Mildre Yaxon is a 26 year old Mayan woman who lives in the Atitlan area in the highlands of Guatemala. She is one of seven children and faced many hardships during her childhood – extreme poverty, inter-family violence, and a civil war plaguing her country. However, through her Mother’s determination to provide her children with a better life than her own, Mildre was able to complete a University degree in Social Work and now works as a community facilitator at Oxlajuj B’atz’, a non-profit organization that provides non-formal education to Maya women in the areas of small business development, health, and democracy and leadership.
During my recent trip to Guatemala, I interviewed Mildre about her educational experiences in Guatemala, especially as they relate to international education and her current work.
1. When you were in school, did you have opportunities to learn about other countries and cultures?
No, there were not opportunities to learn internationally. We learned more about our own cultures, but that was not even in-depth because there are so many cultures here in Guatemala to study because of the different indigenous groups. We learned virtually nothing about the cultures of different countries. I do remember learning a little about other indigenous groups, like the Aztecs of Mexico.
2. Do you think this is because indigenous culture is often threatened in Guatemala, and that teachers focused on teaching local cultures so that they do not go extinct?
It still is not very common for students here to learn about different cultures because the teachers think it is most important to learn about our own culture because they know how difficult it is to study other cultures.
There are four main cultures in Guatemala – Garifuna, Maya, Xinca, and Ladino. The Garifuna and Xinca cultures are disappearing here. By teaching Mayan culture in local schools, it will not disappear. Ladinos and Mayan are still very strong.
3. Did you have opportunities to meet people outside of your community and culture?
I never had the opportunity in primary school. In secondary, I studied in a monastery community so there were occasionally some missionaries from other places that would pass through. We were able to meet them, but we did not really get to know them. However, the school was located outside of my immediate community. My mother sent us there for a better educational opportunity. I think this really helped because it made us less scared to leave our small community. Many others are scared to do this because they have never done it before.
4. Do you think having international exposure would have helped strengthen your education?
Yes, it is very important because sometimes the only thing we know about differences in other countries and cultures is through stereotypes. There are some things that we do not even know exists so we do not know to even research or study them since they are outside of our knowledge. If we could have a greater understanding of these things it would be a great help.
5. Given that you interact with volunteers from all over the world in your current work, how would this have helped prepare you for your career?
It would help because I cannot tell the difference between a European, American, etc. and I now interact with many people from different places. The Mayan teachers did not think that their students would have opportunities to interact with other people so they did not see it as a necessary thing to teach us, unless you went to a tourism school.
6. Now that you are expecting your first child, what experience do you want her to have in this regard?
I would like her to learn more about geography and know the different areas of the world, at least generally. And now there is technology available that we did not have, so she can use different media to learn and study and see different cultures. It would be interesting for her to have these experiences. This could give her more opportunities to know what she wants in life and where she wants to go in her life.
While I understand Mildre’s teacher’s perspectives on the need to preserve local culture, I also believe that global education assists in doing just that. The Mayan culture has been attacked for centuries because of racism, among other reasons. However, by sharing cultural differences, others begin to understand and appreciate other cultures and racism begins to ease away. It also strengthens one’s own culture because it makes you reflect on yourself, what is most important about your culture, and values you would want to share with others to help them appreciate these differences. By helping others understand your culture, you can build respect for it so that others do not try to change or mainstream it.
Also, even in rural and poverty stricken communities, there is a need for global education because it cannot be assumed that students will never leave the community or that other opportunities do not await them. Mildre never expected to be working at an NGO with staff from all over the world, but she assumed with hard work she would achieve a professional job. By not preparing students for these opportunities, teachers are assuming that their students will maintain their current status and not search out better economic opportunities. It is critical to prepare students for the global economy so that they have the confidence and drive to search out a better future for themselves, even if it is against all odds.
*Interview translated from Spanish to English.