"The Children of the Corn"
|Mayan children in Guatemala playing
My heart started to race the first time
I saw a young boy walking down the highway alone. He might
have been four or five years old, and stumbled along the
road less than five feet from the many chicken buses, motorcycles,
and tuk-tuks — all racing to their destinations passing
by his left side. He had been watching us work from his
house in the distance for some time, peering through the
fields of corn stalks over seven feet high. He wanted to
see what these gringos in their tourist vans were
doing at his neighbor’s house. The young boy slowly emerged
once he laid eyes on the toys we were giving out to some
of the other neighborhood children. I offered him a new
soccer ball so he could play fútbol with his friends.
|Cornstalk fields with Volcano
Agua in the background.
I sent the child on his way back home,
but a few moments later he reappeared on the road carrying
a 100-quetzal bill and a scribbled grocery list. At first,
I thought he was trying to pay for the ball, which I intended
to refuse because it had been my gift to him. In my broken
Spanish I asked what he was doing, and he, in his broken,
Mayan-Spanish replied, “Buying food for Mamá.” A mile away
a convenient store awaited him with bread and milk, and
so I let him go. I watched as he set off, walking the fine
line between being hit by a truck and falling in the polluted
ditch beside him. Slightly nervous, I wondered if I should
hold his hand and walk with him all the way.
It would not be the last time that I
felt those anxious palpitations over the precarious situations
in which young Guatemalans often find themselves. From the
first moments in that impoverished country, I realized that
it would be necessary to suppress my desire to control as
well as my protective instinct, refined through 10 years
of experience as an American childcare provider. Children
roamed the streets in Guatemala the same way as adults,
running around, taking care of other children, and often
working just as hard or harder to provide some small income
for their families.
In one of my earliest moments of horror
I saw a mother ascend into a van, which served as our shuttle.
Her toddler stood by her feet, and her infant breastfed
openly as we sped through town with the van door wide open.
In shock, I looked away, trying to collect my emotions as
images of traffic accidents and thoughts about the ignorance
of it all flooded my head. I commented to Suzi, my Latina
friend and guide that such behavior would never be legal
in the United States, where seatbelts are mandatory, and
where all children must be secured in weight-appropriate
“Guatemalan children are raised in the
‘school of hard knocks,’ as you Americans say,” she replied
to my frightened — and frankly upset — declarations.
“Safety regulations and child labor laws would be laughed
at in a community like this. Poverty and desperation alter
the way a person thinks about the types of security they
What Suzi said to me was true for much
of the Latino population in Guatemala, but it was even truer
for the Mayan people. The contemporary indigenous population
was still reeling from the lingering effects of monstrous,
oppressive historical colonialism. Untrained and inefficient
farming, selling their heritage in the form of a tourist
tote bag, were two of just a handful of modern-day Mayan
trades. Very few locals ever had access to opportunities
for advancement. Families needed income, and the children
were often enlisted to help as well. Shoe shining, begging
from passersby, and selling jewelry to tourists were ordinary
sights in any Guatemalan city big enough for a hotel. I
met Mayan children every day on the streets, not in schools,
trying to sell me scarves or boat tickets.
|A Mayan family in traditional
“Señorita, 20 quetzals, and
I will take you to Volcano San Pedro,” one would offer.
“No, thank you. I’m looking for someone
else,” I would say, though in reality I was just looking
for a better deal.
“15 quetzals, amiga. It’s a
special price just for you.”
“10 quetzals, and no stops,” I told
the 9-year-old. He looked back at his father who nodded
sadly and approvingly at the same time, and I climbed in
the boat, heading across the lake to hike the grand volcano,
saddened by the realization that I had just spent two minutes
arguing over the equivalent of a little over one U.S dollar
with a boy half my height.
As the boy sat on the edge of the motorboat
I worried that he would fall off. Can he swim? Why are
there no life jackets on the boat? What if we capsize? We
are in the middle of a 30-mile long lake, for crying out
loud! Yet such worries never appeared on his round
face, and for the duration of our trip he seemed wholly
unfazed by any thoughts about potential dangers. Absorbed
in the sight of the mountains surrounding the pristine waters,
he stared directly ahead, past the grand volcano, and into
the clouds. The smiling boy with his wind-blown hair was
also one of the few I came across who had the chance to
work closely with his father, and I realized how lucky he
must have considered himself. He also did not have the luxury
of time for any anxieties at that moment.
|Panajachel, Lake Atitlán, and
Volcano San Pedro.
In general, I found the Mayan people
to be some of the most grateful I had ever met, and because
of that, some of the most content. The older generations
did carry, at times, the grief of poverty, oppression, and
a sense of exhaustion deep in their souls. When I paid attention
I could see it in the lines of their face as they smiled
with only gums for grins. Ancient racial tensions could
still be felt between the Latinos and the Mayans, and in
many places the divide echoed the feeling of America before
the Civil Rights Movement. In spite of this, Mayan joy remained
intact, not because it was founded on their present economic
circumstances or living conditions, but because it stemmed
instead from the richness of their heritage.
|Mayan men playing the Marimba.
The Mayans are the people of the corn.
In the beginning they say that the gods tried to make them
out of clay, and then later out of wood. Neither of those
materials, however, could facilitate a sufficient capacity
for love and tranquility. Therefore, the gods ultimately
made the Mayans from corn, an abundant substance full of
nourishment and versatile in its many functions. Because
of this tortillas and tamalitos were regular but
sacred foods, and young girls in their brilliant, hand-woven
blouses and skirts must learn to make them from an early
age. On every street you could hear the slapping sound of
tortilla shops celebrating the pervasive cooking culture.
In fact, I could not travel to any town around the lake
without running into a variant of these practices, prized
by the people who still fought modernity to ensure the survival
of their history. It was this very history and the pride
that they took in it that encouraged every Mayan face to
smile. It was also this very history that protected the
little children, even though their endless running and flying
about could make an outsider anxious.
|Fields of cornstalk.
Out of all the children I met and with
whom I worked, Fernando terrified me most frequently. Perhaps
it was because I saw him more regularly than many of the
other children. Maybe it was because all my interactions
with him occurred at the construction site where we were
building his new home, in a small village called Chutiestancia,
just around the corner from the boy who had been walking
on the road. On the other hand, perhaps it was because I
saw in his eyes the same thrill-seeking spirit I felt in
my own heart, but which frightened me in children. We connected
over the rush of adrenaline during our adventures. We also
developed a bond due to the novelty of contact between people
from different cultures. I felt apprehensive about letting
a child run free at five years old, with no father and no
apparent rules to protect him. So Fernando's darting, dashing,
jumping, and swinging resulted in anxious butterflies that
overwhelmed my stomach during the first few days in the
I never called him Fernando, but instead
christened him “Monito,” or “Little Monkey,” because he
climbed on people as he climbed on trees. Full of more energy
than any of our volunteers, he would incessantly run around
our site as we worked, helping with whatever he could and
getting in the way of whatever he was too small to do. Often
I would be shoveling or sifting sand and suddenly felt two
arms wrapped around my neck shouting the Spanish version
of my name, asking me to pick him up and help him fly.
Monito’s understanding of Spanish was
no better than my grasp of the language. His first language
was Kakchiquel, an ancient Mayan dialect that I came to
associate with frequent use of the sounds of “u,” “z,” and
“k.” Because his mother knew very little Spanish, he spoke
with her in the indigenous tongue, only switching over to
Spanish when he would speak with me.
“I want to help you build,” he would
state firmly, calloused hands outstretched for a bucket
full of concrete.
“You are too small to help with this,
Monito,” I replied. “It’s too heavy.”
“I am not. I am strong,” he asserted
indignantly. I had to reduce the amount of grey slush I
put in the bucket in order for him to be able to lift it,
as his little arms could only carry about a fourth of the
amount adults could safely handle. Even so, he could barely
move it off the ground, and often he would ask for another
“Okay, I have an idea. You carry back
the empty buckets for us to fill with the concrete.”
Monito quickly proceeded to enlist the
help of his sister, Rosa, and cousin, Juana. Together they
formed an empty bucket brigade that moved quicker than our
own line, which was three times as long and comprised solely
of adults. In spite of how quickly they ran to retrieve
the buckets and bring them back to be refilled, they never
seemed to tire. And in spite of such poverty, filth, and
hard work, the happiness in their toothless smiles seemed
to me beyond all possibility of ever fading.
I thought of child-labor laws and construction
site regulations again, and how “none of this would be legal
in the States.” I had 6-year-olds running around my legs
while I tried to cut concrete blocks with a machete. Sometimes
they left their shoes, and even though they already had
holes in their pants, they insisted on rolling in the gravel
right next to giant pila sink I was trying to destroy
with a sledgehammer, or on leaping off of the half-constructed
walls of cinder blocks into a mound of dirt next to the
|Juana, Rosa, and Fernando moving
About three weeks into our work Monito
decided he wanted to take a break from working with us to
play a game I call “Dodge the Semi-Truck in the Road While
Flying Your New Kite.”
“If I can’t fly, at least my kite can!”
he declared, racing up the dirt road, taking the short cut
through the fields of corn wrapped with beans from the new
harvest. I chased him as fast as I could, finally reaching
him as he ran down the open highway. He would not listen
to my rebukes or to my commands. When I told his mother
she remained completely unalarmed.
“He will be fine,” she said to calm
my anxieties as she flipped his lunch of tortillas on the
wood-fired stove. “He always is.”
Her affirmation did little to quell
my nervousness. As I watched him run down the road I tried
to keep up with him, stopping with my heart pounding just
at the moment when I saw a semi-truck begin to come down
“Monito, carro! Be careful,
there’s a carro!” My Spanish failed me in the midst
of my panic, but somehow he still understood. Calmly, he
walked back to me, waited for the truck to pass, and immediately
darted out again to fly his kite. He looked back at me,
smiled his little monkey grin, and took off running again
to catch the air beneath the kite. I knew then that more
than just his kite was soaring—his spirit was in the sky
Little could dampen the enthusiasm and
excitement I encountered in the Mayan children. Of course,
they knew the sadness of hunger and domestic abuse as a
part of their lives. Nevertheless, during my time with the
children they were well cared-for, played-with, and fed.
Many disassociated their time at home from their time spent
playing with the foreigners. Monito, for instance, knew
what he must not do around his grandfather in order to avoid
a corn-stalk beating, and he knew his own limitations and
capacity for dangerous situations. However, he knew nothing
about abstract social laws that in other countries might
forbid him from playing as he so desired.
For weeks I traveled from village to
village around the highlands of Guatemala, working with
children from San Marcos, San Lucas Toliman, Godinez, and
Xela. Many of them had never seen an American in person.
I think it is likely that they found me to be strangely
pale and tall, given that the Mayan people tend to run on
the shorter and darker side of the spectrum. They would
stare at me with brilliant gazes, whispering and giggling
among themselves in native tongues. Sometimes, even with
my knowledge of Spanish, I could not communicate with them
because they only spoke Tz'utujil or K'iche'.
“Hola, how are you?” I would
ask the children, only to be met by their wide eyes even
as they looked back and forth at each other, checking to
see if anyone else understood what I had said.
“Do you know what I am saying?” I asked,
met again by confused looks.
“Español?” I finally asked,
to which I received, at last, the small response of a negative
“Tz'utujil?” I questioned, met this
time by enthusiastic nods of approval.
Unfortunately, I knew no Tz'utujil,
nor any other Mayan dialect. Frustration was my initial
response, since I had worked hard on my Spanish to avoid
these very types of situations. I wondered how to communicate
with these children without the capability to share any
of the same words. Over time, however, I found that relationships
and playful enthusiasm grant the ability to communicate
and share across cultures and languages. We didn’t give
up on working with each other, and in the end we found common
signs and signals — our own new language—to use
in our games.
I realized during that time that the
wonder and joy of children are not the properties of American
wealth and security. I had always imagined that one must
work hard to perpetuate the “magic of childhood.” Disney
World vacations, princess-themed birthday parties, and all
the latest gadgets were the manner many of the families
I had worked for communicated love to their children. Watching Little
Einstein or Dora the Explorer on TV was said
to foster the creative capacity of children and encourage
them to go out and discover the world on their own — as
soon as they finally decided to leave the LED screen behind.
I realized that none of what I had been
taught holds up in the end. Even though these Mayan children
might never see a movie, never wear anything other than
their traditional attire, without underwear or shoes, a
life lived gratefully enhanced the capacity to enjoy the
lives they were actually given. I realized that even though
I often felt anxious wondering whether these children were
safe enough or warm enough, they didn’t need me to show
them how to love or how to find beauty in life. I could
offer my service to them and their families, but I could
not fabricate what they already possessed inside themselves.
In the end, I learned from them. I learned to open my heart
to the art of contentment from the wide-eyed children. And
I learned to live according to one of their most popular
adages: "If you are happy, I am happy. If you are not
happy, I am still happy."
|Beautiful Lake Atitlán with Volcano
Toliman in the distance.
Rachel Flemming lives
in Florida. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree
in English Literature and Spanish. She and her husband
both work in language education, and hope to continue
to travel in Central and South America for both work and