martes, 25 de agosto de 2009

The Final Days of the Fulbright

Presenting the new EFL curriculum at UVG in Guatemala City

From left to right: Jay Raman, Maria Marta Ramos,
I, Roberto Moreno, Helga Knapp, and Bani Sandoval

New desks for the Center funded by Fulbright

Voices for the listening part on the new
institutional proficiency test

Recording dialogues: I, Richard Morgan, and Josanne.

On May 28th, 2009, I gave a PowerPoint presentation of the new curriculum I developed for the EFL program at the Universidad Del Valle de Guatemala (UVG). The presentation was held in the conference room of the central campus in Guatemala City. Those who came included the Rector Roberto Moreno Godoy; the director of the UVG campus in Sololá; the director of Proesur, UVG campus in Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa (in western Guatemala) and deans of the Centros de Idiomas on each campus. To everyone’s delight, Jay Raman, Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy, also attended. Just as I began the PowerPoint presentation, a huge rainstorm hit and I felt as if I was screaming in order to be heard over the raucous pounding of raindrops on the patio outside the conference room. Fortunately, the fury of the rainstorm subsided and I was able to assume a normal tone of voice. The presentation of the proposed curriculum lasted around 40 minutes and the discussion that followed was spirited. Both directors as well as the rector appeared to be satisfied with the new curriculum and open to its implementation at all three campuses. I emphasized that the curriculum was only a model and that they should feel free to tweak it after it has been put into practice. Jay Raman reiterated the Embassy’s desire to strengthen ties between Guatemalan and U.S. universities through faculty and student exchanges; he also encouraged directors of the English language programs at all campuses to request free instructional materials from the Embassy.

My Fulbright in Guatemala has been a truly significant, learning experience from both a professional and personal standpoint. I was once again challenged to re-examine my values and principles as a teacher and world citizen. I realize now-even more so-that teaching language is my calling. It is the way I can help people reach their goals and better their lives. I leave this country with a special appreciation and genuine love for its people and their very rich complex culture and history. These are the benefits I can pin down now; however, it will take years for me to fully understand and fathom the yields I have gained as a Fulbrighter in Guatemala.

I am greatly indebted to the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board for selecting me and thus enabling me to have this profound, life-changing experience. I am also deeply grateful for the support given to me throughout my Fulbright by the wonderful folks at CIES, Carol Robles and Joseph Graff, Program Officers for the Western Hemisphere. I want to acknowledge Paul Leslie, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Greensboro College, for making arrangements for my leave of absence. I am deeply indebted to Maria Marta Ramos, director of the UVG-Sololá campus, for giving me the charge of creating a curriculum which proved to be one of the most exciting creative projects of my career. My transition to daily life and work would not have gone as smoothly as it did, if it were not for the tremendous help from Helga Knapp Baranyai, dean of the school’s Centro de Idiomas (CEI). Last but not least, I thank my American colleagues who quickly and effectively responded to my appeals for information and guidance throughout the process: Anne McCabe (Saint Louis University-Madrid), David Parsons (UNC-Greensboro), Debra O’Neal (Eastern Carolina University), Judith Graves (Guilford Technical Community College), Barbara Kosta (University of Arizona), and especially Bonnie Parsons (Greensboro College).

lunes, 25 de mayo de 2009

Inauguration of Educational Center in Tzununa

For me, there isn’t much to do in Panajachel at night except to eat out at one of the many touristy restaurants whose menus range from typical Guatemalan dishes ($) to French gourmet ($$). There is however a restaurant called Solomon’s Porch that promotes itself as a cultural center. The owners organize a monthly program of live music, movies, and “Guatemala Lecture Series.” Once a month, local politicians, social activists, and retired academics are invited to give a talk with is then followed by a discussion. The two talks I have gone to were in English and the audience was 99% gringos (the remaining 1% were Guatemalan restaurant workers).

On Thursday, May 14th I went to a talk entitled “Thoughts about Resignation on 2012: Guatemalan Perspectives” given by anthropologist and author Robert Hinshaw who has lived and done research in Guatemala since 1963 on change and continuity in Maya belief patterns. His current interest is climate change and its impact on Maya culture. This was the focus of his talk and an essay he wrote entitled “A Manifest of Resignation.” (For a copy of the essay, contact Robert Hinshaw at At the end of the discussion, he invited the audience to an inauguration ceremony in Tzununa, one of the poorer, more isolated villages on the Lake. He explained that he and his wife had donated a piece of their property to an organization “Los Amigos de Santa Cruz” so that they could build an educational center for women and children from the village. I decided that that this was an opportunity I would not pass up and asked my friend Bernadette if she wanted to come with me.

From the shores to Tzununa (Volcano San Pedro to the left)

The following week on Wednesday, May 20th, we took a boat over to Tzununa, “hummingbird of the water” in Kaqchikel. Due to its remoteness, inhabitants have been very shy toward foreigners; however, since the roadways have improved, more outsiders are coming in and buying up land to built vacation homes. The inhabitants produce oranges and lemons as their major crops. The trajes (traditional dress) the women wear are stunningly beautiful; their headdress is equally eye-catching.

Women waiting for the Inauguration to begin

Woman wearing a traditional huipil (blouse)

We arrived at the location of the inauguration at 9:00, the time it was supposed to begin, but of course, in Guatemala, everything begins much later. As we waited, I feasted my eyes on the gorgeously clad women trailing in with their children. The facial features of Maya women are striking; they have smooth coffee-colored complexions, pronounced cheekbones, and straight, refined noses.

When the group from Santa Cruz (two towns down on the Lake) arrived an hour later, the ceremony began. People who stood up to give their thanks spoke in Spanish to the foreign visitors and Kaqchikel to the locals. They expressed their gratitude to Robert Hinshaw for his donation of land as well as the founders and current members of Amigos de Santa Cruz who funded the project.

Inauguration Celebration

According to their website, Los Amigos was founded in 1998 by a group of expatriates living in Santa Cruz who, along with local community leaders, sought to empower women and children through education at the primary and secondary level. Public school in Guatemala costs money- not much but enough to prevent poor families from sending all of their children to school. If one child can go, it is the oldest boy. For this reason, very few women are literate and most young women have no future other than having and taking care of children. For this reason, the new educational center is focused on the education of women with regard to literacy, hygiene, nutrition, and job training. For more information about this organization and its achievements, go to:

After the testimonials, Robert Hinshaw cut the ribbon symbolizing the official opening of the center. People lined up to sign the guestbook. After that, the women sat under the pavilion and had their first class on nutrition. Plates of fresh tamales were passed out at the end of the lesson.

Robert Hinshaw cutting the ribbon

The Guestbook

Attending their first class on nutrition

It was a very beautiful, touching event. In a country where there are rampant poverty, brutality, and tremendous disparity, events as these do provide glimmers of hope and possibility of change. For me, they are also a testament to the goodness of the human spirit which is so often lost or simply imperceptible.

On their way home

domingo, 10 de mayo de 2009

Quetzaltenango (Xela)

Friends of mine invited me to drive to Quetzaltenango, the second most populated city in Guatemala located in the same named department. Quetzaltenango (Place of many Quetzals) got its name from the Spaniard Pedro de Alvarado after he defeated the great Quiché warrior Tecún Uman and destroyed the city around 1524. Before then, the town was named Xelajú which is Quiché for "under the ten," which presumably refers to the peaks surrounding the town. Locals never fully accepted the name imposed by the conquistadors and to this day always refer to the city by its Quiché name, calling it Xela for short (pronounced Shey-la).

We lucked out with the weather since it is now rainy season and most afternoons usher in dark clouds and heavy downpours. Furthermore, Xela is located in the mountains and known for its bitter cold climate, especially in the mornings. However, after a heavy rainstorm that evening, we awoke to a town illuminated by clear blue sky and radiant sunshine. After breakfast we took a stroll through the tranquil streets of the old part of town toward the stunning Parque Centroamérica. The main plaza has been touted as one of the most beautiful in Central America. It is a tribute to neo-classicist architecture dating to the city's rebuilding after the disastrous 1902 earthquake. On both ends, there is a line of lonely detached Greek columns which now function as street lamps.

Statue of former President Barrios Amongst the Greek Columns

Parque Centroamérica in Xela

Another statue at the Parque

Across from the Parque is the magnificent Pasaje Enriquez, a renovated arcade of bars, cybercafés, and restaurants, and now Xela's hottest spot. On the opposite side of the park is the Catedral del Espiritu Santo.

Pasaje Enriquez

Inside the Pasaje Enriquez

Inside the Catedral del Espiritu Santo

Xela surprised and delighted me with its clean streets and charming eclectic architecture. My friends also introduced me to their favorite restaurants and cafés whose interior decoration floored me with its opulence and originality.

The Facade of a Former Movie Theatre

Inside Café Bavaria

There is a lot of culture in Xela due to the high concentration of universities, private colleges, and overabundance of top-notch language schools. Matter-of-fact, my friend Bernadette, who is French Swiss, stopped by a recommended school, Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco de Espanol, and registered for a week of 5 hours of daily private instruction and a home-stay (which includes three meals a day) for only 200 dollars. The school also organizes activities for students to learn about current cultural and socio-political issues facing the country.

Bernadette Contemplating an Exhibition of Chair Designs
at the School of Architecture

A Chair Design called Las Bailarinas

Poster Commemorating the Anniversary of Che's Death
Inside the Proyecto Language School:
Che is still very much revered in Guatemala
and one can see his image everywhere.

We finished off our Xela excursion with a trek to the natural spring spa Fuentes Georginas, whose hot water is fueled by the Volcano Pico Zunil. There were plenty of locals there despite the shroud of heavy fog. The cleanliness of facility left a lot to be desired; nevertheless, while we soaked in the steaming hot springs surrounded by a very colorful odd mixture of half-clad patrons, I laughingly remarked to my friends that I felt as if I could be an extra in a Fellini movie.

On our way back through Xela toward Panajachel, we stopped at one of many vegetable stands along the highway. The land in the department of Quetzaltenango is very rich due to volcanic ash and much of the produce is transported to markets as far away as those in El Salvador.

One of the Many Vegetable Stands
Along the Interamericana Highway


Boy carrying heavy sack of produce:
Child labor is ubiquitous in Guatemala.

jueves, 16 de abril de 2009

Cuaresma (Lent) in Antigua

Boy in Procesion de Jesus Nazareno del Desamparo

Antigua is world famous for its celebrations during Lent and Semana Santa (the Holy Week). I was fortunate to catch a few processions during my time there with my daughter Lorca and with Barbara Kosta since both visits fell during Cuaresma (Lent) which constitutes the 40 days before Easter.

Workers feverishly trying to finish
whitewashing San Jose Cathedral in time for Semana Santa

Barbara and I were in Antigua on Thursday and Friday, April 2nd and 3rd. On Thursday we went to San Jose Cathedral at the Parque Central. Inside the church, we were awed by the special Easter arrangements and decorations. There were andas (wooden platforms with saints on the top) ready to be carried in processions. There was also an elaborately decorated alfombra (carpet) on the church floor which was made of painstakingly handstrewn brightly colored sawdust (with the aid of stencils). Around the alfombra were carefully arranged fruits and vegetables as offerings, a tradition stemming from Mayan culture. The fascinating aspect of Catholic religion in Guatemala is that it has embraced Mayan religious beliefs and traditions. This is palpable in Easter celebrations as well as church architecture. Much to Barbara's and my disbelief, the alfombra as well as the elaborate display were gone the next day. The ephemerality of the holy week artwork so carefully and beautifully executed reminded me very much of the Tibetan mandalas.

Alfrombra being created in front of the San Jose Cathedral by a tourism class

An anda inside the San Jose Cathedral

Part of the alfombra inside the church

Youth measuring the height of potential carriers for processions

The next day, Viernes de Dolores, we watched and followed the Procession de Jesus Nazareno del Desamparo at 3:00 in the afternoon throughout the city. It was an amazing unforgettable experience. Spearheading the procession was an anda carried by boys who could not have been older than six. The boys were dressed in the traditional purple robes and they trudged with their burden through the streets. Toward the end of procession (two hours later) their parents accompanied them. I overheard one mother say to her son, "Not much longer."

Children carriers during the Friday procession

During the Friday Procession

Boy swinging a vessel of burning incense in front of the Anda

Following the young people was an anda carried by teenaged boys. This anda was very heavy as one could note by the size and the expression of the boys hoisting it. Apparently andas can weigh as much as over a ton. The carriers stomped on the alfombras illustriously displayed on the street, destroying them totally. The anda was trailed by a band of brass and flute players as well as drummers. The music reminded one of funerals, very slow, mournful, and dignified. We thought the conductor of the band looked like a gypsy due to the type of hat he wore.


Teenaged boys carrying an anda and about to trample an alfombra

Boys carrying the Anda

During the procession, people gathered on the sidewalks to watch. Girls were dressed in virginal white dresses donning a postcard of a religion icon which signifies their parents contribution to a cofradia, a religious order. Some girls joined their brothers to show their solidarity.

Child watching on the sidelines

Sister keeping brother company

After the procession, Barbara and proceeded to the La Merced, no doubt one of the most spectacular churches in Antigua. Outside the church, there were throngs of vendors selling delicious delicacies as well as gorgeous bouquets of flowers and dried grains. Barbara was particularly struck by the aesthetically carved mangos on a stick.

La Merced

A woman selling Easter bouquets in front of La Merced

A woman selling mangos on a stick

Apart from the special events programmed for Semana Santa, we were struck by the spectacle of one of the surrounding volcanoes which rose above the city like an apparition. I was fortunate enough to capture its mystical appearance when we were walking on Santa Catalina, close to the arch. Antigua is no doubt one of Guatemala's jewels and being there during the Cuaresma made it even more special.

Barbara Kosta's Talk at UVG

Presentation: Using Film to Teach English Language and Culture

Guest Speaker: Dr. Barbara Kosta, Professor of German at the University of Arizona

Location: Aula Virtual, Universidad del Valle-Altiplano

Time: April 1, 16:00-17:00

Barbara Kosta, one of my oldest dearest friends (our friendship dates back to 1973, our junior year in Munich ), came to visit me in Guatemala. She gave a very stimulating well-received talk at the Universidad del Valle (UVG) about using film to teach English language and culture. She is actually a full professor of German at the University of Arizona but because her specialization is in German film studies, she was able to apply her knowledge and teaching experience to an EFL setting. In her presentation, she showed participating English teachers how they can enhance cultural awareness as well as motivate students to practice all four skills with the aid of a film, in this case, "Night at the Museum," a 2006 American adventure comedy based on a 1993 children's book by Milan Trenc. All teachers from UVG attended the talk as well as the well-known local author Richard Morgan Szybist of the Lake Atitlan Reference Guide and Fables and Other Mayan Tales of Atitlan. Richard has a special connection to the University of Arizona because that is where he completed his graduate studies in Latin American affairs in 1992.