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May 11, 2016

The Guatemala/Belize Student Exchange Examined

Late last week, the Guatemalan Congress passed a resolution advising their nationals not to travel to Belize because of alleged violence by the B.D.F.  But on this side of the border, in the hundreds school-aged children come across on weekdays to attend three schools in Benque Viejo Del Carmen. The practice started long ago and has continued unimpeded over the years, even in the face of tensions at the political level. News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.

 

Isani Cayetano, Reporting

It’s high noon and the midday heat at the Belize Zoo is rather oppressive.  Beneath a pair of open sheds adjacent to the parking lot, children, in the company of parents and teachers, are pointing out their experiences.  Many of them, students below the age of ten, are for the first time observing Belize’s flora and fauna.  Accompanying her two kids on the field trip is Yanira Garrido.  They are visiting from Melchor de Mencos, a western municipality in neighboring Guatemala.

 

Yanira Garrido

Yanira Garrido, Guatemalan Parent

“We have gone to Old Belize today.  They are learning from the culture of Belize and now to Belize Zoo.”

 

Yanira’s children are among a growing number of students who cross over into Belize daily to attend classes at Mount Carmel Primary School in Benque Viejo.  Guatemalan students account for approximately twenty percent of its present enrolment.

 

Melvin Manzanero

Melvin Manzanero, Principal, Mount Carmel Primary School

“We have probably about two hundred students coming over, about three busloads that come over to the school in the morning.  They go in the afternoon for lunch, they come back and in the afternoon as well.  So the dynamic has been very good and the relationship with parents is the same.”

 

Each morning, a gaggle of boys and girls alights this school bus.  It’s one of three scheduled trips transporting them across the western border to where they are being educated in this predominantly Hispanic community.  Today however, they’ve simply transitioned from one shuttle to another and the commute has deposited them in the heart of the country.

 

Back at school, the upper division is hosting Career Day.

 

Among the presenters chosen is Doctor Carlos Medina, a dentist who runs a clinic in Melchor.  His appearance is a way of giving back to his alma mater.

 

Dr. Carlos Medina, Guatemalan Dentist

“As a kid I remember I had a very, very nice experience to come over this side, looking at a different culture, different food, different way of being.  I am a Guatemalan born.  I was born in the city and I had another type of life.  When I came to Melchor when I was seven everything changed and I adopted this new culture.  Basically I was here from eight in the morning to three, four in the afternoon so I grew up in Belize and I consider myself a Belizean too.”

 

A quick glance at the student body here at Mount Carmel reveals that the population is unassuming.  It’s virtually impossible to differentiate between Belizeans and Guatemalans.  They’re all Hispanic and equally bilingual.  Medina, like many others before and those who have since succeeded him, came here to learn English.

 

Isani Cayetano

“Why did you choose to send your kids to school in Belize, as opposed to maybe another school in Melchor de Mencos?”

 

Yanira Garrido

“Because of the language, English.  I want them to learn English.”

 

Isani Cayetano

“How has that decision played out for you in terms of having your kids come over to Belize everyday for school?”

 

Yanira Garrido

“It’s okay.  It’s like two kilometers and there is a bus that comes from Melchor to Benque every day.”

 

Felipita Valdez

Lifelong educator Felipita Valdez recounts the history of their advent into the local education system.  She has been teaching for over forty years here in Benque.

 

Felipita Valdez, Asst. General Manager, Mount Carmel Primary School

“It began slowly.  Some students started coming over to our school so then we had a policy in place that we were to accept only fifteen from across the border but at the same time giving priority to our Belizean students.  If the list of how many we expect to enroll at the beginning of the year was full before the fifteen then we only took fourteen or thirteen or so.  Then we started charging a, we call it Melchor fee.  It was fifteen dollars per child a month.”

 

That fee has since increased.  Ironically, so has the tension between both countries.  Nonetheless, the cycle of sending children to school in Belize continues daily.

 

Carlos Medina

Dr. Carlos Medina

“I cannot recall an episode of political tension as how things have increased recently because we all just got along back in the old days.  And we still get along because I have a lot of old friends here on this side, not only here in Benque but in San Ignacio, Belmopan, all over the place and I still have very, very good relationships with my Belizean friends.”

 

Isani Cayetano

“In light of what has been taking place between both countries recently, and I know that the political aspect of what is going on may be above the students at this particular level; however, has there been any difference in your opinion, in the way that they interact with each other, those who are Belizeans and the ones coming over from Melchor?”

 

Melvin Manzanero

“Well, at the moment that I know of at our school, we haven’t, I haven’t heard of any incident, I mean, the students get along good, the Melchor parents as well.  They come across, like I’ve said, they cooperate with the school.  We could call them at any point to visit us to speak about their students performance and things like that and it’s positive.  The relationship is positive.”

 

Over the years, Belize and Guatemala has forged a mutually beneficial rapport where education is concerned.  Guatemalan students come here for primary and secondary school, while Belizeans attend university in Guatemala City to specialize in medicine and other academic disciplines.  That relationship, like the one being fostered by the O.A.S., transcends border disputes. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

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