Los Patojos: UCI Hillel Helps Create Dreams in Guatemala

Courtesy of AE Anteater

Not many trips have you hiking up volcanoes near rivers of magma, or traveling by boat from coast town to coast town across one of the world’s deepest lakes or drinking in bars where bottle service costs no more than a tank of gas. These are just a few of the things that UC Irvine’s Hillel’s Alternative Spring Break to Guatemala had to offer students this year. The trip allowed students to explore the lifestyle and culture of Guatemala, while also spending time helping and playing with the children of Los Patojos. Los Patojos is a young organization that provides a place for disadvantaged Guatemalan children to eat, play and have fun. It’s a place for the children to escape the problems of Guatemala and, sometimes, the violence in their own households. In an impoverished society where it’s usually difficult for children who don’t come from wealthy families to make something of themselves, Los Patojos offers them a much-needed setting to develop direction in life.

“Besides love, friendship and dignity,” says Juan Pablo, the founder of Los Patojos, “we work hard to give the kids access to nutrition, health, education and social activism trough art.”

Calling Los Patojos a “school” would be doing it a disservice. Since the day he started the project, Juan Pablo has been asking the opinions of the children that come to him on how he should develop Los Patojos. When Los Patojos was nothing but Juan Pablo’s parents’ open garage with a sign, he had no direction for the project. Juan Pablo wasn’t sure what he was doing and was using his own personal savings to fund the project. When a couple of curious children stopped by and asked what it was, he asked them what they thought it should be. With smiles on their faces, the children asked if they could they play there.

“Yes,” Juan Pablo answered.

Could they eat here?

“Sure.”

Could they take naps here?

“Why not?”

That discussion was the birth of Los Patojos.

“When you are a kid in places like these, violence and social disintegration don’t seem to be wrong,” Juan Pablo explained about his founding of the project. “However, in my case, I decided to create a different place than a normal school where children and young minds were able to understand that violence, drugs and the social disintegration is not right, that it is actually wrong and it is time for us to raise and put our ideas in action so we can live in a different world, country, community.”

The kids at Los Patojos can make even the most promiscuous player think twice about not wanting children. From the smiles on their faces, their energy and their willingness to trust, you would never know that some of them come from poor or abusive families. Each child is a delight to get to know, and many are mature and respectful well beyond their years.

“Adults want material things. We are not a charity, or asistencialistas, so the biggest challenges are the old conservatives ways of thinking,” Juan Pablo stressed about the obstacles that Los Patojos faces. “I don’t blame [the adults]; our country isn’t the land of Mickey Mouse. We have drugs, violence, narcos, parents with no jobs, etc. So sadness, alcoholism, unemployment and social ignorance are the four biggest challenges.”

Juan Pablo’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by the Guatemalan community. Guatemala’s president recently paid a visit to Los Patojos in order to witness its activities firsthand. Parents of attending children have offered Juan Pablo their thanks. Some, upon seeing their children having a place to play and have fun, have even been inspired to cease their drinking or beating problems.

Guatemalan history is a dark one, written with much blood, corruption and violence. Even in the more developed towns that students are taken to, there are still pockets of undeveloped society that offer a glimpse into the true ailments of the nation. In that context, Los Patojos is quite an unusual project. Juan Pablo is hopeful that his project will allow the children to develop a hunger for life and personal skills that will help fix Guatemala.

Guatemala has a lot to offer, especially to the many Western college students who have not yet seen the results of poverty and corruption firsthand.

“Act locally, think globally,” Juan Pablo says with enthusiasm. “Greetings from Los Patojos. We are dreams and ideas in action …  Siempre en la lucha!”