In my self-directed studies of international development, I’ve been introduced to Gustavo Esteva – a “post-development” theorist and practitioner from Mexico who has worked with the Zapatista movement and describes himself as a “grassroots activist and deprofessionalized intellectual.” I find his writing poignant, his ideas original, and his message inspiring. In a few weeks, I will be going to Oaxaca to visit Unitierra –  the “university” he has helped to create – and possibly even meet Gustavo himself!

Here’s an article he wrote describing the idea behind Unitierra:



Measures of Love

My inspiring friend, Neal Hegarty, reflects on what international development means to him.

“For me, actually the most amazing thing about humans is that we have an infinite capacity to love. And that’s what makes love, I think, the best natural resource we have. It can’t be commodified, or traded, or land-grabbed…I think development is a measure of the amount of love in a person’s heart or in a society as a whole. And I think my job as a development practitioner going forward will be to try and share that love.”

Amigos del mundo


I’ve been really fortunate (and pleasantly surprised) to meet an absolutely wonderful group of people volunteering and working in various NGOs here in Santiago Atitlan. Before I came, I was expecting to be one of the only extranjeros in town, but there are actually quite a few of us, and we’ve all become fast friends. Making friends when traveling or living in a different country naturally happens much easier and more rapidly, I think because a common love of adventure already exists. And in this case, we all have a common desire to work toward the benefit of others – supporting the indigenous community, fighting against oppression, serving those in more vulnerable social locations. These understandings have created a bond between us that forms the foundation of our friendship.

Additionally, we have a lot of fun together. On weekends, we generally take a boat across the lake or a bus to a nearby city to experience new places and enjoy our time here to its fullest. Last weekend, we all hopped on a boat to San Pedro to indulge in a Sunday evening BBQ after some of our friends broke fast from Yom Kippur.

While on this boat, a Guatemalan girl next to me asked where we were from, assuming that we had all come to Guatemala together from the same place, probably because of how cohesive our group is. I began explaining to her where we all came from and what we’re all doing here, and it made me realize what a diverse, worldly, and amazing group of people this is. As I told her:

There is Eoghan, from Ireland. He is a physical therapist who works with people with disabilities in Santiago and the surrounding communities. He’s been here since February and will be here until at least March 2015.

Rebecca from Sweden lives across the lake in Panajachel, studied social work, and is here on a fellowship program for 4 months working at a school.

Becky, from England, and Jillian, from Ohio, who are interning for three months at a local development NGO called Pueblo a Pueblo. Becky has her master’s in international development and has been traveling the world volunteering for the last year. Jillian spent the year before coming working in community organizing in Illinois, like me.

Edurne, from Northern Spain, and Siara, from the country of Basque, who both work in special education at ADISA, the organization my old host family founded. Before coming to Guatemala, they both worked with people with disabilities for many years. Edu will be here six months, but wants to stay longer. Siara will be here three months to complete a practicum for her master’s in international development.

And Madeleine, from Sweden, here on the same fellowship program as Rebecca, for four months, also working at ADISA, but more focused on non profit administration and development. She is hoping to come back for a longer stretch of time in April.

And that’s not at all! Not pictured above are some friends who couldn’t make it that weekend or were already there waiting to meet us:

Jake and Michelle, from New York state and California, respectively, who both work at Pueblo a Pueblo, have been here for a year already, and will be here at least another. Katie from Illinois who is on a fellowship program working at a fair trade weaving collective, museum, and store. Jenna, from Louisiana, who is the development coordinator at our local private hospital. Mike, from Boston, a Fulbright scholar here doing research on diabetes prevention and working at the Hospitalito. Neal, from Ireland, who is here doing his master’s thesis on permaculture and indigenous communities, and volunteers at the nearby international mesoamericana permaculture center. Two other participants in the Swedish fellowship program, Maria and Gabriella, working at NGOs in Panajachel. Plus several local friends from Santiago that we’ve met along the way.

And then there’s me. Jenn, from Chicago or sometimes Texas, working as the Guatemalan Project Coordination Fellow at Natik, and also as the Unlocking Silent Histories Ambassador with Mayan Traditions Foundation, a social worker, who will be here for at least a year, who is living her dreams every day and can’t believe her amazing good fortune.

I really do love my life and the people, places, and opportunities in it.

As my beautiful friend Edurne kept repeating the other night as she looked out on our group of friends: “tenemos una familia muy bonita.”


Dia del Niño at the Mariposario

Last week, Guatemala celebrated a holiday we seem to miss out on in the U.S. – Día del Niño, or Children’s Day. This day is celebrated on various dates in countries around the world, but here in Guatemala, it is celebrated on October 1st. To commemorate the holiday the Puerta Abierta Learning Center took a special field trip with the students and their parents to the Mariposario (butterfly garden) at the nearby Reserva Natural Atitlan (Atitlan Nature Reserve).

The day started out with a boat ride across the lake, on a large two-level (and extremely slow!) barco that the kids really enjoyed. It was beautiful and sunny and from the top deck, we could look out across the beauty of Lago Atitlan. Then we disembarked at the Nature Reserve, where we were confronted with a series of long and crickety cable-rope bridges, which the kids also loved (although some of the parents were less than thrilled). We eventually made our way to a large clearing that had zip-line swings for the kids to enjoy for a bit before we did some exercises, sang some songs, and then hiked up into nature! We got to cross some more bridges and see some spider monkeys, then headed to the butterfly garden where we saw a wide variety of butterflies and learned about their transition from caterpillar to butterfly, even seeing one emerge from its chrysalis!

To finish the day, we had a picnic lunch in the clearing and the children did a “Secret Santa” type gift exchange. Then back onto the boat for the long journey back to Santiago with a group of extremely tired kids.

Throughout the day, I got to “partner with” a group of students from a local orphanage, whose parents weren’t able to come along. Fernando, Nicolasa, Rosa, and Diego were my kids for the day, and they were a blast! Although being a mom to four children under the age of 6 is no easy task! By the end of our adventures, we were all pretty exhausted.