Graciela grew up in a rural community 45 minutes away from Lake Atitlán. Coming from a family that believed in the importance of education regardless of gender, she knew she wanted to continue studying, and her family supported her in that dream. Despite having the desire to study, she knew that the cost of school proved a challenging barrier. After graduating from sixth grade, Graciela learned about Starfish after two mothers in her community told her mom about its scholarship and mentorship program. After seeing the hardships that her parents had experienced throughout her life, she decided to apply for the scholarship as a way to get an education and break free from the generational cycle of poverty.
At 13 years old, she was accepted into the Starfish program and soon realized that she had received more than just a scholarship to go to school. In mentorship, she learned about setting goals for the short and long term and became less shy as she felt more comfortable using her voice. Graciela also recognized important changes in her family during this time. Her mom had never gone to school, and her dad only studied through elementary school, but they were also able to learn during monthly home visits with her Starfish mentor, where they covered everything from vocal empowerment and family communication to nutrition and hygiene.
After graduating from high school, Graciela applied to university scholarships and participated in workshops and community service activities through New Horizons, Starfish’s program for high school graduates. In New Horizons, she received support to find internships that not only provided work experience, but also ended up being experiences that changed the trajectory of her future. After volunteering at an organization focused on 9- to 12-year-old children, she realized that she loved working with kids and wanted to learn more. As a result, she decided to study social work in university.
Shortly after that time, Graciela heard about another job opportunity through Starfish. Ajchowen, a female theater group whose performance focuses on indigenous and gender issues in Guatemala, was looking for an assistant. She decided to join the group and learned more about theater and musical instruments like the marimba. In her community, Graciela was told that women could not do theater; if it was acceptable in Guatemalan culture at all, it was best left to men.
She at first found herself apprehensive about what people in her community would say and then changed her mind, telling herself, “I shouldn’t think that way. I want to be in this group, I want to grow as a person, and I want to overcome society’s limits and the people who said that women can’t do anything except stay in the house to cook, clean, and take care of the kids.” After finishing her year as an assistant, she decided to continue and has now been in the group for almost three years.
During her time in the group, she has come to understand theater as a form of self-expression where she applies the knowledge of vocal empowerment that she learned as a Girl Pioneer. “Many women have limited ability to speak in our society, but the movement of our bodies demonstrates what is happening in society. In Ajchowen, we relate our performance to the social issues of women. I believe that as women, we need to overcome obstacles and go beyond the restrictions that society is placing on us.”
Graciela’s belief in herself and other women has taken her much further than she ever imagined. With Ajchowen, she has performed abroad in Bogotá, Colombia, and New York City. She recently accepted a position as an executive secretary at the Guatemalan Indigenous Development Fund in Guatemala City, a governmental institution that promotes cultural, social, and economic development among indigenous groups in Guatemala.
On the weekends, she’s working to complete her degree in social work, and despite her busyness, still makes an effort to help her family with farming when she has the chance. Inspired by the challenges her family has experienced, she is motivated to have a better future with greater economic stability. Reflecting on her progress so far, she shared, “I want to make an infinite impact that comes from me and affects my community. I know there are lots of challenges—sometimes it’s illness, lack of resources, difficulties in the family—but when I fight for my dreams, it’s worth it. After years of dreaming about my goals, I’m achieving them.”
Meet Ana Miriam, a 17-year-old Maya Kaqchikel woman from Sololá and MAIA Girl Pioneer who is getting ready to fly to Canada after winning a scholarship with AFS Exchange Programs.