Near (but not so near) Totonicapan, Guatemala

Sensory Alphabet Workshop in Juana’s School, October 7, 2010

Up the mountain looming over Totonicapán we traveled in our loaded van with Cesar, guided along the path by our CASS teacher Juana Ixcoy Leon (or as we knew her in San Antonio – Juanita). We started about 6:30 a.m. We traveled. And traveled. And traveled. First a paved two-lane highway, then a one-lane paved road, then a rock-paved road and across the river and up, finally, a dirt road to a corn-growing agricultural village bounded by strips of forest. We passed corn fields, vegetable and potato fields, small stockades of small horses and donkeys, pine forests – some with their lower branches stripped , evidence of the deforestation issues in this area. Past traditional clay-tiled and adobe walled homes and new “remesa” homes of concrete block. A patchwork of agriculture, forest, villages and people.

This is the trip Juana travels daily to and from Totonicapan where her family and she live – about an hour each way in the communal van that she and the other teachers at the school hire for the commute. (And then she returns home to work for 3 to 5 hours at an importing and exporting business as an office worker.) We laughed as she described each leg of the journey as “un otro canción, ” as roadways grew progressively rougher and switchback curves more frequent.   As we progressed up the divide and down to another set up mountain peaks we passed three  other communities and schools a bit closer to Totonicapan and a bit further down the mountain from her community of Rancho de Teja. “Just a little more,” she said each time, as if we might chicken out and demand to be taken back to the secure pleasures of the Hotel Totonicapan.

When we arrived, the school was in full celebration regalia, with parents and 200 children eagerly awaiting our arrival – all of the women and many of the girls dressed in the traditional traje and headwear of the region – a complex ikat weave of skirt and huilpil, with elaborately embroidered aprons.  All the boys and men wore “western” contemporary clothing. We talked with the school director, visited Juana’s and another teachers’ classroom (Juana’s was especially a delightfully rich environment for the primary students she teaches, with word walls and alphabets, number charts and pictures –evidence both of her training in the CASS program and of her extraordinary energy and dedication to her school and its Quiche community. She is a Quiche teacher, as were all the other staff, save the director. (A situation we found common in all the Guatemalan schools we visited.)

Juana and her fellow teachers had organized student presentations for us – folkloric dances, a poem read, the national anthems of both countries and blessings and gratitude expressed for our visit, on both sides. The children were wonderful, the dances touching, especially one that depicted the planting of the fields by the “men” and the visit by the “women” with lunch balanced on their heads – accompanied by the blessing scent of copal  carried by one of the very young and serious dancers. Another dance was the traditional dance of the elders – the viejos- with costumed children depicting old men and women in a formal procession and dance. This dance is one that our CASS teachers from Guatemala often share with students and school groups when they are in San Antonio. After the more than hour-long program we went to Juana’s room to set up our presentation – about a half hour with each grade doing a simple version of our Sensory Alphabet Workshop, starting with the youngest pre-primaria group (4-5 year olds). All of the children and parents here are Quiche speaking, and one of the schools’ primary tasks is to teach them Spanish, but since they are still learning, Juana and the country coordinator Florinda (who arrived shortly after we did) translated my Spanish into the local idiom.

The sixth grade girls (principally) were our helpers throughout the morning – and parents often stopped in to watch and enjoy when their children were working. The girl helpers kept us organized as they pinned up puppets, helped with the tile walls and helped keep materials in order.

It was a wild ride! A couple of dozen children made shape puppets with Julia and texture and color tiles with me – happily digging into a plethora of materials – a real treat for these kids. They seemed both material-starved and very careful and conserving with the tools and materials, including the markers, glue and recycled scraps of fabric, beans, colorful magazine pages, yarn and other materials we had trekked into the community. Outside on the playground, Art taught groups the Turtle game and other movement activities relating to the Sensory Alphabet, then worked with some of the older kids with magnifying “lookers” and had them draw the lines, shapes and forms they “collected”—the results were carefully rendered pictures of ordinary objects, a testimony to the children’s visual literacy.

At the end of our work session, I handed out four digital cameras (the $20 Polaroid 2 mp plastic cameras we brought to raffle later at the teacher workshop) and sent groups of kids to search for Sensory Alphabet photo images – we printed some of their images out later for Juana to return to the school. (See one of the photos below, more on the blog site).


After the workshop (ending about 2:30) we joined the teachers for a communal lunch of traditional vegetable and beef soup and banana-leaf-wrapped tamales. The meal had been prepared and was served by parents – another instance of gratitude and generosity from a community that wanted to share what it had with the visiting “teachers of their teacher.”

We then made the return trip, leaving the remaining art materials with the school, as well as a wonderful mural of texture, shape and color “tiles.” We left with much more – an immersion into this community that lives somewhere between its traditional roots and the “modern” world, a place where many of the parents (especially the men) spend several years working in the U.S. and sending money, dreams and desire for a better life back to their families at home. The traditions are honored, but the bigger and wider world is knocking on the door.

There's more about our educational conclusions and reflections on the What Can School Be? blog, link below:

For additional photos see the school blog at

A Letter from the Lake

Hi Susie and Julia:

 Just wanted to send out a quick note to thank you so much for choosing Villa

Sumaya for your 3 day respite after your long tour of central america and

all your good works.  I'm sending along another big thank you for the

recycled dresses - the girls just loved them and Celine will take the one

she is wearing in the picture to school tomorrow so that she can share it

with her school mates and teachers.  It's really a very cute dress and I am

considering copying the style as both girls loved it.  Unfortunately it's a

little itchy but it's a great example of creative mind at work and when the

girls are done enjoying them we will donate them to the Pacha Mama program

that has a massive recyling program around the lake so that they can use

them as examples of what can be done with a bit of refuse.


I also wanted to let you know that we were delighted to know about the

baking soda as a fixative as we did run out of soda ash and were able to

substitute the baking soda.  So again we thank you and hope to stay in touch

and look forward to all that may come.  I'll ask Lizzy to send you our group

package so that you can keep in mind the possibility of bringing little

groupitos here one day.  We'd love to share our paradise with you.


Wishing you all the very best,  love, Wendy


Saturday Morning around Solalá

The stage was set by a quick morning run through the small market at the central plaza in Solala, a busy community just north of and above Lake Atitzlan. We had driven in early from Tontonacapan – leaving at 7:30 since the streets would have been impassible by 8:00 since it was market day in that community. It was not a “real” market day in Sololá –  just the weekend vendors clustered in a couple of avenidas around the church. We made careful selections of a few beautiful textiles of the region – I bought a length of skirt fabric and Julia three patterned embroidered belts – purchased from their makers, perhaps a mother daughter enterprise? The women were excellent examples of both the craftsmanship and the business sensibilities of the region. We had an hour or so to kill before our appointment at noon with Raoul, one of the CASS teachers from several years ago who had promised to take us to his school in the afternoon.

We watched as a double line of boys in black paints and girls in long white gauzy first communion dresses and veils filed into the church and asked Cesár, our driver if it was all right if we went into the church. He said, of course, we filed in, sat in one of the few pews empty at the rear of the church. Perhaps he (and we) expected to stay a few minutes and then to continue our explorations of the town, but we were pulled into the celebration and the Mass by the amazing pageant of people, the spirit of peace and joy – families in both in indigenous and “western” contemporary dress and by the sound and song filling the catherdral. The choir that led the sung liturgy was accompanied by Mayan flutes and other instruments; the music and song was magical in the acoustics of the tall arched white plastered church, illuminated by huge stained glass windows with Mayan designs.

In front of us was a Mayan family, the parents in indigenous dress, a small boy in western wear, another couple (perhaps the son and daughter-in-law?) with their toddler girl. I confess I spent as much time attending to their interaction and joy in the day as I did to the priest and his homily. When we filed out, the church plaza was filled with women in their distinctive traje – dark indigo skirts with pin striping and embroidered seams, and ikat patterened huipiles, many with bright head scarves folded and balanced on their dark trensas that were braided with bright colored ribbons. Sololá is also one of the few towns where many men still wear traditional clothing, embroidered ikat weave shirts and ikat trousers with a wrapped brown wool “apron” that has a resist dyed pattern of small square dots.

Calling Raoul, we got directions to his house and met his family and mother – she is an artisan as well as the matriarch of the multigenerational home, then Raoul took us to his school. The school is a bit out of the town on the road to Panajachel – or at least the cutoff is there. Raoul walks from the highway along a dusty steep road about (30 ?) minutes to get to his classrooms, an artisan school in a small agricultural community. He had already gone there and worked in the morning, then returned back to the center to meet us.


We arrived to find the entire community, students, parents and others, dressed in their best and on their 4th day of a five day celebration in honor of the accomplishment of the community in financing and building a second story of new classrooms for the school (as well as the painting of the entire school). The road leading up to the gate was lined with food and snack stalls and filled with many of Raoul’s students who giggled to meet his “teachers.” Climbing down a few steps into the school courtyard, we found a huge tented and festively decorated stage and perhaps every chair in the town filled with an audience of village elders and families.

The feria was a complete surprise. We had expected to visit Raoul’s empty school, since it was Saturday. I can’t decide if I just missed the intent of the visit when we were invited during the workshop, or if this was another example of what seems to be a cultural moré in the Mayan world that favors a kind of indirect “direction”  --much like Juana’s guided trip to her school which from the initial description we thought would take us just a few miles off the highway, but which ended up as an hour-long journey of what she laughingly called “three canciones.” Each school day Raoul travels here – where the school only operates in the morning since everyone works in the afternoon -- and then back to Sololá where he teaches in the afternoons.

What followed over the next few hours was perhaps the purest experience of indigenous Mayan community life that I will ever experience. This was not a celebration for tourists – I spotted one other person beyond our group who looked to be an“outsider,” (I think he was an evangelical missionary). We met Raoul’s colleagues, a group of interesting and intelligent women and men, who teach the school’s students ten different subjects each week, including artisan crafts, math, natural sciences, (language), Spanish, English and oral language. The community was celebrating with all force, energy and resources the building of the school’s new classrooms. They had raised the money (and were still raising more) and organized the construction as a community project over the course of the past year. A Canadian NGO had helped them with the project’s last leg, but community had also raised funds themselves.

Everyone was dressed in their best clothing, and that was for the majority of women and many of the men, the traditional traje. After benedictions by representatives of the four churches, Catholic and four different evangelical groups, a band played Christian rock while women served soup and tamales from enormous iron pots and kettles into clay bowls. First we toured the new classrooms and tried to decline lunch, but it was soon obvious that we were honored guests to be served in a classroom set up with long tables for the important leaders (the men leaders, anyway) of the community.

The soup was a delicious corn-thickened and achiote-flavored and -colored broth with a piece of beef. The tamales were the size of thick fingers, tender corn masa wrapped in and flavored by a large leaf from a tree that grows in the region– it looked and tasted a bit like a fig leaf. We learned from our hosts that the preparations had taken two days prior to the event, and that two cows had been killed to provide the beef for the soup – the women had made 2,000 dozen tamales and a meal was served each day of the five-day feria to the entire community.

After lunch we toured the school’s computer lab. Fifteen new computers – but no internet service and not much software. They had built an internal rebar cage to make the room secure (we had already heard several stories in both countries about computers stolen from schools). The school and community leaders asked us to help them find solutions for networking the computers and for software. They also have a large printer that they have never been able to get working. They also explained that potable water was the first and foremost issue that was a problem at the school. A well is on the school grounds, but two pumps in row quickly burned out. Also, there are two small rios nearby, but so far the school has been unable to engineer a connecting aqueduct or piping to the school – another possible solution. They requested engineering advice and support to solve those issues. This is a community that has made it two-thirds of the way with technology and with water – they need help and outside knowledge for the last part. We promised to add their issues to our report – and their problems seem to be ideally suited for partnerships with one of the U.S. organizations such as the Rotary Club International. Another option might be to connect them with Texas A&M who is doing some water-related research and development work in the Lake Atitzlan area.

For more photos see the official report at blog.