Tom Kemple is a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia and a long-time friend of Pop Wuj. He and his colleague Sylvia Berryman in Philosophy have been bringing groups of students to study in Guatemala since the summer of 2010—in fact, they had a group at Pop Wuj in June!
In November and December 2016, Tom 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 is the fourth and final installment of his field notes from his trip for his research project on university field schools 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.
With the rise of ‘coffee capitalism’ in the western part of the country at the end of the 19th century, and under the influence of the United Fruit Company in the first half the 20th, the ‘liberal-fascist' government of Jorge Ubico (1931-1944) passed laws requiring men to work 140 days in the plantations and build roads and trains, often under the threat of public execution (which took place in cemeteries like the one in Xela). The so-called Guatemalan Spring of 1944-1954 not only advanced agricultural reform through the notorious ‘Decreto 900,’ but also developed a strong labour code along with a formal system of urban and rural education. The subsequent counterrevolutionary period of military rulers (1954-1986) that began with the US-orchestrated coup suspended these reforms until the post-conflict period (1996-present), when funding from the UN and World Bank and some government programs increased access to education, especially for girls, who now outnumber boys in continuing on past primary school.
Nevertheless, only about 69% of the population makes it to high school (the inflated official government statistic of 110% includes 13-25 year-olds who episodically study after primary school), and at least 28% of them are functionally illiterate (that is, only competent in certain contexts, such as signing forms or doing basic calculations).
Among the many statistics that Oscar wrote out for us on the white board was that each of the approximately 125 students who receive scholarships through Pop Wuj, from primary to high school to university (and who made so much noise at the annual assembly during my Spanish class!), receive on average 100 quetzales per month for supplies and food, tuition, and other education related expenses (about $13US). Nearly all these funds come from Spanish classes, donations from former students, and other private donors, or in other words, from gringos like me.
Oscar’s remarks about the fundamental and increasing importance of the Pop Wuj Scholarship Program reminded me of my bus ride out of Panajachel to Xela last month, when three energetic boys in their early teens, returning to Sololá after a morning swim in the lake—Manuel, Oscar, and Fausto — sat next to me, firing off a string of questions about life in Canada. I was thrilled with my ability to keep up with their Spanish, and told them how impressed I was that each of them could speak three languages fluently, including Quiché and Kakchikel. One of the first questions Fausto asked me was whether I could arrange a beca (scholarship) for him. After explaining my understanding of 'how these things work', I told him the story of his name—the young student in medieval Germany who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge, wealth, and power. He smiled politely at me through his tinted glasses, and repeated his question.
Despite the poor state of the education system here, in some ways Xela does seem to live up to the extravagant dreams of its native son, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, the president from 1898 to 1920. Cabrera is sometimes compared with Castro; is considered by some to be the first of the Latin American dictators; and is often credited with establishing at least the appearance of a country dedicated to education and intellectual life. His ambitions are displayed in the beautiful Greco-Roman architecture of the Teatro Municipal, the Parque Central, and the Templo de Minerva, named in honour the goddess of wisdom: all were under construction by indigenous planners and workers during his presidency or reconstructed after the volcano eruption of 1902 and the earthquake of 1903.
|El Teatro Municipal is a few blocks down from Pop Wuj on 1a Calle in Zona 1. (Photo by Harry Diaz)|
Although I’ve known Oscar since first coming here in 2010, and had attended his fascinating talk on immigration and ‘the Latin American dream’ a few weeks ago, it was only toward the end of this remarkably fact-filled and politically charged lecture that I learned that he holds a doctorate. I was somewhat embarrassed to realize that I was not really listening to an amateur intellectual with a knack for statistics and a passion for undermining the trained ignorance and ingrained prejudices of educated gringos like me. Rather, I was engaging with a well-trained academic colleague with three jobs and an income that’s a tiny fraction of my own. As he spoke, the Pop Wuj motto began to ring through my head, 'Spanish with Solidarity,' and took on a new meaning for me.