A PhD with Dyslexia

In the second and final part of his testimony, 40-year old Edwin Román-Ramírez talks about his dyslexia and the problems it posed for him, and his personal journey toward becoming an archeologist. 

In his narrative, he refers to Antigua, one of Spain’s early colonial settlements in the New world, known today for its remaining colonial structures, as well as to Iximché, the capital of the Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 to 1524 and later a Spanish colonial capital. He also talks of Tikal, a Mayan archeological site which lies in the Petén region of northern Guatemala, one of the largest and most well known.   

How did I become an archeologist? First, I had very supportive parents and they were able to see the things I was good at and that I was interested in, and they always encouraged me to pursue those interests.  Growing up in Chimaltenango, we went very often to Iximché. We also came to Antigua almost every Sunday and we always went to mass there.  These places represent so much.  For instance, for the indigenous people, Iximché represents a place of resistance.  For the state, it represents the first capital.  Memories are in conflict and you have a different view of what happened based on who you are.  But getting exposed to these places early in life really ignited my desire to know more.  Many archeologists say, “well as a kid I saw “Indiana Jones” (the movie) and that’s why I started thinking about archeology.”  For me, I grew up in all this history.

My mom had a picture that she showed me of her at Tikal in the 1970s and that fascinated me.  I was a really bad kid for traveling, but my dad brought my oldest brother to Tikal, and they came back with all their stories of the experience, and I became very interested in what they were saying. It was a process but it started to grow on me, this interest in the past, and my parents started to recognize my fascination with it and supported me. I always  wanted to know why we were doing something.  I always wanted to know, “why do we eat this food, why do we use the words we do?”

I think my parents were really smart to encourage me, but it wasn’t easy for me because at that time I had dyslexia and did not know it. I was terrible in school, like really bad, and I really hated it. I was a terrible student.  

I did not believe I was good enough in anything I did. Books were hard to read, my spelling was atrocious, and everybody was making fun of me.  I couldn’t write, either.  I always had to have someone check on my writing, so my mom and dad would often read the stuff I wrote and monitor it.  They were middle school teachers.

I did not know that I had this condition, and my parents did not even know what dyslexia was.  In Guatemala in the 1980s, in my hometown, nobody talked about dyslexia. So everything I did was not good enough.  I always felt like, “oh man, I spent the entire year trying hard, and it didn’t work out.”  And here, at that time, the schools were very militaristic.  It was a time of war in the 1980s and ’90s, and the authorities were strict and would place a great deal of emphasis on memorization, and that didn’t work for me.  

But I always liked adventure, and something I also had was that I actually get crazy when I don’t know something, because if I don’t know something I’m going to go and research it and figure it out.  And I think now, I was able to pursue archeology because people along the way discovered that about me.  Professors would say, “we don’t know this or that,” and I would go nuts and put together a lot of data about whatever it was.  But expressing my findings was hard. 

Here in Guatemala, before you finish high school, you have to go and work for a company for a month, to give you some experience.  My field in this regard was in hotels and tourism, and most of my teachers thought I would go to Antigua, which was close by, but I said no, I wanted to go far away.  My parents made an effort to send me to Panajachel (a town on the edge of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala), and for us it was really far in 1995, and we were at the end of the war.

Over there I loved it.  I spent two months there working in a hotel, and when I came back I told my mom and dad that I was going to travel around the world because I met all of these foreign people who were traveling.  My plan was to go by bus to Argentina, that was my dream. But my parents said, “come on, try one year of archeology, and you will be fine.”  And I told them I would try. 

Román-Ramírez attended the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, the largest and oldest university in Guatemala.

I went for a year, and I did really bad at the university  The second year went really really bad (laughs).  Finally, my parents asked me what I was going to do and I told them that maybe I needed some responsibilities outside of studying and my mom and dad agreed. My parents said, “Maybe you need a structure and that will help you at the university.”  

My mom found out that they had created a TV news show in town and suggested I go there to see if there was something I could do. I said “sure” and I got an interview with this guy, and he was wearing all these gold rings; he was really exotic. I said that I was interested in being a camera man because there was an opening for it, and after the interview, he said, “you’ve got the job.”  He told me to come the next day wearing a formal, long sleeve shirt.   “But you are not a camerman,” he said.  “You are going to interview guests.” I told him I could not do it because I was too shy.  I was a really shy kid.  But he said, “I’m your boss,” so I agreed to do it. 

My dad gave me a formal shirt and when I got to work I realized that I was going to interview the president of Guatemala, Álvaro Arzú!  This was in 1998, two days after Girardi had been shot. (Roman Catholic Archbishop and human rights advocate Juan José Gerardi was murdered in his home following an effort to expose those responsible for atrocities committed during Guatemala’s 36-year old civil conflict. The murder caused public outrage.) 

I was 18 years old, imagine that.  I had no training and there I was with my long hair, I was so intimidated.  I knew the president was really hard on journalists, and I never sweated more in my life, but I interviewed Arzú for 10 minutes.

Since then, I started not to have any fear of talking to people.  I went back to the university and my grades got better, and then I met José Paredes, the director of the Proyecto Arqueologico del Motagua Medio and a ceramics professor.  He told me to apply to work with a group of archeologists, which would be my first field experience.  They just accept the best students into this program, but my grades, they sucked (laughs), you know.  I had terrible grades.  I told him about that but he said, “I know that, but I see something in you that I don’t see in the rest. Please apply.” Again, he saw that I had this thirst for knowledge.  A passion for it. I was accepted.

When I am curious about something or I start to think about ancient times, everything around me disappears, I have nothing to do with the present-day material world. I don’t know how to describe it.  The tomb of a king, a murial, but sometimes the tiny things are even more important. There is nothing like discovery and having an idea about it.

We went to a site in Zacapa called La Vega del Cobán with a small team of archeologists from my university on a small project.  After I went there, I started to do better at the university. I still had problems with exams, writing and all of that, but I think I started to push myself a little bit farther without knowing that I had dyslexia yet.  But these professors began to see that I had something different, and began to take me to excavations.  

I didn’t know much about it but in the first years of this program you had to go do reconnaissance, you had to go and look for new sites.  That was my first job, but during that time, one of our friends who was excavating got sick, and they told me to fill in for him and excavate, and I said “yeah sure.” I went there and told my friend, a Guatemalan student at San Carlos, that I was terrified, because I knew nothing about excavations, but she had more experience and told me not to worry and that she would help me.  I remember that we got lost on our way there, and arrived late, and that most of the workers that we needed were gone, all but a couple.  And the other people had left, so, oh man, I had to excavate on my own quite a bit.  Zacapa is really dry and hot, and there was not a single tree there, and we had to excavate.  But we did it.

While I did my excavations, I once found a very small piece of obsidian, and I knew obsidian did not come from that area.  It could’ve been trash, but when I found it, my brain was exploding; I was wondering what was going on.  It is the same feeling I get today.  

The last year at my university in Guatemala, I remember reading the newspaper and I saw an article that was talking about dyslexia and I read it. I told my parents about it and they said “yeah, we think you have that.”  So I started to read more about it, to see what the problem was.  

Before graduating, Edwin was invited to the US by a peace corps volunteer and stayed with his family while learning English.  He spent six months there before returning to Guatemala.

I had been trying to learn English in Guatemala and it was hard. I understood that for dyslexic people, there are certain languages that are difficult, and English was one of them. This family paid a tutor for me, so, with that help, and from talking to people and watching movies, I learned English.  

While I was there, one of the directors back in Guatemala told me that I should finish my thesis and graduate, and he offered to fund me while I worked on it.  He gave me a month to write my thesis.  For four years I didn’t want to do it, but he pushed me to do it, and I finished it.  I wrote the entire thesis in 1 month: 116 pages.  I finished it and I graduated.  

Edwin was able to meet PhD students and professors from the US and elsewhere through his archeological studies and research, and he received help and encouragement from them to keep going and pursue his studies.  He made his way to the University of Texas, where he received a PhD.

One of the problems with dyslexia is that it destroys your confidence.   I have to say that everything goes back to this dyslexia and I am still trying to understand my life in this context.

There was this PhD student and she told me then that I was a really good leader and she told me that I should pursue a PhD.  And of course she was really good looking, so I was like, “yeah.”  Two years before I had met a prominent archeologist from the US and I talked with him and told him I would like to study with him, and he said, finish your degree and you can come.  So I already had the idea. But In 2008, this PhD student really made me believe that I could do it. Also, when I was on a project and I didn’t have my licenciatura (bachelors) yet, I would be working with people with a PhD, and then I thought “well I could do that.”

My score for the GRE, the examination taken for graduate school, wasn’t any good, it was terrible, but they kept encouraging me. They saw something in me.  I applied, and they accepted me.  When I arrived I was able to read more about dyslexia and I started to take notes on how I could improve, and I started to have more confidence that I could get the PhD. 

I think being in the USA, in higher education, they never asked me specific questions about information.  They would ask me, “what do you think?”  Since then, I was the nerdiest person you could meet. I was in the library working, working, working.  I knew I had to work harder, but also I think the professors there gave me the opportunity to think and show my ideas.  That’s what really helped.  It was a great experience. You know, PhD programs can be terrible.  They are hard and can destroy a lot of your heart.   But when I look back, many people helped me.

I think getting the PhD more than anything was a way to prove to myself that I wasn’t dumb.  Since I was a kid, I thought that when I was born, the cables in my brain weren’t connected because I had all of these good ideas that I could not express.  I would dream of having an accident that would re-unite those cables in my mind so I could prove that I was smart.  So I was driven to prove myself.   Also, people believed in me and gave me opportunities, and this country (Guatemala) does not give you a lot of opportunities.  But when there is a wall there, if the wall has a small crack, I will try to pass through that crack.  I think that’s how I got to the University of Texas and to this day, I really still don’t believe I have a PhD.  You know, I tell people that I have a PhD and am from a home town that doesn’t even have a library (laughs).  That is crazy, you know.   

And now I can enjoy life.  I can enjoy archeology.  Now I think I am back to that kid who finds a small piece of obsidian on his first excavation.  I am still that kid, with more experience, more knowledge, and am more secure.  I don’t have to prove anything to that old Edwin.  And I still can’t believe I went to such a top university.  I was really lucky.  I had a lot of people who believed in me.  We never had money in my family, but I had encouragement.  

I don’t know the statistics, but I think we are between 2000 and 3000 people with a PhD in Guatemala. People don’t realize how difficult it is to get this. I met a lot of Guatemalans that come from really difficult backgrounds, and I am lucky.  My parents, being teachers, had secure money coming in. I know people who have parents who are poor, small farmers, indigenous, and I have friends who are female and indigenous and they had it much harder, a million times more difficult, than I did.  It inspires me a lot to see that they were able to get a PhD with everything against them. 

I appeared in a documentary produced by National Geographic regarding the new discoveries on the Maya. There were four episodes, and I was in two of them.  People from here were so happy, they were saying how great it was that I, a Guatemalan, was in the documentary speaking on these findings.  I was happy also because in my opinion they don’t like to put people in these documentaries who have an accent.  In terms of public attention, this documentary put me on the same level as experts in the USA.  I didn’t expect it because I was not looking for it. But what I like most is that I don’t have to prove myself to anybody anymore.  It feels weird because most of my life I felt like I was dumb and now everyone is complimenting me on my work and I just say, “well, thank you” (laughs). I’m just not used to it.  

Dr. Edwin Román-Ramírez at an excavation site in New Mexico.

 

Author: storiesfromguatemala

Dr. Stephen O'Brien is a historian who resides in both Guatemala and New Haven, CT collecting oral testimony to gain insight into various historical and cultural forces. He has a PhD from Yale University in History, with a concentration in modern Latin America, and is a Fulbright-Hays scholar. He has taught at Trinity College in Connecticut and at Saint Louis University in Madrid, Spain. Before that time, he was a reporter and anchorman in local tv news in the United States.

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