24 November 2007

Biography: Don Alejandro

Don Alejandro Tzaj is probably my favorite co-worker at my office. Don Alejandro isn’t actually his name, though – Don is simply a title for men worthy of respect for their age or esteem. Don Alejandro didn’t gain this title for his age, though – he’s no older than several of the other co-at almost forty – and his position in the organization is the groundskeeper. For some reason, though, I’ve never heard anyone refer to him simply as Alejandro. As the groundskeeper, I became comfortable around him faster than most of the others, and I admit it was partly because of I made the classist assumption that I’d be less likely to feel dumb around the guy pushing a broom.
Don Alejandro has seven children, varying from 3 years old to 18. As far as I can tell, all of his children are very bright. His oldest, a son, achieved the rare feat of completing high school, something done by less than 10% of all Guatemalans. His second child, a daughter, completed middle school and is currently taking typing classes. Meanwhile, most girls leave school by the fourth grade. She was named one of the Mayan Princesses (something like a local beauty pageant). Her father was so protective of her during the town feria dances that not even the gringo was allowed to dance with her.
I got to know Don Alejandro and his family because his son receives a scholarship to go to 7th grade through the Chimaltenango Children’s Education Fund, which I help out with (and is looking for donors). Don Alejandro comes monthly to meet regarding the scholarship and I began meeting with his third child, Otoniel as a tutor around May. Otoniel is one of the brightest kids I have ever met – I help him mostly in his worst subject (English), but helped him a little studying for some others -- any thirteen-year-old who can multiply 17 and 38 in his head in 20 seconds deserves a little help remembering how to say strawberry in English.
The family of seven children and two parents live in a house of one ten-by-fifteen feet room. It contains two large beds and is behind Don Alejandro’s parents’ house. The kitchen is a small separate shelter holding a wood stove. Don Alejandro asked me whether high school scholarships were available, since 2008 will be Otoniel’s last year in middle school. I told that we don’t right now and I couldn’t promise anything.
One of the hardest things about being a Peace Corps volunteer is saying “No.” Particularly as a Peace Corps volunteer, you find yourself frustrated at not being a superhero and solve all the problems you see. Your rewards for your work come primarily from seeing people’s lives improve, opportunities open, hopes realized. I constantly try to remind myself that while one can only do a few small things to change the world, it’s incredibly important that one still does them.

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