Lessons from Guatemala
Tanya Santiago ’14 and Amy Flores ’15 may not remember how they came to lead a trip of 10 Grinnellians to Guatemala — “I think we just sent the first email,” says Flores — but they will certainly remember all they learned there.
Lesson One: Find Where You Belong
Santiago, a Spanish/economics double major from Pomona, Calif., liked the campus feel when she visited Grinnell as a prospective student, including the fact that she saw more diversity than at other schools she visited.
She joined the Student Organization of Latin@s (SOL) — a group that educates the campus community about the Latino community in the United States — towards the end of her first year. She has become progressively more involved, and this year she is a co-leader.
Flores, a math major from Rockville, Md., heard about both Grinnell and SOL through Posse Scholars, a renowned college access and youth leadership development program. She loved SOL’s members and the space and eventually became the group’s secretary.
Lesson Two: Be Prepared to Lead
Flores and Santiago spearheaded the trip to help students travel beyond America’s borders to truly understand many of the issues facing Latino communities in this country.
Santiago reached out to SOL alumna Jenny Dale ’06, who enthusiastically arranged for them to work with the grassroots organization Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) to plan a 10-day trip to the country. The group also recruited the help of a staff sponsor, Residence Life Coordinator Gabriel Barela, and secured College funding.
The nine students selected to travel, Santiago says, were a very diverse group. Some were fluent in Spanish, others not. Many, but not all, had taken Latin American studies courses. Most were first generation Americans; some weren't. Not everyone was Latino. In addition to a few second-years who haven’t decided yet, the students major or intend to major in economics, political science, Spanish, chemistry, music, environmental science, biology, sociology, math, psychology, education, and art.
Lesson Three: Learn From Those Who Live It
Image by Cassandra Miller ’16
The students immediately began learning about the country from Guatemalans. They met with activists who reclaim public spaces with art. With academic experts. With artisans and small-business owners. They traveled from urban centers to rural areas. The Guatemalans, they say, openly shared their experiences and frustrations. Each night the students and Barela reflected on what they’d learned, posting to a daily blog when they had Internet access.
Each student took away something different. Santiago says the trip left her feeling “very empowered.” The trip gave her a different lens for viewing the economic, social, and legal structure behind Guatemala’s society, saying it helped her connect the products and things she buys back to the people who created them.
Flores says that now they “know people from the community. They hosted us and were very honest about their struggles, but still had a lot of pride and hope.” On a more personal level, she says, it was the art that meant the most. Her fall semester, studying abroad in Budapest, was “very science-related,” she says. “By the end, I felt my passion for art was dead. In Guatemala, I found out how amazing and powerful it could be.”
Lesson Four: Bring it Back Home
This semester, the students created an action committee called Grinnell Latin American Solidarity Society (GLASS). They are planning several events and programs to share what they’ve learned, including:
- Supporting an artists’ workshop and taking part in a graphic arts competition.
- Curating and sharing images, photos, videos, and blogs from their trip.
- Publishing written works and photos from the trip in a book.
- Hosting a workshop to help students understand the economic, legal, and social aspects of fair trade.
The group is also exploring ways to work with the Guatemalans they met on their trip, including:
- Creating a SOL coffee blend for sale — similar to the Grinnell blend at the Spencer Grill — working through direct fair trade with an organic farm they visited on their travels.
- Ordering SOL graduation stoles through a weaving collective that hosted them.
“We're trying to wake people up in what we do. Not all of us are radical…[but] with this group we want to take it to another level and do something tangible,” says Flores.