San Mateo Ixtatán: post-Apocalypse

Mayans everywhere celebrated the “end of the world” on December 21, 2012 for what it was: the end of an epoch, and the beginning of a new one.  And in the intervening five years I can say with certainty that San Mateo Ixtatán, my beloved home during the 2007 Guatemalan school year, has certainly entered a new era.

The trip across the border was unremarkable: La Mesilla was loud and hot, and the Huehue bus terminal was pestilent…all to be expected.  But just an hour into the ride, the change became apparent: the crest of the Cuchumatanes was covered with houses, the graveyards in San Juan Ixcoy and Soloma were overflowing (such is life, eh?), and the city centers were bustling even more than usual, with bright tiendas coated with advertisements for not two, but three cell phone companies (¡bienvenido, Movistar!).  There was an ATM in Santa Eulalia, and a surgery center, too.  And the road was paved, all the way (almost!) to San Mateo.  Unbelievable.

Progress in the area has taken its toll, of course.  The trash problem, while it hasn’t gotten worse, certainly hasn’t gotten better.  The diesel fumes seemed thicker, mixing with wood smoke to produce a particularly headache-inducing stench.  And for the first time I actually saw smog on the horizon, though perhaps it’s just because everyone is torching their fields at this time of year.

While there still may not be an ATM in San Mateo, the change is palpable.  There are daily bus routes to Nentón and Gracias a Dios, which just a couple of years ago were only accessible by pick-up.  There are newspapers, and even the occasional cheese vendor.  And there are two university campuses, not to mention that the town is bursting with secondary school students, of which there was not a single one just over a decade ago.

And the school.  Oh, the school.  The Centro Comunitario de Educación “Yinhatil Nab’en” (“Semilla de la Sabiduría”), or CCEYN, where I taught more than five years ago, has truly come into its own.  Occupying one of the largest buildings in the town, it is still bursting at the seams, having achieved nearly Harvardian status among the Mateanos.  Everyone in the town knows where the school is, and knows that the students pick up their trash, speak excellent Spanish, and can, if they so desire, go on to do great things.  And all of this is now being accomplished largely by San Mateo natives, with the help of just a sprinkling of foreigners.

The visit to the school was clarifying.  My two years of high school teachingone in San Mateo, and one in Virginiamade me realize that while I love teaching, teens just aren’t my target age group.  But now, more than half of the teachers are the brightest of my ex-students, and they’re amazing.  They’re sharp, they’re mature, and as it turns out, they’re teaching their students all the stuff I taught them.  A teacher’s dream come true, to put it mildly.

One clear reason for the continued success of the school is the complete revamping of the curriculum, which was spearheaded by teacher and organic farm guru Cara Hendren, in collaboration with assistant director Joe Martin, the rest of the CCEYN teachers, and a group of Mexican education consultants.  They made a bold move and finally shifted the entire curriculum to project-based learning, which, in retrospect, is what we should have been doing all along.  I realized only at the very end of my year of seemingly unsuccessful teaching that the Mateanos thrive on collaboration.  Americans are competitive and individualistic.  Mateanos are not.  They’re cooperative, and they thrive on one another’s success.  The concept of cheating is foreign, and traditional “Western” education just doesn’t suit them.  The new system, however, seems to be the perfect fit.  The kids are still nuts, for sure.  But in spite of (and probably due to) their unlimited energy, their recent accomplishments are countless: they’ve built bathrooms out of recycled bottles, helped install the first septic system in the entire town, and wired all of the classrooms with lights, all of which they did as part of the curriculum.

It was an unforgettable trip.  I’ve gained perspective, I’ve solved some mysteries about my time there, and I’ve confirmed that the peopleas I’ve always suspectedare some of the most wonderful people in the world.  San Mateo has its problems, to be sure, most of which I suspect can be solved with enough time, money, and national development.  But in spite of their troubles, the Mateanos continue to hold dear what many of us in “developed” countries have lost: the warmth of loving families, and the strength of a supportive community.  And that is what will keep drawing me back to the chilly Mayan mountains for the rest of my life.


Chat Hull is currently a graduate student in astrophysics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studies polarization in forming stars.  He began his astronomy career as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, where he met Beth Neville Evans, then the director of the Ixtatán Foundation, who was gracious enough to hire him.  He taught math, physics, and music at CCEYN in San Mateo Ixtatán during the 2007 school year.  In his free time he enjoys singing jazz, and writing reviews of all of the Indian restaurants in Berkeley.

To see photos of his recent trip to San Mateo Ixtatán, click here.

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