What I Learned in Chiapas

Peter Beardsley is a student at Jesuit High School of Sacramento, California school who participated in a week-long immersion with his classmates in Chiapas.  He shares about his experience of playing soccer with boys from a rural mountain village….

Clouds were gathering as we walked up the mountain. Unused to the altitude, we panted for breath, but the children around us had no problems laughing and running around. Eventually we began to play soccer. It was very different from how kids in the states might have played.

There was no quarreling over the rules, no crying when someone was knocked down, just cheers when a play was made and  sense of intense focus on the task at hand. We played for what seemed like hours. Then it began to rain. Almost immediately we were soaked through. Not even the waterproof gear we were traveling with could stand up to the tropical downpour. The kids were soaked as well, looking as though they had spent the day swimming rather than playing soccer. But even though we were soaked to the bone, we continued to play.

We were absorbed by the game, both us and the kids. We ran and laughed and yelled together as the rain continued to pour down. I experienced many moments like this in Chiapas. Moments where the barriers of language and culture disappeared and we were able to interact with the people we met on a purer, deeper level. It was moments like these that taught me the most during the immersion. Service isn’t just about helping people, trying to make their lives better from the outside. It’s about really connecting with people and coming to a personal understanding of them.

Solutions from Within

David Feurerbach was a Natik intern during the summer of 2016, between his junior and senior year at Denver University, in the International Studies Department.  His job was to document all our projects in Guatemala and Chiapas through photographs and videos. Somewhere along the way, he fell in love with all of Natik’s programs…

I grabbed a chair and sat down behind the camera, ready to start the video interview with Doña Magdalena. We were seated in the kitchen of her home in Zinacantán, a small, indigenous, Mayan town tucked away in the mountains outside of San Cristobal.

Doña Magdalena was seated in front of me, wearing the traditional clothing of Zinacantán, the colorful flowers stitched into the purple fabric around the neckline. I turned the camera on and started recording, making sure that it could pick up Doña Magdalena’s voice over the crackling of the fire burning in the wood stove next to us, which was slow cooking the strips of meat hanging above it. I asked her if she was ready to begin. She smiled, nodded her head, and then began to tell me the story of Mujeres Sembrando la Vida.

Doña Magdalena’s story is an impressive one. When her husband died about 15 years ago, she was left with four daughters and no means of supporting them. At the time, she spoke very little Spanish, as the main language in Zinacantán is Tzotzil. However, with a desire to provide her daughters with the opportunities that she never had, she searched for options. Like many of the women in Zinacantán, Doña Magdalena had practiced weaving since she was a child. Textiles are an important part of the culture of Zinacantán, and the works that are made there are extremely impressive. Because of this, the market for textiles from the community had already existed.

Doña Magdalena recognized the potential in this market, and she recognized that she had the opportunity to not only help herself and her daughters, but also the community of Zinacantán at large. Thus, while teaching herself Spanish, Doña Magdalena began the process of bringing together weavers from Zinacantán to form a cooperative to make and sell these textiles. The cooperative, after years of hard work, has become Mujeres Sembrando la Vida. Today, Mujeres Sembrando la Vida employs many women in Zinacantán and also in the surrounding communities. It empowers women to earn a source of income and to help support their families. And it all began when one woman recognized a need in her community and developed an idea to initiate positive change.

Yo’onik Learning and Playing!

David Feurerbach was a Natik intern during the summer of 2016, between his junior and senior year at Denver University, in the International Studies Department.  His job was to document all our projects in Guatemala and Chiapas through photographs and videos. Somewhere along the way, he fell in love with all of Natik’s programs…

Another project in Zinacantán that was born when a need was recognized in the community is Yo’onik. Yo’onik is a learning center that provides educational support and recreational activities for the children of the community. The founders of the center, Xunka (pronounced SHOONG-ka) and Yoli, are two of the daughters of Doña Magdalena. Xunka and Yoli started the center because they recognized that many children in the community were not finishing school, and, thus, were entering the world with a disadvantage.  With very little support and resources, they started Yo’onik and began holding after school classes for the children. Through the years, the project has grown immensely and continues to grow today as Xunka and Yoli work hard to create an educational impact in the community.  

Today, both Mujeres Sembrando la Vida and Yo’onik have the support of Natik. Natik helps both projects economically and also gives support in many other ways. For example, Natik supports Mujeres Sembrando la Vida by using its greater access to contacts throughout the world to find new markets for the cooperative. For Yo’onik, Natik brings in interns and volunteer groups to assist in the center’s activities. In addition, Natik uses its connections to help advance the programs of the center.

Earlier this year, Natik brought two teachers from the Puerta Abierta School and the Traveling Library, two projects that Natik supports in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, that are very well established and successful, to Zinacantán to help Yo’onik advance its educational programs and expand its impact in the community. Yo’onik benefited greatly from this visit as it developed new ideas and structures of education. In addition, Yo’onik is now currently in the process of developing a Traveling Library based on the model of the Traveling Library in Santiago, Atitlán.


Natik provides a great deal of support as a collaborative partner, not as a superior. And I believe that this is an excellent model for an NGO. Often, NGOs fail because they come in from Western countries to poorer, lesser developed countries believing that they have the solutions, and generally, the projects fail.

Both Mujeres Sembrando la Vida and Yo’onik are projects that were born in the community. They are projects that began when individuals within the community recognized a problem and developed the solutions. Thus, the ideas for change were never lacking; what was lacking were the resources to accomplish their goals. Today, Natik continues to support Mujeres Sembrando la Vida and Yo’onik, based on the collaborative partnership model, realizing that given the resources, the community can develop solutions from within and can shape its own destiny.

Lebron, the Man of Steel, and Zinacantán

David Feurerbach was a Natik intern during the summer of 2016, between his junior and senior year at Denver University, in the International Studies Department.  His job was to document all our projects in Guatemala and Chiapas through photographs and videos. Somewhere along the way, he fell in love with all of Natik’s programs…




As I walked through the market, past the fruit and vegetable vendors, past the row of stands selling chickens, the chickens, recently plucked and gutted, resting upside down with their necks dangling over the side of the counters, resembling the toy, rubber chickens that we used to play with as kids, and past the shops selling artisan textiles, I thought about the week ahead of me in Zinacantán. I had arrived in Chiapas one week earlier to start my summer internship as the photographer and videographer for Natik, and was beginning to adjust to my new life in San Cristobal de las Casas, which is an old colonial city with an interesting mix of tourism and local culture. But now I was heading to Zinacantán to spend the week living with a family, I was unsure of what to expect.

Zinacantán is a small, indigenous town, hidden in the mountains outside of San Cristobal, that retains its traditional culture and way of life. The main language spoken is Tzotzil and many of the inhabitants, including the men, continue to wear the traditional clothing. Zinacantán is a different world from the one in which I grew up in, and so I was unsure if I would be able to find ways to connect with the people.

I emerged from the market and arrived at the transport station. I climbed into the van and greeted the others already aboard. After waiting for about 20 minutes for more passengers (the local transports here generally don’t have a schedule; they leave when they are full), we headed out for Zinacantán.

After about 30 minutes, with my knees jammed into the seat in front of me (the disadvantage of being tall), we arrived. I headed for the house of Doña Magdalena, where I would wait for the family where I would be staying for the week to pick me up.

I arrived at the house just before lunch, and found Doña Magdalena and Xunka seated in the kitchen next to the wood stove chatting in Tzotzil. When I entered, they greeted me and found a chair for me to sit, and then resumed their conversation. I sat for a while listening to the rhythmic flow of the indigenous language, every now and then picking up on a Spanish word that was integrated into their conversation. After a while, Teresa and her husband, Juan Miguel, arrived with their two kids who they had just picked up from the school. Gabriel, (6), and Rogelio, (4), were both full of energy. As Doña Magdalena finished cooking lunch, they ran around the kitchen chasing the cat and the chickens which occasionally wandered in from outside.

Doña Magdalena asked me if I was hungry as she handed me a bowl of vegetable soup, (which made the question more rhetorical than real). That was certainly not a problem for me, as I am always ready to eat. I sat with the family around the wood stove eating the soup and tortillas (meals are always served with a giant stack of tortillas), listening to the conversation in Tzotzil and not understanding anything. The kids occasionally took a break from playing to eat a few bites before returning to their fun. Occasionally one of the members of the family would ask me a question in Spanish to which I would respond, and then the conversation would switch back to Tzotzil.

After lunch, I left with Teresa, Juan Miguel, and the kids to go to their home. I had just set my backpack down when Gabriel and Rogelio burst into the room.

“Let’s watch a movie!” Gabriel enthusiastically said in Spanish.

I agreed, so Gabriel climbed up onto the dresser to start the DVD player. Then, seated on the bed with our backs against the wall, we waited for the machine to read the disc. I was curious to discover what movie I would be watching here in the small, quiet town of Zinacantán, and was surprised when I read the the words on the title screen – “Superman: Hombre de Hierro.”

Gabriel and Rogelio jumped on the bed during the parts that they didn’t find interesting, and explained in great detail the parts that they did find interesting. After the movie, Gabriel asked me if I wanted to watch another. I was content watching another movie, and so Gabriel, Rogelio, and I searched through their collection of three movies. Due to scratches and imperfections, none of the other three movies worked, so we started watching “Superman: Hombre de Hierro” for a second time.

About halfway through the movie, Teresa called to us that dinner was ready. Glad that I would not have to watch the entire movie a second time, we headed to the kitchen to eat.

For dinner we ate eggs with a tomato salsa, and, of course, tortillas. I was thrilled, as I love eggs, and usually eat them twice a day back home in the States. (I may have discovered the only place where the people eat as many eggs as I do!). The dinner conversation was about half in Tzotzil and half in Spanish. When the kids finished their meal they ran off to play, and I stayed in the kitchen talking with Teresa and Juan Miguel.

During our conversation, I learned that Juan Miguel had actually spent a couple of years in the U.S. working as a migrant laborer, sending money back home to Zinacantán to support the family. He had worked in Florida and a couple other states in the Southeast, so we shared stories about the differences between that part of the U.S. and Colorado, where I have spent the majority of my life.

As Juan Miguel and I continued chatting, Gabriel entered the kitchen full of excitement. He ran up to us to report that the white team was winning by two and therefore was going to win. Curious to discover what game he was talking about, I left with Gabriel to go to his parent’s room where he and Rogelio were watching the game. As I entered the room, Lebron James was in the process of getting fouled as he drove into the paint. Gabriel and Rogelio were watching Game 5 of the NBA finals!

I had watched some of the conference finals games with my friends back in Colorado, but had not had the chance to see any games of the finals since arriving in Chiapas for my summer internship. You can imagine my surprise when I realized that the first game of the finals that I would be able to watch would be in the quiet, indigenous town of Zinacantán. I sat on the floor and watched the game with Gabriel and Rogelio.

Later, Juan Miguel and Teresa joined us. By the end of the third quarter, Teresa and the kids had fallen asleep, but Juan Miguel and I stayed up to see the outcome. Having lived in Florida, he had watched Lebron, who at the time was playing for the Miami Heat, and played a lot on TV. So we talked about Lebron. And then we talked about how great the Warriors are, and about the shooting ability of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Eventually, our conversation included other topics also.

As I laid in bed waiting to fall asleep, I reflected on my first day in Zinacantán. When I had walked through the market that morning, thinking about the coming week, I had certainly not expected to watch Superman and the NBA finals on my first day! I guess this is what my International Relations professors are referring to when they talk about the cultural effects of globalization. However, I do not see this as a negative consequence of globalization, as many scholars would argue.

The idea of cultural homogenization, the idea that Western culture is a dominating force that will lead to a world in which local cultures are replaced by Western culture, has become a prevalent idea in the field of International Relations. But I do not see it this way. Parts of Western culture have certainly found their way into Zinacantán. Yet, at the same time, Zinacantán retains the majority of its traditional values and customs. And it is true that the culture of Zinacantán has changed over the years, but this is true of all cultures. Cultures are constantly evolving and adapting, Western culture included. I do not believe that globalization is leading to one, homogenized culture. On the contrary, I believe that globalization is opening the door for different cultures to connect in more profound ways.

For me, even though it was something as simple as watching a movie with Gabriel and Rogelio, or talking about a sport with Juan Miguel, having something in common allowed us to share in the similarities between our two cultures. It also opened the door to discussion and reflection on the differences. Ultimately, it made us realize that even though our two worlds are very different, we can still share a meaningful connection.

Reading + Imagination = Impact

David Feurerbach was a Natik intern during the summer of 2016, between his junior and senior year at Denver University, in the International Studies Department.  His job was to document all our projects in Guatemala and Chiapas through photographs and videos. Somewhere along the way, he fell in love with all of Natik’s programs…

During my time with the Mobile Library, I had the opportunity to see the impact that reading promotes with the children. It is obvious the moment you enter one of the classes with Isaiah and Jessica. The children shout “Good morning teacher!”, and run to the front of the room to greet them with hugs and smiles.

For children in schools in the rural communities surrounding Santiago Atitlán, the Mobile Library provides a learning environment that is participatory, original, and fun! Additionally, the Mobile Library provides children with the opportunity to read, an opportunity some of the children do not have at home. Through the Mobile Library, these children are discovering the importance of reading, learning through imagination and discernment, and are developing their ability to comprehend new information in creative ways that go beyond the usual “memorize and repeat” methods practiced in government schools.

The part of the Mobile Library that impressed me most was when I realized that they worked not only with the children in the schools of the communities, but with many different groups. A group with whom he works is: ADISA, which is a school for children and youth with disabilities. In addition to that they also visit several schools to work with young people.

With the Mobile Library, young people read a book and each week when Isaiah and Jessica come, they have the opportunity to discuss the part of the book they have read, engage in interactive activities, and discuss the lessons of the book. During my time with the Mobile Library, one of the groups was reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. When the students had finished the book, Isaiah and Jessica brought the film to school. We spent the morning watching the movie with the students in their classroom.

Another group of young people were reading The Island of the Blue Dolphins. This group goes to school at night because they have to work during the day. It was amazing to work with the young people in this group, who although they have to work all day, still come to school at night with an open mind and an enthusiastic desire to learn.

Santiago Scholarship Fundraiser!

We need your help to keep all our students in school for the rest of 2017. 

Join the Natik team and contribute to our amazing Guatemalan scholars!

Mother’s Day: Donate on behalf of your mother before noon on Sunday, and send us her name and email so we can send her a great video with images of the scholarship students and their mothers, interspersed with beautiful tropical flowers!

Check out the Santiago Scholarship Page! 



Friends in Art and Books: Libby goes to Mexico


Libby began her work with Natik as a short-term volunteer. Her experiences in Zinacantan–with the children at Yo’onik and the artwork of its founders Xunka and Yoli–inspired her to continue working for the community of Chiapas, Mexico.

I traveled to San Cristobal in Chiapas last July to work with Natik and learn more about the local economy of artisan handicraft creation from the women of Mujeres Sembrado la Vida. I met Xunka and Yoli Hernandez in their hometown of Zinacantan, a small village outside San Cristobal. It’s there that they pursued their dream of creating the Yo’onik Learning Center and MSV, where they help to educate and provide economic opportunities for their community, where many children are not provided with the support they need to receive an education.

They were warm, and quickly invited me into their home. Yoli showed me into their living room and studio space. I was instantly inspired by the amount of beauty contained in the array of pillowcases, hair clips, textiles, and clothing. The works were colorful, original, and diverse. The room was a practical space, with a loom and a sewing machine. It’s here that the two create these works of art with their sisters, relatives, and neighborhood women, as they have for generations.

Just up the road is the Yo’onik Learning Center. It’s a bright, cheerful place for children in Zinacantan to gather to receive tutoring from Xunka and Yoli, along with older students and local volunteers. The space provides a fun environment for community youth to learn, where they can explore a tire playground, enjoy a library, and create works of art.

Anita Smart, Executive Director of Natik, was my guide, mentor, and translator for the next two weeks in Zinacantan while I learned about the culture and community life. Brimming with enthusiasm for the mission of MSV and Yo’onik, she proudly spoke about Xunka and Yoli and the noble work they do to support their community. I was deeply impressed by their accomplishments, goals, and steadfast determination.

When I learned that they wanted to create a traveling library program similar to the Puerta Abierta program in Guatemala, it seemed like a perfect extension to the Yo’onik Learning Center. It would be an excellent means of supporting the education of community youth. In addition to immediately benefiting Zinacantan, the mobility of the library would provide other nearby villages with valuable, but often-inaccessible resources such as books.

Since departing from Chiapas, I have remained involved with Natik as a board member. It is an honor to be a part of this mission, and exciting to watch the dream of creating a traveling library out of Zinacantan come to fruition.

To learn more about Yo’onik’s Traveling Library visit our fundraising page, and please consider donating to this project to here 


Natik Book Fund: Loving to Read, All Life Long!

brookeBrooke Pike started working with Natik as a Fellow in early 2012. She and her husband, Elliot, were the first participants in the Natik Fellowship Program, and worked in Chiapas, Mexico.  At the end of her fellowship, Brooke transitioned to the Board of Directors where she serves on the Executive Team as Treasurer. Brooke holds a Masters of Arts from SIT Graduate Institute where she focused on program planning and design and a BS in Business Administration from the University of New Hampshire. in this blog she reflects on the importance of books! 

For my baby shower when I was pregnant with my son we requested that people bring their favorite childhood book as a gift. Being from a family of avid readers, I wanted to create a library for my son and provide him access to the learning, creativity, and imagination that books inspire. My son is now a year and a half and we aim to read at least one book together each day. We all look forward to this time – to sit together and connect through the colorful pictures and words on each page.


The children in Mexico and Guatemala are no different than my son. They are drawn to books but many do not have a home library like we have the privilege of referring to each night. In Santiago Atitlán, the children crowd around the Puerta Abierta librarian who brings a new bag of books to the school each week, anticipating the new stories that will unfold. In Zinacantán, children attend remedial education classes on Saturdays, even after having gone to school during the week, because they are discovering the joy and value of reading at the Yo’onik Community Learning Center.

DSCF5748In April 2013, Natik started the John E Pike book fund in memory of my father. It brings me joy to know my father’s love of books is shared by his grandson and the next generation of readers in the communities in Guatemala and México where Natik works. This book fund enables the programs to bring books and creative learning to hundreds of children every week.


For more information about the book fund or to donate, click here. 

Senior Natik Adventures in Chiapas!

thumb_IMG_0307_1024In March, a group of five intrepid seniors from Portland, Oregon ventured to Chiapas. The personal histories of Nancy Johns, Turner Odell, Jeanne Pace, Dale Stitt and Davis Fisher include educating groups about social-political realities in Africa, India and Haiti, education of young children and their families, family psychology, diplomacy, and pastoral. This blog is about their adventures…

The trip began with an overnight in Chiapa de Corzo, the charming colonial capital of Chiapas, and a boat ride through the misty and majestic Sumidero Canyon. During our time in San Cristobal, we had a historic tour of downtown, and visited the Mayan Textile Museum. Yoli Hernandez (Yo’onik co-founder, and Mujeres Sembrando la Vida designer) practiced her English by being our guide to the markets and churches of the Mayan villages of Chamula and Zinacantán.


In honor of Yoli’s natural talent for design, our group gifted her a copy of the recently published book Maya Threads: A Woven History of Chiapas.

The book is in English, and therefore gives Yoli the opportunity to practice her English for international clients, and other visiting groups!

We had a lovely morning playing games and sharing the books and toys with the children of the Yo’onik program. We each received a copy of the beautiful ABC of My Culture Tzotzil, Spanish and English literacy book, which is the final product of the teen photography project. Below are photos of Davis doing magic tricks for the children!

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Then we traveled overland to the tropical rainforest, to visit the Mayan Ruins of Palenque, which was beautiful, but incredibly hot and humid.  We were all melting, and Anita and Manuel kept saying how good it was that we were there while the weather was still coolish!

Since we returned home, Anita informed us that after much deliberation, the Hernandez sisters Xunka and Yoli decided how to ‘invest’ our donation: to host an in-person meeting and workshop for the members of the Mujeres Sembrando la Vida artisan cooperative.  The women live in the mountain villages around Zinacantán, and normally only representatives go to the meetings, since it is too costly for all of them to attend every meeting. Now the artisans will be able to spend the whole day together, including a meal and formal presentation with their new projector!

We were happy to learn that the projector that they are buying with our donation will also contribute to their idea of offering occasional family movie nights at the center for entertainment and edification of the local children and their families– and thereby help subsidize some of their programs at the center!

Everyone at Yo’onik is thrilled that their small library is continuing to grow, and all of them are eager to be able to share books with the schools in the villages near Zinacantán.

All of us are enthusiastically looking forward to being advocates for the upcoming fundraiser, so their dream of having a Yo’onik Traveling Library will come true!