We’ve spent the last few days in Chajul, a small town six hours north of the normal tourist route in Guatemala. I haven’t seen another gringo the whole time we’ve been here, save the staff of Limitless Horizons Ixil (LHI), the nonprofit that we’re visiting. Therefore we attract a lot of stares. Most are friendly – although some not -- and we’ve learned the words for “good morning” “good afternoon/evening” and “thank you” in the local Ixil language. This goes a long way towards breaking the ice and bringing smiles out from those staring at us. The children laugh and shout “hola!” at us, but most people here do not speak Spanish. This keeps them very isolated, as their language isn’t understood outside of the three towns that make up the Ixil Triangle in this mountainous region. Part of the mission of LHI is to help kids stay in school long enough to learn Spanish, and they provide tutoring for those they’re giving educational scholarships to. In this region, only about 2% of children finish high school, and LHI is working to change that, with both financial and educational support -- mostly for girls, who have the least chance of making it past about second grade.
The population is about 98% indigenous, and was one of the areas hit the hardest in the 36-year-long civil war. Almost everyone in this town lost a family member to the war, and we were able to hear first-hand the experiences of one of the guerillas that was involved in the resistance. The war is still fresh in the minds of those who lived through it, and greatly influenced the ability of a whole generation to be educated.
The area itself is gorgeous, with sweeping green vistas and abundant vegetation. The hills are dotted with simple wooden or adobe homes, the smell of smoke from the wood cooking fires a constant companion.
We’ve spent time reading to kids at LHI’s bright and colorful library – the first and only in the community -- which is open to all children. It’s a very popular place for the kids to hang out, as school (if they attend) only takes place in the afternoon. It was great to see their thirst for learning and their keen interest in books.
We’ve also gone to various homes for lessons in backstrap weaving (even harder than it looks) and tortilla making. One day we were served a lunch of a delicious regional specialty called boxbol, made from corn dough wrapped in the leaves of a squash plant, then steamed. It’s served with a tomato salsa and the sauce of ground pumpkin-type seeds, and is surprisingly tasty.
This is a very poor region of the country, and homes are mostly made of slats of wood with corrugated tin roofs. The insides are very dark, with packed dirt floors. It’s not unusual for there to be 3 generations of a family living together, and 8 or 10 children are common. In this very machismo culture, the woman’s place is in the home, and bothering to get girls educated is an uphill cultural battle, one that LHI is taking on with sensitivity and determination. Change is coming slowly, and in the faces of the girls that have received scholarships and a good education is the hope for a better future – for themselves, their culture and their town. We all felt grateful to be able to witness this evolution, and take part, even if only for a few days.