Lessons Learned in Guatemala by Gabe Barela

During the past winter break, I was fortunate enough to travel with a group of nine students from Grinnell College on an international co-curricular trip to Guatemala. The opportunity was provided to us via an international travel grant student groups or student leaders could apply to.

In March 2013, the Student Organization of Latin@s (SOL) at Grinnell College applied to the 2013-2014 co-curricular travel grant, offered by the Center for International Studies, in hopes of an opportunity to travel to Guatemala to work with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, NISGUA (https://www.nisgua.org).

More specifically, SOL engaged in a critical service learning opportunity and experienced first-hand the impact of “globalization and migration” on the communities native to Guatemala. During the trip, SOL visited three destinations, which included Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala City, and Antigua Guatemala.

The diversity of site visits allowed students to gain an understanding of the interconnected personal and systemic factors that impact Guatemala’s indigenous populations and Guatemala’s ever changing economic and political landscape.

As an educator/participant of the trip I was forced to reflect on the many educational experiences and privileges I possess and how each of these shaped my ability to facilitate, learn, and work with the group. The trip was my first international travel experience which also influenced my preparation and participation.

Although, it has now been several months since my return, reflecting on this trip (and relatedly how to structure this blog) resulted in breaking it into three stages of the trip. First, I will discuss the steps taken to prepare the group for the trip. I will discuss how the group engaged with their learning environment while on the trip. Finally, I will discuss lessons learned and enduring questions.


The trip to Guatemala was a culmination of a year of work for two student co-leaders and myself. To prepare the group for the trip, the co-leaders created a 10-week curriculum that all students were required to attend. The curriculum focused on Guatemala demographics, politics, and history. The co-leaders also developed team-building activities and discussions related to privilege and identity exploration. During these sessions, students discussed the legacy of the genocide in Guatemala, the privilege they had as college educated, U.S. citizens traveling internationally, and how the (in)ability to speak Spanish would impact their experience. One of the foundational conversations for the group included a discussion about “stealing the pain” of others (Razack, 2007). Additionally, we were extremely fortunate to have our in-country host, Jenny Dale ‘06, a Grinnell alumnus, Skype in with the group for the majority of the classroom sessions. The format for these sessions provided a contextual, individual, and socio-cultural approach to prepare for the trip.

Engagement in Guatemala:

Upon arriving in Guatemala the group quickly learned that we had many privileges we explored and much more that we had not. Our first lesson of privilege came to us when our in country hosts told the group that we were being “too touristy” as we all flashed around our cameras as our first attempt to take in the new environment we were submersed in. They cautioned this would draw too much attention to the group and suggested we appoint a photographer for each day.

The group established many ways to process their experience. This included a daily blog that captured students’ thoughts and reactions (www.solgua14.wordpress.com). Each day we appointed a ‘lead blogger’ in conjunction with the ‘lead photographer’ to post a photo of the most relevant experience of their day. We also established learning partners as way for a dyad of students to ‘check in’ with their partner to discuss physical, emotional, and mental wellness. Lastly, we participated in nightly group discussions to process the activities of the day and discuss the interconnected themes we were learning.

Although we made great efforts to examine how our privilege and identities impacted our experiences, we also quickly learned that we couldn’t “check our privilege with our luggage.” One way I saw this occur was in some of the food preferences of the group or opting out of meals based on what was available. Another was the attempt of several folks on the trip negotiating prices with street vendors and other merchants. Although, these posed issues to address with individuals and the group, the co-leaders attempted to produce learning moments and engage in conversation about the larger implications of these actions.

Another conversation the group engaged in was the ways we, as tourists, were “consuming the culture.” The consumption of culture manifested in many ways; some of which included: the items we purchased, our production of the blog, our limited time in Guatemala, and how we would bring the trip back with us.

Lessons Learned:

Reflecting on our trip to Guatemala and continuing to work with the group to produce events and programs for Grinnell College has forced us to (re)examine what the experience provided. Although the group has realized we need to work continually to share our experience we have realized the following:

  • One of the most important lessons I believe the group has learned is how difficult it is to be social justice advocates.       The group had many conversations of how “authentic” our efforts are. The photos, presentations, and other programs produced are from a college educated, US citizen lens and related what we felt were relevant experiences rather than the experiences of groups or individuals we worked with.
  • The group also learned activism and “acts of allyhood” (Waters, 2010) looks different for everyone. The students who attended the trip have expressed a range of responses to the trip. One student stated they would consider sending money to the organizations we work with but was not interested in working on a “grassroots level.”       Others expressed a desire to work with the NISGUA accompaniment program we learned about. Yet another remains frustrated of how to work to dismantle systemic level oppression as an individual.
  • Lastly, the group has grappled with the notion of creating meaningful partnerships with campus constituencies and with the Guatemalan communities. One tangible result the group established was successfully lobbying for the College’s Multicultural Group Council to order all graduation stoles from one of the weaving cooperatives we worked with in Guatemala.

Enduring Questions:

As an educator/participant, I am also implicated in the above narratives. The preparation and participation in the trip offered many learning moments for me to consider and reflect upon as an individual and educator. Although, the trip was very personally and professionally rewarding, I am still examining my privilege and attempts to create a positive learning experience for students. This has become particularly important as one of the co-leaders and myself are finalists for the grant again this year. The following are enduring questions I have struggled with; these questions will also guide the preparation of our trip if we are re-awarded funding:

  • Is it possible to not consume the culture of others? As discussed above, the group had several discussions about the complexities of international service learning. Throughout the trip, I struggled with the notion of temporarily inserting ourselves in another community’s space and the positive and negative affects associated with it. I am still reflecting on the purpose and impact the photos and items I brought back with me from Guatemala. Have the items I display in my office become another conversational piece or are they a representation of the learning and self-exploration they were intended to be?
  • How do you work in solidarity and not for charity? One of the main objectives we stated as a rationale to re-apply for funding was our interest in working more in depth with a few organizations rather than engaging in a breadth of many.       However, I am also cognizant that working more in depth with fewer organizations does not change the power dynamics or purpose of the trip. For me, it seems that this type of travel largely only benefits the group inserting themselves within the community.       In our case, I often wondered how much our visit altered each community’s environment and resources used to enhance our experience. One resource shared with me that I intend to incorporate if awarded funding is the Fair Trade Learning Standards (http://globalsl.org/2013/09/18/fair-trade-learning/).

Overall, working as a co-leader to create a learning opportunity for the students who attended and myself was an extremely rewarding experience. The year long preparation process provided a chance to see how engaged and dedicated students are about issues they are passionate. The personal and professional lessons I learned will influence how I work with students and how I understand my positionality as an educator. Although, I cannot ‘check’ my or students’ privileges, I can create a space for students to examine, question, and understand how their multiple identities shape their experiences.


Author’s note:

I have included a photo gallery from one of our in country host and professional photographer, Jhonathan F. Gomez. I was not able to expand on the details of our trip but wanted to provide a visual aid to contextualize our experiences.



Razack, S. (2007). Stealing the pain of others: Reflections on Canadian humanitarian responses. Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies, 29(4), 375-394.

Waters, R. (2010). Understanding allyhood as a developmental process. About Campus, 15(5), 2-8.

Gabe is currently a Residence Life Coordinator at Grinnell College.  Gabe completed his undergraduate degree at Colorado State University and Masters at Iowa State University with a certificate in Social Justice.  Gabe also currently serves as the non conference coordinator for the Commission of Social Justice Educators.  Email Gabe with questions or comments at barelaga@grinnell.edu

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