Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 8, 2003
Mayan people find their voice
Besieged teachers plead for education for their children
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Since nobody listens to us back home, we have to go outside the country to be heard," says Rafael Lopez, one of four Mayan teachers and parents from Guatemala currently visiting Alberta.
Lopez said the Mayan Indians from the municipality of Cunen, Quiche, want education for their children but nobody listens to them. "We are completely neglected by the government," he said, noting the Guatemalan central government "doesn't give much importance to education."
Neglected as they are, the Cunen Indians got together in 1999 and formed an association of parents, teachers and students and organized their own school. It's called the Cunen Teachers' College. So far the college has graduated 121 primary teachers who are teaching throughout Quiche.
The college is currently assisting 197 students in junior and high school levels, some of whom will eventually become teachers as well.
Since its establishment, the college has operated in a small building provided by the Cunen municipality.
Now the Mayan want their own school and want Canadians to help them raise the $440,000 that it will take to put the building up. They already have the land.
Father Gerard LeStrat, an Oblate working in Guatemala for the past 12 years, is leading the delegation. "This college is a dream they have had since they were young," he said in a Nov. 23 interview at Sacred Heart Church where the delegation attended Mass. "These teachers were the lucky ones. They went to college and got educated and now they want to help their families who are illiterate."
The rate of illiteracy is so high among Mayan Indians throughout Guatemala they were duped into voting for Efrain Rios Montt in the last presidential election, noted LeStrat.
Montt, the former dictator that killed tens of thousands of Mayans during his reign of terror in the 1980s, finished third but earned the highest number of votes among the Indian population, the Cunen Mayan included. The illiterate Mayans were given money and then were transported to the voting stations by Montt's campaign workers.
LeStrat say the Guatemalan government is afraid of educating the Mayans, who make up 65 per cent of the Central American country's population. "They are afraid that if they educate the Mayans, they will lose control."
Over 65 per cent of the 25,000 Mayans in Cunen are illiterate, said Juan Rodriguez, president of the college parents' association.
"We are completely abandoned." Even worse, 90 per cent of the municipality's youth don't speak the Mayan language.
"We believe education is key to achieving progress and a better life for the Mayan people but we are completely excluded from any state structure regarding education," lamented Miguel Angel Camija, the teachers' college director. "That's why we want Canadians to help us."
Most higher education institutions in Guatemala are in the large cities and the poor Cunen Mayans, most of whom are peasants making $3 a day, cannot afford to send their children to college, explained Lopez, who is vice-director of the teachers' college. As a result, most children end up working the land from a young age. "That's why we organized ourselves and started this college to help those who cannot afford it."
The college staff is made up of 22 volunteer teachers who work fulltime in other institutions and come to the teachers' college after work. They only receive a stipend of $50 a month.
Teaching is done in both Mayan and Spanish since the goal of the college is to graduate bilingual teachers. Students pay a fee of 75 quetzals a month, about $10, and have access to computers, Internet and other technologies. In the capital city a student would pay tuition of 1,500 quetzals a month.
George Bunz is sponsoring the delegation through his Wainwright-based Rainbow of Hope for Children, a non-governmental organization with projects throughout Latin and Central America.
He said his group will initiate a dialogue with other NGOs before making a request to CIDA for matching funds.
The delegation, which also includes Maria Etelvina Botton Perez, president of the college's faculty, has met with NGOs, and First Nations people as well as college and university students during their Saskatchewan-Alberta tour.