Learning, Sharing, and Growing in Guatemala: Our Family’s Cultural Interchange

Jonathan Stuart, Faculty of Workforce Education, Hennepin Technical College
2015-2016 Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Guatemala

My wife and I have wanted to return abroad since we met while teaching in Korea. Over the years, we looked into multiple avenues to give our three kids the opportunity of being in a new culture and foreign country. It all came together for us due to Fulbright and my chance to teach at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala for nine months. We couldn’t begin to imagine all the different experiences that would come our way, and as we prepare to leave we have incredible memories. This is our story of the give and take of being immersed in Guatemala.

We arrived at the end of the August, very “green” and unprepared to navigate finding housing, schooling, and transportation. Very quickly we learned that making personal connections was the only way to really figure things out.  First, we met a family who went to Intellego School. Our kids had never worn uniforms and would be taking most of their courses in Spanish, but after getting enrolled we met a teacher there who helped us find a house nearby. Within a week, our kids were already being invited to birthday parties. They joined the basketball and soccer teams, and learned to kiss and hug their teachers in the Guatemalan education style.

Over the course of the next few months, we took opportunities to engage in several cultural festivities. We learned how similar holidays we celebrate have different traditions here, but also found out about totally unique celebrations we had never heard of before. On September 15, Guatemala’s Independence Day, we watched groups of students running with torches through the streets. We were surprised that, at least in our little neighborhood where we were the only “gringos”, whole families dressed up and went door to door singing for Halloween. November 1st was Dia de los Muertos so we attended a small town’s kite festival held in the cemetery and tried “fiambre”, the traditional food Guatemalans eat that day. But probably the most unique celebration we attended was the “Burning of the Devil” on December 7th when families burn their trash along with an effigy of El Diablo.  We went to Antigua where the whole town holds a celebratory conflagration right next to the gas station!

Of course culture is much more than holidays and events, and it was through our interpersonal relationships that we probably learned the most. We hadn’t realized the extent to which Guatemala is richly diverse both in terms of the heritage of its citizens and also in the natural environment. For example, we explored coastal, jungle, mountain, and rainforest areas and could clearly see how the geography impacted the culture of the communities residing in each. We traveled with friends to several Mayan ruins including Tikal, beautiful Lake Atitlan surrounded by volcanoes, the black sand beaches of the western coast and the more tropical coconut palmed eastern coast in Livingston, an Afro-Caribbean town near Belize only accessibly by boat. Finally, we climbed one of the tallest volcanoes – Acatenango (3,976 m) and got a firsthand view of the neighboring volcano (Fuego) spouting lava.

This time has truly been amazing! It leads me to encourage potential Fulbrighters with children to look at it as both an educational and unique bonding opportunity. Having kids also gave me more opportunities to connect with our community. We know it has opened our eyes to better understand Guatemala, but also brought us closer together as a family. It has been a great learning adventure and the best part is the ongoing relationships we now have with so many people here.