A World of Reading for Maya Children in Guatemala

by Pueblo a Pueblo, Inc.

Over the past three years we’ve been proud to help build a reliable community resource in the Chukmuk Elementary School Library. Students, teachers, and parents now have weekly access to a fully equipped library and services that include book lending, literacy activities, and summer vacation literacy camp. In a region that struggles with chronic illiteracy, resources like these are a way for students to start along a path to better jobs and more economic opportunity.

In the coming year, we’ll be expanding our Pathways to Literacy Project to Chacayá, another rural community with which we’ve built a strong bond over the past several years.

 Most of the students who attend the Chacayá Primary School come from families that depend entirely on coffee farming as a sole source of income. Even compared to the rest of our partner communities, living conditions in Chacayá can be dire. Stunting rates are among the highest we’ve seen; children often receive as little as one meal a day; and when the coffee-harvest ends economic activity in the community grinds quickly to a standstill.

Since 2006 we’ve introduced new projects into the local elementary school: Organic School Gardens, School Nutrition, Primary Education Scholarships, and Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) in School.

Bringing Our Pathways to Literacy Project to Chacayá will create even more comprehensive support for resident children in need. Once we establish the library space, we will also lead workshops and provide individual training for teachers to ensure that the library is well managed and utilized.

 “We envision it becoming part of the fabric of the community,” says Montse, our Pathways to Literacy project manager. “Over fifty percent of the population in Chacayá is under 20. The future of this community lies with these children.”

Two students after the activity
Two students after the activity

Our school library in Chukmuk has been bursting at the seams for end of year activities, but we’d like to take this opportunity to highlight one special moment.

In light of Guatemala’s independence day in mid-September, our library staff organized an activity for students to reflect on Santiago’s cultural heritage.

(Spoiler alert: if you read through the end of this report, you’ll find a video these very students put together to thank you for your support!)

The activity started with Lidia, our project librarian, telling students a legend passed down through generations in Tz’utujil – the Mayan dialect in Santiago.

Sometime in the long distant past, there was a family in Santiago with two pairs of twin brothers. The older twins, Jun Batz and Jun Chowen, were easily angry and jealous of the younger twins, Junajpu and Ixbalamke, who were kind, smart, and loved throughout the community. Time and time again, the older twins would pick up their younger siblings and throw them into the anthills and thorn bushes that formed outside the family’s adobe hut. 

One day, the younger siblings decided to get revenge. Together they wandered into the forest and found a magical tree that, early in the morning, would sprout enormous branches, widen its trunk, and rise hundreds of feet into the sky.

That night, they found their older brothers outside the house and challenged them to a competition: both pairs of twins would leave the next morning to go bird hunting, and the ones that caught more birds by sundown would get to live in the house, while the other twins would have to move into the forest. The older brothers accepted. As the younger twins walked away, they whispered a plan just loudly enough for their older brothers to hear: “we’ll meet early at the base of the tree we found,” they said, “because the biggest and most beautiful birds in the forest live there.”

The next morning, the older brothers woke up before their siblings, crept out of the house, and ran to the tree, where they climbed into the branches and waited for the birds to appear. They snickered about their brothers’ misfortune and argued over how to divide the new space they were sure to have in the house.

But just as the sun tiptoed onto the horizon, the tree sprouted new branches, widened its trunk, and began to rise into the sky.

When the younger brothers arrived to the tree later that morning, their older brothers were already too high to climb down. They cowered against the tree’s trunk and tried to call down to the younger twins for help, but instead of words all they were able utter were grunts and yelps. They began to grow long tails and hair all over their faces and arms. By the time the sun sank behind the mountains, the older brothers had transformed completely into monkeys. Unable to go home to their house and community, they lived the rest of their days in the upper branches of the forest, a testament to the moral that one should never envy or mistreat a brother.

Oral history has it that much of Santiago’s population descended from the younger brothers, and as a result community members today ought to treat each other with the same respect that the older brothers ought to have afforded their siblings.

As the students thought about the story, Lidia divided them into groups and gave each group an old photo from Atitlán’s Digital Archive Project, most of which had been taken as many as fifty years ago. There were photos of the market, the central church, and the beach, as well as the paths and houses nearby.

Each group was asked to describe what they saw, focusing on the differences and similarities between the two eras. The students were fascinated. The traditional clothing had changed entirely, as had the layout of village landmarks. It took most of them a few minutes to equate what they saw in the photos with the buildings and landscapes that they walk by every morning!

Even more striking for the students, however, were the similarities. While the market had changed, the fruits and vegetables being sold were the same, as were the baskets and hollowed out wooden canoes that farmers use to catch 'mojarra,' the local fish. Pathways between houses looked the same and the lake rested a few feet below where just a few years ago the community constructed a new playground for children (since the rainy season the lake has grown to flood the playground, but the curve of the shore is still there).

“It encouraged students to think about kinship, the direct connection they still have to their ancestors, and a different way of life in Santiago,” said Lidia.

The students’ journey into Santiago’s past would not have been possible without your support. In fact, they’ve compiled a video to thank you directly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8cZuTNdnCk&feature=plcp

From all of us here at the lake, we appreciate your generosity, and be sure to check back soon for more updates!

Students crowd around Lidia, our librarian
Students crowd around Lidia, our librarian
One of the photos used in the activity
One of the photos used in the activity

Typically we write about the direct effect of donations – books purchased, staff hired, and materials provided – but this time we’d like to emphasize a part of our library program less visible to donors but equally indebted to their contributions: the Chukmuk School’s Library Champions.


In just a few months at our elementary school library in Chukmuk, we noticed that some students were investing more than the rest. It was only a small group – between seven and thirteen, total – but they were always the first to arrive at literacy activities, the eagerest volunteers during lessons, and the ones that invited their friends from the community to attend free sessions after school hours.


It didn’t take long for Lidia, the project librarian, to enlist their help. After activities she would teach them how to take care of the books and organize the library's shelves. Then the group would gather materials, put everything back, and make sure the library was clean and accessible for the next class.


It didn’t stop there, though. With time a few students lost interest, but others invested even more. Those that stayed began to call themselves the Library Champions, and the name stuck.


Now the Champions are a mainstay of the library. Every day they help run activities: after school they are responsible for greeting incoming groups of students, determining an appropriate book for the group, and then selecting it from the shelf and handing it over. Sometimes during Tuesday afternoon sessions they divide grades into parts – one part for each champion – and they read books aloud and lead open discussions on the stories. For sessions during school recess they design and lead literacy-based games for the other students.


Anybody is welcome to join. New students do so monthly – the current champions just gather together and explain their responsibilities and how to work as a team. Best of all, literacy and leadership born in the library extend beyond the school and into the community. Recently a father came to the school and told Lidia about how he saw his daughter – a frequent visitor to the library – teaching her younger sister how to read with a book she had borrowed from the school library. “I’m seeing a change in her,” he said.


None of this would be possible without your generosity. Your donations created a center for literacy and growth that members of the local community, and especially our Champions, have come to treasure.  

Last month we celebrated International Book Day with students at the Chukmuk Elementary School. The celebration aims to instill reading habits in people around the world and we did just that in our school library!

We designed an activity that got students’ creative gears moving: each teacher read “The Legend of St. George and the Dragon” to their classroom and students were to create their own illustration inspired by what they heard.

Lidia, our school librarian, continues to lead and develop daily literacy activities, which encourages the celebration of books year round!

The library has also welcomed new members to the team:

Jo Umana a trained librarian that arrived in February, is here to help with the organization of the Chukmuk Library. She collaborated on the development of the electronic book database, and has also assisted Lidia with cataloguing and literacy activities. Another focus of her works has been developing programming that invites the community of Chukmuk to the school library through parent and child events.

Tomas Pacay Mendoza joined the Pathways to Literacy team in April and is working on a pedagogical support project. He works with the Chukmuk teachers on the methods and techniques for teaching constructively and meaningfully. He is locating materials in the library that teachers can use in their lesson plans and has designed “literary corners” in the classrooms that allow students to learn in fun and innovative ways.

The new school year is in full swing and students at the Chukmuk Elementary School continue to take advantage of all the resources available at the school library. Witnessing the pure joy and excitement that students have during their library visits is a reminder of how important libraries are in a child’s education and development.


The literacy activities continue to supplement classroom learning, which fosters a much-needed love for reading in innovative and fun ways. Students carry on with learning the library’s cataloging system to facilitate their use of its resources and they’re quickly learning the rules to properly care for this learning environment.


Our first teacher training was conducted last week and teachers were encouraged to express their desires for the future of the Chukmuk School Library. Their ideas along with our ongoing collection development means a busy year in the continued effort to build a library that is a comfortable and useful learning environment for the entire Chukmuk community.



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Organization Information

Pueblo a Pueblo, Inc.

Location: Neenah, WI - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.puebloapueblo.org
Project Leader:
Andrew Wilson
Executive Director
Neenah, WI United States

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