Tag Archives: Guatemala

Summer Immersion Update – From Naomi!

Coming into this experience I wasn’t quite sure what to expect or what it would entail, but I feel as though I’m starting to catch on more. Working in the hospital again this year has been incredible. To be honest, I feel as though it has almost been a bit harder this year. For the first two days that we spent in the hospital, I found myself leaving with a sense of panic. I kept on feeling as though I had no time to spend with the patients and the friends I had created last year and also make time to create new connections. Last year I left here with the idea of applying to Youth Board, which provided me with the small sense of hope that I might return. This year, though, I realize that it would be very difficult, if even possible, to return in the coming years and visit my friends in the hospital, which is a terrifying and sad thought.

Things have been really great though overall and I’m still a bit overwhelmed and astonished that I’m actually back here. Leading is definitely more exhausting than I could ever have imagined. I feel like the Junior Leaders have many behind the scenes responsibilities, which are difficult to notice from the outside, so I don’t have a perfect image to replicate. Many of the responsibilities and tasks we have are fairly simple and would be quickly accomplished by one person, but in the effort to foster teamwork, we delegate different parts of the job to different people. It is very important and provides the participants with an opportunity to practice their leadership skills. It is just a much more tiring process when you have to delegate, check in, confirm that the job was completed, and reflect for each individual task. It absolutely pays off, though, when you see someone that was once shy and timid share, open up to the group, and blossom in the work they are doing and people they are interacting with. It really is incredible. I can’t wait to see how other develop as well.

-Naomi Rothenberg (Mercer Island High School Class of 2016, incoming first year student at Willamette University)


From Guatemala to Seattle: My Journey in Understanding Social Justice


By Simone Evans

My experience in Guatemala was unforgettable. Volunteering at the hospital, dinner conversations with my host family that lasted for hours, and coming together with my peers was a transformative experience and changed me in ways I couldn’t anticipate. When I got home, I felt very inspired by my experience in Guatemala but I didn’t know what to do with these feelings. I wasn’t sure what the impact of the immersion would be on my life.

That changed when I attended a week-long workshop at The Tyree Scott Freedom School. It is a program the focuses on educating and teaching youth about oppression within our community towards people of color. Through activities and conversations at the Freedom School, I learned about injustice and the oppression facing others. We evaluated how racism is still prevalent today in the prison system, education system, and in our community. It was mind blasting because I thought I was aware of most injustices people of color were facing, but I learned that racism is more pervasive than I’ve ever known. The school was primary African American youth, but there were people of other ethnicities there as well. We did a power shuffle where they asked questions about our home life, and experiences we’ve faced in the world. Some questions like  “Do your parents own a house?” took you a step forward; other questions like “Were you surrounded by drugs?” took you a step back. By the end of the power shuffle, I was shocked. I am mixed race and I found myself in the middle of the spectrum, all of the Caucasian people were in the front, and most darker-skinned individuals were in the back. That was when the reality of our world hit me. I’ve always felt sympathy and empathy for others but now I understand oppression and struggle on a deeper level. I am more aware of the suffering of humankind; I now see innocent people are dying day by day, in situations similar to our fictional gruesome movies. Now, I am able to put myself in other people’s shoes and try to feel what others might be feeling as the result of oppression. Fighting oppression is something that has become very important to me, and I don’t think I would’ve ever felt this passionate without experiencing or seeing these things first hand.

I have continued to pursue this passion for social justice as a member of the Pro Justice team on the Youth Board. We are working to identify oppression issues in our everyday lives and learning how to address them. Our goal is our title, Pro Justice: to create a world where we all live equal amongst one another. A world where we aren’t judged by the way we were born. We are creating awareness, and although people may say, “you can’t change the world,” by every person we inspire, that’s one more person on the side of equality, one more person to spread the word. These experiences helped me realize the life I truly want to live, and the people that I want to live it with me. My experience with Global Visionaries and the Freedom School opened these doors for me and for that, I cannot thank them enough.

GV Alumni Voices: Haley Robinson

Haley Robinson, a former Global Visionaries participant, will be returning to Guatemala this week as a Junior Leader for the 2013-14 Summer Program and will be documenting her experience through photos and blog posts.


Ian: So, its been a couple of years since your own student experience in Guatemala. At what point did you decide to go back?

Haley: I decided I wanted to go back was after having a conversation with Chris Fontana earlier this year when I was looking for summer opportunities. My parents suggested that I look into volunteering with GV this summer so, after much deliberation surrounding other jobs, I decided that I wanted to devote my time to GV. Chris offered me the opportunity to travel as a trip leader, and that was the point at which I decided I wanted to go back.


Was it mostly the travel that appealed to you?

The ability to travel was definitely part of it. But, for the most part, I wanted the experience to work and travel as a Junior Leader. I have the privilege of working alongside Chris Fontana, Mario Flores, and others who are incredibly skilled at what they do. Growing as an individual and a leader in an environment like the one GV fosters is an opportunity I didn’t want to take for granted.


How do you think integrating into Guatemalan culture will be different now compared to last time?

I now have more experience travelling. The last time I visited Guatemala, I was a sophomore in high school; now I’m going into my sophomore year of college. I’ve travelled pretty extensively in that period and I think I now have more of an ability to assimilate into different cultures and groups of people. It seems more natural for me now, whereas when I was younger it was more uncomfortable.


So you think the personal connections will be more impactful for you this time?

Exactly! I think last time I was able to make strong connections with my group members, but language barriers distanced me from delving into personal connections with Guatemalans. Now, as I return, my Spanish has improved and I feel more comfortable creating those closer relationships with local people.


What will be different coming in as a Junior Leader rather than a student?

I think it will be a completely different experience, and I’ll be able to see Guatemala through a completely different lens. For almost two months now I have been working closely with the GV staff and so I will be returning with a different perspective of GV, its work, and the logistics of the programs.


What do you think is important to impart onto the students you’ll be leading?

It’s been interesting to see how my life has been affected by this program and I want to see the same transformational change in the students. I don’t necessarily know how I want to approach providing them with that experience yet, but it’s something I’ll be working on day by day—I just want to be a support for them, and listen—that’s the most important part of my job.


What will be most difficult about leading?

Being able to embrace the style of GV leadership is going to be a challenge for me since I’m so comfortable in my own ways of leading. I suppose being able to fully understand the program, being able to impart that on the students, and sharing with them the foundation of Global Visionaries is going to be a rewarding challenge for me. I want to give them a very full and unforgettable experience.


Which people are you most excited to revisit?

Well, I actually planned a dinner with my original host family, so I’m looking forward to seeing them again. I’m also excited to reconnect with Sandra, Billy, Aurelio, and others from the Guatemalan team. Now as a Junior Leader, I’m looking forward to creating deeper personal and professional connections with them.


What do you think, besides the physical work that you’re doing, you’ll leave the Guatemalans with after you go?

I think once I get a sense of the community and how much it’s evolved since I was last there, I’ll be able to better tell. Times have changed since I was last there, technologically and otherwise, and I’m interested to see the advancements that their society has made. As far as what I’m gonna leave them with, I really can’t say at the moment. I think that will come with time.


Follow Haley’s adventures on the GV blog – https://gvisionaries.wordpress.com – enjoy regular updates featuring photos and writing documenting the 2014 Summer experience and more!

Seattle’s First Ambassador Jozlyn Pelk Visits GV in Guatemala

(Left to right) Aurelio Hernandez (GV Staff), Mario Perez (Mayor), Jozlyn Pelk, Translator  (Front left to right) Patricia (Youth 2013), Claudia (GV staff), Sandra (GV staff)
(Left to right) Aurelio Hernandez (GV Staff), Mario Perez (Mayor), Jozlyn Pelk, Translator
(Front left to right) Patricia (Youth Leader), Claudia (GV staff), Sandra (GV staff)

Last Wednesday, Jozlyn Pelk, the first Seattle Ambassador, visited Global Visonaries during her week-long trip to Guatemala, where she met with the mayor of Santa Maria de Jesus, Mario Perez; recent GV Youth Leader Patricia; as well as GV staff Aurelio, Claudia and Sandra.

Jozlyn is a student at University of Washington Bothell (UWB), double-majoring in Law Economic Public Policy and Global Studies with a minor in Human Rights. She was selected as the Seattle Ambassador in June by the Seattle International Foundation (SIF) and the City of Seattle Office of the Mayor, who ran the program for the first time this year.

Sponsored by the program, she embarked on a trip to Guatemala in fall and visited several Seattle-based nonprofit organizations, seeing firsthand their work in the community. She shares details of her experience by writing on her blog, and will be going on local media outlets and attending events to share what she learned about global poverty with the Seattle community.

Jozlyn visited two different GV project sites in Santa Maria, a town just outside of Antigua at the base of the Volcán de Agua in Guatemala, where she saw kids inside the classrooms built by GV volunteers. Santa Maria is one of several towns in which GV is bringing together Guatemalan youth and Seattle youth through leadership development programs and local service projects with a focus on social and environmental justice.

“I was able to visit two schools built by GV Guatemalan and Seattle youth in the towns Cerro del Niño and Santa Maria de Jesus; both remote, impoverished towns that historically have been difficult to access by car due to steep hills, and do not have enough classrooms for its growing population (Santa Maria has over 600 students!). It was incredible to see the culmination of the hard labor of Guatemalan and Seattle students who have come together to share across cultures and give back to their local and global communities through the construction of these schools.

“Seeing the classrooms filled with children, and new classrooms on the way, was heartwarming. Hundreds of children are able to go to school, and communities are able to thrive because of the commitment of Guatemalan and Seattle youth leaders to create social change,” said Jozlyn.

She then joined GV staff Aurelio, Claudia and Sandra, Youth Leader Patricia, and Don. Mario Perez Pio, mayor of Santa Maria de Jesus, for a dialogue on the biggest issues faced by youth in Guatemala, as well as Global Visionaries’ impact in the community by partnering with local municipalities and bringing education and leadership opportunities to young people. GV is currently working in partnership with Mayor Perez and the local government of Santa Maria to construct new classrooms and provide volunteer opportunities for young people.

Jozlyn recalled the conversation on her blog:

“There are many challenges for young people in Guatemala. Many do not have the resources or the opportunity to study past the 6th grade, and must begin working at a young age to support their families. Others in rural communities are not in close proximity to a school, and therefore never receive a formal education.”

Patricia (Pati), graduate of the 2012 intensive leadership program in Santa Maria, also shared her point of view of the challenges youth in her community face when it comes to education, especially girls.

“Young people are oppressed and cannot speak their minds; girls in particular are told they cannot go to school because you’re a girl,” said Pati.


Jozlyn wrote about her exchange with Pati and Sandra:

“(They) both emphasized GV’s vital role in creating a safe environment for young women and men to grow, not only by providing opportunities and infrastructure like the classrooms built by Seattle and Guatemalan youth volunteers, but also the space and community to talk about racism and sexism with other youth.

“I was most inspired by Sandra’s story about her personal experience with overcoming discrimination, as an indigenous woman who was expected to support her family rather than continue to go to school (families not recognizing the importance of investing in their child’s education is something I have heard consistently throughout the week). In pursuit of her dream of finishing school, Sandra left for Antigua where she faced racism and sexism in another way – being isolated for wearing indigenous dress. Sandra and Pati both stressed the importance of Global Visionaries’ programs providing the space and community to talk about racism and sexism with other youth.”

For the full story, visit Jozlyn’s blog at http://www.seattleambassador.org/featured/

Efraín Rios Montt Faces Genocide Charges

Credit: Moises Castillo/AP

The once Guatemalan military general, dictator, and de facto president, 1982 to 1983, Efrain Rios Montt, and his once chief of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, are on trial for crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Tears and accounts of horrific violence and murder fill the court room, as many Ixil Maya testify against Montt and Sanchez’s policy of genocide.  A father from Santa Maria Nebaji told of his children’s brutal and excruciating executions.  According to CNN online, “These atrocities, which took place in the remote Guatemalan town of Santa Maria Nebaj in July of 1982, have never been described in a courtroom.”  Reports from newspaper which are covering the trial say many survivors of the brutalized villages and towns have said to have never talk before about this past.

During a military campaign in the early 1980’s 1,700 Ixil Mayans were brutality murdered, and many more tortured and raped. Disguised as an attack to eliminate the guerilla rebel threat in the region, Montt’s military escapade targeted the Ixil Mayan people. Many of the survivors are men, who were away working, but many of the women and children survivors are now currently testifying. The survivors recounted the horrors of watching their family members repeatedly beaten, stabbed, degraded, kidnapped, raped, and burned alive. Many of the children and mothers who survived described how they escaped by fleeing to the mountains and, as one women told, survived “like animals”. Some of the men spoke of the attacks as being planned specifically while they were far away, at work, as for them to not have a chance of protecting their families.

Their rural villages were scorched to the ground destroying not only homes, but lives, and Ixil Mayan culture.  A New York Times article from April 14, 2013 by Elisabeth Malkin stated “In a study of 420 bodies exhumed from the Ixil region and presumed to date from the Ríos Montt period, experts found that almost 36 percent of those who were killed were under 18 years old, including some newborns”. Other people speculated the children were strategically targeted as a way to eliminate the future generations of Mayan people and the practices and understanding of Mayan culture.

On top of the horrific accounts by survivors, the verdict in the trial will have a global impact. Declassified CIA records show the sale of U.S. weapons by the U.S. government to the Guatemalan military even after evidence of widespread repression and excessive force against civilians by the Guatemalan government was known to the U.S. government. Under the Clinton administration, the former president apologized for U.S. involvement and aid in the Guatemalan civil war and recognized the irreparable damage to the Guatemalan and Mayan people. The UN also investigated human rights violations during this period of genocide and civil war; concluding a large percentage of crimes were committed by the state, and a shockingly high percentage were against the Mayan people alone.

Though the trial has been moving forward, Montt, 86, and Sanchez have many weeks of testimony and trial days ahead of them and must wait to hear their fate on the charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Spring Trip: Happening Now!

Small Spring Trip GroupFor participants of the 2013 Spring Trip, Guatemala is now a reality. On April 6th, they departed on the culminating experience of all the learning, volunteering and fundraising that they have been a part of for the past months.

I know how excited and anxious I would be if I were going to Guatemala, but to get some insight into how the participants feel, I checked back in with Fiona Carlile (see Spring Trip is Right Around the Corner) to see how she felt just before embarking on her trip.

Q: As the trip gets closer, what are you excited about?  Anything new?

Fiona: I’m still excited about the same things, but everything just feels more real now.  I’m excited to build relationships with everyone involved in the trip.

Q: Again, as the trips draws near, what are you nervous about?

Fiona: I don’t want to look so American.  I want to work alongside the people there and not just fix things.

Q: How have you grown and developed personally over the span of the program so far?

Fiona: My views have definitely changed.  Originally I thought we were going to just help the people in Guatemala but now I know that we are there to work with them.  I also have a lot more confidence in myself.

Q: Have you made any lasting personal changes because of the program?

Fiona: I feel like the way that I view other people has changed.  I used to judge other people, but now I make sure that I don’t because no one deserves to be judged.

It’s incredible to see just how much can change in a person can be seen in such a short amount of time.  I know I’m excited to see how the work and learning that will happen in Guatemala will continue to shape these incredible youth, and I’m sure you are as well. We will be checking in with our participants during the trip and for a follow up after, so don’t forget to come back for the next Spring Trip installment on the GV Blog! Find us on Facebook and look for photos soon!

Spring Trip is Right Around the Corner

Spring Trip Group
The Spring Trip participants pose for a group shot at their recent retreat at Camp Sealth.

Global Visionaries’ Spring Trip is coming up soon; April 6th to the 19th to be exact!  This trip is another way that GV accomplishes its mission of empowering future leaders through service and cultural learning.  It offers activities such as coffee farm work, construction building classrooms, working at a local hospital, and Spanish language class.  In order to fully immerse themselves in the culture, the participants will be living with local families, working alongside Guatemalan youth that are a part of GV Guatemala, and hopefully see some historical landmarks.

But this is GV, right?  So, enough about the details and let’s hear from one of our participants: one of today’s global leaders.  I asked participant Fiona Carlile who attends West Seattle High School to share with me some of her thoughts as she prepares to leave for Guatemala.

Q: What are you most excited about for the trip?

Fiona: I’m excited to build relationships with the people at the hospital and with the other people on my work team.  I want to bond with the people there even if I can’t speak Spanish.

Q: What are you nervous about?

Fiona: I’m nervous about the fact that I can’t speak Spanish.  I’m nervous I won’t be able to communicate with my host family and build relationships.

Q: How has the experience been so far?

Fiona: It’s been really good! I’m amazed I’ve really gotten to know everyone on the team and in the GV Family.  I feel a lot better about the trip now that I know everyone.

Small Spring Trip Group
Fiona, first on the left, and her fellow Spring Trip participants prepare for their experience in Guatemala.

There’s one look at what’s racing through a participant’s mind as they prepare to go on the culminating trip to Guatemala.  The changes that have already begun to take form in these young leaders and the things they have learned so far are about to be put to the test during the Spring Trip to Guatemala, and most of them cannot wait.  Let’s continue to support them in their endeavor as the trip gets closer and closer! We are planning on keeping you up to date with the participants while they’re in Guatemala so be sure to visit and bookmark the GV blog or like the GV Facebook page.

The Spirit of Love, Friendship and Caring


Valentine’s Day in the US; Dia del Cariño in Guatemala

By Kate Barber


It’s that time of year again. Children are passing out cards and candy to classmates, couples enjoy  romantic dinners for two, the flower shops are sold out and there’s red, pink and white hearts everywhere you look. It must be Valentine’s Day!

Everyone knows about this beloved holiday, but where exactly does it come from? How is it celebrated in other countries – like Guatemala? To find out the answers to these questions, read on!


stvalentine4The history of Valentine’s Day is still shrouded in mystery. However, many believe its roots lie in ancient Roman and Christian traditions.

In ancient Rome, the pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia was celebrated in mid-February. By the end of the fifth century, Christian leaders overshadowed this festival and Pope Gelasius declared February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day to commemorate the day St. Valentine was martyred.

One of the most popular legends contends that Valentine was a priest who lived in Rome during the third century. When Emperor Cladius II determined that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages of young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Cladius ordered that Valentine be put to death.

Another popular legend surrounding Saint Valentine involves his imprisonment. Valentine is said to have sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is believed that Valentine wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression still used today.


Countries and people around the world have adopted Valentine’s Day and it is seen as a time to celebrate love and friendship. In the United States, Valentine’s Day is one of the most celebrated holidays of the year where romantic gestures are rampant and countless men and woman display affections to their sweethearts.

For many people in the U.S. and around the world, Valentine’s Day is about spending time with the ones you love and showing them that you care about them. This is especially true in Guatemala.

Guatemala has a very similar holiday to the Valentine’s Day celebrated in the U.S. known as “Dia del Amor y de la Amistad” (Day of Love and Friendship) or “Dia del Cariño” (Caring Day).

“As my 3rd grade teacher told me, ‘Dia del Cariño’ is a celebration of the ‘spirit of love’ that extends beyond a boyfriend or girlfriend,” said GV Program Outreach Manager, Mario Flores. “For some in Guatemala, it’s an occasion to get together with family members and exchange presents, although this isn’t as important as giving a hug and sharing your love. It’s a time to tell everyone in your life how much care for them.”

Like traditions found in the United States, Guatemalan school children partake in exchanging cards and gifts to fellow students to celebrate the holiday. In Guatemala, children are assigned a secret friend to give a card and a small gift to. Schools in Guatemala also hold festivities to celebrate the holiday, which can include plays, poems and songs preformed by the students as well as treats such as cake, candy and a piñata.

Of course, Dia del Cariño also has very strong ties to romance celebrated through similar traditions that we observe in the U.S. According to Mario, the tradition in Guatemala is to give roses to your girlfriend, go out to dinner and exchange gifts such as jewelry or clothes.  Despite the gifts, many Guatemalan couples insist that the most important part of the holiday is simply showing that special someone in your life how much you care for them.



roseWith cards, pink plush teddy bears, heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, bouquets of a dozen roses, jewelry and countless other gifts purchased for Valentine’s Day, many in America see the holiday as purely commercial and only celebrated by those in relationships. In the words of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) in the film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “[Valentine’s Day] is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.”

Despite the commercialism, for many people in the U.S. and around the world, February 14 is really about spending time with the ones you love and showing them how much you care; regardless of whether you’re single, in a relationship, married, or have a growing family.


In the spirit of the holiday, we at Global Visionaries would like to announce to the GV community that our executive director, Chris Fontana is expecting a new addition to his own family this Valentine’s Day. The staff and volunteers of Global Visionaries would like to wish Chris and Lisa  our most heartfelt congratulations. Send us your notes by replying to this post and we’ll make sure to pass them on!

Samrawit Zeinu — a Global Leader — Thanks You

Dear friends,

I am so inspired by the words of Samrawit Zeinu, a senior at Chief Sealth International High School, who has grown through Global Visionaries for three years.

I am asking you to read about her GV experience in her own words and then partner with us to empower another young leader like Samrawit today by making a gift – whether it is $10 or $100 – to empower a young person today.

Samrawit ZeinuThrough the hospital volunteer work I did, I learned that material wealth is not important.  It is who I am and what my beliefs are that are important.  Before GV, I didn’t have confidence. When I faced problems, I kept to myself.  After GV, not only did I have more confidence in myself but I am also more assertive. I am more open to feedback and I am able to speak about how I feel.  I learned that the way issues turn out depend on my reactions to them.  That made me want to change how I reacted to things.

GV changed my outlook on the world – how I perceive things should be. It hit me at my core.

It has been three years since I completed the [First Year GV Leadership Program] but the values I learned are still strong inside of me. If I catch myself complaining, I remember my brothers and sisters in Ethiopia and my friends in Guatemala don’t have enough.  I now hold myself accountable. Before when I thought about home, Ethiopia, I thought of my family. Now, when I think of my country, I think of its problems on a global scale. As a matter of fact, I think about countries all around the world. GV has made me want to contribute to the country that has made me the person I am. I intend to become a cardiovascular surgeon with Doctors Without Borders. I want to give those countries the voice they deserve.

Global Visionaries, much more than just another cultural immersion program, provides the educational and leadership platform enabling youth to develop the necessary skills to change their own habits and to transform their local and global communities through social entrepreneurship. Please give online now or mail a check to:

Global Visionaries
2524 16th Ave. S., Seattle, WA 98144

I am so grateful for your continued support. I wish you and your family a joyful 2013.

p.s. you can also see Samrawit’s full speech on video

Thank you,

Christopher Fontana, Executive Director
Global Visionaries

Sights, sounds, tastes and heart: Christmas in Guatemala, Christmas in the US

by Kenna Stout


What do you get when you mix long, furry, green feet, anti-Christmas cheer and the ability to slither down chimneys?  A Grinch of a Christmas course! But not to worry, this is no ba-humbug article.  With many ho-ho-ho’s and some jingles along the way, only images of tinsel-trimmed trees, reindeer and sugar plum fairies will be left dancing in your head. And maybe a strange craving for a tamale, too.

When asked to write a little bit about Christmas traditions in Guatemala and the United States, I turned to blogosphere and the lovely Global Visionaries staff to unearth traditions found in Guatemala and in their own families.   Many thanks to Mario Flores, program outreach manager, who opened my eye to Christmas celebrations in Guatemala City.  And special thanks to Billy Lopez, assistant program manager, for sharing his family’s chuchitos (Guatemalan tamale) recipe, give it a shot!

While US Christmas shoppers are bombarded with images of Santa Claus and snowflakes, and carolers can be heard fala-lalala-lala-ing throughout the season; Christmas in Guatemala comes to life with the sight of colorful nacimientos, the sounds of fireworks, merengue and salsa, and the smells of pine, ponche and chuchitos.


Though, of course, at the heart of it all, are the children, whose excitement and joy are palpable in the weeks, days and hours leading up to Christmas. Despite the visible differences between how Christmas is celebrated – or ritualized in the traditions we keep – the essence of this holiday lies in our families, friends, communities and how said traditions strengthen the bonds of love between us.


Vintage SantaSanta Claus’s button nose and his sleigh full of toys is not a focal point for Guatemalan children.  Though this global icon can be found in many a window at department and toy stores, Mario points out that you won’t find very many fireplaces in Guatemala. Still, Santa’s true magic is not lost in the hearts of children.  On one night every year, anticipation runs rampant on a global scale, no matter how poor, rich, small or tall, children feel Christmas magic uniting them as a human community.  In Guatemala, children get to stay up all night on Christmas eve because at the stroke of midnight, they receive and unwrap the presents bestowed on them by parents, relatives and friends.  Guatemalan children give thanks to their parents and relatives for all the gifts and memories received and Santa’s antics in the chimney are left forgotten.  Still, Guatemala has its own unique images that add to the spirit of Christmas.


You may hear, “did you see, so-and-so’s nacimientos?”  Many churches, neighborhoods, and families create or sponsor elaborate nativity scenes called nacimientos to commemorate Mary, Joseph and the birth of Jesus.  These scale models depicting the manger scene can fill rooms and draw crowds of family, friends and nacimientos lovers alike.  Check out some examples of nacimientos and consider: do gingerbread house competitions seem dull in comparison? As opposed to the traditional US custom of “keeping up with the Joneses'” by lighting and decorating the outside of one’s house, nacimientos fill the inside of buildings with light and color.  Brightly colored sawdust in green, red and yellow line the ground of displays, neatly laid in rows and patterns representing the land and fields.  Though no prize is involved, great pride, planning and personalization go into their creation; they are like the frosting on any cake!

For days leading up to Christmas, las posadas, or parades re-enacting Mary and Joseph’s search for a safe haven, happen nightly.  As the processions wind through the streets, the drumming of a turtle shell is faintly heard as it brings up the rear.  Each night, Mary and Joseph get turned away from houses until they find refuge at a previously designated house.  Once they are safe, the participants and observers erupt in celebrations filled with hugs, candy, ponche, cookies or tamales and more.


Nothing tops the smell and sounds of firecrackers and fireworks that ring in (your ears) the holiday season.  On Christmas eve, to commemorate the birth of Jesus, fireworks are lit at six-hour intervals starting at noon, 6pm, midnight and noon again on Christmas day.  Other festivities include a church mass from 9pm to midnight and neighborhood or family parties that last all night long.


tamales1Food bonds us through taste, texture, smell, heart and history. Guatemalan tamales and American apple pies can be strong and delicious representations of a family’s past.  As they fill our bellies, they remind us to look to a future filled with love, joy and togetherness with our loved ones. No matter the country, common themes, like ingredients, flow through all of our traditions.  Like the sweet tamale and apple pie, cinnamon and love are ingredients that can be found around every corner during Christmas.

The history of the “tamal”, pre-dates Spanish conquistadors, going back to Mayan culture and beyond. Though the exact origin of the tamale is unknown, the significance it has for many families is connected to stories of migration, labor and family bonds.  Thousands of years ago, they fed armies and cities. Nowadays, they are a great lunch time snack that can be bought outside many offices in Guatemala City. Tamales are portable; they can be re- steamed, grilled or eaten cold.  Tamales carry sustenance bursting with flavor and can be altered to appease everyone’s taste buds. To be sure, tamales have a special place in the hearts of those who have ever eaten one.

tamales4Guatemalan tamales are essentially two parts: masa (corn flour) and filling, and wrapped in banana, plantain or another leaf of choice, then steamed to perfection. The dough, or masa, can be the trickiest part of the tamale to get right. The masa needs to be mixed with water or stock and fat (like butter or margarine) before it can be filled with any number of things. Typically though, the filling is made with meats such as chicken and pork, fruits such as raisins and pineapple or vegetables with chilies, cheese, or beans & finished with a sauce (red, green or mole). Yum!

And Christmas tamales are possibly the most important tamale of them all. Some will say Christmas just isn’t complete without one!  Making them before Christmas is part of the ongoing party that is the holiday season.  Moms, aunts, sisters and grandmothers spend days cooking, shaping, steaming and laughing, all in the name of the Christmas tamale. There is a saying that you can never cook tamales angry or they will just never cook! True or not, assembling tamales is best done with loved ones, while laughing, singing and having fun. Tamales are usually made for festive occasions, so the making of tamales must be kept festive too.

Now the last thing to remember about tamales is how to eat them.  Don’t be greedy!  Try them one at a time, even if they are the same kind.  Tamales are for sharing, they are for loving and they are always going to be around as long as families have loved ones to share the secrets and laughter with.


Christian missionaries may have brought the religious teachings behind why we celebrate Christmas and Germans may have lent us their tannenbaums; but however the traditions were brought to each of us, it is the gathering of family and friends that keeps our holiday traditions alive and in turn, each tradition we share helps to keep our families close.

In both, or should I say, all countries, children are at the heart of Christmas.  Children embody the spirit of Christmas to the fullest.  The worries of moms and dads, who are busy making sure the food is prepared and decorations are perfect, are washed away by the wonder and awe that so often captivate the hearts and imaginations of their children.

From Guatemala to the US to Zambia, every family’s recipe for how to celebrate a perfect Christmas is different. Whether you make apple or pumpkin pies, pork tamales or chuchitos; traditions are how our family secrets get passed down from generation to generation.  It is in the unique ingredients of our own recipes for a perfect Christmas that inform our traditions and keep them alive for years to come.

I think Mario Flores, GV’s program outreach manager, puts it best when he said Christmas is a “playful time you enjoy yourself, family, and community”, it is the sense of “feeling really welcome” not because people don’t welcome you on other days, but that “that day is [just] more special” and in Guatemala Christmas is especially magical.