people from the local community about my doubts. I have been glad to hear that they see learning English as an additional tool they can use in their future, and an opportunity to be trilingual, but not as a replacement of their local language. Until last year students did not learn to read and write in Kaqchikel, but now it is being taught in the schools. This is a strong indication that Kaqchikel culture is not being lost, but rather the community is working hard to preserve it.
Whenever I ask people in the community how to say something in Kaqchikel, their eyes light up and they are delighted to teach me their language. The other day one of my students offered to look up my Mayan astrological sign. I gave him my birthday and as promised, the very next class he presented me with a piece of paper indicating my sign and a description of what it means. Under positive qualities it read: works for the wellbeing of others, traveler and walker, orator, thinker, generous, teaches others. Under negative qualities: Stubborn, suffers internally, has difficulty taking care of oneself, impatient, nervous. I was shocked by this description because it basically describes me in a nutshell.
One of my goals over the next two years is to incorporate ways to celebrate Kaqchikel culture into our English classes. Every day I learn something new through interactions with community members, and by attending local events we have been invited to. I aspire to learn more about the Kaqchikel culture and language as I share my own language and culture with them, because I believe that is what solidarity looks like.
To summarize my thoughts on community development work: “I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.” –Eduardo Galeano