I remember the first time I held a cup of atol in my hand. A young Mayan teen, dressed in her hand embroidered, hand woven clothing, handed me a steaming plastic cup filled to the brim with a thick light yellow liquid that smelled vaguely of corn and cinnamon. I was standing next to a waterfall outside a school in the Guatemalan highlands on a cool cloudless day. I thanked her in Spanish and she replied in her native indigenous tongue. Her smile made me think she either said “enjoy,” or “you’re welcome.”
I knew that I was expected to drink the whole glass no matter if I liked it or not. And I sort of liked it. The first sip filled my mouth: a warm, sweet liquid, almost a paste. Kernels of corn swirled around my tongue. I swallowed. Pretty good. At least ten pairs of eyes watched me for a reaction. “Mmm,” I smiled. I now understand that to serve a guest a glass of atol is a gesture of welcome. It is an honor.
A month ago I visited the new communities for Reading Village, Chaquijya and Chuchexic. Both are small family compounds off the Pan American Highway above Lake Atitlan. I attended a leadership training session in Chaquijya with ten of our new youth leaders, nine of whom are girls. At the break, Antonia handed me a steaming green plastic cup of corn atol and invited me to sit with her in the sunshine of the school yard. I drained the cup until only a cinnamon stick remained.
Two hours later we found ourselves in another Reading Village community, Chuiquel. We witnessed a group of new and returning youth leaders participate in the welcoming ceremony. Snack time came, Romeo passed me a blue plastic cup, brimful with warm atol, a sweet rice mixture this round. Again, I felt honored. I didn’t admit that I had just downed a corn atol, that my stomach was bursting.
How lucky am I that my biggest challenge that day was what to do with the atol I simply could not finish? How lucky am I to be a witness to the intelligence, drive, and optimism of Mayan teens, to sit in a circle holding plastic cups filled with generosity? How can I begin to convey that it is my honor and my privilege to stand in their presence, not the other way around?
By: Jan Snooks, Board Member at Reading Village