For this week our Inspiring Woman is Brianna McCue, who has been living and working in the communities of Guatemala for the last six years. Not only is she a charismatic and passionate woman that you can catch cruising around in her adorable Volkswagen Bug, but also one who has been working and advocating for education and development of the Guatemalan youth. Let's see what she has to say in this weeks interview:
So, how did you first end up in Guatemala?
Wow. I never know how to answer this question....actually I do know how, I just don't know which version to go with. This is a staple Antigua question as the majority of tourists I meet are all really excited and interested in how people like them come and stay here. Even Guatemalans ask me when they find out how long I have been here....needless to say I get asked this at least 4 times a week.
Short version is that in 2012 I was working with an international NGO and I was assigned to Guatemala to develop programs for drug, gang and homelessness rehabilitation. I had a 2 year contract and after it ended, I decided to stay and focus on my actual passion which is education.
The long version begins with a marriage, culture shock, misdirection and depression; and ends with a divorce, new community, valuable opportunities, and a whole lot of happiness...but that version needs more time and wine.
Since you've been here for the last six years, have you seen Antigua change at all?
Oooooooooh yes. Wendy's and Dunk'n Doughnuts is a start, but the impeachment of president Otto Pérez Molina in 2015 was big. I remember how proud everyone was to participate in the peaceful protests. Looking back I can't help but compare it to what is currently going on in Nicaragua and I am in such awe of how bad it could have gone, but equally in awe of how it didn't.
Ever since then I feel like positive nationalism has increased significantly. I think that it manifests its self in areas like the growing feminist community, efforts to preserve the enviroment, and progressive education. I have also seen how this positive nationalism is really pushing for fresh entrepreneurship in the city and it is quite possibly decreasing the need for international NGOs (I think local NGOs are on the rise).
You can even see it in some of the street signs in the city that say "Ser Chapin es ser honesto, respetable, amable esc.." (To be Guatemalan is to be honest, respectful, kind exc..).
Now you are working with SerNiña, an organization that was developed here in Antigua. Can you tell us a little more about the organization's goals and what kind of work you do?
We work in a workshop format with groups of up to 15 girls. The workshops are once a week for 2 hours and they last a full academic year (February–October). SERniña is hosted at local schools to maximize the likelihood of attendance and because we believe in partnership with local schools that are already working with the girls. All of SERniña workshops are taught by local Guatemalan women who have been trained as SERniña Facilitators, which is really cool because it not only benefits the girls, but also women who we love so much! Our focus is mainly on girls, but we also have workshops with boys as we think it is important to include men and boys in this conversation so that all members of our human ‘team’ can function at their highest potential.We tackle difficult topics such as body image and the influence of society and the media on gender norms and expectations. We also teach girls the importance of self advocacy and goal setting, forming healthy relationships, and living a life based on values. We also have a high focus on sexual and reproductive health which is especially crucial for Guatemalan girls, many of whom live in poverty and face many barriers to healthy development and success.
I really love this program. I truly believe that education is about inspiration and giving practical tools to the future and current superheroes of the world and SERniña does this in such an empowering way to where when I come out of teaching a workshop I feel more inspired and I know that the girls feel the same.
How did you first become interested in education here in Guatemalan, and what would you like to see change in the next twenty years?
I have always been interested in education, but I actually lost interest when I did an internship at an elementary school back in the U.S. The teacher I shadowed was so stressed and I was not into that lifestyle. I also did not enjoy my studies when I was in school mainly because I felt like I was just memorizing and I had no inspiration. However, when I realized that I wanted to stay in Guatemala I was offered lots of jobs teaching English. I quickly got a certificate and started teaching at a language center that was also linked to a montessori school and that is where I was incredibly lucky to be exposed to progressive education and acquisitional learning (learning through experience and not via presentation).
This really opened my eyes to how education is different for each person. Everyone has different realities, priorities, interests and attention spans. Like Albert Einstien said: "Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid."
With that in mind and with the focus SERniña has about inspiring others to reach their highest potential, my hope for the 20 year future would be that teachers have more access to progressive teaching methods and students are inspired to learn about things they actually like. Not just teachers teaching to check a subject on the list and students attending classes so that they can finish a human 'milestone'. Obviously that comes with a mix of governmental change and elimination of gender inequality, but the point is that when opportunities are created and people are inspired, immense growth happens.... and that is my wish. I do not know how realistic it would be for 20 years though...
What is your favorite part about Guatemalan culture?
Like I said before, Guatemala was assigned to me and I had a pretty hard time adjusting. The things that helped me adjust are quite lovingly my favorite.
The first is that talking to strangers and asking for help is something that everyone does. In the U.S. I was taught "stranger danger", but here that does not exist. I remember this quite fondly for every time I was lost on the bus and a bunch of ladies saw me crying and helped me or every time I would fall off my moto and like 20 people came out of their houses to make sure I was ok. The sense of community is strong and I love that.
The second is how I feel that there is truly an appreciation for the small things in life. It is very common for people to refer to a crisp cold morning as delicious or a small flower as precious. Even a nice evening at home is described as blessed. This really helped me when I worked at the rehab center. I would spend time with friends after a long day and they would describe our time as beautiful and I cherished that.
The final kind of plays off the previous but it is the respect for snack time. Again, I grew up learning that hustle trumped nourishment, so when I started working in schools I was shocked when I saw that there was assigned snack times for teachers not just the kids....let's integrate that people!
When you just need a break or moment of stillness, where is your go-to place in Antigua?
I have 2 places.
The first is my house. I know this may sound trivial, but anyone that has lived in Antigua or any other place besides their home for a long time can tell you that trying to find a great place to live is a bottomless search of the perfect rent, location, transport and the perfect unicorn landlord. I think I have moved a total of 7 times in the past 6 years and my apartment that I now have is my spot. I think it is the only place I have actually tried to put down roots (like buying my own bed and actively cleaning the fridge).
The second place is a cultural center in town called "Para la Gente." I go there because there is always something to do in the evenings like poetry, music and art, but during the day it is very tranquil and the sofas are very welcoming. The place has a great balance of community and a homey feel, which again if you are living away from home is a huge comfort.
We all know that there is truly never a dull moment while living as an expat here. What's your funniest memory living abroad?
Well, my Spanish is a collective of bad humor, Guatemalan sayings and a lot of saying things on cue even though I have no idea what it means. My favorite is when I confuse simular words.
For example, one time I was asking a friend for advice and she said that she had no advice to give me. I got angry because I thought she was lacking self confidence so I became so passionately supportive of her ideas blah blah blah to where I think I scared her. She started violently insisting she had no advice to give me and told me to let it go. Apparently I confused the word "consejo" (advice) with "conejo"( rabbit)...I was demanding rabbits and I tried to convince her she had rabbits.
There was also a time to where I would just up and randomly leave conversations because people would say "praise God" in the middle of a sentence and I thought they were saying "thank you, goodbye." (Gracias, a Dios...gracias adios). I would literally stand up and leave coffee dates thinking to myself "Jesus they must be in a hurry to get someplace..." then they would run after me like "Brianna, where are you going??".
I also confused "sangre" (blood) with "aceite" (oil) and I asked for a bloody sandwich at Subway. And the cherry on top: while teaching a class of 4th graders, I accidentally said "Don't f*ck with me." when I wanted to say "Just kidding"...
I am my funniest and most embarrassing memory, but honestly it doesn't bother me. It is how babies learn to speak right?
**If you're interested in sponsoring a girl participating in SERniña for just $20 a month, the link is here**