LHI Blog: Voices from Chajul

Kids in Park


“Open to Interpretation” by Christina Lacy, Program Associate

For as long as I can remember, I was always told that – without a doubt – if you filled the gas tank while the motor was running, the car would explode. Or the world would explode, I can’t remember. And while the factualness of this claim is debatable, I was still very uncomfortable while the chicken bus full of women, children and, most importantly, me, sat helpless in the gas station just waiting for a disaster to happen. As beads of sweat formed on my forehead, I looked around the bus: nobody else seemed to care.

They were just impatient to get to class, to their plot of land outside of town, or to the market to sell their produce. While I had already learned from my travels that what is common sense in the United States hasn’t necessarily reached global consensus, I wondered what else I’d dwelt upon that held little importance to the rest of the world. Is it really that inappropriate to bathe in public? Do I really need to tip a bad waiter, or for that matter, a good waiter? And who said I was too young to marry my fourteen-year old boyfriend? I think we could have hit it off.

The truth of these statements depends on which side of what border you happen to stumble onto, and all arguments are legitimate. Tattoos are both a form of personal expression and indicative of criminal association. Jogging is both a healthy form of exercise and a last resort to escape pursuit. Instead of competing with these contending interpretations, I’ve learned to integrate them into my cultural repertoire. I cover my tattoos and I work out in my room (sometimes – let’s be honest). But it’s still difficult to remain objective.

There are some things I just can’t reconcile with my personal beliefs and experiences. It pangs me every time a child throws a wrapper in the street or out the bus window without a word of condemnation from his mother. It worries me that our students often eat the same meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and don’t receive the nutrients and energy they need. I see so much potential for change in Chajul, but I struggle with the fact that it’s not my culture to change. Despite this frustration at the challenges that Chajul faces, I have no doubt regarding its capacity to overcome them. I have no doubt because LHI scholarship students are conveying this same frustration to others in their community.

Middle-school students Micaela, Antonio, and Lupita are developing a campaign along with business leaders and The Philanthropiece Foundation to clean up the streets of Chajul. Gaspar arranged a city-wide debate between Chajul candidates to promote accountability in local politics. Baltazar has repeatedly expressed his desire to work towards organizing local farmers after he graduates to receive better prices in the global marketplace. Maybe it was too simplistic to originally label these complicated issues as “cultural differences,” as permanent staples of Chajul culture that a foreigner needs to get used to, like playing soccer with rubber muck boots or eating boxbol with your hands. Maybe these are real problems that need to be addressed.

Like I said, this isn’t my culture to change, but it seems change is already underway. Every one of our students has overcome financial limitations, gender norms, or language barriers to convince their families and community to prioritize their education. And every year, LHI receives more applicants than the year before. Looks like the world isn’t going to explode after all.