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Winter Term Trip 2014

Report from John Gates about 2014 trip:

The delegation spent 10 days in Santa Elena.  Much of our time was spent in or near the elementary schoolhouse.  The school serves as our dormitory, the site where we study Spanish or Q’eqchi’, and we also taught English to the elementary students at the school over a four day period.  We worked with approximately 25 students each day from grades 1 through 6.  We used games, songs, paper folding, and drawing as vehicles for teaching English.  Our Spanish and Q’eqchi’ teachers were composed of young men from Santa Elena.  We studied language for five days.  SEPA provided the money so that the community could rent the necessary costumes for the “Dance of the Deer.”  I believe the community performed the complete dance at least three times.  Several other times we witnessed practice sessions.  Both the adults and the young dancers take this activity very seriously.  The dance, which takes about three hours to complete, is accompanied by live marimba music. 

We also learned about the total process of preparing tortillas.  We started with ears of corn, the grain of which had to be removed.  Then we washed and rinsed the corn and then added lime.  The lime dissolves a part of the kernals making the corn more nutritious.  After the corn was cooked a molino (mill) was used to grind the corn into a wet dough called masa.  The final step is to take a ball of masa, roll it and then flatten it and cook it over an open fire.

On another afternoon Maria Magdelena Garcia showed us how to make chocolate using cacao beans and sugar.  First we cooked the beans over a fire, removed the husk, ground the beans in a molino (mill), added sugar, mixed the sugar in the cacao mass with our hands, placed this mixture in wooden frames and let it dry for 24 hours.  Each student received five ½ pound bars of chocolate.

One day the delegation invited the community to go on a picnic to the National park Laguna Lachua, which is a distance of five mile from Santa Elena.  The members of the community provided the food and the delegation paid the entrance fee for everyone.  On the walk into the park we saw a footprint of a jaguar.  The park has a beautiful very large circular lake with crystal clear, clean, water.

The final big event in Santa Elena was the despedida (a farewell party for the delegation).  This was the best organized despedida I have ever seen in Santa Elena.  The event was held in the new “Women’s Center”, a very handsome and well constructed cinder block building with a cement floor.  The despedida began with a student color guard walking into the building with a Guatemalan flag.  The color guard consisted of one boy and one girl.  They were dressed in white tops and blue pants and skirt.  They marched to the front of the building and stopped just before the stage area.  Everyone rose and sang the national anthem.  Following the singing of the national anthem a group 8 boys and girls dressed in red and white costumes performed a traditional Mayan dance.  Next, Alexander Figurero, the Vice Mayor of the department of the Ixcan, gave a speech praising the progress that Santa Elena was making in building a vibrant community.  The outgoing Mayor made a speech listing all of his accomplishments and thanking SEPA for their steadfast support in funding scholarships and the “Women’s Center.”  Finally, the dance began complete with a hired disk jockey and strobe lights.  The dancing went on until 2:00 or 3:00 o’clock in the morning.  The next day we left for Copal AA.

It is a two hour ride from Santa Elena to Copal AA in the back of a truck over a gravel road.  The last 7 miles we had to switch to a pick up truck that had four wheel drive because the unusual heavy rain for this time of the year had left the road with deep ruts.  I cautioned the students that riding in a pick up over this kind of road was a full contact sport.  In Copal AA the women stayed in a dormitory and Rob Motley and I stayed in the community kitchen.  Just as in Santa Elena we ate our meals with different families, two or three to a group.  In Copal AA we meet with the Village Council ( called the COCODE) to learn about local governance and the challenges they faced as a Mayan Community of returned refugees.  We also met with the governing board of the middle school.  Since the middle school does not receive any funding from the government they have to solicit other groups and individuals to find the necessary money to operate and provide a school for students not only in Copal AA, but also in the surrounding region.  They have asked SEPA for a contribution of $8,000 this academic year.  Their school runs from mid January to the end of October. 

After we had been in Copal AA five days middle school classes began.  Our Oberlin College students presented a variety of topics to the Copal AA students including origami, “winters” in the state of Maine,  and the present uncertain situation of latino immigrants in the United States as related by Ellie Flessner, who worked at an immigration Center in Chicago last summer.  The next day the Copal AA students organized a field day of games and activities for both the Oberlin College students and the Copal AA middle school students.  Besides participating in a number of competitive games some of us learned to walk on stilts.

One day we visited a large garden area (called a parcela) to learn what the farmer was growing and something about the methods of growing.  First, Copal AA is committed to organic farming.  They do not use chemical fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides.    Among the crops they grow are corn, beans, tomatoes, yucca, malanga, cacao, coffee, heart of palm, oranges, pineapple, pepper, cilentro, and bananas to name a few.

On another day we took a field trip down the Chixoy River in a long 30 foot boat powered by a 50 horsepower outboard motor.  Our specific purpose was to explore an area where the river, which is normally about 150 feet wide, narrows to about 15 feet with solid rock canyon walls on both sides.  Here the current becomes very swift.  We did not go through this part of the river in a boat.  We parked the boat before entering the canyon, climbed the rocks and viewed the canyon from above the river.

After Copal AA we returned to Guatemala City, where we met with Eric Woodward, the temporary field director of the NISGUA/GAP office in Guatemala and a former human rights observer in Guatemala that was sponsored by SEPA for one year.  We also met with Santiago Choc Cu, a lawyer who investigates the most heinous of human rights abuse cases that occurred during the Civil War (1960-1996) and attempts to bring these cases to trial.  Santiago played a very active role on the side of the prosecution in the recent trial of Rios Montt .  Finally, we visited the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City.   On most occasions I have found that the Embassy representatives are knowledgeable, articulate, and willing to concede that historically, the U.S. Government has played a major role in maintaining colonialism in Guatemala in order to benefit U.S. business and that the U.S. was responsible for the coup d’etat of the government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954.  However the two representatives that we talked with this year would have us believe that the U.S. only played a minor role in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Arbenz.


Our trip ended at one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, Lake Atitlan.  We spent a weekend swimming in the bluest, clearest water I have ever seen.  Facing our hotel were two giant dormant volcanoes.  The entire lake is surrounded by mountains.  The depth of the lake in places is over a 1000 feet.  We found  a wonderful place to swim with a platform about twenty to twenty-five feet above the water.  Just high enough to make you think twice before you jumped off.

Winter Term Delegation and Friends


Dance of the Deer
Taking place in the new Women's Center



Morning lessons at the Santa Elena School



Sampling the homemade chocolate!



Thanks to Don Juan


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