Guatemala, a constitutional democracy, is known as the “land of eternal spring.” Located in Central America, the country maintains year-round temperatures close to 75 degrees. Although Guatemala is equal in land area to the state of Tennessee, some of the greatest wealth disparity is found within its borders, and its children suffer from the third worst childhood growth rate in the world.
Guatemala's official language is Spanish, however almost half of the country's inhabitants are indigenous, speaking 21 different Maya dialects. The culture is a unique product of historic Maya influences and strong Spanish colonial heritage. Deeply rooted in the rural highlands of Guatemala, many indigenous people follow traditional religious and village customs, and continue a rich tradition in textiles and other crafts. The two cultures have made a complex society that is deeply divided between rich and poor, ladino (mixed descent) and indigenous.
Between 1960 and 1996, Guatemala was torn by civil war (often referred to as "La Violencia") between the Guatemalan National Army and the guerilla groups who sought to overthrow the military rule. The Commission for Historical Clarification has labeled the violence of the Guatemalan National Army against the country's Maya communities a genocide. The commission also determined that approximately 200,000 indigenous Maya were killed and thousands more "disappeared" due to violence by both sides. The conflict officially ceased in 1996 with the signing of the Guatemalan Peace Accords between the army and the guerilla groups, however Maya continue to face discrimination and prejudice from government policy and some ladino Guatemalans.
Where We Work
MPI serves the village (aldea) of Chaquijyá, which consists of five neighborhoods (caserios). We currently work in two of the caserios, Central and Cooperativa. Chaquijyá is in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, 130 kilometers from Guatemala City, and the residents speak a Mayan language called Kaqchikel. The community lies within the department of Sololá, the 5th poorest in the country. Of the 4,000 inhabitants in Chaquijyá, 77% of the community lives in poverty, and 34% lives in extreme poverty on less than one dollar per day. The life expectancy is slightly below 64 years.
Chaquijyá is an agricultural community. Their primary crop is corn, but many residents also grow beans, herbs, and spices. According to local tradition, a father divides his land between his sons, and farmland becomes smaller and smaller with each generation. This means families are supported on less land than they have been historically, increasing the risk of malnutrition. Alternative means of income are difficult to come by.
Both Central and Cooperativa have their own elementary school (primeria) and middle school (básico). In these schools, students learn the native language, Kaqchikel, in addition to Spanish and English. Although national law requires children to attend primeria, many youth do not progress to básico, but instead begin work in their parents’ businesses or in unskilled, low-paying positions.
The oldest generation in the community speaks Kaqchikel, and many residents possess little knowledge of Spanish. As such, most community meetings are held in Kaqchikel. This language barrier can sometimes pose a significant obstacle for us, yet we see Kaqchikel as a highly unique opportunity for cultural exchange.