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Defining Culture at the Starfish Impact School

María Elena in Kaqchikel class; Photo by Mary O’Connor

What do you think of when you hear the word “culture”? Your mind may have just drifted to the food, language, or clothing of a particular group of people. Celebrating indigenous Mayan culture is a very important aspect of the Starfish Impact School. The school is designed to provide young women with a high-quality education in a space that encourages authentic and profound connection to the values of Mayan culture. We define culture more broadly than just the beautiful traje (traditional dress) worn by indigenous peoples or native languages such as Kaqchikel.

Vilma Saloj, Director of the Impact School, explained, “Culture is not just dress and language. It is having a much deeper connection with values and principles that might not be visual. It is each person’s individual experience. I can change my dress, I can learn to speak more languages, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve lost my indigenous values and identity.”

7th-grader Yesenia Melisa added that she lives out her Mayan identity “through respecting the elderly and greeting them, appreciating corn because it is sacred and our daily food, and respecting nature by not contaminating it because harmony should exist [between indigenous peoples and the land].”


Indigenous Communities in Guatemala 

Home to nearly 15.5 million people, Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America. Of these 15.5 million people, at least 40% are indigenous. The majority of these peoples are Mayan and speak 21 languages, including Kaqchikel, K’iche, Tz’utujil, and Mam. In addition to the many unique Mayan languages, traje is uniquely designed and serves as an outward indicator that differentiates one group from another.

Photo by Livvy Runyon

Celebrating Mayan Identity at Starfish
Indigenous peoples in Guatemala are the subject of discrimination throughout the country and are disproportionately affected by the country’s high rates of poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy. Investing in young women is a powerful force in changing this narrative.

Girl Pioneers learn that being a strong leader does not mean leaving their ethnic identity behind. They proudly identify as Mayan women, preserving their cultural values and working hard to show that indigenous women are capable of much more than society may expect from them.

Girl Pioneer Siona shared, “I am proud to be part of the Mayan culture and demonstrate that as indigenous women, we can be great leaders in our community or any other environment.”

Olga Aracely in Kaqchikel class; Photo by Yihemba Yikona

8th-grader Griselda emphasized, “I live out indigenous values and principles by respecting them and not being embarrassed by my culture. I am proud of it and remember that we are capable of everything so that no one can put us down for the simple fact of being indigenous.”

At the Impact School, we respect and promote indigenous culture in several tangible ways. Unlike at many schools in Guatemala, Girl Pioneers are not required to wear uniforms each day, allowing them to wear their traje. Most classes are taught in Spanish to ensure that young women are prepared for the workforce; however, communication with parents is always conducted in Kaqchikel and we offer Kaqchikel class. In Kaqchikel class, Girl Pioneers not only learn grammar, but also represent cultural principles and customs in an interactive way that allows for deeper identification and understanding. In addition, each girl knows her nahual, a birth sign that is part of the Mayan cosmovision, and is encouraged to identify with it especially as it relates to connecting with nature and feelings of gratitude.

Ultimately, promoting unique aspects of the Mayan culture while also focusing on academics and socioemotional health allows Girl Pioneers to maintain a healthy connection to their community and identity. There is much inspiration to be found in the way that these young women are creating change in their families, communities, and country, while preserving the cultural and ethnic diversity that makes communities around the world so special.

An art project featuring imagery representative of the Mayan identity; Photo by Yihemba Yikona

Posted on August 7, 2018 in Our Impact, Starfish Impact School

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