A RISING STAR 

by Connie Ning

Juana Simaj

Juana lives in Santiago. Like everyone in her town, she is called an “Attiteco” meaning she lives in the biggest indigenous town on Lake Atitlan. This picturesque body of water, ringed by mountains and three volcanoes, has a handful of Mayan villages and small towns scattered on the shores of its shoulders. Santiago is one such town.  

Arriving by boat we climb onto the dock and follow a staff member through twisting paths like branches of a gnarled tree to reach Juana’s home. It is a cinderblock affair with a dirt floor and a line of machetes on one wall. Functionality is the operative word here. There is nothing charming about this level of poverty.  Juana, her parents and a younger brother with his black, scraggily puppy on a rope leash greet us. They have arranged a few plastic chairs for us while they sit on the floor.

We start the interview by asking Juana a question and she is off and running. She claims to have been timid before entering the MAIA program but this stretches the imagination as she cheerfully chatters on about the big changes in her new life as a college student and a Q Fund girl.

Since she attends classes on weekends in a distant town, she tells us she must be up at 4:00 a.m. to catch a 5:00 bus. Several hours later the bus deposits everyone at the university.  Juana, who up until now has rarely left Santiago, says this place is “like a different country.” It’s hot and coastal. There are kids from everywhere speaking a plethora of Mayan languages. Everything is foreign. She loves it!

 

If there was only one word to describe this 18 year old, it would be resourceful. Next adjectives in the lineup would be confident and curious. Finding herself alone in a strange land and having been warned by other Quetzal girls how hard university courses are, she was understandably frightened. And she was right. Logic and math proved difficult. After considering how she might overcome these challenges, she asked the staff for a tutor, studied long into the nights, and decided to watch YouTube videos for more insight and instruction.

 

Juana was sure she had done poorly on exams, but this was not the case. Out of all the Q Fund girls she ended up with the top GPA. In addition, because she took the initiative, she made multiple new friends, and even stayed the night in their homes, something unheard of for Mayan girls.  Juana has a positive, upbeat attitude. She trusts herself to meet obstacles and overcome them. Her dream is to start a chocolate business, not a bad idea in her town with increasing tourist traffic. She also wants to have a foundation to help disadvantaged girls like herself.

 

Juana exemplifies what can happen when a girl goes from feeling like she’s an object of patriarchy with no opinions and barely a voice to realizing she is a woman standing in her own shoes with unique talents to develop and give. It’s like turning on a light switch in a blackened room to shine into the world.  We believe all of us will be richer with such lights.

 

Postscript: Juana now has a prestigious job with a well- known firm in Antigua. She lives independently with another Q Fund girl. This is a big step for both of them. She has become a role model for her siblings and many other extended family members. Juana has broken the mold of “what a girl should do” and crafted a new footpath into a different and dynamic world of possibilities. She is a leader and a beacon of light for others to follow.

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