A Discussion with Fr. René Santos, Salesian Youth Ministry in Guatemala
November 3, 2015
Background: Father René Santos is currently the director of the Salesian Youth Ministry in Guatemala and El Salvador. He has extensive experience working with children and youth in El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Guatemala in Salesian schools and programs. In this interview, Father Santos describes the variety of programs that the Salesians provide for needy children and youth in Guatemala. Of particular interest, given the cultural and ethnic diversity in Guatemala, are relationships of the Salesians with the indigenous communities in different regions. Father Santos also speaks to the relationships of the Salesians with other religious communities in the area of education and outreach. Father Santos met with Carlos Martinez Ruiz in Guatemala City on November 3, 2015, as part of the fieldwork for the WFDD/Berkley Center mapping project on religion and development in Guatemala.
Could you tell me a little about your trajectory and what brought you to Guatemala?
My name is René Santos, I am Salvadoran, and I work at the Salesian Congregation of Central America (Congregación Salesiana de Centroamérica). I started my training with the Salesians when I was very young. Some years ago there were some aspirants, 10- to 12-year-old boys aspiring to be priests who would meet in boarding schools and it was discerned if their lives would go toward the Salesian life and then the priestly life. Little by little, that training and my practice became focused on education, so I spent a lot of years working in schools in El Salvador and Costa Rica. I came to Guatemala because we do consultations for certain positions. The brothers meet to see who could be the provincial leader to be sent to headquarters in Rome. The brothers chose me to fulfill the role. The inspector asked me if I was willing—I had been working as the director of a technical school in El Salvador. As it so happens, my term there had already finished, and since I had to be somewhere else, I accepted.
Our congregation does not only focus on Guatemala, but we also work as far as Panama. I move throughout Central America via the Youth Ministry, which is the way in which we evangelize. We do it through our schools, chapels, youth groups, work groups, the university, etc. We have 10 sectors. Some are more cross-sectional than complete structures. For example, missionary promotion.
What do you mean by promotion?
Missionary promotion is drawing out young people who might want to be Salesians. Saying missionary promotion is also thinking about how to successfully get young people interested in the missions, or even finding vocations for these missions. Some kind of volunteer work is also beneficial. The promotions do have a structure. In Guatemala, we have the missions in Alta Verapaz, where we have a very large parish with more than 150 to 200 villages that we Salesians attend to. A village is somewhat smaller than a town: they are small social structures, the minimum, underneath them there are not any others. Various villages sometimes form centers. My job is to promote in those sectors in the Salesian houses that we have.
What is the history of the Salesians in Guatemala?
We arrived in Central America in 1897, but the first country we reached was El Salvador. From there, we started to spread throughout Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras around the 1930s. We have different pastoral services, such as the education sector, which is a very strong sector. There, we have schools and high schools. The parochial sector is also considerably strong—in Guatemala we have eight parishes. We also have other semi-structures, which are the sectors for professional training for needy youth who do not have employment. We practice social prevention and violence prevention. We have the chapels, where the youth most in need is cared for through sports and catechetical instruction. In some chapels, the social function is also developed from within. With almost all of our works, we have an affiliated chapel. One kilometer from here is the largest seminary, where they have a very big chapel. With the affiliated chapel, we care for needy youth, but also all types of youth. It is a sort of weekend service so that all the young people may get together. In the province, almost all of our houses have an affiliated chapel. In the education field, we also have technical schools, academics, formal education, and informal education.
How does education work with regard to the public and private schools?
Ours are private schools. The Central American governments do not have a policy supporting or financing schools that are not run by the state. We have only had two successful experiences where the government offers support by paying the teachers’ salaries, which is the case in Costa Rica and Panama. All of the other schools are private.
And the parochial schools?
They are also private. For example, we have a school for needy children here in the city. There are almost 200 boys and girls there, but they depend on the help of the parish and this house, which is the motherhouse of the province. The fee charged is symbolic; around $2 a month. The teachers’ pay depends on the parish. Almost all of our schools in the province are self-funded, for example, in El Salvador they have the arrangement of the school (Centro Escolar), which is financed by the state, but managed by us. This arrangement only exists in El Salvador. The funds come from our private schools. This is how we support ourselves, apart from a provincial solidarity where the rest of the houses help those who are most in need.
Sometimes we receive direct aid and alliances are made, not necessarily economic, but sometimes they can also be for training or in cases of equipment needs. Since our schools are private, we cannot reach the most needy youth because there is a fee to pay. Even though we always have scholarship funds, sometimes 10 percent of the youth population has a scholarship, so we need to discern who needs a scholarship.
Is the educational curriculum of your schools independent or aligned with the governments’ plans?
It has to be aligned since the governments review and regulate the programs. Of course we do not limit ourselves to that; we have an advantage, which is that the children enter an educational and evangelist environment. They do not just come and do certain things, but they are put into educational pastoral communities. They gain a house, a church, a playground where they are safe. These are elements that we manage with the staff in order to care for the children. It is not just taking classes and then going home.
In that sense, many years ago we got rid of the policy of accepting only Catholics. Now we open our doors to any young person who wants to enter.
I imagine that the state has the policy that education must be secular, so how do you handle this requirement?
Private schools have the freedom to work with more independence. We have already opted to do so. Our educational centers have the America Salesian School (Escuela Salesiana América) as a base, which joins together all of the schools in America. Here we have important principles with which we all work, one of which is inclusion. We work as an inclusive school, even though it is logical that we do not reach 100 percent of the population. There are problematic areas that still cannot be overcome due to the context, but we have boosted the inclusivity no matter the religious creed. If you are not Catholic, it does not matter, you can come, but there are certain conditions, like religious respect, the fact that we are not going to force anyone to be Catholic, but at the same time, we hope that students will not advertise other religions in our schools.
Can a child who comes from an evangelical or Mormon family attend one of these schools and stop going to weekly mass?
We ask them to be present at the celebrations, even if they do not take communion. Our ceremonies are not doctrinal, but instead we take advantage of them to speak a bit about life and morals, but not along the lines of indoctrination. The catechism is different—that is when the children who want to receive the sacraments meet and at a separate time they are prepared for it—but they do have to go to mass and a retreat. The parents of all the children have to go to a retreat once a year. They also have to go to a school for the parents, which they sometimes misinterpret thinking that it is a religious school, but it is not; it is about educational aspects of their children. In the experience that I have had, I have not seen conflicts in the get-togethers. I have had a positive experience in terms of the integration of children who are not Catholic in these environments, even much better than other Catholics.
Guatemala is culturally diverse as well. I imagine that indigenous children mix with Ladinos, or that in the private schools, children of a higher socioeconomic status or those with foreign parents must come. How do you handle these cultural differences?
We are open to all; the idea is to not reject anyone. In Guatemala, we have our three schools—the Don Bosco School (Colegio Don Bosco) in Zone One, Miguel Magone, and the parochial school, Liceo Guatemala. Then there is one in Zone Eight called Liceo Salesiano, which is managed by nuns from the Salesian family.
More than anything, here in Guatemala we have training houses—the seminaries, which include pre-apprenticeship and post-apprenticeship. In the largest seminary, we have the technology students. With that diversity you mentioned, we have to comply with the guidelines of the state—the curriculum, the Mayan language, Spanish, and English.
How do the bilingual classes work?
For instance, in the case of a school where most of the students are indigenous but they do not know their native language in the written form, it is almost like teaching an English class (a foreign language) but in reality it is an indigenous language; words and phrases in the Mayan language are taught. But on the missions it is different; the most common language is Kakchiquel. However, on our missions the principal language is Kekchí, the majority speaks Kekchí, even the Ladinos. The classes are in Spanish but Kekchí is used in conversation, especially with the parents who speak little Spanish.
And in the indigenous cultures, is there a lot of syncretism?
Yes, there are a lot of things that are mixed. Remember that evangelist action today looks for integration, not imposition, not supplanting but integrating elements of different cultures. There are distinct elements in every culture, particularly in familial circles.
Like what elements?
Two years ago, I went to a semi-parish in Campur. It was August and they were celebrating Maya Hac, which is the presentation of the first harvest to God, which in the pre-Colombian era was to Mayan deities, but today is to the christian God. There is an altar and in front of the altar they make a circle, as if it were a cake, where they one-by-one put the seeds of that which has been harvested. The Eucharist is carried out with what is available, and they keep doing their ritual which is a dance, before mass is over. They use manpon, which is incense; they are balls that are placed on the embers. Then, the aroma spreads everywhere. The women stand on one side, the men on the other side, and the young people stand on a different side.
And the church allows them to continue doing these dances?
Of course. The children, for example, are the most reluctant, since now the traditions have been changing because they often travel far from their hometown to work, but when they are in the atmosphere of the night, they get involved and they continue. What they have gotten rid of, since the pastor there said it was a problem, was that on Maya Hac they used to drink alcohol. They all would end up drunk—it was a mess. However with this integration, things have been done a different way. The mass starts at 7 or 8 at night, and they continue with their ritual until dawn; some sleep there. That was an interesting experience I had with them, all of them speaking Kekchí, and I could not understand a word!
This year, I had the opportunity to do volunteer work during Holy Week with some young people from the city. You arrive in Carpur and go to the Mayan villages. The idea is to be there with the community, helping with Holy Week celebrations. And we took advantage of it to foment an experience with the children and with the adults, but you need an interpreter. The young people from the city live together with the community; they live in a house, with a family or in one that is loaned to them. They eat the food that they are given, and it is a very interesting experience since it removes them from the reality that they see in the capital—a lot of them even come back transformed. We hear testimonies about appreciating the things that they have.
Are they young Ladinos, from the middle class, who have never experienced anything similar?
Exactly. They learn to appreciate what they have and to be more supportive of people. The parents share the testimonies of the children and how the activity makes an impact on them. It is good practice to raise awareness. We had the opportunity to go and traverse the path that the missionaries travel; now there are less because before the paths were only dirt, but now there is asphalt on certain stretches. For example, the first experience that I had on these missions was travelling on the path of the missionaries for an entire day when today we can do it in three hours. The missionaries walked a lot or rode in canoes through the rivers in order to reach the centers, but now the network of roads is more established. This is also an experience for the young people.
What are the greatest challenges you see with the young people that you are working with?
Some years ago a study came out specifically related to safety and violence that mentioned three levels—those who have suffered and are part of the violence, the youth who have had some experience, and those who have never experienced anything to do with violence but are at risk of experiencing it. Our role as Salesians is focused on the first level. We have at-risk youth who have not taken the step of joining a gang, which is what we focus on—prevention. By the same token, we have education and evangelization.
With the missions, there are two Salesians who have created options for the indigenous. With the men, they train teachers and offer schooling that is received by around 600 youth who cannot pay for their education. So the state has an alliance with him and gives a certain amount of money to support the work. This Salesian already founded a religious congregation also.
The Salesian who is dedicated in support of indigenous women founded a congregation of women called Sisters of the Resurrection (Hermanas de la Resurrección) and they focus on promoting women with regard to education. Now they have an alliance with the Mesoamerican University (Universidad Mesoamericana) and they have expanded the campus in order to offer higher education.
This is one of the challenges, like amplifying prevention experiences in the state, so that these young people do not continue the cycle. This is entwined with other social challenges like family and domestic violence, gender equality, and corruption; we see how public funds do not reach the communities that most need them. Recently, I saw on the news that some healthcare units have not received a salary in five months. And because of this, a large-scale sense of social unrest is generated, which influences everything.
Migration and deportations are another challenge; the deported youth do not come back with the same behavior and attitudes. On the other hand, the remittances sent from the United States are more useful for expenses than for local investment in the communities given that there is no culture for savings. You often see needy youth with expensive phones, contrasting with how they are dressed and how they live.
What happens with the youth who are in a gang and want to get out?
The common denominator that we have found is that it is difficult to take a young person out of the gangs. Not because he can't, but because the gang won’t let him. A lot of the deaths between gang members are young people who have wanted to get out, but have not been able to. A young man who was in the maras (Mara Salvatrucha) told us that if we work with them, we would have to form an integral plan; we would have to take care of the family, put him back in a place that is not his place of origin, even out of the country, since the mara looks for them until they eliminate them. We don’t have a defeatist attitude, but to get involved in this matter would be making a change to the structure of the programs that we have, without knowing what comes next; it would be improvisation and irresponsibility. We don’t know how to deal with them, or their structures, or what it implies. It would be irresponsible. Unless alliances were made, maybe through a network.
What are the challenges that women face and what programs do you have to work on these areas?
In the Carchá missions, adjoining with Petén. A Salesian priest works on women’s education through formal and informal schooling. They are taught to work with agriculture also. In the capital, the school is not mixed; it is for men. Within the central american province, it is one of the few that is only for men.
What happens is that Guatemala is a very traditional society; patriarchy is very strong, more than in other places. That is why the roles within the familial structure, the role of the mother and the father, are very distinct. But in the capital, the conscience of equality for men and women is growing. With the indigenous, I have seen women and men who do the same work, but in the rural areas it is not the same. In institutions, we can see how women are taking roles that before were only for men, such as management positions.
The challenge is how to achieve equality between men and women. But everything must start with education; on the contrary, how can we work and foment that same equality in the participation of women in politics, organizations, and institutions?
Do you feel the effects of corruption at a general level in the country and how do you respond?
I focus on education as a perspective. For example, ex-students of ours that are in government positions: there we should see the type of education that we are giving, the values that we are promoting, and the work that these ex-students are doing. Besides that, perhaps we need to organize circles or task forces with the state, in order to promote policies for young people and work in agreement with the plans of the state.
We need to work in a network in addition to working with other ONGs. That depends a lot on the capability of the ONGs to renounce their ideology. Ours is a little moderate, but ideology itself closes the dialogue. We work with companies to insert the youth into the work. There are ONGs that are closed off to working with companies or chambers of commerce. So the people that leave the programs leave because the aim does not bring us together to achieve something positive, instead of putting ahead the ideology. We should ask ourselves, until what point is ideology an obstacle to reach the goal?
What is the relationship of the church with the new social movement and political inclination of the Guatemalan society, minimally, but what was it that helped topple the most recent government?
Our position is always in support of the most needy youth in the country. As I always say, it is what we are and claim to be good for, for example in education, in the professional training center where we want to reach those who most need it, but not reach out with empty hands but instead help to get them back in the labor force. Let’s say that our work in education is for those who most need it, and for those who do not need it but can be agents of change, and that is why curriculum revision is important. How can we really help to add certain solidary values that can be absorbed during important life stages, when their mind and personality is formed?
The support of the church for the social movement here in Guatemala was very clear. Even the young people and teachers and the community of the Don Bosco school itself participated in the marches, especially in the last ones. One day everything stopped, some institutions worked and others no, and ours did not. A conscience was created, a sensitivity with respect to wanting to be a part of the changes.
During the war, the Catholic Church was very involved but it also suffered. It will be interesting to see how the churches function as witnesses in the future.
Exactly—as complainants. Guatemala is an example for all of Central America. In Honduras and in El Salvador, they are asking for an organization for transparency. But now Guatemala is waiting for what’s coming, for the new president; I don’t know if you have realized that these days, everyone is making suggestions or critiques of his cabinet, or the commission of transition from one government to another. There are people who think that what ended with the fall of the last president can happen again if things are not done that the people are demanding, if there is not positive change. It could be that we will see this type of social protest if certain positions and customs characteristic of previous governments are maintained.