Students exchange cultures in Guatemala

by Stacy Jo

Despite differences in geographic and economic conditions, the common histories of two indigenous cultures met face-to-face in June when five American Indian students from the University visited Guatemala.
The coordinators’ goals for the two-week trip were for students to develop cultural relationships with other indigenous people, to form political alliances and to share ideas with the people of Guatemala.
Roxanne Gould, director of the American Indian Learning Resource Center and a coordinator for the trip, said many of the Guatemalans the group encountered had never met indigenous people from the north.
Cultural barriers contributed to varying definitions of the word “indigenous,” said Gould, who had previously visited Guatemala. Some Guatemalans had to be convinced the American Indian students were indigenous, Gould said, as they did not employ the Guatemalan signs of indigenous culture — native dress and language.
In the United States, Gould said, an indigenous person only needs to be a role member in a tribe.
However, the Guatemalan people welcomed the students and told them to think of Guatemala as their second home, Gould said.
“The we’ is more important than the I,'” Gould said. “That is something we could learn from. Some of us have forgotten that.”
Two years after the signing of a peace accord, Guatemala continues to recover from a 36-year-long war that caused the deaths of 150,000 people and the displacement of 1 million people, said Gould.
The CIA brought about the 1954 overthrow of Guatemala’s liberal democratic government; the people have lived under army-influenced civilian rule since 1986, according to a Guatemalan relief project publication.
“There’s a great deal that needs to change to achieve social justice,” Gould said.
The need for cooperation and the students’ desire for a service learning experience motivated many of the group’s activities.
During their stay, the students spent time at several women’s cooperatives, including an organization of widows whose husbands died in the war.
They also volunteered at an orphanage in the jungle near the Caribbean Sea. With no financial assistance from the Guatemalan government, the orphanage supports 200 children with the help of private donations.
Along with leading educational and recreational activities at the orphanage, the students cooked a traditional native meal. Because the children live on mostly rice, beans and tortillas, the meal of fry bread and wild rice was an unusual treat.
Gould said the Guatemalans’ level of poverty became evident during the meal preparation. Without can openers to open the food, the students were forced to improvise on their recipes. This reminded students of the Third World conditions that surrounded them, Gould said.
University student Maymangwa Flying Earth said she had researched the country, but meeting the Guatemalan people taught her much more than any books ever could.
“I carry it in my heart now,” said Flying Earth, a College of Liberal Arts junior.
As a student designing her own major, Flying Earth takes classes on indigenous history and indigenous human rights. She said her Guatemalan experience enhanced this course of study.
“It’s given my career path a more global view,” Flying Earth said.