Studying Abroad

Claudette Silva, 23, was born and raised in Guatemala and speaks four languages: Russian, Turkish, English and Spanish. (She hopes to one day learn German and Hebrew as well.) Below is her story, which reveals an unusual childhood and how, as a young adult, violence and a lack of resources affected her experience as a student. 

 When I was born, my father was schizophrenic and was unable to get loose from his detention.  My mother bore me alone at home, and later that day they took us to the hospital. 

For the first three years of my life, though, I lived with both my parents in zone 1 in Guatemala City.  Then my mother separated from my father and left him.  She met my step-father later and had two children with him.  

We were continually moving because my father was perpetually looking for me so he could be with me, but my mother did not want him to have custody. I went to nine different elementary schools in different parts of Guatemala. Just when I made friends I would have to go somewhere else, so it was complicated. We lived in places like San Antonio Suchitepéquez, San Benito in Petén, and in Santa Rosa Oratorio, where my family is from on my mother’s side.  My mother is the daughter of Brazilian immigrants, who migrated there in a big group. There are a lot of Silvas there.

Later we returned to Guatemala City when my father had calmed down and wasn’t looking for me any more.  When I was sixteen, though, I looked for him, and I found him, but it wasn’t a normal situation.  He was constantly changing personalities.  

I believe that I had a happy childhood despite all of that.  Not to have your parents together happens a lot in Guatemala.  The majority of children go through that, so it did not feel out of the ordinary.  In fact, when we lived in Petén, we lived on a farm and I had horses, and everything was great. 

I spent middle school and high school in the capital in a school run by nuns.  Then I went to the University of San Carlos, having managed to enter there to study medicine, and I studied there a year.   

To get around, I had to take a lot of camionetas (a flatbed truck used for transport), and one day in one of them I was assaulted.  A guy, backed by two others, asked everyone for their cell phones.  I hid mine in my shoe and told him “no.”   It makes me angry when I think about it because it’s not like I had a lot of money to buy one.  It cost me a lot.  I did not want to give up my phone so this guy jabbed me with his fist.  He hit me in the chest and they grabbed my backpack, but they did not get my cell phone.

Also, one time, when I was coming back home on a bus from the university through a new route through Villa Nueva, some people started shooting at the bus I was in, just when I was about home. And someone was killed right behind me.  It was horrible.  I think the shooting may have been because some of the cab drivers were upset that a bus was starting to operate in that area in competition with them.  It’s not clear why, but the bus took these gunshots.  

After that I made the decision to find a way to get out of this country. I wanted to leave.  I wanted to find a new way to live, I wanted peace.  I wanted to be able to walk in a country where I did not have to worry about getting robbed.

I went to various embassies and knocked on their doors, trying to figure out how I could get a scholarship abroad to keep studying.  They do have scholarships for Guatemalan students at these embassies, but the scholarships are not easy to get because they are usually given to people with influence, say, to a politician’s son or daughter.  

Russia opened the doors for me.  It was the only country that guided me through the application process and then accepted me. You do have to have good grades and I always had them, but the people at the consul supported me a lot. The process took about a year and I got my scholarship to go to Moscow in 2015.

I think these scholarships represent a way to unite the two countries, to promote good will between the people on both sides.  For example, there are two Russians in Antigua (a town in Guatemala where she currently lives), and I help them in any way I can.  If they want to go the market, I go with them so they feel comfortable here.  I do this because there were many Russians who treated me well, who helped me when I was in Moscow.  

I was in Russia almost two years studying medicine.  For someone who is Latino, it is difficult because of the snow and the extreme cold they have there. I had never experienced snow and those types of temperatures.  I would ask them, “why do you live here? It’s freezing.”  In January, you can’t even leave your house. 

I lived in a very small apartment that was just one room, along with three other women who were from different countries: Albania, the Ivory Coast, and Kazakhstan.  We had bunk beds under which we would put our luggage, and there were four closets and a stand to put dishes on.  There were just two desks and they were almost on top of the beds, because they really didn’t fit. I always grabbed half of a desk to study. It was tough. The woman from the Ivory Coast would make food, these giant soups, for all of her African friends, and they would all come to our place to eat on the weekends, in that little room of ours.  I had to be careful what I wore around the apartment since they would all be there, from Friday to Sunday.  We had to be very tolerant of each other.

Over there it was really important to speak Russian, because if you didn’t, they wouldn’t respect you, and learning it was difficult. You open the books and you begin to read, and you don’t understand anything.  You had to grab a dictionary or an app on your phone to translate it to Spanish. You constantly had to be getting the translation to understand what the book was saying.  All of us foreigners had to study twice as much as everyone else. But these things change you and make you stronger.

In the first six months, they teach you grammar and writing, and the next six months you learn subjects like math, chemistry, and biology.  Although the professors were good, it was hard. I was able to understand and speak Russian within 6 months, but it took me a full year to master it.

I remember that one Russian professor in anatomy would make you feel so bad if you made a mistake, and in that class, there were so many things to memorize.  There are so many cavities in the skull, the bones in the temporal, all the connections, what vein is there and what organ communicates with it, and we had to learn all of it in Russian and Latin.  The professor would arrive, give us a bone and say, “what is this?” If you made one mistake, she would not forgive you, she would just say “well, just come back next week and do the exam all over again.” It was horrible, really.  She made a student cry for one error.  She said, “you are not fit to be a doctor.  Go back to your country. You can’t speak Russian well enough.”

I tried to avoid all of that. I would study and then make drawings of everything I studied, and when the exam arrived, I would put the drawings in front of the professor so she would know that I knew the material.  You had to find a way to win them over. (laughs)

Silva had to stop studying when she was no longer able to cover her expenses.

My parents started to have economic problems, more so than usual, and they began to send me just 250 dollars a month. With this I had to eat, and in a city so expensive like Moscow, I really had to spend money only on food, and it had to be the most basic type of food.  At times, I just didn’t have enough. The scholarship paid for academics, the courses, the labs, but it did not pay for your housing or your food. They may have provided you the books, but not the notebooks or pens. I stopped my studies in the second semester of my second year.

I would have stayed if I had the money.  The scholarship would have taken me through the program to become a doctor, but I couldn’t get the work in Russia that would have allowed me to afford living there.  There were, however, allowances for time off. You could take a year off and still come back and study, so I decided to go to Turkey to earn enough money to return. But if you don’t return within a year, you lose your scholarship.  

I went to Turkey with a guy I got engaged to who was Muslim, and I earned 1,500 dollars a month in tourism. First, though, I went to the Ukraine to study massage, relaxing forms of massage, like Thai, Balinese, shiatsu, styles from India.  I did this so I could go back to Turkey and implement what I had learned.  My fiancé had a business to sell massages to tourists at a hotel, and my job was to explain the types he provided, and to sell customers the massages, I would give a small demonstration and explain how the technique was.  If they liked it, they would buy some and we would assign them a masseuse.  

We had local clients, but 80 percent of them at that hotel were Russians.  Since I could speak their language, I could sell to them.  All the time, I thought I would go back to the university in Moscow.  And while I was there I learned Turkish. It wasn’t hard like Russian. 

When the time came to go back, my husband-to-be told me to stay.  He said, “you are my woman.  Stay with me.” Since I believed that I was gong to make my life with him, I didn’t return to Moscow.  We continued to see each other for another year, but I found out he had been married to another woman and hadn’t told me.  I found pictures of them together in India after he told me he was going there alone on a business trip.  How can I marry someone who already has a wife, and didn’t tell me?  How stupid. He wanted me to be his second woman.  After that I didn’t want to be with him any more, and I returned to my country.  

When you go back, everything is different, the traffic, the people, and the climate, nothing is the same.  But you remember who you are and where you are from, because sometimes you forget, no?  So much time passes when you are abroad and you begin to think in another language, you forget to think in Spanish.  But you also change.  You don’t see things the same, you don’t see things like your culture has taught you.  You open your mind.

People work very hard over there.  In Turkey, you only have three days of rest during an entire month, just three. And that is very tiring.  And in Russia, we studied from Monday to Saturday. We only had Sundays off, and on that day you had to buy things, go to the market, clean the apartment, everything had to be taken care of.  So you can’t do anything else.  It’s not like that here in Guatemala.

If I had the chance, I would return to Russia to study but I would have to have the capital to do it.  I would have to apply for a scholarship all over again, and I would have to have a job over there to sustain me, and that is something I don’t have.  It’s just not possible now.  I can’t have my parents maintain me either, and they haven’t since I was 20. So I’m never going to go back and study there.

I want to be here in Antigua a year, because maybe I will have a future here and could put up a business.   I want to study and understand how everything works and start something. I have to work, I have to eat, and no one is going to rain money down on me.  I have to think about my future.

I feel like Antigua is a very happy place, more so than in Moscow, more so than in Turkey, more so than in Guatemala City.  Here I don’t feel judged, the people are nice and sociable, and I feel supported by my friends. I also like the architecture. 

And it is peaceful here. It’s my country and it isn’t so dangerous in this part of it. 

That’s what I like the most.  

The above story was told in our interview on June 25, 2019, in Antigua, Guatemala. The translation is my own.

Claudette Silva, Antigua, Guatemala, June 25, 2019.

 

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.