Tag Archives: rabinal

Meet our newest volunteer, Sarah!


Sarah Lewis is from New Jersey and a recent graduate of The College of New Jersey with a degree in Psychology and minor in Public Health. She intends to pursue an advanced degree in Public Health (eventually), but meanwhile she’s volunteering with Voces y Manos! Get to know her below.  

What inspired you to work in Guatemala, and specifically with Voces y Manos? I am very passionate about global social justice and public health issues and intend to study these issues in the future. I also have previous volunteer experience in Haiti, Nicaragua, and Peru. I worked with an amazing organization in Nicaragua called Outreach360, so I searched for another organization with similar values. I loved that Voces y Manos supports youth in creating their own projects, rather than sending in volunteers to create projects. No one knows the community better than a member of the community themselves.

How did you get involved with Voces y Manos? I searched “public health internships Guatemala” on Google and went immediately to the sixth or seventh page – I wanted to work with a smaller, yet well-established organization. I found Voces y Manos’ website and loved their values and type of work. I applied, and now here I am!

What do you do when you’re not volunteering? I am obsessed with yoga! I’ve been practicing for the past five years and teaching for three. If you can’t find me, I’m probably in a handstand somewhere. I also enjoy reading and writing.

What’s next after Voces y Manos? After spending a week home in New Jersey, I will be traveling to Chile to teach English with the government-run program English Opens Doors until the end of November. I also applied to the Peace Corps and, if all goes well, would be leaving next February for the Dominican Republic as a literacy volunteer. If not, I’ll see where life takes me.  

What would you tell someone who’s thinking about volunteering abroad? Do your research! There are a lot of organizations out there, and they vary in quality. First, identify your own values. If you don’t know much about international non-profit organizations, read about them! Here’s a great place to start. I also recommend the book A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristoff and Carol WuDunn. Then – this is the research part – find an organization that matches those values and holds themselves accountable for their work. Great organizations can be tough to find, but it’s important if you really want to make an impact with your work. Once you’ve chosen an organization, go for it!! Traveling abroad can seem scary, but it’s rewarding and transformative. And once you travel abroad, go with the flow. Life as a volunteer abroad is anything but predictable.


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Taking Flight: Highlights from 7 extraordinary days in Rabinal

By Michael Bakal

As the year draws to a close, I am reflecting on another incredible year with Voces y Manos, and in particular this latest 7-day visit to Rabinal.  The trip cannot adequately be summarized, so I would like to instead share a few excerpts from the journal I kept during this extraordinary trip.

Days 1-2, 12/17-12/18/: Arrival in Rabinal

 The sights, sounds, and pace of life in Rabinal are now familiar, and the adjustment is no longer difficult. Jessica and I arrive on a sleepy Saturday afternoon, as vendors pack bananas, oranges, tortillas, chickens, and other wares into their baskets, and await the microbuses that will soon take them back to their homes.  We join the line, and I eagerly scan the landscape for familiar faces, but see none.  The bus that will bring us home to Guachipilin is not showing up, but no one is concerned.  In time, the bus will arrive.  Why stress?

The busride to Guachipilin

The following morning we meet with Sandra, the trusted Director of Fundación Nueva Esperanza.  We share warm greetings, and update one another on the latest developments of the past several months.  We review our objectives for this short visit: First, to follow up and record video footage of students’ community projects.  Second, to help prepare students for the next step in their academic journey: the start of their diversificado (High school) careers and, most importantly to jumpstart the formation of the much anticipated Association of Scholarship Students.

To accomplish these goals, we set aside mornings to meet with students.  Afternoons are devoted to visiting students in their communities so they can give us tours of their community projects.  I ask Sandra if all students have confirmed attendance at the meetings, which are to begin the very next day.  “Yes,” she tells me, “except for Rolando and Benito (pseudonyms). I have not received their Study Proposals yet.  For some reason, they seem to have lost contact with the Fundación.” This apparent lack of responsibility is uncharacteristic for Benito and Rolando, who have always impressed me with their earnestness. 

“And the other students?”

“They are all doing extremely well. They have all turned in their Study Proposals, and their projects—well, you will see their projects when you go on your visits, no?”

That evening, I attempt to call Rolando and Benito, but get no response.  Perhaps they have lost their cell phones.  They don’t live too far away and I plan to drop by in the morning.   I get to work on a presentation I will deliver to the youth group the next morning.  By 11:15 PM I can no longer keep my eyes open.  I set the alarm for early, and make sure I leave my shoes in an obvious location.

Day 3, 12/19/11: Together Again!

5:15 AM: I fumble out of bed, and grab my computer to put finishing touches on the presentation for today’s meeting.  I will be introducing students to the photovoice project they will begin this week (more to follow).  At 6:40, I put on my shoes, grateful to find them in an obvious location, and run to the nearby community of San Rafael to track down Rolando and Benito.  I go first to Rolando’s home, where his mom is already busily at work making tortillas.  We greet each other briefly.  She divines the purpose of my visit, and disappears behind a closed door, emerging moments later bearing a bleary-eyed Rolando.  Today is his dia de descanso (his rest day; he has been working as assistant to a construction worker during his school vacation).  He did not intend to be awake at this hour.  What is more surprising is that he did not plan on attending today’s scholarship meeting either. Apparently, both he and Benito were late turning in their Study Proposals, and Sandra let them have it. Rolando was gradually coming to his senses, and led me across the street to Benito’s home. Benito finally came out, shirtless, after we pounded on his bedroom door.  His 6-pack abs rippled, and I asked if he had been working out.  Yes, Mr. Muscles has been working out, he said with a laugh (Mr. muscles is one of his several self-assigned nicknames).  I asked if Mr. Muscles was planning on attending today’s meeting.  “I didn’t know about the meeting,” he said, his facial expression suddenly turning serious. “And besides, I’m out of the program, I haven’t even turned in my Study Proposal.”

“I think we blew it,” Rolando corroborated.

I paused to think for a moment.  If Sandra had indeed told the boys they were disqualified, I did not want to interfere with her decision.  But I felt nearly certain that no such disqualification had taken place.  Knowing Sandra, her intention had not been to remove the boys from the program, but rather to impress upon them the importance of showing greater responsibility.  I told Rolando and Benito that they had an obligation to the rest of the group and to their families to stay involved.  Their participation was critical, and leaving was no option at all.

“Sandra will forgive you,” I said, “Just prove to her you are committed to correcting your mistake.” We talked for a bit longer and the boys committed, without reluctance, to attend the meeting.  “Está bien,” I said bidding them a good-bye, “and, please make sure you arrive to the meeting 10 minutes early!”

8:45 AM at the FNE office: A long daisy-chain of extension cords snakes around desks, through an open window and along the office floor to defibrillate FNE’s long-compatose powerpoint projector. . .successfully.  I feel excited for the opportunity to see all the students again.  But by 9:10, no one has shown up.  Nervousness begins to set in.  Will anyone be here? Then, in walk Benito and Rolando.  I am glad to see them, and remind both to speak with Sandra immediately to apologize and get back on track.

I walk outside impatiently to see who else is on their way.  And here comes Maynor.  It is surreal to see him.  He looks exactly the same, but different in some way.  Perhaps more mature.  The last time we saw each other. . . well, it was the last day of the program, and he was in tears and I was on the verge. I gave him a big hug and a firm handshake which he reciprocated.  He has been well.  Stressed a bit, because he has to work far away on a tomato field for little money, but así es la vida. What can you do?

Here comes Griselda now.  Running down the street.  She’s 30 minutes late and knows it.  Buenos Dias Miguel.  “Buenos Dias Gris! It’s so good to see you!”

Now walking behind her, a bit more leisurely, come her two friends and colleagues Estefani and Dinora.  Both wear their shiny orange shirts from graduation day.  Estefani with pressed black pants, and Dinora with her corte típica (traditional skirt).  And one by one come the rest of the students. So great to see them all.  Sandra greets the latecomers with sarcastic warmth: “Buenas noches jóvenes.  It is good to see all of you again.”

We begin with updates.  One by one, each of the students stands and shares the latest progress they have made on their community projects. Each student amazes me more than the previous.  The growth in confidence and poise.  The maturity, and self-assuredness.  The change over the past few months is subtle yet clearly perceptible.  Juan de Jesus, still introverted in his mannerisms, now stands taller than before, with a newfound composure.  He speaks with clarity and purposefulness as he tells about how he organized 70 of his fellow community members into trash collection crews.  Mardoqueo tells a funny anecdote about how a local TV station happened to be in Nimacabaj on the day he was distributing trees to community members.  He obliged with the reporter’s request for an interview, then later regretted his decision. “Afterwards, I silently hoped my interview would not be aired on TV,” he said.  “But it did appear on TV,” he continued, “And I realized when I saw the program that I gave a pretty good interview after all!” His smile and downward gaze was shy but unmistakably proud at the same time.

The daisy-chain extension cords are still holding, so I fire up the PowerPoint.  “Congratulations, scholarship recipients of 2011!” reads the first slide.  Indeed, there was much to celebrate.  In the past few months, we have received mid-point project reports from all 10 of the prospective scholarship recipients.  This is a first.  Their reports carefully document the extraordinary projects that each student team has completed:

  • 1,100 trees planted in Nimacabaj
  • 13 community gardens planted in the town of Chiticoy
  • 10 community gardens planted in the town of San Rafael
  • 240 pounds of garbage collected in the town of Pacux

Yet what is even more impressive than these extraordinary figures is to read the students’ reflections about their experience.  Horacio writes, “Being a leader means taking on a huge responsibility.  You must know the reality of the people you serve, and if you do that, you can benefit an entire community.”  That students have become true, respected community leaders is evident in both their words and their deeds.

Students were pleased to learn that because their mid-point reports were so exceptional, the format for their final report had been simplified.  The new final project, called “Desde mis ojos” (Through my eyes) will follow the photovoice format: Students are asked to take photos of their community that they believe are important representations of daily life and within their culture.  Their task is to describe these photos, and reflect on how they relate to their community work, and their vision of social change.  This projects will be posted to the Voces y Manos website in February.

Day 5, 12/21/11: The Association takes Flight!

Today, Wednesday, is the defining moment of the week.  Today, the current and incoming scholarship recipients will come together to form an association of scholarship students.  The idea for this association has been incubating for quite a while now.  Many of the older students in our program had been looking for ways to stay involved with Voces y Manos after completing their formal requirements.  The vision for the Association is to keep older scholarship recipients involved by means of mentoring newcomers to the program, helping them design community projects, and adjust to their new schools. But plans never did materialize (until now) and the association could not seem to get off the ground.

Today was different for two important reasons.  Not only were the majority of students present, but also the meeting agenda was planned entirely by our students. The youth decided to focus on building community by making the newcomers feel welcomed into the group of scholarship recipients.  To do this, they planned on giving the newcomers advice and recommendations for embarking on their diversificado careers.

After introductions, the students break into 4 small discussion circles.  Newcomers preparing to study at ENBI, the institution that trains teachers, spend over 45 minutes picking the brains of current ENBI students, asking them about everything from homework requirements, to textbooks, to needed school supplies.  Students preparing to become accountants through the Zamaneb Institute similarly met with current Zamaneb students to prepare themselves as thoroughly as possible.  As I walked around the various discussion groups, I saw the newcomers sitting wide-eyed on the edge of their seats, soaking in as much wisdom as they possibly could from their elder counterparts.


Yenifer Valey giving advise to Selvin and Juan DJ

A buzz came over the room when Profe Manuel, and Seño Antonieta made a surprise appearance.  The husband/wife duo are of legendary status within our program.  Manuel, one of the students’ beloved former teachers, has remained actively involved in supporting Voces y Manos.  An expert in Mayan cosmovision, Manuel leads the Mayan ceremony that inaugurates our summer program each year.  In addition, when our scholarship program started 4 years ago, Manuel served as the advisor to the first class of scholarship recipients, Patricia, Silvia, and Adelis.  His wife Antonieta has also been actively involved in the program.  With years of experience helping communities develop projects, Antonieta has provided many of our students with advice on how to develop projects of their own.

The small group conversations wrap-up, and the full group reconvenes in a large circle on FNE’s patio.  This part of the meeting will be a surprise for the students.  Manuel and I will be honoring our first class of graduates.  We stand and address the entire group: “When we started this program 4 years ago, we had no idea it would grow to what it has become today,” we said, digressing briefly to recall a few of the many difficulties we faced in those initial years.  “But thankfully, the first group of students in the program were very flexible, and determined.  They have paved the way for all of you, and we are very proud to recognize them today on an incredible accomplishment: their graduation from diversificado.” All the students cheered.  Patricia and Silvia blushed slightly (Adelis was unfortunately sick and not in attendance).  Manuel, with diplomas in hand, now spoke directly to Patricia and Silvia: “We congratulate you today on this important triumph, with confidence that in the future, you will accomplish many more great things!” Patricia and Silvia, one at a time, embraced Manuel and I, and accepted their diplomas.


A proud moment for Michael, Silvia, Pati, Manuel & Antonieta (L to R)

Manuel now addressed the new group of scholarship recipients: “As we share in the celebration of the achievements of these three graduates, we hope that one day soon, the rest of you will have the opportunity to be recognized as graduates of this program as well.” Clearly moved, the younger students applauded vigorously.

To conclude the gathering, Macario proposed that we go around the circle, and have everyone share a brief reflection on the day’s meeting, and their hopes for the future.  All students expressed enthusiasm to move forward with the association, and several of the reflections stand out as being especially memorable:

“At first, we were unclear about what the purpose of an association would be and what it would do.  Now we feel we understand the purpose of the association. We now have a clear vision.”–Selvin

“Right now, we are like little birds that cannot fly.  We are grateful that we can rely on the older group of students who have had more experience to guide us and support us so that we too can learn to fly and be successful.”– Maynor

It was indeed a powerful moment: One that will set a positive tone in the critical months to come.  Antonieta’s concluding words aptly closed the ceremony, and so too conclude this journal:

“Students, this idea you have, this idea to form an association, is a seed that can one day grow into a beautiful plant.  But just as the farmer must not hesitate in planting and cultivating his seed, you must not hesitate in giving sustenance to this beautiful idea.  This is your big moment.  Take advantage of this opportunity to ensure that the Association will grow and develop into all that it can be.”

Antonieta giving advise to Rabinal's future teachers

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Blown-away by our scholarship students

By Jessica Nicholas

Michael and I have arrived safely in Rabinal!  The trip is short, so our schedule has been packed. Thus far, we have been meeting with some of our partner organizations, and the scholarship students, and started filming.

Meeting the students

This trip is a special one for me. I have been involved in Voces y Manos since we started, but have only been able to come to Rabinal since the first volunteer trip in 2008. I am grateful to be able to continue our work on the US side, but it can be hard to be so separate from the community with which we work. My relationship to the students has only been via emailed pictures and scattered stories from volunteers. From what I had been told, I knew these students are amazing. But meeting them yesterday for the first time brought my admiration to a new level.

Michael and I first met the new group of scholarship students in the morning. They were like 15-year-olds from any other country… they arrived a little late, squirmed in their chairs, giggled nervously at their inside jokes, and wore too much hair gel. Yet, at the same time, they had an air of maturity. Everyone had a chance to share about their community projects, and each spoke articulately about how the projects were going. They managed to demonstrate leadership skills just from a short meeting and discussion time.

After the time with the students, Michael and I had a quick meeting with Antonio the contact from Caritas that organized community mentors for each of the students. Caritas went above and beyond for the students, even giving a lot of financial help with the project. We left the meeting thankful to have an partner like him dedicated to the students in Rabinal.

Next came the best part of the day: filming student projects. During the rest of the week, we will be filming all three of the sites.

The Chiticoy Community  Garden

The first project we filmed was the community garden done by three young women- Dinora, Estefani, and Griselda. When told a few months ago that they were doing a community garden, it sounded like a cute idea. Maybe they would have a small garden with a few different types of  vegetables. But what I saw was much more and demonstrated the intelligence and leadership of these three strong young women.

Dinora, Estefani, and Griselda

After arriving in Chiticoy via tuk-tuk, we met Dinora, Stephanie and Griselda. Politely offering to carry my bag and jacket, they led Michael and I along a short path to the first garden. The timing was perfect, two women from the community were busy working there.

One of the Achi women working in the garden

We took a video of the girls showing us all the parts of their project, the different types of herbs and vegetables and why they chose them. While at first they were shy in front of the camera, they grew more comfortable as we went on. Stephanie and Dinora took our digital camera and had fun taking still pictures in between shots. They then interviewed the women from the community in Achi to hear about they thought about the project.

One of the pictures Stephanie took of us filming the interviews with Dinora and one of the women working in the garden

When we finished at the first location, they led us to the second. We went through some narrow paths, the afternoon sun making the light through the mountains and fields look brilliant.

Griselda leading the way

At first I thought we were going to one of their houses to film an interview, but there was actually a second garden. What?? I had no idea they were able to do two… But then I found out they did THIRTEEN gardens throughout their community. It was impressive enough that they could take the time and resources at the age of 15 to organize one, but they completed thirteen. I was blown-away by the power of these young women.

They showed us the second garden located behind the house of a family. The owners were not home, so we could not film there, but it was still good to see. At the final location, they led us inside of the house and introduced us to one of the community leaders that had helped with their project. The young woman walked in with such confidence, and introduced us to the owner of the house. He told us a bit about how much he enjoyed helping the young women with the project. You could tell from his smile that he was proud of them.

The final garden we were shown

The final garden we were shown was the biggest. It was located on a small hill, with old bottles used to create small terraces to separate the different vegetables and herbs.

Using old bottles to create terraces in the garden

There was also laminated print-outs to lable where the different vegetables and herbs are.

The label for "Radishes" in the garden

The label for "Radishes" in the garden

Not only were their communiy projects filmed, we also got interviews with each of them as part of our “Desde mis ojos” (From my eyes) project we are doing with all the new scholarship students.

Griselda went first. She pulled up one of the bundles of cilantro and during her interview, mindlessly pulled it to pieces. It didn’t look like she was conscious of it, like she was nervous or maybe it helped her think. The sun quickly started to set, making it hard to figure out where to film for the best lighting. But the view was so spectacular with the clouds turning colors and the sky changing that we did not really mind.

Griselda sitting in the garden

We finished with Dinora and Stephanie, then said good-bye.  As we walked through another narrow path leading from Chiticoy to Guachipilin, I don’t think I have ever seen Michael that happy. He gushed about the students and what an amazing day it was. The sky cooperated with our good mood, and we took a moment while walking through a dried-out river bed to look at the landscape and reflect on what an amazing day we had.

Michael reflecting on the walk home

I have always in my head that we do great work, but the experience of seeing in-person these strong, wonderful, intelligent young women demonstrate to us what they are capable of given the right resources, made my heart feel it.

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Winter 2011 Rabinal Trip!

Michael and Jessica are leaving this Thursday for a 10-day trip to Guatemala. They will be recruiting a local advisory board to give input to potential health projects, filming a scholarship student’s story, meeting with partner organizations, and enjoying as much pinol as possible. Follow their updates on the blog and Facebook!

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Listening to the Community

This past summer, Voces y Manos partnered with the USF School of Nursing and ASECSA (Asociación de Servicios Comunitarios de Salud) in Guatemala to organize community health members in Rabinal, Guatemala, illuminating the health needs of the community. The result was a framework for transforming findings into action.

Citizens of Rabinal are in a more dire need of health care than ever before. Over the last few years, a non-governmental organization called Funcafé provided health care on a rotating basis to the various communities in the surrounding area. With this service, people in Rabinal got a medical visit once a month. Unfortunately, this program was recently eliminated due to lack of funding.

Additionally, Centro de Salud, the community clinic in the center of town, is largely unaffordable for most patients and medical supplies are very low. Given that these services have been affected so greatly by a lack of funding, Voces y Manos team wanted to see how our team could have the biggest positive impact on health for those living in Rabinal.

Recognizing this pressing need for health care, we combined forces with Linda V. Walsh, a professor from the University of San Francisco School of Nursing, to hold community-wide health assemblies in Rabinal. The purpose of these assemblies was to identify critical gaps in the health system and to determine how Voces y Manos can partner with local organizations to fill these gaps.

“The goal that Michael, Josh, Jessica, Amy and I had was to really listen to what the community members identified as health needs that Voces y Manos could possibly address in a partnership with them,” said Professor Walsh.

Furthermore, Voces y Manos wanted to ensure that a health partnership with the people of Rabinal would be culturally relevant and appropriate, benefiting all those involved.

“All too often, well-meaning people go into the developing world and do their own assessments, then tell the communities what interventions the visitors think are needed,” Walsh said.  “ Who knows better about perceived needs than those who live and work in a community?”

With this in mind, Voces y Manos welcomed a wide variety of perspectives, including both lay health workers as well as public health professionals. To this end, Voces y Manos enlisted the help of ASECSA to recruit health promoters, traditional midwives, doctors, nurses, and nutrition specialists from throughout the region.  While perspectives differed in many regards, a common theme identified was the dramatic impact of budget cuts on community health.  Given the severity of these cuts, all assembly participants recognized the increased the need for traditional medicine.

“What came across very strongly in both the community members’ group and the agency participants’ group was that the current economical forces prevent individuals from having access to even the most commonly used pharmaceutical agents,” Walsh said. “A return to traditional Mayan medicine reflects respect for the non-Western medicine approach to health and healing, and also provides a cost effective way to prevent and treat disease.”

Now that the assembly findings have been compiled, Voces y Manos turns its attention to developing projects that will address the identified needs. In December, the Voces y Manos team will return to Rabinal to resume dialogue with assembly participants. First, the assembly participants will reconvene to review key findings from the assemblies. Next, they will brainstorm viable solutions. Finally, a small subgroup of the participants will form a local community advisory board that will chart a 4-year plan for creating long-term community health care solutions that will be culturally relevant to Rabinal.

“I am a believer that community members are the experts in identifying needs and potential interventions that would be in concert with the beliefs and rituals of the culture,” Walsh said.

Voces y Manos also hopes that by involving the community in creating this new program, we have created a sustainable option for health care in Rabinal.

“Another factor in including the community from the beginning is that the community response is essential for sustainability of initiatives,” Walsh said. “There is a history of numerous initiatives that end up being short-terms fixes without any follow through due to lack of acceptability in the community and/or lack of economic sustainability.  This approach is also necessary in the developed world.  Particularly in communities representing vulnerable populations, community involvement is essential for bringing about necessary change.”

Although the eventual outcome of these meetings is yet to be determined, Voces y Manos is confident that by involving the community at each step of the way, the end result will truly meet the needs of the local community and set the foundation for sustainability.

-Allison Van Vooren











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Board of Directors

One of the requirements of becoming an official 501c3 non-profit is to have a Board of Directors to guide us toward our vision, as well as help with the practical operating and funding of the organization. We have a group of dedicated volunteers from a variety of backgrounds that have generously volunteered their time to be a part of our Board of Directors.

Meet our BOD here!

On Monday, September 19th, we held our first official BOD meeting. During the meeting, members were voted in, the bylaws were adopted,  our financial decision-making policy was solidified, and the committees were able to give updates. This is an exciting update- it means we are one step closer to getting our 501c3 status from the IRS! We are currently an incorporated California nonprofit, but need the 501c3 status so supporters can make tax-deductible donations directly to us. All of the proper paperwork is now in so it’s just a matter of waiting for waiting for approval from the IRS.

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Yo Soy

As the final week of work with the youth approached, I felt I needed more time to learn more about my students.  However, we only had two more days of classes and the despedida left to share with the youth.  It was at the beginning of this week that I experienced one of the most powerful moments as a teacher.  One of the final assignments planned for the students was to write an “I am” poem in efforts to create a connection between the students and those who support the scholarship program.   With this in mind, Sunthree and I prepared sample poems to model the assignment for the students.  

It was through these poems, that after five weeks of work with the youth of Rabinal, I knew I had formed a deep and genuine connection with my students.  As I read my poem out loud, I sensed that they could identify with the meaning of, “piez descalzos y trenzas apretadas” with “Yo soy de ojos profundos y de piel morena.”  In the 20 years I’ve lived in the United States I have rarely been able to share my experience of growing up in a rural pueblo in Guerrero, Mexico and felt anyone truly related to my story until I shared this poem with them. In a minute my students learned more about me than they had in five weeks, as I myself learned much more about my students in that afternoon than I did throughout the duration of the program.   The poems reflect the culture, traditions, his-tory and hers too, the profound respect for mother earth, the fight and struggle that the students inherited from their parents and their Mayan ancestors.   

What follows is a collection of our voices, which for a moment became one:

“Yo soy del fogón de la mañana y de la noche

Del maíz y el arado”  -Cynthia

“Y del dulce olor del café

 despertando con la luz del amanecer que alumbra por la ventana cada mañana” -Sunthree

“Soy de mi hogar humilde y acogedor

Y lleno de amor y cariño” -Selvin

“Yo soy del ruido del rio

Quien con su fuerza levanta mi esperanza” -Horacio

“Yo soy de ropas remendadas y de sangre puro

De los Panganes y de los Cuxum” -Maynor

“Yo soy de piel morena y de dientes picados

Y De sentimiento tierno” -Estefany

“De enojos infernales

Yo soy de mariposita de mil colores”  -Glenda

“Yo soy de panima’

Ri luwar ke taq ri Itzel chikop” -Juan de Jesus

“De sufrimiento del conflicto armado interno

Y de esfuerzo del trabajo en el campo.” -Griselda

“Yo soy de cipres

Quien bailan la marimba pura.” -Mardoqueo

“De ojos café y de tristeza y de soledad

Yo soy del quetzal y el coman” -Benjamin

“Soy de mente desplegada y vista autentica

Yo soy de esos momentos gratos y grandiosos que nadie

Olvida” -Dinora

Yo soy Cynthia, Sunthree, Selvin

Yo soy Horacio, Maynor, Estefany

Yo soy Glenda, Juan de Jesus, Griselda,

Yo soy  Mardoqueo, Benjamin y  Dinora

-Dedicated to the students of the Instituto Nueva Esperanza, who shared so much with us all, Maltyoox.

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La Vida Dura

This past week, I had the honor of working on community projects with the students of Pacux, a relocation site for the indigenous people who survived theRio Negro’s massacre.   When I visited the small community with the students, I immediately noticed the difference between this site and the surrounding aldeas.  Whereas other communities are relatively uncontaminated and tranquil, my pupils expressed that Pacux struggles with constant littering, drug abuse among children, various health issues, and deadly violence.  Residents are undoubtedly still haunted by the barbaric events that took place in Rabinal during the Civil War in the 1980s.  A surviving witness of the genocide explained that the older individuals of this location helplessly observed how the federal police as well as soldiers savagely murdered and tortured entire groups of people.  Although I had read about these events in Jesus Tecu Osorio ´s autobiography  and seen the pictures of victims in the museum, interviewing the survivors in Pacux actually brought the reality of these historical events to life.  I cannot convey in words the strong clashing emotions that I felt during the interviews and dialogues with people who still struggle the consequences of these inhumane events.  I am forever grateful with the people in Pacux for opening their homes and hearts, as these actions enable me to learn so much regarding the indigenous struggle for social justice.

volunteer program guatemala

Sunthree Acosta is dressed in traditional Rabinal attire

As a South Central educator, I immediately linked what I observed in Pacux with my experiences in Watts, given that these topics are major concerns for my own community.   Like many South Central teenagers, teenagers in Pacux understood the fear of walking down the street alone and terror of witnessing murders.  The people from both communities are segregated in an environment surrounded by air and trash pollution; thus, residents in Pacux and Watts suffer similar illness.   Both communities face the consequences of systemic oppression because they are forced to live within a segregated environment that limits people from proper health care, educational opportunities, and socioeconomic independence.   Often times, individuals think that our society must invest its strength in “fixing” the poor health care, economic, and educational systems; yet, we must open our mind in order to understand that true change can only happen if we eliminate the systemic oppression.   It is the worldwide systematic oppression that maintains humble people at a socio-economic, educational, and health disadvantage.    Until then, our society will perpetually be divided into those who are the privileged wealthy and people who are inhumanely deprived of proper wellbeing.

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Sunthree Acosta helps student Benjamin with his community project

Initially, I eagerly took the opportunity to travel with Voces y Manos toGuatemalain effort to gain a better understanding regarding the indigenous roots of my people and Latino students.   Although I arrived in a different country than the land that gave birth to my ancestors, mi queridoMexico, my adventure in Rabinal has expanded my knowledge about my people’s suffering, deculturalization, customs, beliefs, and resistance.  I now have a better understanding regarding my grandmother’s Otomi views towards life, nature, and tradition.  By being in touch with the new becados, I strongly feel the need for survival and hunger for success that feeds many of the Latin-American immigrants’ dreams.   Although I have conversed about these topics with students, teachers, professors, friends, and family members, till now, I can personalize their life experiences and humanize their ordeal for existence.  While I am well read about social injustice and constant oppression in Latin-America, I never experience such an intense feeling towards these topics because I had the privilege of living away from the forever exploited land.   I can now comprehend what my wise father and many undocumented students referred as, La vida dura de la tierra que nos vio nacer.

Cynthia Garcia and Sunthree Acosta learning how to cook tamales


Volunteers helping students prepare for their Voces y Manos midterm


Cynthia Garcia and Michael Bakal look over students’ community project presentations


Amy Yam with students at a local waterfall (Los Chorros)

The Summer 2011 Voces y Manos volunteers

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Meet the summer 2011 volunteers!

Meet the volunteers for the 2011 summer Guatemala trip!

Sunthree Acosta

Summer 2011 Rabinal VolunteerSunthree Acosta is a Chicana educator who teaches Intensive Literacy and Reading Enrichment in South Central Los Angeles, the land saw her grow into a passionate woman.  As a Chicana who grew in Watts, Sunthree overcame many boundaries to earn a Bachelors Degree of Arts in English and Master’s Degree in Education from the University of California, Los Angeles.  From her small classroom, she advocates for social justice and educational equity for people of color. She eagerly took the opportunity to travel with Voces y Manos to Guatemala in an effort to gain a personal understanding regarding the indigenous roots of her people.   Although Sunthree arrived in a different country than the land that gave birth to her ancestors, Mexico Querido, this adventure has expanded her knowledge about the indigenous suffering, deculturalization, customs, beliefs, and resistance.  Sunthree expresses that she is forever grateful with the people in Rabinal for opening their homes and hearts, as these actions enable her to learn so much regarding the indigenous struggle for social justice.

Amy Yam

summer volunteer medical student guatemalaAmy Yam’s history with Voces y Manos began in 2008 as an undergraduate student at the University of California, San Diego.  Her previous volunteer work in Honduras, combined with her interest in health, drew her to classmates Michael Bakal and Jessica Nicholas to form the organization.  Amy’s first experience working in Rabinal with Voces y Manos not only affirmed her desires to stay actively involved in the organization, but also to pursue a career in medicine.  Now as a medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin, she has remained an active member of the Voces y Manos Executive Committee as well as an active participant of the summer volunteer program in Rabinal.  This is Amy’s third time in Rabinal, and she is ecstatic to return to the communities that Voces y Manos serves.


Cynthia Garcia

summer 2011 volunteer teacherCynthia first heard about Voces y Manos two years ago and was immediately interested in volunteering with the project’s youth component.   However, it was not till this summer that she was able to travel to Rabinal, Guatemala with the rest of the Voces y Manos team.  Cynthia is an Indigenous Chicana educator from California, where she grew up in a socio-economically disadvantaged community.   She is not foreign to the rural life and its hardships, she  grew up in a small pueblo in Guerrero, Mexico and has been able to relate and identify with the youth’s experiences in Rabinal.   Cynthia is thrilled and feels blessed to have had the opportunity to  travel to Guatemala  and learn about the history, culture, struggles and the people’s continued resistance against oppressive conditions.  Cynthia has found a home and a family here and is greatful to her host family.    She is inspired by the people of Rabinal to continue her work as an indigenous educator in California.


Josh Hoeger

Josh medical student volunteer guatemalaJosh is a 23 year old, once-and-future student with a penchant for the finer things in life (a bowl of atol de helote and a stick of sugar cane). He joined Voces y Manos in the summer of 2009, and has spent the last two years learning about health in the underserved and marginalized communities of Rabinal. During this time, Josh has been deeply inspired by the Guatemalan health care workers and students with whom Voces y Manos collaborates, and he is dedicated to continuing efforts to improve the quality of life in Rabinal.

Josh is currently applying to medical school and is becoming accustomed to working on applications by candlelight, during Rabinal’s frequent power outages. Despite this being his second Voces y Manos bio (and second summer working in Rabinal), he is still unused to writing in the third person.

Michael Bakal

volunteer educator guatemalaMichael Bakal first travelled to Rabinal in 2007 as a volunteer with the American Jewish World Service.  The opportunity to work with and learn from the students, teachers, and staff of Fundación Nueva Esperanza was a transformational experience for him, so much so that inspired him to co-found Voces y Manos with Amy Yam and Jessica Nicholas in 2008 during their senior year at UC San Diego.

Since 2008, Michael has acted as the lead instructor for Voces y Manos’ youth leadership program, and overseen the growth and development of Voces y Manos’ scholarship program.  In 4 years of close collaboration with Fundación Nueva Esperanza, Michael has seen the scholarship grow from a 5-student pilot initiative to a comprehensive scholarship program reaching 33 students.

Outside of his work with Voces y Manos, Michael spent the past two years working as a high school biology teacher at Animo Locke #3 Charter High in Watts, California.  At Locke #3, Michael worked with an inspiring team of social justice educators, and amazing students.  Although it was a difficult personal decision to leave the Locke #3 community, Michael resigned from Locke in 2011 in order to be able to work full time for Voces y Manos.

Michael holds a Master’s Degree in Education and Bilingual teaching certificate from UCLA.  In his free time, Michael enjoys playing basketball and the conga drums.

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Week 3: The Mayan Ceremony, and Starting to work on Community Projects

Our third week in Rabinal began with a traditional Mayan Ceremony.  At 5:00 AM on Sunday, July 10th, our group of 5 volunteers, 10 current youth participants, and 8 former youth participants met in the dim lighting of Rabinal’s plaza to ascend to the sacred site of Kaj’yup, where the ceremony was to take place.

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Voces y Manos students and volunteers together at the top of Kaj Yup

After an hour of hiking, we arrived our destination, where, according to legend, Rabinal Achi (the Patron saint of Rabinal) fought off Varon Qui’che (the patron saint of the Qui’che people) gaining the Achi people their independence.  To this day, Kaj’yup remains one of the most important cultural and spiritual locations in Rabinal.  For me, the Mayan ceremony is always a special part of our program, as it is one of the few times when past scholarship recipients and current participants can get together to motivate one another to continue their academic pursuits and affirm their commitments to betting their communities.

Once our entire group had arrived the top of the mountain, our guide, Profesor Manuel, led us to the top of a small pyramid.  There, he lit a few candles to request permission for us to start the ceremony, then addressed the group: “It is privilege for me to be back here with you all.  Many of you I know because I was your teachers, for others, it is a privilege to meet you for the first time.  I would like to invite everyone to be fully present in this ceremony.  Being present does mean only being here physically, but also to be present mentally, even though it is only 6:00 in the morning.”

guatemala volunteer program

Josh Hoerger and Cynthia Garcia listening to Professor Manuel as he discusses the Mayan ceremony

Manuel went on to explain that the Mayan Ceremony is not a religious ceremony but a spiritual one, and he welcomed people of all different faiths to fully participate in the event.  For the next hour, Manuel explained to the students about the various Nahuales, guardians that comprise the Mayan Calendar.  Embedded in his descriptions were countless life lessons: Appreciation for what one has in life, respect for nature, the importance of community, and the necessity to maintain and develop one’s cultural identity.

As the ceremony drew to a close, I looked into the faces of each of the students who were present, and felt a great sense of gratitude for the community that we have developed over the past four years.  Represented in our group were students from all four years of the program: some who are on the verge of graduating, others who are just beginning their careers in higher education.  All the students are united by a vision of bettering their communities through education, and direct service to their communities.

This unity, and this vision of building community carried over into the next week.  It was with a mixture of nervousness, and excitement that students received the news that in week 3, they would begin the process of developing community projects.  On Monday, we trained students in how to conduct interviews, and on Tuesday, 2-person teams of students dispersed throughout the city to interview the various organizations involved in health promotion in Rabinal.  Initial nervousness was overcome when students were welcomed by organization representatives.  Immediately following the interviews, many of the students began thinking about the types of community projects they might want to undertake, and which organizations they might turn to for support.

The following day, Wednesday, teams of students travelled to their home communities identify crucial community health needs, and the assets they can utilize within their communities to address these needs.  Conducting interviews with their fellow community members, students were truly in their element.  Many of the students spoke to their fellow community members in Achi, translating for us volunteers after each interview.  Neighbors, friends and family members welcomed the students into their homes, and delighted in the fact that these youth were taking proactive measures to address the community’s most pressing needs.

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Students Maynor & Mardoquello take off for their community interviews in Nimacabaj

As the students were preparing for their own community projects by listening to the perspectives of community members, so too are we preparing for our next phase of engagement in health promotion.  As we have discussed below, this year marks a turning point in the work of Voces y Manos, as we temporarily suspend our direct health programs (the community health fairs) to first listen to the voices of community members and partner organizations, in an effort to guide the future directions of our work.

When we were not working with the youth, we have been working closely with our partner organization ASECSA to lay the framework for the “Listening to the Community Assembly”, scheduled to take place next week.  In this assembly, health promoters, and traditional midwives, nursing students, and doctors, youth leaders, and community elders, will come together to share their perspectives on health in Rabinal.  We do not know what will be the outcome of these assemblies, but we are excited to start the process, and eager to put into practice one of the key lessons we have been emphasizing with our students: before undertaking any initiative to promote health, one must begin by listening to the perspectives of community members.

Written by Michael Bakal

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Michael Bakal instructs students on their community projects

guatemala leadership education

Sunthree Acosta and Michael Bakal working with their student pair, Benjamin & Glenda

guatemala education leadership

Amy Yam works with her student pair, Mardoquello & Maynor, on a reforestation project

guatemala volunteer group

Cynthia visits the Biotopo de Quetzal (a national park dedicated to the national bird of Guatemala)

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Volunteers planning their lesson plan for the day

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