Josefa Maribel Quinón Chojpen knows how to sew tiny beads into the shape of a quetzal, a striking green, red and white bird with trailing tail feathers that lives in Guatemala’s forests.
Between her hands, the 13-year-old can flatten a palmsize ball of corn dough into a tortilla with a staccato clap, clap, clap — a rhythmic deftness honed by years of shaping perfectly round tortillas for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
But last year, when Josefa tried to multiply fractions and complete other sixth-grade math problems, she failed. Her first quarter grade was 20 percent.
Her mother, Maria Chojpen Reanda, knew where to turn.
Reanda had been attending parenting classes at New Dawn Association of Santiago Atitlán, an MCC partner known by its Spanish acronym, ANADESA, and asked for help from the organization’s afterschool tutoring program. Two teachers began tutoring Josefa and, along with her mother, regularly consulted with Josefa’s classroom teacher.
This kind of educational partnership and intervention is uncommon in Josefa’s culture.
Women of Josefa’s mother’s generation remember their parents hiding them under the bed when authorities came to insist on school attendance. For generations the Tz’utujil people, a marginalized Mayan ethnic group living near the tourist destination of Lake Atitlán, viewed formal education as a Spanish practice imposed upon their culture in ways that seemed harmful at worst, useless at best.
Through the work of ANADESA, women like Reanda are placing a higher value on their children’s education. Tutoring helps students thrive.
But ANADESA as an organization would not exist without a different partnership — the efforts of local residents, MCC and Guatemalan Mennonites to respond to mudslides that devastated this area 12 years ago.
In the early morning of Oct. 5, 2005, after days of rain from Hurricane Stan, mudslides roiling with boulders and trees crashed into the small town of Panabaj. Residents rushed to rescue neighbors, but around 300 people were killed, most from the Tz’utujil ethnic group.
Mennonites from the church conference Iglesia Evangélica Menonita de Guatemala (IEMG) sent an assessment team four days after the mudslides and soon delivered sheets, food and clothing.
MCC partnered with IEMG to bring more emergency assistance and work-and-learn teams to support longer-term recovery. In the year after the mudslides, more than 150 people from Guatemala, Belize, Canada, Colombia and the U.S. joined with local people to help respond to the devastation, building 72 houses.
If we see each other as part of the body of Christ . . . we find that everybody can make a contribution to that mission that we are called for — to serve in the name of Christ,” — Lizette Miranda
As the three groups — MCC, IEMG and local residents — worked on rebuilding, they also identified other needs in the community and began to organize children’s education and recreation programs, adult literacy classes and a support group for women.
Eventually, through a local initiative and encouragement from MCC and IEMG, these efforts combined in 2008 to become ANADESA — a community- run organization and MCC partner that is focused on strengthening and empowering children, youth and women.
“One of the best things about working in a partnership like this is the long-term commitment of the people that are living there,” says Lizette Miranda of Managua, Nicaragua. She and her husband Cesar Flores are MCC area directors for Central America and Haiti. “They now can carry out the work to improve the lives of their own people.”
MCC supports ANADESA with funding and each year sends a young adult through MCC’s Global Service Learning programs to serve with the staff. Work-and-learn teams have helped ANADESA construct a new building.
The best inheritance we can provide our children is to study" — Rosario Coché Coó
“If we see each other as part of the body of Christ . . . we find that everybody can make a contribution to that mission that we are called for — to serve in the name of Christ,” Miranda says.
Local partners are a critical part of that service, stresses Gabriela Ochoa of Essex Junction, Vt., MCC’s Guatemala and El Salvador representative.
They know what is most urgent to improve lives in their community, and they know the context and situation. “We in MCC have the privilege of supporting them in meeting those needs,” she says. “By working with local partners, we can address together the most important needs in the community and make a significant difference.” (Read about how MCC's emergency response empowered one local woman to grow, learn and continue working for her community.)
Today ANADESA’s after-school tutoring program serves more than 90 primary school students from vulnerable families in Panabaj and the nearby village of Chukmuk.
A youth program offers workshops, field trips, sports and service projects. Recently all the youth received several chickens and training on how to fatten them and sell them for a $3 profit they can re-invest in more chickens.
Twice a month women, wearing traditional blouses embroidered with birds and flowers and tucked into long woven skirts, gather at ANADESA’s new building. They come to learn together and to enjoy the break from the often solitary work of beading, weaving and embroidery that consumes their waking hours.
Rosario Coché Coó, a single mother of two young children, says she uses what she has learned about nutrition, cooking and hygiene, but what she really likes is the encouragement she gets from the other women.
“Sometimes I get sad just thinking about how to support my children. Sometimes the beadwork doesn’t provide enough money,” says Coó. “But at ANADESA, when I go out and I receive the trainings, I have fun. I smile. So I am able to push aside my thoughts and think about different things.”
Cruz Tzina Vasquez, a widow who runs a small store from the front window of her home, says she has benefited most by learning about business skills and her own rights.
“At first I didn’t know women had a right to provide opinions,” Vasquez says. “Through the workshops, I learned that I had a right to speak my mind.” Now she is a member of ANADESA’s board.
High priorities for the board and staff are finding new markets where women can sell beadwork and developing new income-generation projects. But ANADESA urges families to put their strongest hopes for a secure future for their children into education.
Josefa Maribel Quinón Chojpen’s mother, Reanda, says she and her husband are committed to doing whatever they can to get Josefa and her sister, Ana Dolores, an education.
So are ANADESA teachers Concepción Esquina Damián and Aricela Magdalena Reanda Ramirez. They figured out one reason Josefa was failing math was because she was scared to ask questions about what she didn’t understand.
“My teacher in sixth grade, she was tough,” Josefa explains. “She would get so angry when we failed. I was terrified to talk to her because I was afraid she would hit me.”
So Josefa’s tutors used a variety of methods to explain the math concepts that confused her. They also made a plan of how they and Josefa’s mother could regularly consult with the teacher for advice and updates on Josefa’s progress.
Josefa finished the year with a passing grade in all her subjects. “I would not be where I am now in seventh grade if they wouldn’t have helped me,” she says.
Coó wishes her single mother had been able to send her to school. Maybe then she would work in a bank or be a teacher instead of beading all day long.
“The best inheritance we can provide our children is to study,” says Coó. Some parents think giving land is best, she says, but their children can sell the land for a short-term profit.
“If you give them education, they cannot trade it, and nobody can take it away.”