Author: Robert Brenneman

Assistant Professor of Sociology at Saint Michael's College in Colchester, Vermont.

Trip to Tikal Ruins

Our trip to Tikal was a very exciting and new experience. Tikal is an ancient Mayan city in the Petén region in Northern Guatemala. Our tour guide, Marcos was excited to tell us that only 20% of the city has been excavated, meaning 80% of Tikal is still buried underground in mounds.


Temple I LL

The rainforest was one of the most wild and vivid places I have ever seen. The wildlife was unlike any I have seen in New England. Upon entering the park, we saw at least four spider monkeys climbing through the canopy, and later on we encountered many howler monkeys.

A family of spider monkeys greeted us shortly after entering the park.

A family of spider monkeys greeted us shortly after entering the park.

A larger howler monkey greets hugs a tree.

A larger howler monkey greets hugs a tree.

Later on the tour, we found out calling these “howler” monkeys is a bit of a euphemism, because their call is more like an aggressive growl than simply a howl. Seeing monkeys in Tikal is nothing like seeing them in a zoo. Here they look so human and agile, swinging seamlessly from tree to tree, holding themselves up by their tails. They could clearly see us watching them, and as they looked at us smugly from the treetops it was hard to tell who really had the evolutionary privilege.  We saw other wildlife on the tour too, including a yellow tailed bird called the Oro Pendulo, a snake, a raccoon like creature called a coatimundi (see photo below)

Coatimundi LL

woodpeckers, toucans, and even a family of silver foxes that were living in the top of Temple One.

Fox by himself LL Curious Fox Family LL Fox Family hissing LL

The tiny foxes replaced the kings of old, and in the midst of a city now embedded in rainforest this seemed a logical progression. The Jaguar Temple (Temple One) had an unbelievable sense of spirituality and ancient wisdom. Yet while you’re there, it is important to remember that these are ancient relics of a people who are still very much a part of modern Guatemalan life.

Temple 4 was built above the canopy of the rainforest, and a tall wooden staircase was built so visitors could climb to the top of it. When we got to the top, after climbing in the dense humidity, we could see the tips of the vegetation, and several other temples and pyramids poking out from the canopy.

Tikal treetops

(A temple was used for religious ceremony, while a pyramid is flat on top and was used to astronomical observation.)

Tikal was one of the most impressive places I have ever been. It has a sense of grandiose spirituality that is hard for us to grasp from our modern, secular perspective. Yet in the context of a modern Mayan world, the park feels powerfully relevant, the Maya themselves can show their incredible strength and tenacity.

Group Pik in Tikal The Good Life LL

– Leah Valletta

– Photos by Lida Lutton


Today we spent the day in the beautiful city of Antigua. The city has remained the same for centuries. The bumpy roads are made of cobblestone, from the volcanic rock and the buildings are all about the same height, one or two stories tall. The strict building rules are in order to maintain the cultural history that Antigua offers.

Cathedral Antigua MW La Merced arch MW
Our first visit was to the ruins of the convent “Our Lady of Zaragoza Church” or for short, “Capuchinas”. The convent was built in 1736 and founded by five monastic nuns from Madrid. After an earthquake in 1783 the convent was destroyed then restored years later in 1943. The ruins have become a tourist siting. There is also a museum that is inside. The views from the top of the convent were absolutely breath taking I am so happy we made the visit.


Fountain Las Capuccinas MW Doorway capuccinas MW Students in cells capuccinas MW
The second half of the day included free time. We broke up into groups and roamed around the city for several hours. This is one of my favorite things to do when we visit somewhere new, it gives us a chance to explore the area, meet the people, and be able to navigate for ourselves even if we get lost a couple of times. Tomorrow is a low key day then Friday we head to Tikal!

– Hattie Stern

– Photos by Maria Weber

More Adventures at Lake Atitlán

On Saturday we crossed lake Atitlán to San Juan where we visited the local church, coffee plantation, and textile co-op. The front of the original church has been kept preserved as the entrance while behind a new church is under construction.

San Juan church MW

The construction of the new church is solely dependent on donations and volunteers who are not paid for their work. It was the first example of how well their interdependent community is able to work together.
San Juan church build MW
(Men from the Village of San Juan donate their labor to build a new church that will replace the former structure built in the 1500’s. The facade, above, will remain. Photos by Maria Weber.)
Next we visited “La Voz” coffee plantation co-op where men and women work hard to keep their shade grown coffee organic and plentiful. The plantation land is not owned by the company, instead each employ owns a parcel of land where they work to maintain, grow, and harvest a varies of trees including coffee, avocado, and banana. This is to create about 70% of shade for the coffee beans (to taste sweet like chocolate) and in case there is a bad harvest they are able to sell other produce in the market.
(Pictures Coming Soon)
After touring the coffee plantation we visited a textile co-op. This is the only group of women who do not buy their string to make textiles. Instead they hand pick cotton, beat it down, and use a long spindle to pull the cotton into string. To die the string they use various plants, vegetables, fruits, and flowers that are hand picked and pressed in a dish. The string soaks for 4 hours and then is soaked in tree sap so that color never washed out even in a machine washer. The string is either sold in large spun balls or woven into textiles.
(Pictures Coming Soon)
— Caitlyn Colley

First Day at Lake Atitlán

After a four hour bus ride, we finally arrived at our quaint hotel in Panajachel, Hotel El Aguacatal. We dropped our stuff off and crossed the Atitlan Lake. It was spectacular to be in the middle of a lake that was surrounded by volcanos, especially since I had never seen a volcano before.

Atitlan boat MW Atitlan and toliman MW San Pedro Volcano MW

Once we made it across the lake to Santiago, the boat pulled up to a rickety dock which was next to a few abandoned buildings that were half way underwater, obviously due to erosion and the rising of water level. We then ventured to the Catholic Church where we met up with Juan Ramirez and David, a Canadian who was with the Mennonite Central Community organization. They taught us about Father Stanley Rother and gave us a tour of the museum dedicated to him. We actually got to go into the room, which is now a chapel, that Father Rother was shot in. It was beautiful to see how much respect the community has for the martyr to this day.

Rother chapel MW Santiago church MW

After the tour, Juan and David led us to ANADESA or Panabaj where our group was fed chicken chow mein. Hattie and I were presented with specially cooked potatoes and guacamole because of our special dietary needs, and let me just say, they were to die for. We had the honor of meeting the women who prepared our delicious meals and they also presented us with their intricate bead work, homemade ointments for muscle pain and homemade vapor rub, which are all made from natural ingredients. David and Juan also talked to us about a brief history of Panabaj, specifically about the armed forces that came in and took the lives of locals during the civil war and the mudslide that also took many lives and ruined homes of the locals. It was really impressive and interesting to see the progress of the community in terms of rebuilding and developing their district. After we had lunch and browsed through the items the women were selling in Panabaj, we crossed the river back to our hotel so we could shop at the jewelry/leather/craft stands that lined the street, Calle Santander. We all met up in the room where Caitlyn, Hattie and Gretchen and I were staying, after coming back from Calle Santander. Caitlyn and Cassandra came back to the hotel showing off the exquisite turquoise bracelets and necklaces that they had got great deals on. While the group waited for dinner time, we all squeezed on the big queen sized bed that was in our room while we listened to the rain and gabbed about funny stories from our embarrassing high school days. We then went to dinner and everyone got pastas, pizzas, and/or salads. After dinner everyone was pooped from the long day and turned in for bed.

Bird of Paradise MW

– Text and Photos by Maria Weber

A Look at Guatemala’s Contrasting Realities

This week we started talking a little bit about the presence of gang violence in Central America, an area of expertise for Professor Brenneman, since this is the central focus of his research and his book Homies and Hermanos. Professor Brenneman talked to us about the appeal of gangs in the more impoverished areas of urban Guatemala, mainly as a way of gaining respect and dignity in social classes that feel hopelessly stuck at the bottom of a structure. I was surprised to learn that the structure of gangs in Guatemala is mainly an imitation of the Los Angeles structure. This violent and expansive gang mentality found its way to Central America in the 1990’s, when the LAPD cracked down on gang activity and deported many members of Hispanic gangs back to El Salvador. Once they were back home, these former U.S. homies (the term, along with many other English words, were adopted in Central American gang culture) began recreating the efficient gang structure they learned in the U.S. and applying it to the more localized gangs that already existed in urban Central America. This, along with an oftentimes underpaid and underfunded police system was the perfect storm for a rise in transnational gang activity. Much of Professor Brenneman’s research considers how these gang members are able to leave a gang, and he has found that there is only one real way for male members to leave: by giving themselves to God via Pentecostal churches. Since most of these gangs have (or had) a “don’t mess with Curly (God)” standard, they would leave ex members at peace if they could prove they had truly given themselves to God. Professor Brenneman went on to show us how the church provides a similar structure and sense of belonging for the boys. This can sometimes replace the sense of power and dignity offered by the gang, and simply occupy the boys’ free time.

 As a way to bring these ideas to life, two former gang members came to CASAS to tell us their stories, along with Suzy, the widow of an ex-gang member. Suzy has been working in urban areas in Guatemala City to create soccer teams that will keep young boys off the street, and give them a healthy way to occupy their time outside of school.

Steps with Susi, Eddy, Carlos, Eder

Putting a face to ex gang members really gave me a new perspective on their situation. It is easy to study these things in an academic setting, and to think about how awful they are, but to see these two boys and hear their stories was truly eye opening. They could easily be a couple of students in your high school math class back in the states. I was especially moved by how completely unfair and in every way ‘other’ their experience in urban Guatemala is compared to ours in the US. Their options were, as Professor Brenneman put it, bad, bad, and worse. One of the boys got involved in gang activity when he was just 11, and was then trapped in their service. The gang usually gives the boys an initial payment around 1500 quetzales (US$200) per month for joining. For boys living in impoverished communities, in families with profound economic distress, this offer is hard to refuse. Along with money, the gang offers boys a sense of belonging, respect in their community, and in general a way to occupy their time. At the end of the talk, one of the boys asked a fair question: What is life like for teenagers in the US? How did we grow up? This question seemed impossible to answer. How could we explain our own sheltered and oftentimes excessive childhoods to someone who had seen and been forced into so much violence and poverty? I think I speak for the whole group when I say that this experience really put into perspective how vast and unlimited our privilege is in our small New England towns. The sheer injustice of this was something that will stick with me, and I will not forget to appreciate the safety, opportunity, and love that has been relentlessly presented to me during my life.

We have talked a lot about economic contrasts in Guatemala, and nothing could have illustrated this point more than our trip to the Rio del Sol Art Gallery the same day.  We all dressed up for this occasion, walking around looking at modern art (with an oftentimes unclear message) while sipping on wine and eating fine cheeses. This is the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the gang violence we learned about earlier in the day. The building itself was a beautiful old home with huge open windows and intricate tile flooring. With the stories of those boys still lingering in my head, the art seemed all the more beautiful and the people seemed all the more classy and I didn’t really know where I fit in on the spectrum.

All in all this was a day that showed us the vast differences we have heard so much about in Guatemala, and helped us to appreciate the city as a complex one with a culture and beauty as great and impressive as it’s poverty.

– Leah Valletta

Surviving the Rain

Heavy rain hit the city and everything has slowed down. People want to stay home and wait out the rain, children do not go to school and adults relax with the feeling of low energy, but the rain has not stopped us.

Monday morning, Claudia Hernandez, a Guatemalan who works at a program that supports victims of sexual violence, came to explain the status of women’s rights in Guatemala. She taught us how the discussion of violence against women and human trafficking is a fairly recent discussion in Guatemala.  Her work involves getting women out of violence and placing them in a program that will help them better their lives. Though there is still enormous corruption in the government and oppression against women, Guatemala is starting to develop laws that can end the injustices that many women face everyday and working towards a better future.

Later in the day we went on a tour of a Women’s Co-op called UPAVIM. We were told how the Co-Op is a way to provide work for women and provide services to the community.  One of the services is a daycare. The children in the daycare were adorable, they barely ate their beans and rice because they were distracted by all the gringas around them.

Gretchen at Mezquital

Group at UPAVIM UPAVIM Children UPAVIM Women Lida at Mezquital

One of the surprising things about UPAVIM is that it is located in a squatter settlement. The existence and process of squatter settlements is something I have recently learned about while in Guatemala. They are neighborhoods that are built with scraps that the people can find or sometimes the materials are stolen. They are illegal to build but with enough people and organization the government  is unable to stop the construction. The squatter settlement where the Women’s Co-Op is located is an example of a successful squatter villager. They now have roads. electricity, and the houses are made of concrete. These villages are often dangerous because they are overpopulated and the presence of police is rare. Having a place like the Women’s Co-Op in the community greatly helps to end the cycle of violence. It provides affordable health services, childcare, scholarships for education, it generates income, and it receives donations that better the lives of the people.

– Gretchen Kellogg

Our Weekend in Chichicastenango

Saturday morning we arrived at the CASAS campus and got on a bus headed for the town of Chichicastenago. We drove on really windy roads which looked out over beautiful hills scattered with houses and corn fields. After a few hours of these windy roads, we arrived at the Mayan ruins where a very friendly guide walked us through the ruins and explained to us the history which accompanied it. Over the next hour, we saw the ruins of five villages that made up the Mayan city, three temples (one for the sun, one for the moon, and one for the wind), a field where people used to play sports, and beautiful scenery.

Iximche Ruins

After the Mayan ruins, we drove to the Widows Co-op in the village of Chontalá. To get to the house of one of the widows, we walked on a very steep and narrow dirt path through a corn field. When we arrived, the widows fed us lunch, which was fried chicken, rice, veggies, and tamalitos.

Lunch at Chontala

We sat in plastic lawn chairs under a tin roof while it rained outside and listened to Pastor Diego, who was the manager of the widows Co-op. After he told his story about how he got involved with the Widows Co-op, we got to hear a little bit from the widows themselves but they spoke Quiché so their words were translated into Spanish and then into English. After asking them questions, we were able to look through their selection of woven goods. The front and back of the room we were in was covered in colorful woven blankets, table cloths, clothes, bags, pouches, etc. We all ended up buying something from the widows. It was great to be able to support them by hearing their stories and buying beautiful things to bring back to the United States.

(Below: Photos by Maria Weber)

Chontala member Leah at Chontala

(Photos: Maria Weber)

When we made our journey back to the bus, it was raining very hard. Although getting caught in the rain is not ideal, it was a good experience because these conditions are common for the women in the Widows Co-op.

Next, we went to our hotel in Chichicastenango where we heard from a Mayan woman who talked to us about Mayan culture, religion, and life.

We all went to bed early because at 6:30am on Sunday, we ate a simple breakfast of beans and eggs before going to the local Catholic church where we sat through the Sunday service among many other Guatemalan people. There was a lot of traditional music and singing as well as incense and candles. Although the service was in Spanish and Quiché, it was very interesting.

(Photo: Maria Weber)

At the Sunday market in Chichicastenango. (Photo: Maria Weber)

Inside the Catholic church at Chichicastenango -- a church famous for the "mix" of Mayan and Roman Catholic worship practices. The altars in the center aisle fill up with candles, as well as grain, liquor, and incense offerings. (Photo: Maria Weber)

Inside the Catholic church at Chichicastenango — a church famous for the “mix” of Mayan and Roman Catholic worship practices. The altars in the center aisle fill up with candles, as well as grain, liquor, and incense offerings. (Photo: Maria Weber)

We then had free time to explore the market in pairs. The cobblestone streets of Chichicastenango were filled with small shops selling jewelry, weaved goods, leather goods, food, etc. For many of us, this experience was a mix of overwhelming and exciting. Many street vendors (men, women, and children) would follow us through the streets asking us to buy this goods. Sometimes it was impossible to say no (they are very persuasive). Again, all of us left with souvenirs.

A few hours later, after another drive through winding roads, we arrived back at the CASAS campus where our host families picked us up. After such a full weekend, we all enjoyed being back in the city to rest for class on Monday.

-Lida Lutton

A Very Full Day

We started the morning off with a speaker who taught us about some issues facing Guatemala today.  La Puya is a town 30 kilometers outside of the city that has very valuable natural resources.  Contractors were trying to come inside this area to extract the minerals, but the people of this town were peacefully resisting.  On May 8, 2012 the contractors were able to sneak the machines in without the protesters knowing.  Luckily they were very well organized and 2,000 people prevented the machines of doing any harm.  The resource in La Puya is gold and that is the most harmful extraction in mining projects.  On May 25, 2014 soldiers used force to break up the peaceful protests.  Tear gas was used to make the people have to run away so the machines could enter.  Now the machines are there.  Another problem is femicide, which refers to women who have been victims of extreme abuse and feminicide, which means the killing of women because they are female.  In 2013 there were 1,500 cases of assault, trafficking, and other forms of violence.  The final problem is child labor.  One million children under the age of 14 participate in child labor.  Ten thousand of these children work with fireworks, which is a very dangerous job.  Here in Guatemala fireworks are very popular therefore these children are working 12-hour shifts per day.

Our next adventure was to the national cemetery and the largest landfill in Central America.  The cemetery has very big tombstones that are typically very wealthy peoples.  An interesting fact about this cemetery is that you can only have a plot for 14 years and then you have to remove the body and the gravestone.

After that we ventured to the landfill.  Immediately we had this horrible smell in our noses that was difficult to get rid of.  The dump that we visited is the largest in Central America.  The sad part is that many people grow up and live their life in this place.  This is a hard concept to understand, but when generation and generation live in the dump it is really hard to leave.   The people don’t even want to leave because they believe the dump is their home.

Our final speaker of the day taught us about Mayan culture.  We learned all about the different linguistic groups and their languages.  One very interesting part of the talk was about the Mayan calendars and how they connect to the human body and the lunar cycle.  The one that I found most fascinating was the first calendar, which is a 260-day year, 13 months and 20 days per month.  The human body has 13 joints and 20 fingers and toes.  13 x 20 = 260.  This connects to the lunar cycle because the earth goes around the moon 13 times in 260 days.

– Cassaundra Davis

In the National Cemetery, where your family's wealth can be demonstrated by the size of your tomb. (Photo by Cassaundra Davis)

In the National Cemetery, where your family’s wealth can be demonstrated by the size of your tomb. (Photo by Cassaundra Davis)

In the Lab of the Forensic Anthropologist Foundation of Guatemala

Inside the laboratory of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropologist Federation. (Photo: Caitlyn Colley)

Human remains from an exhumation of a war cemetery are cleaned, marked, and analyzed inside the laboratory of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropologist Foundation. (Photo: Caitlyn Colley)

Today we listened to a This American Life podcast and watched a video that explained the massacre of hundreds of innocent people in small village called Dos Erres. Government troops disguised themselves as guerrillas in order to get into the village to find weapons that the guerrillas were [supposedly] hiding. The government troops assembled the community in the churches and schools while they searched for the weapons. When the weapons were not found, the troops began to execute the men, women, and children. The villagers were brutally killed and buried or thrown in a well. The government troops never spoke of this atrocity and no one ever questioned why this village disappeared (fearing they would be killed), until one man filled with guilt came forward and confessed.  Because of this, anthropologists from FAFG (The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation) were able to move forward in their research to find the burial of this lost village. Visiting FAFG today made this story that much more real when we were able to see the remains of peoples who had been missing for more than 20 years. The FAFG organization is doing amazing work to restore the bones found. They are finding answers to the extent of brutality of the massacre. It is even more important that they are able to bring the remains of villagers home to their families where they may have a proper burial that will allow the souls of the dead as well as the living to move on into the next life.

– Caitlyn Colley

Editor’s Note: Today was a very full day and much of what we saw and heard related to some of the most brutal violence of the armed conflict which saw its peak in the early 1980s and ended with the signing of the peace accords in 1996. We will not always be focusing on such macabre scenes or disturbing stories. Guatemala has come a LONG way since the savagery committed in the 80s. And yet, as professors, we believe very strongly that one cannot understand the Guatemala of today without a clear grasp of the violence and racism of the colonial period as well as of the civil war. Furthermore, it is in the context of such violence that truly heroic stories of resistance and courage shone most brightly.

Day 2 – Families and Downtown

Yesterday was our first full day in Guatemala City. After an exhausting trip we had a good nights rest and were looking forward to what the next day would bring.
We began our day with a wholesome breakfast and an orientation regarding the home stays. Vicky and Andrea who are part of the Casa’s program provided us with information on the Guatemalan culture, a detailed syllabus of our schedule for the next few weeks, and finally a slip of paper describing our host family so we would have a sense of of who they are before meeting them.
For most of us, staying with a family during the duration of our time here was initially our biggest anxiety as well as one of the biggest excitements. Though it may be a challenge it is reassuring that we are all experiencing this together.
In the afternoon, we journeyed to zone 1 which is the central of Guatemala city. We were split into groups and given an assignment to navigate several destinations and then answer the list of questions and that destination. After this challenge we had a pleasant lunch and then went to the colorful Market. The market was on several levels both outside and inside. The scents and sights were overwhelming as well as pleasant to the eye. We were all in awe of the color that filled this market, of artisan goods as well as a wide variety of fruits, many which we have never seen before. This experience was most definitely one of a kind and a great introduction into the Guatemalan culture.  After the market we made our way to “The national palace” where we had a tremendous tour guide who educated us about the history of Guatemala.
Once the tour was concluded we made our way back to CASAs, anxious to meet our families.

Hattie meets her host mother, Olga "Chinita" Lopez.

Hattie meets her host mother, Olga “Chinita” Lopez.

We were all embraced warmly with a big hug and a kiss on the cheek and departed with our host families, seeing each other again the very next morning where we will begin a new day concentrating on “race in Guatemala.”

– Hattie S.