Destinations,  Travel Study

Classrooms without Walls in Guatemala

Lisa Munro

Guest Post by Lisa Munro, PhD

People sometimes ask me if I still think students should study abroad. The world is dangerous, people say. Students should focus on marketable skills, others admonish. Sometimes people ask if I think that students really learn anything during their semesters abroad.

I confess that I’m biased. I served as a Peace Corps volunteer (Guatemala, 2004-2006) and attended a semester of study abroad program. When I was in grad school, I worked as a program assistant in the same program in which I’d studied. Although that program is now defunct, the study abroad experience transformed the lives of our students.

For many students, their arrival in Guatemala marked the first time they had traveled abroad. Travel is a marvelous teacher. Navigating the contours of their new surroundings required students to practice flexibility, problem-solving skills, and an embrace the unknown. Guatemala initially shocked many students because of its poverty, racism, and violence. We taught students about how Guatemalan struggled to manage its transition from war-torn Cold War nation towards a new undefined future. Students learned first-hand about the concepts of the global north and south. We encouraged students to think about how the development of certain parts of the world resulted in the underdevelopment of other places. We also addressed how structural inequalities shaped people’s lived experiences and talked about the power differentials between themselves and the Guatemalans they met. For many, these were revelations.

I traveled with students around the country to learn more about the factors that influenced Guatemala’s skewed income inequality and the history nation’s recent armed conflict. Two experiences in particular illustrated these concepts more vividly than an entire semester of classroom lectures ever could.

First, we visited the offices and workshops of an international NGO working with the families who worked in the trash dump in Guatemala City. The dump, forty square acres, is the largest in Central America. Modern trash dumps in the U.S. have liners to prevent groundwater contamination and methane collection systems to reduce fire risk; this dump had no safety features or environmental regulations. It was infamous for the methane fires and massive landslides of trash and mud that regularly killed and buried people. The NGO volunteers did not allow us to enter the dump, so we instead peered down into it from our vantage point high above the edge of a steep ravine. Huge black vultures circled overhead, occasionally landing near us and eyeing us with curiosity and hunger. The overwhelming stench of garbage made it hard to breathe. Chemical trucks arrived and emptied their bellies of toxic chemicals into the tiny trickle of water that flowed through the raw sewage and trash. We were told that the nearby cemetery and city hospitals occasionally threw human remains and biohazardous waste in the dump, as no regulations existed as to their disposal. Below, hundreds of people raced towards the arriving garbage trucks, putting their hands to the sides of the still moving trucks to assert their claim the trash that came from the city’s wealthy neighborhoods. Many of the people scavenging were indigenous Maya women, recent arrivals to the capital to escape the extreme poverty of the western highlands.

As study abroad educators and staff, we did not want our visit to the dump to be an experience of merely poverty tourism, like the popular favela tours in Brazil. People are not tourist attractions or ethnographic spectacles. We wanted students to think about the relationship between the state and its most vulnerable citizens. We instead used the experience to talk with students about their ideas about who should care for the very poorest people and why. Students felt that the Guatemalan government should do something about the dump families, many of whom squatted in shantytowns without electricity on private land in shacks made of scavenged garbage. So we talked about that too, discussing how and why so little political will existed to help people in dire poverty. We put the dump situation in the context of Guatemala’s civil war and the nation’s warm post-war embrace of neoliberal economic policy. We talked with students about what Guatemalans call “ONG-ismo,” (NGO-ism, in English), which has farmed out many basic services to NGOs, beholden to no one except their boards of directors. We taught students about how relentless cuts to the public sector and economic “restructuring,” a standard recommendation of the International Monetary Fund, has reduced the government’s ability to respond effectively to extreme poverty. We talked about the privatization of public social services. We discussed how NGOs often ease the consciousness of both the public and the government and justified their inaction.

Second, we visited a historical memory site in the remote community of Rio Negro. To reach the village, we had to take the main highway several hours north of the capital, travel a few more hours on a small dirt road, and then take a boat across a giant reservoir. The community of Rio Negro had suffered five of the worst massacres of the entire thirty-six year armed conflict. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of the villagers had opposed the construction of the nearby Chixoy hydro-electric dam because it would flood their farmland and displace the community. The people organized to demand that the Guatemalan government halt the project, which received funding and joint support from the International Development Bank and World Bank. In an era of state violence towards anyone who dared oppose the military government, the community was soon accused of supporting the insurgent Communist guerrillas who roamed the countryside at night. To better keep tabs on the people of Rio Negro, the Guatemalan army had formed a PAC (patrulla de autodefensa civil) in the neighboring village, charged with rooting out subversion in the area. On March 13, 1982, members of the PAC rounded up 177 women and children and marched them to the top off the mountain, a place called Pakoxom. All but eighteen children were massacred. The children who survived were taken by PAC members to work for them as servants.

Only a few living people survive today who remember the massacre. In the years that have passed, fourteen families have returned to Rio Negro. They primarily speak A’chi Maya and grow subsistence crops. The survivors of the massacre were children in 1982 and are now men with families of their own. They guide people up the same three mile walk that the PAC made the women and children walk. There are stops along the way, where the men explain how the PAC members taunted the women, jeering at them to dance, “like you dance with the guerrillas.” They describe their terror as children as they heard their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters being tortured and murdered. They talk about how they ran and how they survived for years afterwards. Some ended up in the nearby refugee camp. Others ate dirt and hid in caves and waited for the era of violence to end.

The reservoir is full now and still supplies the country with a large percentage of its electricity. The community of Rio Negro, just a few miles away from the dam, still lacks electricity and justice. It is very easy to view the armed conflict in Guatemala as a series of binary oppositions: good versus evil, black versus white, Maya versus non-Maya, campesinos versus. the state. Part of what was so valuable about our visits to Rio Negro was that students began to understand the complexity of what had unfolded. A group of indigenous people, under intense pressure and coercion from the Guatemalan army, had massacred their neighbors. As anyone who has studied Guatemala knows, nothing is simple there. We talked about the relationship state terror, progress, and international development projects and why extreme versions of capitalism often end in authoritarian violence. We discussed how and why the cultural resistance of native peoples worldwide was often interpreted as subversion and as something to exterminate by state violence if necessary.

I saw students grow from their interactions with the people we met and places we visited. They returned to their universities as different people than they had arrived. They returned with new ideas about war, race, discrimination, violence, culture, justice, and peace. For many, the story of Guatemala not only remained in their hearts for years, but also profoundly shaped the people they became.

People sometimes ask me if I still think students should study abroad.

My answer is always an emphatic “YES!”

Lisa Munro Bio:

I graduated from the University of Arizona in 2015 with a PhD in Latin American history. I’ve got a long list of non-academic jobs, including being a Peace Corps volunteer, a veterinary technician, a medical receptionist in a bilingual hospital office, a teacher, a study abroad assistant, and most recently, a crime victim advocate. I’ve lived in Guatemala and Mexico and am currently figuring out how to engineer my life so I can return there. I co-host the biweekly #withaphd chat on Twitter, where academics of all stripes can network and share with each other about life outside of academia. I’m passionate about writing about Latin America, history, archaeology, science and pseudoscience, neoliberalism, critical thinking, writing, adoption, trauma, and the alt-ac life.

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