Guatemala, International psychology, Thought Leadership

Charla with parents in Guatemala

panajachelAs I approached my final week of Spanish lessons with Maria, throughout our month together we had been engaging in ongoing conversations about the systemic challenges some people of Guatemala face. We would talk about the positives including the deep sense of community and family, the rich religious traditions as well as the areas of struggles including being a sexual minority and what that means, child labor, and the lack of comprehensive mental health systems…I listened intently and felt more connected to this community as Maria shared parts of her country with me (of course all in Spanish so I could continue to learn). Very early into our lessons, I shared with her my desire to give back to the community and to use my skills as a psychologist, but wanting to do this in a way that didn’t impose a western perspective.iglesia

She suggested that as my final exam for Spanish that I offer a talk or “charla” on parenting for a small group. This was simultaneously exciting and immensely anxiety inducing. Besides the idea of presenting the western concept of discipline to a small community of parents from San Juan La Laguna who primarily spoke Tz’utujil, I was being asked to do this in Spanish. I spent the week writing and re-writing what I wanted to share and then having Maria edit it for accuracy. We planned to have my talk on the porch of Maria’s home. She shared that they posted flyers and she was unsure how many people would be there. Of the many presentations I have given, I remember feeling that my knowledge and training in parenting didn’t really help me. Instead in some ways it felt limiting and limited…

The porch began to fill up mostly of women and one man who were eager to hear me talk. I knew immediately then I wanted this community to understand who was the expert in the area of parenting as they patiently waited for me to speak…they were the experts. As they introduced themselves, how many children they had and their ages…it was clear that collectively they had more experience raising children than I have had in all my training and education. As far as my Spanish final exam not sure I passed, most of my talk was given in Spanish (that was written out) which Maria translated into Tz’utujil and somewhere in between my English would creep in, which she would help me translate back into Spanish and then back to Tz,utujil – Maria was truly amazing!image

As I shared the meaning of discipline from a western perspective (there was no word for discipline in Tz’utujil), they presented their ideas of what it meant to them. I got a sense of what “it takes a village” meant in this community. The parents shared how the expectation for correcting and changing behavior of children is a responsibility that is placed on everyone in the community especially teachers in the schools. These lessons were further reiterated in the homes and religious spaces.  Although nothing new, this blending of roles across contexts seems to provide consistency for the children. I ended my charla with having them participate in role plays practicing parenting with and without using positive discipline (in a way that felt meaningful for them)…nothing momentous, just real. This was my grassroots international psychology experience.

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Sharing my love

A little about me… a mother of four, psychologist, educator, woman of color, daughter, sister, spouse, avid reader of all things young adult, aspirational chef, new blogger, and much more. As I write today my identity as mom comes to the forefront and I am speaking to you today from this place.

Being a 1st generation Asian Indian, my love for other cultures and travel has been ingrained very early on. I have dreamed of being part of something (like ISP International) to integrate all parts of my identity. This love is something I have already started sharing with my four children. Our first international adventure to learn Spanish as a family was in San Marco, Guatemala in lago de Atitlán. Not only was it a place of beauty surrounded with volcanoes, the mezcla of mayan and guatemalan cultures was so rich.



Our days were spent learning Spanish from our patient teachers, Maria and Gaspar. We traveled to local villages surrounding the lake each with its own dress and culture. This picture is of my daughter and son learning how to roast coffee beans from Gaspar over an open fire in the village of San Juan.

The open air food markets and bright colors of their dress drew me back to my early childhood in India. I felt connected to myself in a way that I had not in decades. The cool part was being able to share this with my children.  My hope and wish is with more exposure that my children will embrace my love of people from all over the world.

One of our shared memories was when we helped to build a small home (about as big as our coat closet) for an elderly woman (in her late 80’s) who was living under sticks sleeping on a bed that was rat infested. It was amazing to see the community and the youth join together to work on this home for their adopted “abuela.” When I initally met her she reminded me of my father and his smile. I was overwhlemed with grief from the loss of my father (my children’s “tha tha”) a few months prior. One month after our return from Guatemala, we heard that she had died…I was consoled in knowing she had a comfortable home her last month and knowing that in some way this home was a connection to my father.


My then 2 1/2-year-old son helping to build a home for the “abuela” de Santa Cruz

As I reflect back on this experience, I have come to realize that we can cultivate the love for difference and that it starts with stepping out of our own world (literally or metaphorically). Much of my work as a therapist requires stepping out of myself to understand the world of my clients…to know that even though I have not experienced their pain, being able to recognize their pain. These and other experiences keep drawing me to this personal work in international psychology.

Return to our blog to hear about my experience of understanding parenting within a Mayan community of mostly women in San Juan and helping to present the idea of postive discipline within the context of their parenting practices.


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