SAN JUAN, Guatemala- Roughly the size of Tennessee, Guatemala sits nestled in Central America, just south of Mexico. Of the country’s 15.08 million people, just over 50 percent are of indigenous Mayan descent, spread across 21 of the 26 language groups that divide the Mayan diaspora. Guatemala’s poverty rate also hovers over 50 percent, with 21.5 percent of people living in extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as living on less than $1.25 daily. Of those living in poverty, approximately 80 percent are Mayan.
In addition, Mayan groups in Guatemala face discrimination and restrictions in number of settings. Though legally allowed to vote, election schedules and locations are inaccessible to rural farm workers, of which the Mayan decedents comprise the majority. Mayan workers often turn to migrant positions since access to stable jobs and the best land is limited. Language constraints pose immense obstacles. There are few bilingual services or interpreters even in judicial proceedings or educational settings and many Maya do not speak Spanish.
While the Guatemalan government struggles to reach and include the Mayan population, there are various organizations working to empower the communities themselves. The Organization for the Development of the Indigenous Maya (ODIM) is one such group. ODIM works in the towns of San Juan and San Pablo La Laguna along the shores of Lake Atitlan, less than 50 miles outside of the capital, Guatemala City. Of the towns’ residents, 76 percent and 97 percent, respectively, live in poverty and 29 percent and 79 percent, respectively, live in extreme poverty. ODIM uses health services and educational programs to improve living conditions in each community, focusing on self-empowerment within the programs.
ODIM first began working in Guatemala after Hurricane Stan in 2005. The hurricane and the rains it brought caused an estimated 2,000 deaths due to flash floods and landslides that wiped out entire villages. The United Nations’ Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated 430,000 people were directly affected and appealed for $22 million in aid. Resulting environmental issues ranged from contaminated water to rock slides from forest destruction and soil erosion. ODIM responded as relief support, but became deeply connected with the community itself.
By 2008, ODIM had built Clinica Sanjuanerita, a health care facility providing both medical and dental services by local staff and visiting professionals from around the world. The clinic’s services not only include primary medical care, but also diabetes and family planning care. Additionally, weekly hours are held at an auxiliary clinic that is more accessible to remote areas. Programs on health education have expanded to meet the needs of the communities. Diabetes, nutrition, sexual education and physical fitness are among the subjects discussed in the classes. Though some classes are still taught by international volunteers, locals are increasingly being trained by professionals to take over educating each other, an essential component of self-empowerment.
ODIM’s educational aspirations are not limited to areas of health. According to the Global Education Fund, about 60 percent of the indigenous Maya population is illiterate and only 30 percent of children in Guatemala graduate from the sixth grade. Girls in rural areas are particularly lagging in enrollment with only 10 percent attending secondary school. Poverty is one of the most cited obstacles to greater enrollment, requiring many children to begin working at an early age to supplement the family’s income or simply not being able to afford the necessary school supplies. Access to education is another problem, since 80 percent of the Maya population live in rural areas. ODIM’s “Beca” Scholarship Program pays for tuition, supplies including uniforms, two pairs of shoes and four hours of tutoring per week, costing $600 per child each year.
With numerous issues facing the indigenous Maya population in Guatemala, ODIM aims to build a strong foundation on which individuals can improve their lives. Basic necessities such as health care and education are particularly difficult to acquire for the Maya in Guatemala given the historic discrimination and marginalization. ODIM’s programs work to empower the Maya communities of San Juan and San Pablo La Laguna toward a brighter future.
– Katey Baker-Smith
Sources: The World Bank, Global Education Fund, Organization for the Development of the Indigenous Maya, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting,
Photo: Global Mother Power