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