Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Pop Wuj Student's Take on Our Beloved Xelaju

Text and photos by Dr. Kyle Biggs
La versión en español está abajo/
Spanish translation follows the English version

Green, red, orange, yellow and blue. These are some of the colors you might marvel at when visiting a market in the Guatemalan highland city known as Xe laju’ Noj in the predominant regional language, Quiché, or more commonly, Xela. Indigenous women in this part of the county can still be seen dressed in traditional wear on any given day. Fabrics of resplendent colors flecked with gold and silver are used to hand-stitch huipiles, dresses, belts and sashes are ascetically enticing and can transport you to a lost world that we can often times only find in books and movies today. Unfortunately, these many colors can also be found on the web page of the US State Department that as of January 10th has issued a travel warning to the beautiful nation of Guatemala. 

Avenida de Adoquín, Xela, Guatemala
Cobblestone Street, Xela, Guatemala
I was stunned when I heard the news, that really at the end of the day was an issue of semantics, in which the highest level of warning a country could achieve (level 5) was wholly eliminated and Guatemala’s level or risk did not actually change (level 3). I had already spent just over 2 weeks in Xela and, providing my own personal endorsement that I consider myself an observant and conscientious traveler, the notion of personal danger had hardly registered. I had however, after a fortnight in the city that lives in the graceful gaze of the volcano Santa Maria, whose smooth, conical edges and gentle, rounded peak belie its difficult ascent (so I’m told), become cognizant of many things. 

Humor del atardecer del volcán de Santa María, Xela, Guatemala
Sunset Mood of Volcano Santa Maria, Xela Guatemala
The city of Xela is one of contrasts and culture; it is considered the ancient seat of Quiché wisdom who inhabited this region for centuries before the arrival of the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado in 1524. Today it is also the home to some of the most fervent soccer fans in the county who cheer on their beloved Superchivos at the local stadium, Mario Camposeco. This love of sport carries over into daily life as well when people, young and old, brave the early morning chill to sweat out the prior nights transgressions running (and walking) laps at the track of the national sports complex. While the Olympic glory of Guatemala is brief, the region is home to the speed walker Erick Barrondo who took silver in the London game of 2012, the first medal in the country’s history. 

Con destino a Xelajú! Zunil, Guatemala
Destination Xela!  Zunil, Guatemala
The city of Xela has a vibrant middle class and Sundays are reserved for recreation and respite. Families can be seen spending their leisure time strolling through the historic Central Park, snacking on sweet breads and salted fruit. Total strangers routinely wish one another a pleasant day when they pass in the street or a bon appétit when meal time arrives. While traversing the city’s narrow, cobblestone streets, the gentle beep, beep of car horns can be heard politely warning pedestrians of their approach so they’ll clear a path. This courtesy gives voice to Xela’s many automobiles and adds yet another language to the list of regional tongues spoken in Guatemala’s highlands including Mam, Cakiquel and Quiché. 

Vanji, Kyle, y un Quetzal, San Pedro, Lago de Atitlán
Vanji, Kyle, and a Quetzal, San Pedro, Lake Atitlán
Appreciated in this way, it becomes apparent that the darling city of Xelajú, where the streets are bathed in light of a silver moon (to borrow a line from the city's most popular ballad "Moon of Xelaju") is one with many faces, none of which are characterized by danger or violence. As the saying goes, if you look for trouble, you’re likely to find it. It may very well be that these perils do exist here, in Guatemala City or along the northern border with Mexico for example, but traveling to any city the world over is not without risk, and Guatemala is no exception. I can only speak from my own personal experiences during my time here and overwhelmingly, these have been defined by kindness, respect and gratitude.


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Verde, rojo, azul, naranja y amarillo. Éstos son algunos de los colores que se pueden observar en la ciudad altiplano guatemalteca conocida por su nombre K'iche', Xelajú Noj. O más comúnmente, Xela. La mujer indígena de esta región se viste en tela de colores resplandecientes, muchas veces moteada de oro que da a los huipiles, cortes, cintas, fajas y tzutes el carácter de un mundo perdido, solo visitado hoy en día por libros y películas. Desafortunadamente, estos colores también se encuentran en la página de la red del Departamento de Estado de Los Estados Unidos en la cual a partir del 10 de enero declaró una alerta de viaje para el bello país de Guatemala. 

Me sorprendió bastante cuando supe de esta noticia. Que, al fin y al cabo, tiene que ver con la semántica de quitar el nivel de peligro más alto y realmente no cambió el nivel en donde se ubicó Guatemala. Yo llevaba casi dos semanas completas en la ciudad de Xela y hasta entonces, la idea de peligro ni me había cruzado la mente. La ciudad de Xela, la capital de conocimiento K’iche’. La ciudad de Xela hogar del estadio Mario Camposeco donde juega el querido equipo futbolista los Superchivos. La ciudad de Xela, donde gente tras gente se levanta a correr (o caminar) dando vueltas en la pista del Complejo Deportivo cada mañana. Unos obviamente homenajeando al olímpico Erick Barrondo que fue el primer ganador de la medalla de plata en la historia del país. La ciudad de Xela, donde se puede ver a familias completas paseándose en el Parque Central horas después del atardecer. La ciudad de Xela, donde las bocinas de los carros te hablan con un toque de cariño para que te salgas de la calle antes de su llegada. La ciudad de Xela, donde desconocidos te desean buenas tardes al pasarte en la calle o buen provecho a la hora de comer. 

Así que, se puede apreciar que nuestra amada Xelajú, donde las calles están bañadas de luna plateada (prestando una letra del segundo himno nacional: Luna de Xelajú) es una ciudad de muchas fachadas distintas, pero ninguna de ellas se expresa en forma de violencia ni peligro. Sí, tal vez existen lugares en el país, la ciudad de Guatemala o en las tierras fronterizas mexicanas por ejemplo dónde haya violencia. Pero como cualquier nación en el planeta entero, si se busca problemas, los problemas se localizan. Por mi parte, yo solo puedo compartir las experiencias que he tenido y más que nada, han sido experiencias caracterizadas por la amabilidad, el respeto y el agradecimiento.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Tom's Visit Part 3 of 4: Cultural (In)competency

Text by Tom Kemple

Tom Kemple is a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia and a long-time friend of Pop Wuj. With his colleague Sylvia Berryman in Philosophy, he has been bringing groups of students to study in Guatemala since the summer of 2010. In November and December, 2016 he spent five weeks studying Spanish, building stoves, helping out in the clinic and Nutrition Program, and having fun at the Family Support Center. What follows are some of his fieldnotes from his trip for his research project on university fieldschools and study abroad programs, titled “Global Citizenship at Home and Abroad.”  We hope you enjoy Tom's stories and insights as much as we enjoyed having him back at Pop Wuj. 

One of my aims in returning to Pop Wuj has been to learn more about the school’s largest and most complex program — Medical Spanish combined with the Clinic downstairs. So I’ve started attending the ‘Competencia Cultural’ lectures given by Roney Alvarado, one of the founders of the school in 1992 and a professor of Anthropology at nearby San Carlos University.

Many of the students who have come here with me in the past remember Roney as the brilliant ‘organic intellectual’ who challenged us through three long sweaty sessions to ask a simple question: "Why am I here?” As students often say in pre-program interviews, they’re here for the courses and the credit, with some adventure and new experiences thrown in as an added bonus. Like the three medical students sitting with me the other day, my passage here has mostly been paid out of someone else’s pocket – my university’s Arts Research Abroad fund or a Research Stipend. For Roney, the question “why am I here?” cannot be reduced to the commercial service provided by the school, and so he invites us to think about the meaning and value of volunteer work. As he explained in our first session, the Pop Wuj philosophy turns the practice of other language schools on its head: rather than take a percentage of tuition fees and invest them into development projects undertaken by other organizations, Pop Wuj coordinates its own social and medical projects by offering services for fees (Spanish classes) that finance those projects. For that reason, it’s often impossible to fix an exact monetary relationship between tuition paid and projects delivered, as one would in a financial report.

The money we pay for classes and the muscle we put into volunteering are not simply economic resources but also ethical expressions of our social solidarity with the people and projects that are the heart and soul of this organization.

Although this is my fourth time attending Roney's lectures, he always seems to find new ways of connecting my personal experiences with larger questions about capitalism and colonialism. Listening to him shatters my assumptions about the place of intellectuals in the world, and undermines many of the liberal-philanthropic impulses that I bring with me here.


Roney Alvarado discusses the Safe Stove and Reforestation projects with families from Llanos del Pinal
After Tuesday's cultural competency session, he came by to chat and noticed the book I was reading. The book was by Irma Alicia Valáquez Nimatuj, an indigenous woman who grew up who grew up in a middle class family in Xela, and has the daunting title La Pequeña Burguesía Indïgena Commercial de Guatemala: Desigualdades de Clasa, Raza y Genero (The Indigenous and Commercial Petit Bourgeoisie of Guatemala: Inequalities of Class, Race and Gender). He told me he appreciated the rich descriptions of everyday life in Velásquez’s study, but thought she sometimes used rigid racial categories without reflecting critically on them. In particular, he argued, the social meanings of ‘Mestizo, Criollo, Ladino, and Indigenous’ change in various contexts, each taking on distinctive significance according to the historical and cultural complexities of Guatemala.

When I asked him to say a bit more, he elaborated on the meaning of ‘Ladino,’ the racial group that he himself identifies with and that is often the target of stereotypes. Roney pointed out that the term in colonial times referred to baptized or Hispaniciazed Indians, although later came to have class connotations that included poor non-indigenous peasants and urban workers. As I’ve been reading in other books, Ladino in Guatemala is different from what in Mexico or Nicaragua is referred to as Mestizo, which is understood more as a self-consciously ‘mixed’ (European and indigenous) identity. As Roney stressed, the process of so-called ‘ladinoized’ identity-formation cuts in many directions, and cannot refer only to the ‘Europeanization’ of rising economic classes or political elites, since it is also evident in many other alliances of solidarity between social groups, and in movements toward ‘indigenization’ as well.

I have noted some of these cross-currents here at the school, beginning with its Mayan name, and in the commitment of both ‘Ladino’ and self-identified ‘indigenous’ teachers to work with poor indigenous communities. I also found Roney’s remarks helpful in understanding the coffee finca near Reu which our group has visited on previous trips, where the poverty so evident among Ladino peasants is in many ways similar to the conditions of indigenous communities such as Llano del Pinal.

In that morning’s lecture Roney placed a lot of emphasis on commonplace stereotypes of the culturally incompetent ‘do-gooding gringo,’ often with a touch of anger and cynicism, but always with good humour and penetrating insight. He pointed out that the families who come to the clinic or who benefit from the social projects often hold many of these same stereotypes, as do some of the Guatemalan doctors, and for that reason he holds cultural competency discussions with them as well (see the photo above of the Safe Stove group meeting).  

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Tom's Visit, Part 2 of 4: Classrooms Off Campus


Text by Tom Kemple

Tom Kemple is a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia and a long-term friend of Pop Wuj. With his colleague Sylvia Berryman in Philosophy, he has been bringing groups of students to study in Guatemala since the summer of 2010. In November and December of 2017 he spent five weeks studying Spanish, building stoves, helping out in the Pop Wuj Clinic and Nutrition Program, and having fun at the Family Support Center. What follows are some writings from his trip created in the course of his research project on university fieldschools and study abroad programs, titled “Global Citizenship at Home and Abroad.” We hope you enjoy Tom's stories and insights as much as we enjoyed having him back at Pop Wuj.


My daily rhythms give me a certain confidence and security in being here: Isabel and the Mayan Cosmovision symbol behind her greet me as I enter the school; I immerse myself in Spanish classes every day; watch a film in the evening (“Men With Guns” and “Ixcanul: The Volcano” are well worth it); attend Luis’s roundtable on justice for indigenous people; help out in buying and delivering materials for safe stoves; attend a birthday party at the Family Support Center; help make a fruit salad for our weekly Thursday dinner; or go on a long weekend hike to Lake Chicabal with Alberto and some other students. 


Pop Wuj Entryway

I am slowly getting used to the confusions and irritating inconveniences at my homestay as well: the door to the bedroom only closes after a struggle; the electric heating unit in the shower seems permanently set to tepid, and always hits me in the head; and my housemate and I were locked out of the bathroom for several days when I closed the door behind me. The two-block walk to and from school is an obstacle course of broken sidewalks, dog doo, and unpredictable traffic, which is especially hazardous in the dark.

As I learn to modify my ordinary assumptions and everyday habits, I also come to understand something about myself as a citizen of a supposedly more developed and civilized world. Everyday I have to unlearn things that had always seemed normal and natural to me, and I retrain myself to see my habits and assumptions as products of a long history that I otherwise take for granted.

As many of the students we’ve brought here have said over the years, Pop Wuj’s Safe Stove Project in the poor indigenous village of Llano del Pinal just outside of town is among the most challenging and moving experiences one can have in a lifetime. I spent last Tuesday (election day in the U.S.) helping Carmelina, Benedicto, and another student, Alison, to sift, measure, and mix sand, cement and water for the last of the three stages involved in building a ‘safe stove’ (estufa segura).

A Completed Safe Stove

Doña Maria, the old woman in the blue blouse in the photo, is almost blind from cooking over an open fire over a lifetime in this tiny shack, which I could hardly bear being in for more than 10 minutes at a time (and I live with a chain smoker!). As my Spanish teacher Gerson pointed out to me, the main incentive for people like Doña Maria in having a stove built is the economic saving rather than the health or environmental benefits: 5-6 bags of firewood per month at 30 Quetzales each (about $4US) can be reduced to 3-4 bags with the new stove.

These savings seem to be offset by the large concrete house which is also being built on the plot, presumably from remittances in US dollars sent by relatives working in the States. Despite these improvements, Doña Maria tells us she plans to continue cooking in the shack and living in the wood and straw hut located just behind it.

The afternoon unfolded without a hitch, with our leader Carmelina, who lives in this community (and who took the photo of us), giving us very clear instructions, all the while chatting in K'iché and Spanish with Doña Maria and some neighbors who stopped by.

The next day Carmelina led me, Mynor, Elizabeth, and Carmen, along with 14 members from the families who would be receiving stoves in the coming months, to buy and distribute the stove materials. This time things did not come off so smoothly: the hardware store opened late; we had a hard time organizing a human chain to get 800 bricks loaded onto our truck at the factory; the store that supplied the cement was no longer there; the people delivering the blocks seemed to be lost for the first couple hours; and the caravan of trucks could only barely maneuver in and out of the narrow dirt roads of the village.

Each of these expenditures of muscle and money made me think about the meaning and value we might take from coordinating our efforts for a task that each of us benefits from differently. Or as the sociologist in me would put it, the day reminded me how the material division of labour is infused with a moral spirit of solidarity that each of us experiences in our own way.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

"Hasta Luego," not "Adios"

Text by Emily Rempel and photos as noted

General Projects Coordinator Emily Rempel  finished her 3 months of intensive volunteering at Pop Wuj on May 5.

How does one properly reflect on a life-changing, four-month-long experience in one single blog post? It simply doesn’t seem possible.

I arrived in Xela the evening of Saturday, January 7th and to be honest, I was terrified. The sun had already gone down, my terrible sense of direction was failing me completely, and I had spent the day subsisting on the few remaining power bars that I had in my backpack. Looking back on the “what the heck am I doing here” messages I had sent to my mom (like the proper almost 23-year-old adult I am), I can’t help but laugh and be completely amazed by how much has happened since then and how much I’ve experienced.

During my time at Asociación Pop Wuj I helped build numerous stoves, I interviewed families for our current group of stove recipients, I got to see our “compra” day where we bought and delivered enough materials for some 11 stoves. I listened to Carmelina, our stove boss, explain to every group of volunteers just how big of an impact our safe stove project has on the families of Llanos del Pinal, Xecaracoj, etc. I was welcomed into the homes of so many families.

Carmelina and I on my last day of stove building (Photo by student volunteer)
I also got to participate in all of our medical projects, which is a life experience I never expected to have. I got to help measure and weigh babies in our Nutrition Prgoram and learned all about the different supplements we use to help combat varying degrees of malnutrition. Through my own research for the blog, I also learned way more about the pervasive problem of malnutrition in Guatemala, how it self-perpetuates and is compounded by intersecting social, political and institutional oppressions. I spent a week working in the medical brigade with Pop Wuj and Timmy Global Health and learned the Spanish names of countless medications that I had never even heard of in English. I helped translate during triage in our Pop Wuj cCc, so that our medical volunteers could provide the high level of care that Pop Wuj promises.

A favourite photo from a Nutrition day in La Victoria (Photo by Emily Rempel)
I also spent a lot of time working in our Scholarship Program and Family Support Center, two projects that focus on providing opportunities for education. Meetings in our Scholarship Program always amaze me. First, every participant there (usually mothers of scholarship recipients) greets us and welcomes us to their community. Then, we discuss the progress of our becados (scholarship students), challenges faced in school and at home, so that the educational journey of each of our becados is something shared and supported by the entire group. At my last scholarship meeting, with our group from Chirijquiac, we also discussed human rights: what are our human rights, examples of how human rights are being denied, and the barriers that exist in demanding our rights. The scholarship meetings always remind me that it is the participants in our projects, usually women, who are leading the struggle for human rights. It’s been an honour to work with Pop Wuj in helping to support this struggle.

My last meeting with the scholarship group from Chirijquiac (Photo by Carmen de Alvarado)
By far the most fun part of my internship was my afternoons at the Family Support Center. The kids there are just SO GREAT. Each one is so full of energy, so full of kindness, so full of potential. The FSC is a vital part of the community of Llanos del Pinal. It provides a safe place for these wonderful children to be nurtured, to explore, to grow. Saying goodbye to the kiddoes there was incredibly hard, but I look forward to following their growth through future posts on this blog - like this one!

All smiles with Rosemari and Yadira (Photo by Emily Rempel)

Packed into our casita with the pequeños, Yosvin, Daniel, Emmanuel, Yadira, Andrea, and Daniela (Photo by Ashley Aue)
Yadira and Daniela running circles around me (Photo by Elizabeth Barnes)

Pop Wuj is a labour of love. It’s a project of passion. It’s sustained through constant, non-stop work. In a country marked with institutional weakness, pervasive corruption, that continues to be robbed of its resources, that has been, and continues to be, so thoroughly affected by colonialism, it’s grassroots organizations like Pop Wuj that help realize the human rights of the most marginalized Guatemalans. The opportunity to be a part of this human rights work has been, by far, the best thing that I have ever done in my life. I am eternally grateful for my time here and look forward to supporting Pop Wuj from afar, in whatever way I can. A Pop Wuj - gracias y nos vemos otra vez.

Emily's internship at Pop Wuj was the final requirement for her Bachelor of Arts in Human Rights at the University of Winnipeg, and she graduates this semester. ¡Gracias por todo, Emily, y que te vayas bien!

You can read more blog posts written by Emily or spotlighting her by clicking here.

Friday, May 12, 2017

El Día de la Madre 2017

Text and photos by Elizabeth Barnes

May 10 is el Día de la Madre in Guatemala. The annual Día de la Madre celebration at the Family Support Center always requires lots of forethought and preparation.

Director of the Family Support Center Shaaron Hurtado welcomes everyone to the Día de la Madre event. This year seven students from Butler University who will be participating in a Timmy Global Health brigade attended.
This year our FSC staff had to set up the new site for the festivities with the possibility of early rainy season showers. Our chef, Kevin, had to cook a special dinner for more than a dozen extra people. The teachers planned mini competitions for the mothers to be interspersed throughout the Día de la Madre presentations by the kids.

The most challenging competition requires mothers to beat an egg into a foam so thick that it stays in the bowl when you turn it upside down! Doña Silvia (fourth from right) won the competition. She is the afternoon teacher of the youngest kids at the Family Support Center and the mother of Santos, teacher of the middle group of kids (third from right).
Most importantly, the FSC kids had to make gifts for their moms and learn choreography for Mother’s Day performances.

The girls of the oldest class kicked off the dances with marimba music they'd chosen themselves.
Later they'd return to the stage for a Top 40 hit: "Despacito."
The boys of the oldest class incorporated some classic 90s boy band moves into their routine.
Some dancers in the youngest group favored a more improvisational style.
Santos's class of the youngest school-age kids started with a cowboy-themed number.
After a costume change, they reappeared for their own dance to typical Guatemalan marimba music.
The last pair of dancers, Jonathan and Zulmy, exit the stage. In the tradition of proud moms with cameras everywhere, Zulmy's mom Doña Sofia was up front to capture the moment!
Pop Wuj collaborates with dozens of mothers who continually advocate for the health, education, and wellbeing of their families. We couldn’t work with the children at the Family Support Center without their parents’ active participation, and we’re proud to count many women in Llanos del Pinal among our partners. ¡Feliz día de la madre!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

¡Nos vemos, Pop Wuj!

Text by Mary Gramiak and photos as noted

Environmental Projects Coordinator Mary Gramiak finished her 3 months of intensive volunteering at Pop Wuj on April 7.

 General Projects Coordinator Emily Rempel and Mary celebrate a successful day of stove construction! You can read more about their experience flying solo here. (Photo by Señor Sales, Safe Stove Project participant)
Three months of laughs later, and the time has come for me to say goodbye to Pop Wuj. 

Interning as Environmental Projects Coordinator with Pop Wuj has been such a wild ride. From stove construction to translating in the clinics, from scholarship meetings to Timmy brigades, these three months offered an opportunity to test skills I didn’t even know I had.

Mary carefully negotiates moving one of the Family Support Center's cabinets alongside Pop Wuj students and Director of the Medical Program Roney Alvarado. You can read more about moving the FSC here. (Photo by Elizabeth Barnes)
Mary helps sort recycyling to be weighed at the private recycling center outside Salcajá in March. You can read a little more about recent recycling work here. (Photo by Elizabeth Barnes)
While I focused on safe stoves, something which was awesome about Pop Wuj was the diversity of projects I was able to lend a hand in. Working with the clinics was a personal favorite. Whether it was translating consults, helping out in pharmacy, or weighing babies with Dr. Herman, there was always something new to be done.

Mary helps sort recycyling to be weighed at the private recycling center outside Salcajá in March. You can read a little more about recent recycling work here. (Photo by Elizabeth Barnes)
Above all, working in the communities around Xela was the most rewarding part of the internship. While three months isn’t an exceptionally long time, it was long enough to get to know some of the women, children, and families, who participate in the programs. After a couple weeks, faces in Xecaracoj and Llanos del Pinal started to look a lot more familiar, and we were regularly greeted with kisses on the cheek.

Mary leads a Nutrition Program presentation about indoor air pollution in Llanos del Pinal in January a couple weeks after starting her internship. You can read more about Mary's experience with this presentation here. (Photo by Elise Lynch)
What really struck me was how easy I settled in at Pop Wuj and in Xela. Even the chicken bus felt totally normal after a couple of rides, and I had to remind myself when we had volunteers that this was a totally new experience for them. That feeling of comfort and normality, even in an environment which is so different than what I was accustomed to, is completely attributable to the community which Pop Wuj has built, and I will miss it very much. 

So thank you Pop Wuj and thank you Xela! You will always have a very special place in my heart and I am so grateful for the time we were able to spend together.

Mary hefts a bag of clay into a Safe Stove Project paricipant's home. You can read about our Safe Stove Project "compra," or materials shopping and delivery day, here. (Photo by Emily Rempel)
Mary has returned to Canada to complete her Bachelor of Arts Honours in Global Politics at Carleton University. ¡Te deseamos todo lo mejor, Mary! Que te vayas bien.

You can read more blog posts written by Mary or spotlighting her by clicking here.