On The Road Blog
Providing Alternatives for Indigenous Youth in Chiapas, Mexico
San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico
Upon our arrival in San Cristóbal de las Casas, located in the Mexican state of Chiapas, we were greeted by our gracious hosts, Robina Vargas and Andrea Frustaci, founders of Chantiik Taj Tajinkutik, who offered us an impressive array of snacks from the bakery that Chantiik’s current participants and graduates run.
Robina commented as we sat down to chat that when she had passed by the bakery earlier to pick up the breads and cookies, she didn’t have any money on her. Laughing, she described how the youth employee attending the bakery had written out a receipt explaining what she had taken and how much she now owed the bakery—and he even made her sign it.
Robina shared this anecdote with us as a testament to the bakery’s increasing professionalism, brought about by the youth employees’ growing skills in accounting and customer service and bolstered by their personal commitment to the project. Chantiik is one of the three current GFC grantee partners in Chiapas.
Robina and Andrea founded Chantiik Taj Tajinkutik (which means “learning by playing” in the indigenous Tzotzil language) in response to what they saw as an urgent need to advance the rights of indigenous children and youth by providing these young people with a safe space and alternative ways to contribute to their families economically.
At the time, Robina and Andrea ran a cooperative fair-trade store in downtown San Cristóbal—a store in which indigenous families were directly involved. Indigenous children and youth would often accompany their parents to the store or would come alone, and Robina and Andrea began providing them with snacks and tutoring them informally in reading and writing during their visits.
As more and more children started coming to the store, the extent of the need became more and more apparent. Most of the children and youth were not in school but instead worked as vendedores ambulantes (street venders), selling candy or plastic bracelets, or worked as shoeshiners, called boleros in San Cristóbal.
Not only were the conditions for these street-working children deplorable, but often the children were not even making a profit. Andrea described to us how steep competition as well as the pressure to bring home cash meant that many of the child street venders lowered their prices to the point that they were selling their products for almost nothing.
Chantiik was created to provide children and youth with alternatives to working on the streets by building their vocational skills, their literacy and numeracy skills, and their life skills, such as human rights awareness. Participants aged 12 and up enroll in Chantiik’s flagship program, which consists of six months of intensive job and life skills training. Sessions are held for four hours each morning, Monday through Friday, and each day of the week focuses on a distinct skill set, such as baking, small business administration, waiting tables, English, vegetable gardening, and computer skills.
The curriculum is meant to increase participants’ economic well-being and food security and is reflective of the local job market, which is highly service-oriented due to San Cristóbal’s rise as a tourist destination.
Along with building their job skills, participants learn life skills such as assertive communication and have opportunities for creative expression through photography and video workshops. Through a partnership with a Mexican government agency, youth participants who lack a basic education have the opportunity to take literacy and numeracy courses and earn equivalency certificates for primary and secondary school.
After the youth participants complete the six-month training course, Chantiik staff help them with job placement in local businesses by connecting them with employers and training them in interview skills. The training program began in 2012, and since then 57 youth have participated in the program.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Chantiik’s success is that two of its current instructors are actually graduates of the program. Salomon, who teaches the baking course and is paid to manage the bakery, is a graduate, as is Mario, who teaches the computer classes.
Mario, who has disabilities, was never given the opportunity to go to school because his family believed he was not capable of learning. Before enrolling in Chantiik’s training program, he was begging on the streets. Now he has a stable job at a nearby cyber cafe and still returns to Chantiik one morning per week to teach the computer skills course to new generations of participants.
The day of our visit to Chantiik coincided with the organization’s weekly baking workshop. When we arrived, participants were seated around a large table, busy working on a written quiz about different kitchen tools and appliances and their uses in baking. After completing and reviewing the quiz with Salomon, participants donned aprons and hairnets to begin the hands-on portion of the day’s lesson: bread rolls with chocolate chips. As I observed the process, the youth were quick to explain to me each of the steps involved. It was clear that they enjoyed learning to bake and took pride in their finished products. An added bonus was getting to sample the results!
During our visit, we also had the chance to meet with Chantiik’s dedicated team of staff and volunteers. They represent diverse backgrounds but have all been drawn to the organization by its unique model. Despite clear successes and steady growth in the short time since Chantiik’s founding, the staff also acknowledged some of the challenges the organization faces.
One of these challenges involves job placement for the graduates of the program. Due to widespread discrimination against indigenous people, many employers are reluctant to hire Chantiik’s graduates, who are of Tzotzil Mayan descent, despite the relevant skills and experience they possess. These undercurrents of racism continue to negatively impact youth despite the fact that San Cristóbal was the birthplace of the Zapatistas, one of the best-known indigenous movements in recent history. Chantiik emphasizes establishing connections with employers to increase their understanding of and support of the program, and thus their willingness to hire graduates.
Another challenge is that due to limited resources, Chantiik is currently only able to run one six-month intensive training program per year, meaning that during the remaining six months of the year, its facilities, with the exception of its bakery, are not being used. Its staff is eager to see the program grow to have two cycles per year, and in this way benefit twice as many youth. They also dream of opening more social businesses, such as a cafe, and extending their services to younger children.
Sandra Macías del Villar and I, as the Latin America and Caribbean team, are equally excited to continue to support Chantiik’s growth and are proud to have as a GFC partner such a promising organization!