Day in the Life of Guatemalan-Maya Center

They are Palm Beach County’s invisible people.

The tens of thousands of Guatemalan Mayans living quietly throughout the region generally avoid attention because they fear getting deported. They seldom report crimes and hold off going to hospitals. Most don’t vote and stay clear of politics.

They know little English. And, contrary to popular belief, many are not native Spanish speakers. They speak Indian languages that can further isolate them from the larger Latino communities in the U.S.

Yet Guatemalan Mayans are everywhere in Palm Beach County. They cut grass on suburban lawns, replace roofs in housing developments, and load bags in grocery stores. Many live in trailers and apartments on the county’s main roads. They send their children to public schools.

No matter the situation, these immigrants turn to The Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth for a variety of help. Nearly 18,000 people come ever year to the center for immigration assistance, early childhood development, after-school care, and a myriad of other social services.

Spend some time at the 21-staff center, and you’ll understand the hardships these desperately poor people are up against in their new lives in South Florida.

“People think there’s no such thing as Maya,” said Dr. John Linstroth, executive director of Guatemalan-Maya Center. “They hear about them from time to time because of immigration issues. But it’s astonishing to me that we have this rich, cultural base and people don’t know about it. If they saw it here in Lake Worth, they would have a completely different view.”

The Center

On a typical morning, a line of people forms early outside the Guatemala-Maya Center's small 1955-built office on North F Street. Just after the doors open, mothers with many children and men with wrinkled hands show up. They come to sign up for food stamps and bus vouchers, qualify for health insurance and immunization, and register for assistance.

At the front counter, a 33-year-old woman with a baby in a colorfully woven blanket wrapped around her back is applying for a passport for the newborn. She fears her husband will be picked up by immigration officers and then they’ll come for her. So, as a precaution, she wants the paperwork completed and processed to enable her child to eventually return to the U.S. without any problems.

“I’m always thinking about what can happen to us,” she said.

Meantime, in a small office, Elisa Tomas, the center’s outreach worker, gives children a written test to evaluate their cognitive skills. She gets a 4-year-old to trace her name, draw geometric figures, and identify colors, as her mother sits quietly next to her. The girl writes her name well, but stumbles on other basics that she should have mastered by now.

“She knows black and blue, but not green and orange,” Elisa said.

The girl will likely qualify for the center’s Parent Child Home Program that helps parents better interact and educate their children.

Elisa has helped thousands of immigrants resettle in Palm Beach County. Without The Guatemalan-Maya Center, she said they would have no other advocate to navigate through the complex social services systems.

“There’s a lot of needy people. They are illiterate. Many don’t know their age. They are helpless,” Elisa said.

Home Visits

The little girl with wide brown eyes and perfectly straight hair is all smiles as Maria Mendez walks through the front door of the child’s neatly kept three room trailer near West Palm Beach.

Maria, a staffer at the Center’s Parent Child Home Program, visits the 2-year-old and her 18-year-old mother twice weekly. She plays, reads, and uses other evidence-based methods to get the mother to interact with her child. Her goal is to improve communication which often becomes a low priority for Guatemalan Maya families struggling to get by.

To help the girl develop better motor skills, Maria gives her a plastic stethoscope, eye scope, syringe, blood pressure pump, and thermometer, and tells her to put everything neatly into a medical bag. She does.

Sitting on a couch under a sign “Remember Guatemala,” Maria then reads a book “Where is Spot?” and asks the child to find a dog hidden in pop-up illustrations. Again, she follows directions perfectly.

“This is very helpful,” the mother said. “My daughter likes it when Maria comes to visit. She gets very excited.”

Maria and other staffers visit dozens of families in their homes every week. They bring books, toys, and cuddly farm animals to spur interaction between children and their mothers.

In Guatemalan Maya homes, mothers and their young children spend considerable time together, Maria said. That’s why the Parent Child Home Program is so important: research shows that long stays at home with a single caregiver like a mother is intellectually stimulating to young children. And early childhood education works best in low pressure, social, and friendly environments like homes.

“We read and ask important questions to help children and their mothers,” Maria said.

After-School Programs

The classroom is quiet in the Guatemalan-Maya Center’s Escuelita Maya After School Program at Highland Elementary in Lake Worth. It’s 4 p.m., and about a dozen second and third graders who have been in school all day are busy solving math problems. Teacher Elizabeth Dominguez is going from desk to desk to correct errors.

“These students need a lot of attention,” Elizabeth said. “They need to feel like they belong in a class.”

Getting children to better understand their homework is a key part of the many activities at Escuelita Maya, one of two after-school programs operating by the center. The 60 regular participants at Highland Elementary also learn photography, computer technology, and Maya cultural education through painting and weaving. In addition, they get outdoor recreation and snacks.

The year-round programs are intended to keep Guatemalan Maya children in kindergarten through fifth grade from getting recruited into gangs and falling into drug abuse during after-school hours when their parents are at work. Just as important, the programs aim to focus children on academic achievement to increase their chances of completing high school, which most Guatemalan Maya children rarely finish.

“We work on things not emphasized at home,” Dr. Linstroth said. “Many of their parents are illiterate and have no education. They don’t know the education system. They don’t know how to be parents by the standards of this country.”

Like with other Guatemalan-Maya Center programs, Elizabeth said Escuelita Maya strives to change lives.

“We have to make a big difference,” she said.

Writer: Leon Fooksman can be reached at [email protected]