March 3 2013
Amber Thomas, MILR '14
In January 2013, a travel grant from the ILR School gave me the opportunity to travel to Guatemala for a Spanish language immersion that will be crucial to my work with labor exploitation and human trafficking. I spent three weeks in the bustling city of Quetzltenango (also known as Xela), rimmed by volcanoes in the highlands of Guatemala. During the weekdays I had intensive one-on-one Spanish instruction at the Escuela Pop Wuj and participated in their Social Work program. Through the program I had a cultural competency taught by an anthropologist and shadowed the Director of the Social work program on house visits and interviews with those who were applying for services. One of the principal social projects of the school is building stoves for families who are still cooking over open fires. Cook fires contribute to burn injuries, lung problems, and deforestation around communities. Through this program, volunteers build safer, more efficient stoves that improve the lives of families and especially women. On the basis of stove interviews I was able to visit the homes of families and interview women about their living situation, family members, employment and reasons for wanting a stove. It was an excellent opportunity to spend time with people, see how they live and understand the subsistence employment that many in the poorer communities are engaged in.
I was also able to learn specialized vocabulary during my specially tailored Spanish lessons. For the first week my teacher was a professor trained in social work who shared with me social, cultural and economic dynamics that affect low wage workers in Guatemala. I was able to gain vocabulary specific to my focus of human trafficking and labor exploitation that would rarely be taught in typical Spanish courses. For the second two weeks of instruction, my teacher was a law school graduate who will be working in family law after she passes the Guatemalan version of the bar. We discussed gender inequality, labor laws and the specific conditions of women working in many industries. We also took trips including visiting a "maquilla," a manufacturing center that predominantly employs young women. We were unable to gain entrance, but did make observations on the unusual level of security and fortress-like arrangement of the buildings. The following week we visited the local "sindicato" where Xela's local unions from many different industries are headquartered. Speaking with the Director of the unions and receiving literature was interesting and in the future I will seek out opportunities to spend time with and get the perspective of union members as well.
During my three weeks I was honored to spend time with and learn from many people, from my host family to teachers to recipients for the social work program. My understanding of spoken and written Spanish grew exponentially while my spoken Spanish steadily improved. I gained an immense respect for the warm hospitality and ingenuity that seem an innate part of the culture in Xela and Guatemala. I also gained a more nuanced understanding of dynamics that contribute to situations of labor exploitation and those that contribute to or detract from development and equality. I saw many similarities with other developing countries I have visited or researched, and also abilities and deterrents unique to Guatemala and different people groups. My conversations and observations have inspired me to research on the common element of debt-bondage and bonded labor, in Spanish "enganche," for my master's thesis. I hope to return to Guatemala to continue to learn boththe language and culture, as well as visit other Central and South American countries to compare labor situations across the region.