Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Cultural Competency at Pop Wuj

Text by Nadia Mondini

All students in our Medical Spanish Program, Social Work Spanish, and Spanish for Educators Program and all long-term volunteers completing internships at Pop Wuj begin their time here with cultural competency, a three-day course that prepares them to engage more conscientiously with the communities they serve. New Environmental Projects Coordinator Nadia shares her thoughts here on Day 1 of cultural competency.

Getting up on my second week as an intern at Pop Wuj, I already felt quite confident. My first week had introduced me to many of the beautiful projects Pop Wuj runs: I had had my first safe stove building experience together with Doña Carmelina and my fellow interns Adam and Chris, I had held a presentation on environmental risks for children’s health alongside Jonas and Julia from the social work Spanish program, and I had met the kids at the Family Support Center. I had been shown around everything at Pop Wuj, and I had participated in my first delicious and fun all-together Thursday dinner. I started my second week motivated and excited about everything more that was to come.

On this second Monday morning, my weekly program said something special: “competencia cultural.” I had been told that new interns and medical or social work students attend, at the beginning of their activity at Pop Wuj, a lecture about the cultural framework we operate in in Guatemala. I expected instruction and advice on dos and don’ts in Chapin culture, things like taboos or particularly appreciated behaviors. What the five other participants and I got was so much more.

Roney Alvarado, Director of the Medical Program and member of the Pop Wuj founding committee, gave us a profound and elaborate insight into Guatemalan mindset, trying to make us truly understand how things work in this country and why they do so. He explained to us that Western strategies often fail in Latin America because its system is based upon improvisation rather than long term, rigid and detailed planning. Small, local organizations are therefore best suitable to induce change: they know how people and communities approach issues, can adapt to those specifics, and work with them.

Carmencita addresses members of our current Safe Stove Project group at our last pre-construction meeting on April 13. The process by which Pop Wuj finds, interviews, selects, orients, and collaborates with safe stove recipients has evolved over the years as we learn more about how best to serve the communities where we work. We plan to finish building the stoves of these families and finalize the next group in the next few weeks. (Photo by Robyn Nielsen)

Roney also pointed out that much of the present-day Latin American attitude, for instance understanding of time, finds its roots in the colonial shock, through which people found themselves not only deprived of their own socioeconomic and cultural structure and identity, but also denied access to the enforced new system. The only means of resistance available back then was the refusal of European timing, a reaction which became engraved in collective memory and today results, even though without people being conscious about it, in what we call “tiempo Chapin,” that is the fact that time is merely a guide value and not a fixed measure. Roney told us about Guatemalans’ perception of foreigners, the racism toward Maya communities deep rooted in Mestizo population, about the reasons why it takes generations to bring about real change.

When I walked out of my first day of “competencia cultural,” I had spent some really interesting time and learned a huge deal about the sociocultural context I’ll be working in for the next two months. But especially, I had realized how fundamental it is for students and volunteers at Pop Wuj or any other comparable organization to be given such information. Competencia cultural is the step that takes us from looking at Guatemala, to starting to truly understand it.

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