How can it be, in what looks like paradise, that strong, resourceful Maya people want to spend their time learning English? They have a rich culture and speak Kaqchikel, the complex language of their own—-and many also speak and read Spanish; but in the pueblo of Santa Cruz la Laguna high on a mountain above Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, where women weave exquisite textiles on looms strapped around their waists and carry heavy loads of firewood on their heads; where men fish the unfathomed waters of the lake of legends in hand-carved wooden boats and work their way up and down steep paths, backs bent under stones weighing sometimes 200 pounds, poverty is an everyday experience.
Other communities around Lake Atitlan rest on its shores within easy reach by tourists. Until lately, with the advent of a road fit for trucks and tuk-tuks, few visitors braved the steep, long paths to the heart of Santa Cruz, and there was little to entice them. The economy and everything based on it withered. These days, thanks to the inspired leadership and support of Amigos de Santa Cruz, most children in school finish sixth grade, many go through ninth grade, and a few move on to higher education in nearby Panajachel or Solola.
But until this year, there has been no opportunity for adults to gain practical vocational skills beyond weaving and fishing. The villagers must hire electricians and plumbers and carpenters and tile setters from outside, sending their precious quetzales across the lake to other pueblos. And just in case a tourist should wander up the mountain to discover the textile treasures hidden there, virtually nobody in Santa Cruz would be able to speak to them in English.
Speaking English can make the difference to the young villagers whose jobs are all outside of Santa Cruz center. It’s the difference between cleaning bathrooms in a hotel, and working the front desk, so the Maya employees of CECAP, Centro de Capacitación–the pueblo’s first vocational school for adults–told me when I asked a year ago what I could do as a volunteer that would help the most.
Without hesitation, Enséñanos inglés! they said.
OK, I said, but I only know how to lead creative writing & yoga retreats (something I’ve done in Santa Cruz at the gorgeous Villa Sumaya Retreat Center for the past 5 years).
You can do it, they said, start this afternoon. And so we did.
Pat Torpie, gifted founder and director of Amigos de Santa Cruz and CECAP gave Rosalea, Noë and Juan time off for a couple of hours each afternoon for a week to come to my “class.” We had a great time, laughed a lot, even spoke a little English together by the time I had to leave for home–and I had no idea what I was doing.
OK, amigos, I said in my halting Spanish, I’ll make you a promise. I’ll go back to the States and learn how to teach English. In one year, I’ll come back.
I could make this promise because I knew Alexis Johnson. She’d been to Santa Cruz on a writing & yoga retreat and she directs the International Language Institute (ILI) in Northampton, MA. ILI offers a terrific (and intensive) course in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), accredited by the School for International Training in Brattleboro, VT.
Buoyed by my confidence in ILI and photos of some of my friends from the pueblo who were counting on me, in October, I joined with 7 other women to learn what we soon realized was a remarkably effective method of teaching a language–a process which begins by eliciting from the learners what they already know.
One of my classmates, Linda Fry, a chef and former restaurant owner, became excited by the idea of going to Santa Cruz with me to teach, and I put a call in my Patchwork e-newsletter to others who might like to join us.
Lo and behold, there was an outpouring of interest, and other amazing volunteers found the time and resources to make it happen:
Susan Webber, Spanish teacher, musician & textile artist from Massachusetts; and Patricia Vogel, music therapist and ESL teacher from Germany.
We’ll converge on Santa Cruz in the next few days and offer our best for the month of February to students in the exciting vocational programs that have just begun at CECAP in culinary and sewing arts. Lord willin’ and the creeks don’t rise we’ll create this Blog together, to let you know how things go.
Jeanne Mendez, full-time resident of Santa Cruz and energetic teacher, has picked up the mantle of head English teacher and program coordinator. We’re hoping that other volunteers will take over to assist her when we leave, for continuity and for the sake of the pueblo.
Since I made my promise to return, it’s been exactly one year.