The Miami Herald
Sun, Feb. 22, 2004

Kids helped to carry on Maya way

An after-school program in Palm Beach County provides Guatemalan Maya children a way to get an American education while learning about their cultural heritage.


  Evelin dips and swirls, her bare feet finding the rhythm set hundreds of years ago by her Maya ancestors in Guatemala.

  When the last note of marimba music ends, she and three other girls from Escuelita Maya will shed the full skirts and colorful blouses of their parents' generation and pull on their own uniform of blue jeans and a polo shirt.

  But for now, tradition wins. They follow the ancient ritual of the harvest dance, each step a living piece of history. For Evelin and the others, all children of immigrants, life in South Florida is a seesaw between old world and new.

  ''Our parents came here to find freedom, but they don't want us to forget our culture,'' 10-year-old Evelin explained. "They want us to know the dances and the art and the language that they know.''

  Escuelita Maya, an after-school program in Palm Beach County, offers Evelin and about 135 other Guatemalan Maya children a way to strike a balance between ethnic identity and American assimilation. The students study reading, writing and the value of their Maya heritage. Escuelita Maya, or ''little Maya school,'' is part academics, part cultural training.

  'I tell them, 'You have a lot to be proud of. You're part of an ancient culture. Never forget that,' ''said after-school director Zoila Jimenez-Xuncax. ``We teach that you can be Maya and still live in the United States.''


  In a land that embraces Britney Spears and PlayStation 2 as the height of cool, Escuelita Maya teaches children about the Maya way of doing things: Maya folk dance, Maya art and culture, Maya music on the marimba -- a sort of wooden xylophone -- and the Maya number system, a series of dots and bars.

  Homework is important, but so is the tradition of storytelling. Here, it comes in at least three versions: English, Spanish and Q'anjobal, one of at least 21 Maya Indian
  languages. Many of the children's families speak Q'anjobal at home.

  Today, it's the story of the coyote and the hen. Javier Del Sol, a storyteller who comes to the class once a week, begins by reading the story in English, then in Spanish.
  Jimenez-Xuncax reads it in Q'anjobal.

  ''How many understood in English?'' Del Sol asks. All the hands go up.

  ''How many understood it in Spanish?'' he says. Another good response.

  "What about in Q'anjobal? Who understood most of the words in Q'anjobal?''

  He looks around the room. About half the children raise their hands.

  ''For those who didn't, that's why we're here,'' he says, proceeding to teach them the Q'anjobal words for tree -- te' -- and hen -- cax'lan, pronounced ``cashlan.''


  The program, started in 1995, has been so successful that both locations, in Lake Worth and Boynton Beach, are always full. Waiting lists for the 60 or 70 slots at each
  location are at least 60 children long.

  It's open to children between 5 and 12 years old. The children are picked up in a yellow school bus at their elementary schools and driven to the after-school program in classrooms at area schools. At 6 p.m., they are driven home again, dropped at their front doors.

  The fee is low. Parents pay $15 a month per family as a donation to help pay for cleaning. The children are given homework help, cultural teaching, exercise, even a snack; and during the summer, the program is extended to all day. Established through the nonprofit Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth, the after-school program is mostly financed by the Children's Services Council of Palm Beach County.

  ''My mother wants me to be here so I can learn to dance -- and also because there's no one at home who can help me with my homework,'' said Heidy, a 10-year-old whose parents speak the Maya language Mam at home. ``Here, I get my homework done and we do Maya projects.''

  Andres Domingo, who has two daughters in the program and also works there, said parents are grateful to find an affordable and safe place for their children that also respects the Maya tradition.

  ''We like it that the children get such good care, but also that they can understand more the culture they come from,'' he said.


  The Guatemalan Maya population of South Florida, which first took root in the early 1980s, is largely unmeasured. Though the 2000 Census estimated that as many as 28,000 Guatemalans live in the state, the figure fails to distinguish Maya from non-Maya. Additionally, Guatemalan Maya sometimes claim another ethnicity -- often Mexican -- to avoid detection by immigration authorities or to stay under the radar for other reasons.

  ''We are not Spanish,'' says Miguel Angel Chiquin Yat, executive director of the Lake Worth-based Organization of Maya People in Exile. ``We were there before the Spanish. We speak our own languages, and we have our own culture. We are indigenous peoples.''

  Most of the children's parents came to the United States from Guatemala's jagged highlands for one of two reasons: economic hardship or civil war. The war raged for 36 years, with an estimated 200,000 deaths or disappearances. Entire Maya villages were wiped out before the peace accords in 1996.

  Thousands fled towns like Huehuetenango and San Miguel de Acatan to begin new lives in South Florida's agricultural community. They often followed a ''chain migration'' pattern, with family members and residents of villages following each other to Florida, according to Florida Atlantic University associate professor Timothy Steigenga, who is studying the Guatemalan migrant population.

  Many settled in the Palm Beach County cities of Indiantown and Lake Worth, some further south in Homestead. Their challenge was simply to survive.

  Now their children face a struggle of their own, between blending in and holding on. The question for them: how to embrace the opportunities of the United States while maintaining their Maya identity.

  ''If the price of admission is that they cease to be Maya, it's too high,'' said the Rev. Frank O'Loughlin, a Roman Catholic priest and the driving force behind Escuelita Maya. "We want to preserve their values, their way of doing things, their identity, which is precious.''


  The Maya community in South Florida found itself under scrutiny unexpectedly in 2002 when a 16-year-old Maya girl, who spoke only Q'anjobal, was charged with murdering her newborn child in the Lake Worth apartment she shared with her two brothers and friends. She was alone when she gave birth.

  ''We were totally dismayed that no one took this girl to the authorities, just totally dismayed,'' O'Loughlin said. ``It had us reexamining our entire outreach program.''

  Building cultural pride early in life may be one way to make sure that other Maya children don't feel that kind of isolation.

  ''They've been taken away from their culture, but it's still a part of them. They respect it and honor it,'' said Erica Herrera, 18, a senior at La Salle High School in Miami. A group of the students run a one-week summer camp for the children each year.

  ''We think of their history as just part of a textbook,'' she said, ``but they still speak the language and see it as something that shapes their lives.''

  For the children at Escuelita Maya -- many of whom have never seen Guatemala or barely remember it -- the country their parents call home remains an object of mystery and longing.

  'Some children ask us, `Why did you come here?' And I say I came here to get freedom, because in Guatemala we don't have much freedom,'' said Heidy, who has lived in the United States just four years. "But I remember Guatemala, and I want to go back when I grow up.''