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Asociacion Pop N’oj: On the Forefront of Guatemala Youth Reintegration 

Learn how Indigenous youth are support in Guatemala through activism and community support.

By Deanna Johnson on July 2, 2024

The Guatemalan Institute for Migration reported between 2022 and 2023 more than 10,450 children had been deported back to Guatemala from the United States and Mexico. Many of these children face intense trauma leaving their homes in Guatemala and traveling north only to face additional trauma once they are returned to a home many of them do not even remember. Of the people migrating from Guatemala, the vast majority belong to one of the country’s 23 Indigenous groups, and though nearly half of the country’s population is made up of Indigenous people, systemic inequality, racism, and discrimination lead to significant marginalization of Indigenous people.  

Indigenous discrimination is not limited to Guatemala. As Indigenous people migrate through Mexico and the United States, they are further discriminated against by government officials, other people in migration, coyotes, gangs, and residents of the countries they enter. This forces children and their families to stop wearing traditional clothing, speaking their ancestral languages, and engaging in cultural practices for fear of becoming targets. 

For adults, this forced suppression of identity is difficult to accept, but for children who have not known the traditions of their heritage for long, identity suppression leads to identity loss. To stay safe from danger, avoid harassment, and help their parents navigate legal systems in which their primary languages are not spoken, children turn to Spanish and English, eat hamburgers and pizza, and have no recollection of their community cultural practices. When these children are deported back to their often-rural Guatemalan communities, the culture shock is intense. This is where Asociacion Pop N’oj comes in. As Silvia Raquec, the Coordinator of the organization’s reintegration program explains:

“When the children stay in the United States for a long time they experience very strong culture shock when they meet other children who speak different languages. And so, they feel relegated and that [they] can’t speak [there]. Or in facing discrimination and bullying and the like, they learn English within the shelter. When they return, the kids don’t want to speak their language because they felt that strong discrimination, they say ‘now I don’t want to speak, now I don’t want to put on my [traditional] clothes, I prefer to put on other clothes’.” 

Asociacion Pop N’oj provides psychosocial, physical, educational, and legal support to children and their families. These services aid in reintegration into Guatemalan communities, particularly for the Maya Mam and Maya Popti’ communities of Huehuetenango—one of the departments with the largest number of emigrants. One of the main areas in which Asociacion Pop No’j works is through language recuperation. The organization uses various methods to reintroduce returned children to their heritage languages.  

However, Asociacion Pop No’j does not stop at reintegration. The organization also serves the Indigenous population still living within Guatemala through activism and community support. One example of this support is through the gender equity work the organization takes on. Asociacion Pop No’j’s gender equity and gender-based violence (GBV) prevention work centers Indigenous knowledge and practices. This consists of including men and boys into the conversation and teaching them, “what it means to be a true man” according to the Maya tradition. This work comes in addition to programming and networks that support and bring together women and survivors of GBV. According to Juan Jose Hurtado Paz y Paz, the director of Asociacion Pop No’j, 

“We believe to work on gender, it’s not a matter of women. It involves men and women. […] We try to take the knowledge of Indigenous people about duality in the sense that it’s not men and women as opposite, but it’s complimentary expressions of the same.” 

Asociacion Pop No’j’s work is grounded in the concept of buen vivir, or ‘good living’. This is a Mayan concept that guides how humans should engage with the earth and with one another, as Juan Jose explains:  

“Buen vivir means first to understand […] mankind is not the owner of the earth, we are the children of earth. And so, we have to live in a way that we take from earth what we need and give some back. […] For Mayan people, earth is sacred, which means you have to take care of it, you have to protect it, and you have to also honor all that Mother Earth gives us. […] Buen vivir is not individual, it’s collective.”

Image credit: Asociacion Pop N’oj

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