Mayan Families’ Tamale Baskets

The crew ramping up
If every third person in Panajachel is a volunteer, it seems like every third volunteer is with Mayan Families. I have only once heard a criticism about this diverse 501(c)3 and that was that they promised more than they delivered. This last weekend, word went out that the NGO needed help preparing 1,500 food baskets in time for Christmas. So, curious, I volunteered.

The staging area was once home to the founder, Sharon Smart and her husband, Dwight Poage. Like many people in Jucanya, they were subject to the tormentos; so, one day, this place had to be abandoned to inclemency. But, on this sunny Sunday morning, the courtyard cradles six wrapping tables with ribbons and colored cellophane, at the ready, while sacks of carrots are stacked in a sixty foot square cube under the stairs. carrots!!!!

I sidled along a narrow path and wedged myself into the large but cramped workroom. Five others were already pivoting and weaving around a pineapple mountain and ceiling high boxes of supplies. The “Tamale Basket” packing list called for cooking oil, powdered consume, marshmallows, medallions of chocolate, a pound each of sugar, rice, an enriched drink, coffee, beans to be topped off with a loaf of bread, a box of cookies and a pineapple. Stewing chickens would be distributed separately to the basket recipients.
Sharon in the midst
Except for a young woman from Gainesville everybody was staff or a veteran volunteer from Hurricane Agatha or, perhaps, further back. We were so harmonious that we were shortly cranking out about 100-120 baskets an hour despite logistical problems and breakdowns that stalled us. The wrappers in the court yard ran out of space in the first hour. So, we stopped to allow boards and cinder blocks to pass overhead. After this, the four instant shelving guys became a ubiquitous third team.
wrapping in the courtyard
Mayan Families knew to expect long lines on distribution day, Monday. And, I went back to see how the crowds were handled. At the crest of the hill, I met a volunteer safety guard, who was slowing vehicles ahead of the jam below. There were double parked tuk-tuks and women cued up for four blocks on both sides of the dirt road. Dwight walked along the cordon greeting and cajoling. Inside the ropes, women waited patient and dusty; with babies on their backs and hips. The older children played in the small areas away from the road. On the sunny side stood the mirror image — ladies in worn traje draped with kids… except, these women had no claim tickets.

I switched video on and began recording and (to my great surprise) crying. –For the first time, I had to chide myself to be tough; a New Yorker. But, the hard fact was that the shady side families would have a Christmas dinner while the women in the sun would not. The unlucky half was stuck with “Esperanza” — meaning they would endure waiting and hoping.
happy "shopper"
I crossed the barrier into the courtyard expecting to find chaos. Instead, all hands that weren’t grooming and bundling carrots were preparing the registration tables. Yesterday’s packing room had been transformed into today’s rummaging area and people were about unpacking pounds of clothing. Sharon stood in the middle of the already milling children and explained that everybody got two pieces to wear and one pair of shoes for each child in hand. She added a restriction that women in traje did not get garments for themselves.
Recipients of clothing and those at reception were photographed with their goods or Tamale Basket while holding an erasable white board with a number (perhaps keyed to individual donors.) The courtyard was quite full of exhausted grandmother drooping in the chairs and groups at the dutch door waiting their turn at dress up.

By any measure, the Mayan Families Tamale Basket operation was well ordered and far from being “over-promising,” it was scrupulously gentle.

Mil Milagros embraces a stranded village

Juana Acun
In July 2010, Mil Milagros ( extended emergency assistance to hurricane victims in Chutinamit. Six months later this humane reaction continues and dovetails with their successful nutrition and educational programs in Guatemala. The Boston based organization assists in coordinating the food supplies and shelters that have sustained over 20 families since Agatha completely destroyed their barrio in San Andres, Solola.

Mil Milagros’ Program Coordinator, Jose Aguilar kindly offered to introduce me to this project with a visit to the tent city. The organization’s Administrative Coordinator, Fredy Ujpan joined us. Jose said our first stop would be a baking class for children aged 8 to 11. I asked if they would be making Christmas cookies.

“No,” Jose said, reminding me that most indigenous children in Guatemala do not finish sixth grade and that children start working in their early teens and sometimes younger.

“We are encouraging the camp children to begin looking at careers (like baking) and to become self sufficient, artisans.”

Along the way are cliffs gushing waterfalls; across the valley, a verdant patchwork of tidy fields unfurls — draping itself across terraced hills. We are twisting through this tufted, leaky “moonscape;” traversing the very murderous mountains that rained truck-sized rocks and oceans of sludge on everything below them. In this light the offending cliffs look stropped sheer; almost chastened. Far below the imprint of the swollen riverbed has also dried and crusted. Last September, those eroding banks could barely cup the sloshing rio San Francisco. Suddenly, within a month, muscular ten foot café ole waves shriveled down to this little stream. In 2010, dramatic climate damage bankrupted the country of Eternal Spring – Guatemala’s GNP cannot cover road and infrastructure repairs without international help. Sadly for Mil Milagros’ displaced victims changing seasons hardly improve things. Drenching rains were followed by wind driven dust storms. And, next up are hot weather and water shortages.

The driver stopped at the school and the kids swirled affectionately around the visiting Coordinators. Jose met with the parents while Fredy, the maestro, Mauricio Cacil, and I attend the class. Fredy and Mauricio coached the apprentices on what to expect inside the wood burning bakery. We dodged in between the racks of bread leavening. The oven flame caught the kid’s eyes for a second until they adjusted to the dim. A work table had been prepared and bakers in white aprons stood at attention. One stout man explained how flower, water and yeast become bread, then, invited the kids to work the dough smooth. Some poked at the lumps and others plunged right into the process. Their “rolls” were already rising when we stepped back into the sunlight. The children mugged and posed; then, gifted us with a bouquet of hand painted balloons; some said, “Gracias, Mil Milagros.”

The temporary barrio is stuffed onto a ledge above a football field. One of the leaders, Juana Acun told me everyone believes that a piece of land will be purchased soon. As if to prove this, she stood firmly on the top of their hill and, pointing down to a cornfield about the same size as the current encampment, declared that if all went well, that would be their place. She added, incidentally, that the absentee landlord wanted a price much higher than the government would or could pay. (Land use law in Guatemala does not provide for imminent domain procedures. That is: there is no way for the state to compel an owner to sell for “public good.”) Inability to purchase land is the damning bottleneck on this project. There are plenty of NGO’s able to provide materials and volunteers ready to build-out but are there NGO’s chartered for land development?

Juana had marched me around the “promised land”(so I could pace off the sides.) Once she let slip that she had the official site plan, we laughed about her “tricking” me all the way back. Yes, she did have the real estate report tucked in a folder with a faded photo of her old home.

“We miss having our chickens and the gardens,” she said with stoic frankness, a bit of dry humor and, thanks to Mil Milagros, a reason for optimism.

Harvard and Montessori meet at Lake Atitlan

The four rung ladder of thought is: Description, Values, My Questions and Suggestions.

I was waiting out the rain at the vegetarian “Deli” because otherwise Hurricane Earl would be up to my ankles.  So, I settled for working the room; I met an art historian and a psychologist. Both generously shared about their work in several communities around Lake Atitlan.  They were proponents of Harvard’s Project Zero and their job was to train teachers in the method. The art historian, Maribel Rivero Socarras had worked with the concepts of David Perkins in fostering “visual thinking” in children before she joined the team of four  working for Guatamala’s Fundasistemas. ( Maria Jose Matheu, the psychologist, facilitates parent training and teacher evaluations. Together, their group is positively impacting about 4,000 indigenous (K-12) students.

I asked how the parents (who have an illiteracy rate of 95%) respond to these nontraditional concepts. Ms. Matheu said that when she encounters resistance from parents, who have gotten by without very little education, she suggests that the children might have better lives knowing how to read and write. Following that, the parents gladly participate in discussions covering topics like health, sexual development, motivation and problem solving.

They invited me to see their work. So, after our meeting, I accompanied Ms. Matheu to a night school for fourth graders– the age range in this class of about twenty students was 12 years into late 20’s. The teacher put up a painting by a Latin American artist showing a Cantinflas-like character with two tears that were as tall as he. The questions were “What do you see?” and “Why do you say so?” (Although I could not make out the images that the artist embedded in the giant tears, I understood that the students could voice any opinion that they can back up.) The four rung ladder of thought is: Description, Values, My Questions and Suggestions.

The teacher was quite intentionally neutral throughout the process. And, as the observations were placed on the board the discussion got more and more lively.
The tears were there because:
“The man is tired of his bent over position.” (Carrying the tears)
“There is too much water.”
“There is cyanobacteria in the Lake.”
“There is not enough water to drink.”

The teacher was evaluated on at least 16 points regarding the “tools for thinking” such as if he allowed time to consider, if he was able to clarify and organize the flow of ideas, include other points of view, clarity of Pros and Cons, if the ideas were crative, if options and reasons were precisely noted.

The process was fascinating to watch — it was like an ideal community charrette. By the time we left the group was wildly brainstorming while the teacher directed and recorded the action. After this taste, I was very excited to see Ms. Rivero Socarras work with the much younger group at the grade school the next morning.

As agreed, we met near the mercado and, because we had missed the small bus, we took a crowded pickup truck (for 2 Quetzals) up the hill to Patanatic and negotiated the steep path down to the school. The first class was twenty-two 6th graders (with only 6 girls).

This class was presented with a lively poster showing a crowd in the streets in front of a church. These kids were preoccupied by their scheduled field day and their teacher was not as in control of them. They called out from their groups of 5 that they saw the church, the groups, a mirimba and perhaps vendors. They thought that everybody was in a procession because it was a fiesta or a market day and observed that people were in native dress (called “suits”) and that the people were enjoying themselves before the bell rang.

Because the next class could not be observed Ms. Rivero Socarras suggested that we get a look at the Montessori materials. These materials were handmade by the group of five and were very fine. Letters of sandpaper had been carefully pasted on colored cards, beads were on sticks of varying lengths corresponding to the number of beads, squares with different configurations of dots were in a make-believe frying pan to be flipped by a spatula. Each of these sensual learning tools were placed on a shelf where the kids could get to them. The adorable kids hugged Ms. Rivero Socarras and mugged for my camera.

At last, we went to the third grade class where the teacher used the “Tools for Thinking” on a government required subject rather than on a work of art. For this exercise the PNI matrix (Positive, Negative and Interesting) was well known to the students. They were to discuss the three indigenous dialects (other than Spanish) spoken around the Lake. After they had completed the process the transcribed this grid into their notebooks:

Express sentiments
We speak our own language
We can understand other idioms
We can read books to understand

Not understanding other idioms
Limitations on knowing others
Can’t Travel
Cant Transmit thoughts

What happens in language?
What if only Spanish were spoken?
What if there were no language?

Even if the girls were playing around with a ball and the boys putting on paper claws during the exercise, this was pretty profound thinking for any age. It is amazing to see Harvard making a difference out here.

Mushroom Project in San Antonio Palpolo

Guatemala is among the ten poorest countries in South America. Not only is it constantly raked by ruinous floods and tremors, there are staggeringly high rates of malnutrition and illiteracy among the young. The

elderly, particularly those in rural areas, have no public health programs to support them when they can no longer go to the fields.

But, there is one gerontologist, who has created a scalable plan to provide dignified work for the aging, indigenous descendants of the Mayans. Dr. Luis Cordon explained what he and his team have produced in support of the Kaqchikel.

Dr. Cordon has launched gourmet mushroom production houses in a town along Lake Atitlan. These precious champinions, are marketed through Walmart in the capital city. The process is simple and economical — each basketball sized “cake” (a plastic grocery bag packed with wood chips) lasts for about three months and can support several harvest cycles. And, best, the work is familiar and steady for the old people, who work in the spaces provided by the municipality.

incubating the cakes

We negotiated the remains of a rock slide that had killed twenty people a few weeks prior to our visit with Marcario Militon Martin, who works for the lakeside town, San Antonio Palpolo. Mr. Martin is the liaison for the team and provides a bit of oversight for the seniors who run the houses. Each house elects its own officials and we met with Santos Dias Martin, a vice president, who shares the charge with nine others in one of the 20’x20’ houses. Under a translucent coregated roof with blue plastic walls.

The project is all the more elegant because Dr. Cordon’s team records the oral histories of the workers and archives them as teaching material for the local children.