The Guatemalan Experience

by Baltazar Villegas

BioEsfera Project Essays

As a Spanish teacher my expectations before my departure were limited to learning about the language and the culture of the Petén region in northern Guatemalan. The trip to Guatemala was interesting because it allowed me to expand my knowledge of Spanish by becoming more familiar with the great variation of dialects that exist in the Hispanic world. Although there are a lot of similarities between the Spanish spoken in my native México and the Guatemalan dialect, there are substantial differences. For instance, while in México the "almuerzo" is eaten in the morning Guatemalans eat it in the afternoon. Furthermore, a bus in Guatemala is a "camioneta," which varies from the more familiar "camión". I always appreciate the opportunity to practice my Spanish and to develop it more fully with the richness found in other Spanish-speaking countries in order to expose my students to more than one variation.

The indigenous heritage found in Guatemala makes the country one of the most fascinating in the Latin Hemisphere. It is not only the ancient Mayas with their flourishing precolumbian civilization that comprise this heritage but their modern-day descendents, the Itzas and the Lacadones, not to mention other groups such as the Mopán and the K'iche. I still remember being awestruck by the immensity of some of the temples found in the historical park of Tikal. The famous text the Popol-Vuh, like the man-made landmarks left by the Mayas, also chronicles this society by documenting its rich and complex cosmology. The contemporary indigenous groups are to be admired for their culture and for their diversity: there are 25 different indigenous languages categorized under five major language families in Guatemala. The beautiful colorful garments and other textiles made by the indigenous people are a trademark of Guatemala. In addition, the knowledge of their environment and how to coexist with it without destroying it are also to be admired and imitated.

Already knowing Spanish allowed me to be able to interact a little closer with the family with whom I stayed and the friends that I made in the small village of San Andrés, where we spent most of our stay. Not being accustomed to such rural settings, I was amazed by the hospitality paid by all the villagers and the feeling of warmth and security that I encountered.

Having attended a classroom at a local school, I had the opportunity to observe behavior from the shoolchildren that differs greatly from schools in more urban settings. The children seem to be more quiet, timid and acquiesent. There are good as well as bad points to these demeanors. Although the teacher doesn't have to deal with disciplinary problems, the students may be just as reluctant to challenge different ideas and concepts as they are to challenge the teacher's authority. Nonetheless, it is our challenge to try to model our communities of our faculties, staff, children and parents to those of close-knit rural communities like San Andrés.

I am happy to say that my expectations were even surpassed. This trip has not only allowed me to experience the rich Guatemalan culture, it has made me more environmentaly-conscious in the process. For instance, I now fully understand the need for biodiversity. At first I thought that biodiversity was valued solely because it kept biologist busy classifying things. However I now realize that there is an abundance of plants with untapped medicinal potential. This alternative provides a viable economic justification for the preservation of the diminishing rainforest. This may also protect the indigenous peoples from the precarious infusion of Ladinos, or the non-indigeneous, into their territory.

In retrospect, I have found my experiences in Guatemala to be invaluable for my Spanish intruction. I have beautiful songs to teach my students and stories to recount. I have civilizations to introduce them to and an environmental message to give them.

Edited by Carlos R. Solís
April 20, 1995