Hello from Guatemala!
I have been here for two weeks acquainting myself with the country in anticipation of working with a Maritime Canadian-Guatemalan solidarity network called Breaking the Silence. I am currently in the highlands of Guatemala amongst beautiful mountains and forests in a city named Xela in order to learn Spanish, a necessary tool for engaging in solidarity work.
2019 has been declared the year of Indigenous languages by the United Nations, an initiative meant to bring attention to the fact that Indigenous languages and their value are being lost at an alarming rate. Although Spanish is considered a vital language in Guatemala, this has not always been the case because it is a language brought to the land though colonization.
In Guatemala, there are 23 Indigenous languages spoken. Today, these languages and the rich cultures they hold are threatened by many complicated forces, including colonization, residual discrimination, and the recent genocide of the 1980s. These forces culminate in the fact that Spanish is the predominant language in Guatemala, spoken by 93% of the population. The people on the land that I am visiting in the department of Quetzaltenango predominantly speak the Myan languages of Mam and Kʼicheʼ. Although both of these languages have a half a million and 2.6 million speakers respectively, other Indigenous languages have significantly less speakers.
It is important for me to spend time learning Spanish in order to participate in solidarity work, however, it is also important to recognize the processes by which Spanish has become the common language spoken on this territory. In Xela there are countless Spanish schools, making it a popular place for vacationers to come and learn Spanish during their time off. However, the school I am attending is known for teaching Spanish consciously paired with education about the social context of Guatemala. As a result, there are many other students learning Spanish in order to connect with people in meaningful ways in their own communities. For example, I have met nurses who work in the United States and want to offer better care to their patients and social activists who want to improve language justice in their communities.
Knowing Spanish is necessary in order to build relationships here in Guatemala and to work effectively in solidarity with communities through Breaking the Silence (BTS). As a solidarity network, BTS supports the organization of Guatemalans who fight for social change. This support can come in many different ways and occurs in both Guatemala and in Canada. One of these supports will include my time working with a Guatemalan organization to help support their work in the new year. At the heart of BTS’s mission is the fact that injustices experienced here are connected to the systemic inequalities both created and experienced at home in Canada. BTS is concerned with issues such as inequity and justice, land rights, and gender equality. These issues affect not only Guatemalans, but also Canadians.
I am excited to continue my learning here not only Spanish but of the struggle and beauty of life here in Guatemala! And perhaps to continue learning some Mam and K’iche’- depending on where I travel!