We’ve talked a lot about how mentorship programs help girls stay in school, learn new skills, and become self-aware. Visiting Starfish One by One gave us the opportunity to see that power in action, especially when they introduced us to Candelaria Xep Choguaj, their current lead mentor. Candelaria has an impressive resume filled with firsts: She was the first mentor at Starfish, but she was also the first in her extended family to graduate, to become a teacher, to wait three years after marriage before having a baby, and to start her own business; on top of that, she was the first in her community to go to university and to speak English — and she’s the first in all of Panajchel to speak three languages!
The Starfish program attributes much of the success of their mentorship program to the fact that the mentors have lived through what the current students experience in their daily lives. When Candelaria’s parents allowed their daughter to continue her education, they found themselves on the wrong end of town gossip. “Everyone said, ‘Why are you wasting your time with your girl? You should send her to work.’ They called them stupid parents,” Candelaria says. Her parents didn’t let the criticisms stop their daughter, but when Candelaria was entering the third grade, her father told her she would have to stop going to school so the family could afford to send her younger siblings.
When Candelaria’s teacher learned of the family’s plan to stop their oldest daughter’s education, she spoke with Candelaria’s father until he agreed to let Candelaria come back to school. The family couldn’t afford to buy her any supplies, and Candelaria remembers using the same book bag for six years, sewing holes as they appeared. When she was in sixth grade, she began working for three hours each day painting ceramics so she could afford transportation to and from school. And when it was time for her to travel to Solola for high school, her father worked out a deal with her: As long as she worked for three hours each day in the factory, he would work three extra hours each day so they could pay transportation fees.
With the part-time job and her chores, Candelaria only had time to study at night. “I had many responsibilities with my siblings,” she says. “Once, when my beans weren’t done on time, my mother got very angry because it meant no one would have lunch that day. She took the pot and broke it over my head. I went to my grandmother’s house, and my grandmother told me, ‘The life of woman is like that. Your mother is just preparing you to take care of your children in the future.’ They thought the only purpose for a woman was to have children.”
“Another time, she put my hands on an ant hill, saying that she had to do it so I would learn to be more responsible in the house; it was tradition,” Candelaria says. “I didn’t know why life for a girl was so hard. They thought they needed to do this so I’d be a good woman. That’s the part of my life I hate — they don’t know because they have no education. This is why I became a mentor: to prevent suffering through education.”
And thus far, she’s done it. One of the girls in her mentorship group, Mayra, cried when she told us what Candelaria meant to her. “She’s like another mother,” she says [translated]. “She’s helped me so much, and counseled me on how to continue my studies.” Others, she’s given confidence: “She knows how to take what we have inside and use it to confront our futures,” says Yolanda, another student in Candelaria’s group [translated]. “We’re often told that as women we’re not allowed to do anything, but she tells us we can do anything.”
Think about your own mentors and teachers throughout the years — I know that without ours, She’s the First wouldn’t have seen the exponential growth we experienced in our first year. So we want to know: What have your mentors done for you?