Santa María Tzejá

An Empowering Educational History

Santa María’s story is a history of pain and death; it is, at the same time, an optimistic chronicle of a better destiny in the way that it values education as a way to freedom…because it tells how education for life was transformed into triumph in a community that has survived in the midst of an adverse and hostile universe. Education for the indigenous in Guatemala has always been seen as subversive for some and useless for others. The experience of Santa María Tzejá denies that fatalism…and sees education as an instrument of freedom and life. What happened in this unknown campesino community is unprecedented.

–Edelberto Torres Rivas, eminent Guatemalan scholar, slightly adapted from his words about the book Seeds of Freedom

Education in Santa María Tzejá was launched as part of the village founders’ escape to freedom from slavery as harvesters on the country’s vast coffee, cane and cotton plantations.  Given the opportunity to found a new village in the rainforest in 1970, they seized on it. Once there, with the help of the organizing priest, Padre Luis Gurriarán, they had to learn how to manage their own social, economic and political lives. That education in itself was emotionally satisfying for them, which naturally led them to want a similar liberating form of education for their children. For adults and children alike this meant liberation from the ignorance that had kept them dependent and unable to defend themselves. For this largely Maya population, with a small proportion of mestizos, it was also education in social integration between the historically despised Maya population and the dominant mestizos who had oppressed the indigenous.

This education for both adults and children was savagely interrupted when the Guatemalan army, representative of a corrupt and oppressive government, destroyed all the structures in the village and massacred seventeen of its inhabitants in 1982. Half of the population fled to Mexico for survival, while the rest stayed in the country and were allowed to form the core of the repopulation in the village under the oppressive boot of the army. Education for the villagers in these two settings evolved in very different ways, with far better schooling provided the refugees in Mexico than that provided by the military dictatorship ruling in Guatemala.

When the refugees returned in 1994 the original village population was reunited. With the help of allies, including our church, Santa María began an amazing journey of education in January 1995, with a completely staffed primary school and the beginning of a middle school—a rarity for a remote village in Guatemala at the time. Education and training of the teachers was provided by a very progressive agency of the Roman Catholic Church, which emphasizes the liberating empowerment of the children. The goal of this education is to prepare students to be activist citizens with a social justice orientation—another rarity for Guatemala.

A powerful feature of the middle school has been its theater program. In its first year Randall Shea, principal of the school, wrote a play in which students assumed roles of their parent generation during and after the violence that had destroyed the village.  The play had a major impact, not only in the lives of its actors, but also with everyone who saw it when it toured and when it was shown on television in other countries. A later play on gender issues had similar impact. It is important to add that the schools have been successful in educating girls and young women, thus making a major contribution to the social development of the village in a society that is highly male dominant.

When the first middle school class graduated in 1998 Randall and Padre Luis raised scholarship money for all of the class to attend high school, which involved living in boarding schools around the country.  In subsequent years this led to a constant stream of young people continuing on to high school, with more than 250 graduates (in a village population of 1300) and more than 70 pursuing university studies. As the head note above indicates, this is unprecedented among an impoverished people in rural areas. Among those engaged in university studies are all the teachers in the village schools. Beginning in 1987 they entered a three-year university diploma program in liberating education, which is offered on weekends while they continue to teach. Most of them have continued a further three years to earn a full university degree—again unprecedented for one village in impoverished rural areas of Guatemala.

Education in Santa María is distinguished in other ways, as well. Again with the help of allies, the village has a lending library and a computer center. An additional feature came with the founding of an association of students and emerging professionals, which goes by the Spanish acronym of AESMAC. The group took as one of its major goals to encourage graduates to live out their professional lives in the village or its region—or at a national level in sectors that would benefit rural areas. It also took on a goal of working for the effective economic, social and political development of rural areas.

One example of the contribution education is making in the village is through one of the most impoverished families in the village. The father in the family was so severely tortured by the army that he could do very little work in his fields, yet four of the family’s five children have become teachers in the Ixcán region where the village is located. Two of them teach in such impoverished communities that the school has no materials and no blackboard. Yet José says that while it is difficult to teach in such a place, if one has the will it can be done.

In this second decade of the twenty-first century the schools in the village are well positioned to prepare children and youth to become leaders, not only in the village, but also in its region and beyond to the national level. Santa María has a justified and growing reputation for the number and effectiveness of the professionals it is producing.