Returning the Notebook

Jorge telling his story to GEF friends.

Jorge telling his story to GEF friends.

We enjoyed hosting Jorge Chojolán in Boulder last week during the Conference on World Affairs. Jorge participated in three panels including a session about the influence of foreign aid on the cycle of poverty and the importance of women’s participation in addressing world poverty. Jorge also had the chance to share his story about how the Miguel Angel Asturias Academy began.  

It all started with a notebook…

Jorge Chojolán grew up in a poor indigenous Mayan Quiché family and, like many indigenous people, Jorge has experienced discrimination throughout his life. His parents decided not to teach him his mother tongue - Quiché - because they were worried he would have a noticeable accent later when speaking Spanish and would therefore face discrimination. Nonetheless his last names indicated he came from indigenous background and influenced how others viewed him.

While many indigenous students drop out of school at an early age to work and earn money for their family, Jorge’s mother insisted he continue his education. Jorge was a determined student and earned high grades. He went on to finish high school and eventually university. In his final years of high school and in the beginning of university he became a student leader and activist.

When Jorge was around 13-14 years old and in middle school, he was given a mathematics assignment to work on over Easter holidays. To do the homework, he needed a notebook, which he did not have. Jorge waited to ask his father for the money to buy the notebook for several hours. His father, who suffered from alcoholism, finally came home with food for the family’s dinner but when asked for money, he said there was no money for the notebook. Jorge recalled that he was very upset with his father and insisted his father buy the notebook for him. Jorge’s father became angry and took a chair and hit Jorge on his back with it, breaking the chair. Jorge left the house and sat outside crying. A stranger passed by and asked him what was wrong. Jorge told the man that he was upset because he did not have enough money to buy a notebook to complete his homework assignment. The man said he would take him to buy a notebook at the nearby corner store.

Filled with pride, Jorge asked the man for his name and address so that he could return the money for the notebook, which cost less than one cent at that time. The man said, “you do not need to return it to me. You only need to give the notebook to someone else who needs it in the future when you are able to do so.” This small incident became a life-changing question for Jorge for years to come, “How would he return the notebook to someone else who needed it?” It was the first of two incidents that were the critical seeds in the establishment of the Miguel Angel Asturias Academy.

Jorge became very active as a student leader in high school, advocating for better conditions such as ensuring desks in schools. However, during this period, the war had already started within Guatemala and anyone involved in such activities were seen as fomenting trouble and were viewed by the government as ‘communists’. Many student activists’ lives were threatened and many were killed, including two friends and fellow leaders of their student association. Shortly after this, a note written in blood telling Jorge to leave the country or be killed appeared at his house. His father told Jorge that he had to leave the country and gave him around 200 Quetzales. He first arrived in Puerto Madero, Mexico and spent the first week sleeping on the beach and living on one meal a day. The woman who was feeding him encouraged Jorge to go with her son to Mexico City to find work. They traveled on La Bestia (the Beast) train - the now infamous train that carries immigrants from the south to the north of Mexico. Once in Mexico City, Jorge started working for a street theater that presented a critique of the Spanish invasion in the Zócalo or main plaza. Jorge was the person who “passed the hat” to collect money from the audience.

One day, a professor from the National University spoke to Jorge and upon learning about his exile from Guatemala, asked him whether he would want to clean his office to earn money. Jorge arrived at the professor’s office and saw dozens and dozens of books and newspapers - including those that had information about Guatemala. After cleaning the offices, Jorge would sit down and read the books and newspapers. It was during these moments that Jorge began to really learn and understand the situation and history of Guatemala. How was it that he was finally learning so much about his country, outside of his country. These were things he had never been taught in school.

One day Jorge spotted the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paolo Freire, a well-known Brazilian educator. It caught his eye because of the word pedagogy - before his exile Jorge had been studying at university to become a teacher. He assumed it would be a book to help him know how to teach. However, the book was very difficult and complicated to understand. Still, he kept reading it and rereading it until he understood the essence of what it meant. Paolo Freire argues for education to be based on learners understanding their reality, reflecting critically on it and then acting on that learning and understanding. This meant learners were no longer passive recipients of information to memorize but were co-creators of knowledge. Once he understood what the book was saying, Jorge knew this was part of the solution to how he could repay that notebook given to him long ago.

After a year in Mexico, Jorge returned to Guatemala where he continued his education and eventually started working as an educator - initially in the field of adult literacy. He had to move around a lot in the first years to keep safe. But after several years, Jorge was finally able to start his dream of a school that would not only give access to education to poor students in Guatemala, but would ensure students understood the reality around them, and had the space to critique it without having to leave their country like he did.

Jorge has returned the notebook over and over again, and for the last 21 years, Jorge and his wife, who co-founded the Miguel Asturias Academy, have worked hard to ensure that children from poor conditions have an opportunity to attend school and receive a quality education. 

The Miguel Angel Asturias Academy was established in 1996, soon after the Guatemalan Peace Accords were signed.  It started with 40 students and the initial first three years of primary classes, and now the school offers K-12 education and has over 250 students.  Jorge is particularly proud that the Asturias Academy has the only  open access library in Guatemala. This means students are able to go into the library and choose books on their own, without a librarian guarding the books behind locked doors.The Academy also has a vocational and entrepreneurship program with woodworking, welding, electricity, sewing and cooking classes, for both boys and girls.

The specially designed curriculum uses monthly themes that are selected by teachers, parents and students.  During the month, the selected theme, such as racism, gender, democracy, the environment, or corruption, is applied across all regular state curriculum topics (mathematics, language, history, music, etc) that are required by the government.  All students - ages 5-18 - at the Miguel Angel Asturias Academy engage actively in the monthly themes.

Jorge’s dream is to replicate his school in each of the 22 Departments (states) of Guatemala. He hopes to begin to realize that dream with a new program/school in Sololá starting in 2017.

The Academy’s main challenge is securing financing for the school’s operations on an annual basis as they receive no support from the government. Around 35% of the school’s budget comes from fees paid by students even though many students are on a scholarship. The remaining 65-70% of the the budget comes from a range of donations from individuals and international organizations like Global Education Fund.

Jorge stressed during his visit that the Academy’s success is not its own -- it is shared with all those who have supported the school over the years.  Given the intent to start other schools, Jorge wanted to first ensure the current school’s sustainably. To do this he has established an endowment for the school using funds from an award he received and also through creating a new ‘edutourism’ initiative in which international groups of students/adults come and stay for 1-2 weeks.  During the visit, they learn about the school, engage in volunteer activities, and learn about Guatemala.  The trip costs money, but once costs are covered the rest goes towards the school’s endowment fund.  Jorge hopes the edutourism will grow in coming years.

We at Global Education Fund learned so much during Jorge’s visit to Boulder and are excited by the momentum that Jorge and his team have in Guatemala. We are proud to support grassroots initiatives like the Asturias Academy. By supporting programs at the community level, we are able to reach some of the most marginalized students.

Jorge also shared that he really valued his time in Colorado and at the Conference on World Affairs. He made many valuable connections and has invited anyone that would like to come to Guatemala to visit, volunteer, know the students and meet the families. Finally, we would like to extend our deepest appreciation to GEF Board Member, Liz Litkowski for hosting Jorge during his visit and for spearheading the effort to bring him here. We would also like to thank Nicolas Cabrera-Schneider who provided invaluable translation during the week.

You can listen to Jorge's panels here:

Impacto de los Extranjeros en el Ciclo de la Pobreza

La Participación de la Mujer para Cambiar el Balance de la Pobreza Mundial

How Education Improves the Future of Children in Guatemala

To listen to all of the Conference on World Affairs panels, click here.