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Central America Semester, Fall 2012


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    [post_content] => Today as I went out on my morning run through the corn fields of Pachaj, a small community in rural Guatemala I was thinking about the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede. I recently became acquainted with Hofestede while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller Outliers. In a chapter on cultural legacies Gladwell cites “Hofestede’s Dimensions”, a set of data created by the psychologist which was used to analyze cultural attitudes from around the world. Hofestede used several scales to break down cultural attitudes towards certain ideas that we often take for granted, for example, Hofestede created a scale of individuality - collectivism which he used to investigate the importance of the individual versus the group in different cultures. The results he came up with are fascinating. What really stuck with me is when Gladwell claims “the country that scores highest on the individualism end of that scale is the United States...at the opposite end of the scale is Guatemala.” This seemed incredible to me, could it be true that Guatemala is the nation most concerned with the collective well being? What does this look like? Could I find evidence of this around me? This is what I was thinking about as I set out into the corn to run.

The first thing that came to mind was a fable from the Mayan sacred book, The Popul Wuj. The story goes like this; a community gets together to cut down a huge tree in order to build a house for one of the townspeople. They’re able to cut down the tree, but once it’s felled they simply can’t move it, it’s too heavy. The community members are standing around scratching their heads trying to figure out what to do when unexpectedly a deity comes walking down the road. The Mayan gods are known for showing up at times like this. He sees the townspeople’s problem and decides to help. He tells them not to worry, he’s got it, he proceeds to pick up the trunk and carry it back to the town singlehandedly. As soon as he’s out of earshot the community members get together and start planning how to kill him. Kill him? It seems perplexing to someone from a culture that values the individual that they would want to kill the deity. He was helping, using his individual gifts for the communal good. However the moral of this story makes sense if you look at from the point of view of a culture that values collective action. The deity in the story violated that collective mentality that says if we can’t do it together, it’s not worth doing. 

By the time I had gone over this story in my head I was well into the cornfield, looking around all I could see were the tall green and red stalks shooting out of the hand-tilled earth as they have for over a thousand years. Observing the ground I saw that from each carefully crafted small mound of earth there emerged at least three and sometimes four stalks of maiz. It was here that I was reminded of another Mayan tradition of collectivism. As part of the sacred ritual of planting corn, a tradition that stretches back into the deepest history of this culture, the ground is formed into small ridges and mounds. In each mound four kernels of carefully selected maiz are planted right next to each other. I remember observing this ritual and asking a farmer why he deposited four kernels in each hole. Wasn’t he worried about the plants competing against each other for nutrients and other resources? He responded that he had been taught to plant four kernels by his ancestors and that they did it in the spirit of communion with the rest of creation. One kernel was for the animals that live underground, the moles and others, the second kernel was for the animals that live close to the ground, raccoons and the like, the third kernel was for the animals of the air, the birds, and finally the last kernel was for humans. The Mayan people always plant this way, season after season, reliving the act of communion. This mentality strikes me as something that simply doesn’t occur to those of us from cultures that value individualism. Observing the cornfield even closer I notice that’s it not even really a cornfield at all, it’s a milpa, the name given to the system of companion planting invented in mesoamerica. The corn grows tall and strong and its stalk is used to support the climbing bean vine, below the large fuzzy squash leaves shade the earth and hold in the moisture; throughout the whole are interspersed tomatoes, peppers and native herbs used for cooking and healing. In one small plot of land there can be up to 90 plants co-existing, helping each other. Even the vegetation is community oriented!

The greatest lesson about community has certainly come from the people of Pachaj. From the moment three weeks ago when we arrived until our tearful goodbye yesterday, they embraced us as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. The families of Pachaj did much more than just feed and house us. They accepted us into their system of community. They looked upon us as part of their group and as such extended to us every loyalty and act of generosity that goes along with that acceptance. Working at the Chico Mendes project and learning about the environmental issues that face us as a planet has underscored our interconnectedness. As instructors we believe that this interconnectedness and appreciation for community are two very important lessons which stem from gratitude. Why do the mayan farmers plant corn for the animals of the sky and earth? It’s because they recognize and are grateful for the role those animals play in the unfolding of life on this planet. It’s a deep gratitude that expresses itself in everything, from the planting of crops to Hofestede’s dimensions. 

We asked our students to reflect on this topic and describe what it is they admire most about their homestay families in Pachaj, here are some of the answers we received.

“They are such a close-knit family and they all thrive through each other.”

“Welcomeness, friendliness, curiosity, include me as part of the family.”

“I admire that the son of Doña Salvadora works hard to provide for himself and his mom.”

“I admire that all three generations can live together peacefully.”

“Willingness to accept, willingness to sacrifice for the family.”

These comments reflect the acceptance and community strength that we were lucky enough to experience in Pachaj. Our time was well spent, lasting relationships were forged and we were all warmed by the hearts of our families and teachers. It is a warmth that we carry with us and is not easily forgotten.
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Best Notes From The Field, Central America Semester, Fall 2012

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A sense of community

Luis Alvarado,Best Notes From The Field, Central America Semester, Fall 2012

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Today as I went out on my morning run through the corn fields of Pachaj, a small community in rural Guatemala I was thinking about the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede. I recently became acquainted with Hofestede while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller Outliers. In a chapter on cultural legacies Gladwell cites “Hofestede’s Dimensions”, a set of […]

Posted On

10/2/11

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Luis Alvarado

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