1. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Living in Central America

    Discussion in 'Research' started by Ben414, Apr 4, 2015.

    I have a preteen/early teenage character who lives in Guatemala with her semi-impoverished family in a small town. I'd appreciate it if anyone could give me insight into what it's like living in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador. Things such as cultural norms, religious norms, mannerisms, attitudes, general lifestyle, etc. would all be very helpful.
     
  2. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I've traveled/spent time in all those countries but I need more specifics about what you want. Your questions are too general, stuff you could find online.
     
  3. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sure, I can be more specific about things I've struggled to find in my research. I don't expect anyone to be able to answer all of my questions, but anything helps.

    Schooling is one area that I'd like to know more about. For a preteenage girl from a semi-impoverished family in a rural area, what would the school buildings be like? How integrated (e.g. K-12 in one building or not) are they? What would be an average curriculum for someone that age? Of what kind of quality would the teachers be?

    What jobs might be available in a small town that would allow the family to be above the most dire poverty level but below anything close to wealthy?

    Roman-Catholicism and, to a lesser degree, Protestantism are predominate among Guatemalans. How important is religion in many people's lives? Would there be many families who downplay or don't participate in religion? Would their church be an important social institution for a small town, with church services, family gatherings, community educational classes, etc. a common way for families to interact? What kind of Guatemalan-specific religious practices are most prominant? For example, I know that some Guatemalans fly colorful kites on the Day of the Dead to scare off bad spirits and certain foods are traditionally consumed on All Saints Day.

    In the US, a stereotypical preteen girl might be entering her independent stage, might spend more time with her friends and less with her family, might have low self-confidence as she starts to physically develop and is pressured by friends and sexualized media, etc. How many of these things are more culture-specific to the US, and are there other major age-relevant difficulties for girls in Guatemala?

    How important are music and dance to Guatemalan culture? What things might semi-impoverished families in small towns do for fun?

    How would gender dynamics be for a preteen girl? Would she be pushed away from sports or other "masculine" activities? Would she have equal access to education? Would her opinion or herself as a person be as highly valued in her family or in the community compared to a male?

    This character will have been taught English by a non-profit-funded teacher at her local school. Given that she speaks Spanish a lot more than English, are there any grammatical or syntax errors that a native Spanish speaker might have with English?

    By the way, Ginger, thank you for this question. In coming up with more specific questions, I had to think harder about what I needed to know and found out that I actually knew a good amount of what I was originally asking for.
     
    Last edited: Apr 4, 2015
  4. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I have a lot of stories, :) so this is going to come in installments. And these stories are from my personal experiences, not necessarily experiences one can generalize from:

    First, keep in mind that in Central America the class divides are striking. For a long time there was no middle class (that has changed), only rich and very poor. And like in the US where blacks were a different class of people, in Latin America the more indigenous your heritage the lower your status, the more Spanish your heritage the higher your status.

    Really poor kids are more likely to be selling gum, cigarettes or souvenirs to tourists on the beach or streets than going to school. Begging is also common.

    Schools depend on the size of the city and the finances of the family. Better off kids (some poor but not destitute) go to parochial schools, wear uniforms, have little backpacks with their pencils and notebooks, but don't usually have their own textbooks. Most books stay in the class if they have any at all.

    I saw classes like this:
    [​IMG] [​IMG]
    And better schools like this:
    [​IMG]
    And I saw lots of kids wearing school uniforms:
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    One room schools in smaller towns were common. The rooms were open, no screens on the windows. Inside were chairs with desks, or benches and usually there was a black board in front.

    Most better off kids went to parochial schools.

    Once I saw a group of school kids outside lined up in rows singing the national anthem. It was a horrid song, monotone, the kids looked bored. It was a striking scene.

    In the rural areas, people farm or make tourist goods and sell them in the market. I'm looking at my Guatemalan weavings hanging on my wall right now, next to a scene painted on a kind of bark paper.
    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Markets could be more informal places:
    [​IMG]
    Or more established:
    [​IMG]
    A lot of people work in stores and restaurants. One young woman I became friends with because I ate at the food stand often worked 7 days a week 12 or more hours a day except she worked a short day on Sunday. She was content, didn't seem to mind never having any time off.
    The street cafe looked something like this:
    [​IMG]
    Farmworkers who work on large plantations are generally extremely impoverished unless they are supervisors.

    Then there are thousands of taxi drivers and bus drivers. Buses have another person on board who collects fares and gets out at stops to yell the destination to get customers for the bus. The destinations might be yelled out in shortcuts, like, "Guate, Guate" for Guatemala city. There are also a gazillion vans that function like buses going on a single route carrying less people than the busses. Again there is usually a driver's helper who collects the fares.

    There are lots of hotel and restaurant workers and owners. People have government jobs like clerks and other employees in federal buildings, there are cops, soldiers, bank workers, store keepers, travel agents, all the usual city jobs. That's where you see your growing middle class. There are construction and utility workers. I don't know what they earn. There is a ton of corruption, from the little guy to the government official.

    I once saw a man cut in front of the line at the travel agency by striking up a conversation with the guy in front who he clearly didn't know then going up to the agent like he had been with the guy all along, ahead of others waiting. You pay bribes for everything but it reminded me of fees we pay in the US. So instead of an import tax to get the package someone sent you through the mail, you pay an import bribe. Instead of an airport fee you pay an airport bribe.

    In Mexico (not Guatemala) I had to catch taxis by flagging them on the street. I asked why there were no taxis in the taxi stop and he told me it was because the police collected a bribe if a taxi wanted to stop there. And a friend of mine who lives in Mexico in a big rented house on the beach had to give the landlady her typewriter in order to stay during Easter week which is a huge holiday in Mexico. Otherwise even though she lived there year round, she would have been kicked out for the week while Mexican tourists rented the beach house for the holidays.


    Part two pending. :D
     
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  5. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    @GingerCoffee I'm curious: Did you visit Central America for regular travel or was it related to your medical knowledge? I've never been out of the country, but it looks like an interesting place to visit if you can avoid the more dangerous areas.

    I'm eagerly waiting for part 2. :)
     
  6. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've done some more research, so I thought I'd narrow down my questions:

    How would gender dynamics be for a preteen girl? Would she be pushed away from sports or other "masculine" activities? Would she have equal access to education? Would it be rare for a family to not try to push her into quickly becoming a wife/mother, and instead want her to obtain a post secondary education to get out of poverty? Would her opinion or herself as a person be as highly valued in her family or in the community compared to a male?

    In the pictures I've seen of Guatemala villages and cities, I've noticed a mix of more traditional clothing and more modern clothing. Are there certain groups of people more likely to wear one or the other? Would some people wear traditional clothing at all times while others might only wear them in certain celebrations?

    How important is religion in many people's lives? Would the church be an important social institution for a smaller village, with church services, family gatherings, community educational classes, etc.? Are there any really important religious practices that are unique to Guatemala?

    What things might semi-impoverished families in smaller villages do for fun?
     
  7. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm a little late to this party - and I haven't been to Guatemala. But I am a geography nerd so I know things a bit more from the facts and figures standpoint. I did go to Colombia in 2013 for a week, so I have some minor personal experience with Latin America, but obviously that's not worth TOO much seeing as there is a lot of regional variation, but I'll work with what I know.

    Let's start with your gender question. I'm not great here, but on the whole Latin America is broadly Western in it's gender attitudes...which is of course not to say there aren't gender norms, and a relatively conservative underlying value set. As with everywhere else, attitudes are going to be more progressive in the cities and more traditional in rural areas. In terms of educational access for girls vs. boys I'm guessing it's decent - but honestly you can probably find better statistics in census data, United Nations reports, maybe international women's rights organizations. Stuff like that.

    Which, before I go much farther, if you're writing a geographically unfamiliar location...RESEARCH IS YOUR LIFEBLOOD. Not just reading about a place as an overview, but getting as deeply familiar with it was you can - I'll look at census statistics, local news reports (if I'm using English language settings, I actually follow their local news stations on Facebook and Twitter), run local newspaper websites through GoogleTranslate (you can translate who websites by just putting in the URL), figure out the major industries, crops grown, foods eaten, etc. And be prepared to read boring, academic sounding stuff, it still helps. When I was a kid (late 90s) the Young Adult sections at public libraries actually had some REALLY nice books about different countries (including really small ones) so check your local library for Guatemala resources and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

    Your question about clothing gets to a bigger issue in most Latin American countries which is the RACE DIVIDE. In the U.S. we use the term "Hispanic" to describe people from Latin America, which creates the illusion that Latin Americans are all one "Hispanic" race. Anyone who's ever been there for like 2 hours will tell you this is garbage. The word "Hispanic" is an U.S. construction - in fact, in most Latin American countries there is a racial poverty gap just like you see in the U.S., and it's a jarring visual if you're walking down the street for the first time as an uninitiated gringo. It's not white vs. black, it's white vs. Native American. Those with more Native American ancestry tend to be at the bottom. It's more of a spectrum than a "one side or the other" thing (it's a "mestizo" or mixed-race culture), but you can see it on the street and it's jarring because it looks like the same divide you see in on the streets in the US (people who look like American white people at the top, people who look like what Americans stereotype as "Hispanic manual laborers" at the bottom...which explains why that group LEAVES Latin America for the U.S., because rich people tend not to leave places they are well off).

    Back to the clothes - In Guatemala you have a particularly high percentage of people with Native American ancestry (40% identify as indigenous, and that's NOT including people who identify as mestizo). In most countries with that sort of a ratio, the indigenous peoples (especially in rural areas) often maintain some traditional ways of dressing. I'm not particularly familiar with Guatemala, but you have similar visuals if you're researching Peru or Colombia, which also have really high indigenous population numbers. Which brings up another thing - there's a reason that the indigenous population numbers are particularly high in Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Southern Mexico. Those are the remnants of the great Inca, Aztec, and Maya civilizations. The conquest narrative there wasn't cowboys taking over nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, it was conquistadors knocking over long-established civilizations with major cities, agriculture, and denser populations. Wiping out the Native Americans was not an option for them, because the local civilizations were too large - hence, to this day, those areas retain very strong Native American populations with their own traditions, culture, and languages.

    Language is another big thing. If you're in a rural area with an indigenous minority, Spanish MIGHT NOT be your character's first language - here's a language map of Guatemala, note that Castillian Spanish isn't predominant http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Guatemala#/media/File:Idiomasmap.svg)

    Which circles back to the education question - gender might not be as big of an obstacle to education and social advancement (although it definitely could be, especially if you throw in aspects like human trafficking and abuse of women by organized crime) ...but chronic, grinding poverty and a language barrier WILL be major obstacles.

    One final piece of advice. If you're going to do research on a location - I'd decide right now EXACTLY WHERE IN GUATEMALA YOUR CHARACTER LIVES. That will allow your to focus your research on a locality, which can then reveal itself to you and populate your fictional version with realistic scenery and characters.
     
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  8. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Also with regard to the church. It's huge in Latin America. I can't speak to activities provided by individual parishes but the Catholic Church is a dominant social force (although Protestantism is making inroads). Also look up Oscar Romero and Liberation Theology which is a big factor in the modern Latin American church, especially among the poor.

    The other thing is that, especially in areas with high indigenous populations, the local religious practice is often a syncretic mix of Catholicism with heavy doses traditional Native American religion. You'll find a lot of stuff that goes WAY back before Christianity arrived, often with Catholic saints simply taking the places once assigned to indigenous deities.

    One last thing - You might be careful using the term "semi-impoverished". In Latin America, especially poorer countries like Guatemala, the rich-poor divide can be extremely stark. It's not like you have a gradual spectrum fading from poor to lower middle class to upper middle class to wealth. The entire concept of a "middle class" is a product of a developed economy - no developed economy, no middle class. You're either in poverty or you're not - period. It's not absolute, and yes you do have some people in the middle, but overall you're looking at a county where 31% of women are illiterate, and a poverty rate of 70% or higher in rural areas (yay Wikipedia!). So you're looking at a pretty tough situation to get out of...but not impossible, and a good story if someone does.

    Check this out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Guatemala#Poor_women_and_unpaid_workg

    Either way - I commend you for attempting this story and hope it comes out well.
     
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  9. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks for the help and thoughts, @Commandante Lemming.

    I'm definitely still completing more research, and I've basically exhausted Wikipedia's sources on Guatemala as well as some other solid sites. It would help if I knew more than just a very basic level of Spanish (Google Translate doesn't always provide a coherent translation), but oh well . Finding some books and academic sources is next on my list of resources to use.

    I need my character to know English at a proficient level, and I've found various non-profit organizations that provide English classes to Guatemalan villages. Apparently, the few universities in Guatemala require English skills, so the non-profit's are providing English classes to people in poverty to try to help them get out of poverty. I've decided my character's school will be a benefactor of one of these organizations.

    I've considered whether my character will identify as indigenous or not. I'm not sure at this point.... Only a minority of the dialogue will be in non-English, so I'm not too worried about a translation. I'll probably decide this based on whether I want my character to have faced discrimination, or possibly have discriminated against others.

    I'm also still deciding what I want her family to do as a profession. I'm thinking the family has to be *relatively* good enough off so that she can go to school, except with maybe an occasional missed day so she can work.

    Thanks for mentioning Oscar Romero and Liberation Theology, I'll look into that. Also, that's a good idea on deciding the exact area now so I can research it.
     
  10. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Maybe have them run a little shop or a bar or something, or maybe her dad could be a police officer or some form of minor government worker. That gives you a half decent source of income without being TOO upper class but puts them out of away from farming. You'd have to look at how much people make in those professions. I'm guessing.
     
  11. GingerCoffee
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    This depends entirely on economic status. A middle class or above girl would have a life somewhat similar to those in the Western world with a few exceptions. Having lots of kids is valued more than in the West.

    The stereotype is that men think lots of kids are a sign of virility. Both genders value lots of kids.

    Lower classes and rural life is quite different from middle and upper classes. It's been a while since I was there but 15 was beginning marriage age for young girls in Guatemala and it was not common for people to think of education as a way out of poverty.

    It's an interesting situation in that not everyone in the lower classes in rural areas strived to 'get out of poverty' so to speak. A lot of people were relatively happy.

    On the other hand, when I was there, political unrest was seriously dangerous. And I believe that is currently not the case. It's a bit incongruous. People were content on the one hand, but they were rebelling against land grabs and other means that moneyed interests threatened their way of life.

    You need to read about the Guatemalan Civil War to understand the history your characters would have grown up with.
    In the West this was always defined as communism verses capitalism. That was not the true case. US corporate interests in all of Latin America meant the US government supported dictatorships who became just as rich off the natural resources as the corporations did at the expense of the poor.

    It was never about democracy and in fact democracies were replaced with dictatorships if they threatened to nationalize resources. I shouldn't get started because I get very angry. We taught soldiers how to terrorize the local populations with death squads that invaded houses during the night and left headless bodies in the street by morning.
    That was Reagan's legacy. He called it fighting communism. What it really was, was supporting cruel dictatorships that benefited large corporations.

    You can write this however you want. There are girls who are going to fit all these niches. There are many exceptions.

    But on average, a lower class girl would aspire to be a wife. A middle class girl wouldn't be that different from us with the exception, like I said, that having lots of kids was important.

    Definitely, yes to all of the above. Mayan ancestry vs Spanish ancestry is what you are seeing. In Costa Rica you see a whole lot more Spanish influence. In Guatemala you see a much larger population of Mayan descendants.

    Religion is central to most people's lives, especially rural people and middle to lower classes.

    You hang out in the town square. Every town has a public square. It's very similar to kids hanging out in malls here. They cruise around (on foot) or sit on benches and flirt.

    In really small towns people sometimes hang out in the one house that has a TV. I've also seen funny little video game hangouts like this one:
    [​IMG]

    But I imagine they look like this today:
    [​IMG]

    I think more boys than girls play sandlot sports.

    (Hopefully I'm not repeating myself because I've told this story many times.) I went with a bunch of city kids in the Dominican Republic (which I think would be similar in Guatemala) to the relative's farm in a rural area. The guys hung out playing dominoes all day while the girls hung out in the kitchen cooking the meal.

    But when it was time to eat, one of the guys joked, "if there's any duck in this soup it's the feathers." The girls had eaten the better parts of the meat.

    Guys and girls did hang out in gender segregated groups quite often. While they also had social interaction at other times. Going to a dance was a common thing young people did. Girls would often dance with girls.

    And they were often a year or more behind Western culture. You would expect to see a really tacky version of some outdated fad, like really poorly done punk rock or rap or break dancing.
     
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2015
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  12. ladybird
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    ladybird Contributing Member

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    I'd conduct a search for some expat blogs - I started with Guatemala. From there you could contact the bloggers with specific questions. Hope this helps?
    http://www.expat-blog.com/en/directory/central-america/guatemala/
    http://www.expatsblog.com/blogs/guatemala
    http://www.expatsblog.com/portal/american/in/guatemala
     
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  13. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Interesting, I've never heard of expat blogs. I'll have to check them out. Thanks!

    The first hand experiences really help. Thanks again!
     
  14. ladybird
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    I work for an expat website, so I'm fascinated by life in different countries and how different people react. For example, I've noticed the youth culture in the UK is different to France. The 'Blogosphere' can be a great resource and is often overlooked :)

    Good luck with your research.
     
  15. Commandante Lemming
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    Just because GingerCoffee said something about dancing being a big thing - the biggest cultural shock for me in Colombia (and I think this is one generalization that can be extended broadly to Latin America based on my other interactions), is that it's a far more social culture than the U.S. It's louder, more colorful, more exuberant, and it doesn't have an "off" button.

    A few examples - I was down there for a week-ish for a friend's wedding - He's half-Colombian, half-American, used to go to my Messianic synagogue (google that), then moved back to Bogota for a few years to be with his family (and get hitched, apparently). Anyway, I just mention that it's a wedding because people were in already "party mode" so to speak. Before the wedding, I had the chance to visit my friend's synagogue - and Messianic's actually have a lot of roots in charismatic protestantism so there tends to be music and dancing even in U.S. congregations - this place however, had and ENTIRE SEPARATE EVENING SERVICE for JUST music and Dancing. They moved all the chairs out of the sanctuary, played music, and had the whole congregation doing Hebrew dances in a huge circle that took up the whole room (we're talking like 200 people). Now, in the U.S., Messianics dance - usually it's mostly the women and only about half of them. In Colombia, it was ALL of the men and ALL of the Women - the dance circle was three layers deep and and they had to position people against the wall as "bouncers" to make sure the circle didn't get so big people started running into the wall. That was when I figured out the exuberance of the culture was something I hadn't experienced.

    So even in a specifically Jewish example...Latin Americans and North Americans are just at different energy levels.

    The actual WEDDING was an even bigger party. I actually was feeling a little sick because the rabbi I was staying with forced me to eat an overly huge meal (the hospitality thing is big - they do the "honored guest" thing where the guest is supposed to be given the best and not have to work - which of course led to culture clash with my American "don't inconvenience your host" ethics. He was mortified when I tried to clean up my own dishes after a meal).

    The first thing I noticed at the wedding was that the women not only dressed to the nines - they dressed to sparkle. Even the rabbi's wife (who was arguably the most conservative person there) decked herself out in this loud, shiny, gold sequin thing. In an American non-Hispanic setting, a lot of the loud colors and sensuality would probably be considered garish - but there it was de-riguer. I felt like I'd walked into a telenovela. These people were there to party and they wanted to SHINE - and remember...I'm hanging out with a VERY religious, conservative crowd. And then they proceeded to salsa dance all night at the reception - EVERYONE was on the floor, and they did not play ONE slow song all freaking night (OK - one - the bride and groom's first dance....which was then punctuated by an explosion of confetti out of the floor to get the tempo back up). I was amazed at the stamina of these people just from an athletic standpoint - maybe because I don't dance much - but the energy level was just turned up to eleven the whole time.


    Now obviously in that case I'm dealing with pretty well off people - but just stuff to think about in terms of the overall tone of the culture.
     
  16. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I'd like to echo a couple things from your post @Commandante Lemming. A meal is a big deal and done in large groups, and dressing to the nines was common going to a dance, sometimes shockingly so to see people who were otherwise conservative. And the dancing could be shocking for the conservative Latin culture.

    Bumping and grinding to the Lambada:


    I didn't see this among the Mayans though, it was more often those with Spanish heritage you'd see this break in conservatism. Rural Mayans are very conservative.
     
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  17. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Interesting. I thank you all for the additional info and for showing me the "forbidden dance."
     
  18. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    @GingerCoffee

    Were the parochial schools only found in cities rather than the smaller towns? Also, would it be feasible for a child to travel by bicycle from her small town to a school in a different town/city?
     
  19. GingerCoffee
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    There are some insights here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Guatemala
    http://www.bcoia.org/education.html
    Technical specs here:
    http://www.uis.unesco.org/DataCentre/Pages/country-profile.aspx?code=3200&regioncode=40520&SPSLanguage=EN

    Most poor Guatemalans I met did not own bicycles. They walked everywhere. They would often take the bus to the market to sell their goods, but no, I don't think many kids would ride a bike a long distance to school.

    You need to crack the books, Ben, do a whole lot more research. You're not going to get enough from a few anecdotes.

    Or write the story you want to. If the story's good enough, the readers won't care if you have all the details right. After all, how many people do you know that spent time in rural Guatemala?
     
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2015
  20. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Trust me, I am doing a bunch of research and am continuing to do more. I already had the rates and breakdown of education, but it seemed that most non-profits in the highlands region that sponsored and/or purposely prepared kids for university were located in larger cities such as Quetzaltenango, Panajachel, etc. I was thinking of having the child's family live in a smaller town--which I've researched through multiple lengthy news reports, a documentary, youtube videos from some weird Guatemalan tourist organization, weather reports, various Wikipedia articles, many websites on Guatemalan culture (including breakdowns between Mayan/Ladino in various ways), etc.--but I hadn't found anything specifically on whether a child from a smaller village might travel to another village for schooling.

    I appreciate the response. I've been able to find a lot, but I'm still trying to fill in the gaps that remain.
     
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