Melel Xojobal (a phrase meaning ‘true light’ in the indigenous Mayan Tzotzil language) is an organization founded in 1997 to support the children of indigenous parents in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico.
San Cristóbal de las Casas (‘Jovel’, or ‘place in the clouds’ in the most widely-spoken indigenous languages in the region) is situated in the Central Highland region of Chiapas at 2,200 metres above sea level. The altitude and the surrounding mountainous terrain ensure a refreshingly cool, damp climate, a fact not lost on the thousands of North-American and European tourists who flock there each year, many of whom end up staying much longer than they originally intended. A visitor can’t help but be struck by the low-key, low-rise Spanish-colonial era style of the buildings lining the narrow streets, especially if they arrived via the heat and bustle of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the state capital. The traditional feel of the historical centre, one of the most obvious expressions (to the visitor) of the region’s culture, led to the city being designated one of Mexico’s pueblos magicos (Magic Towns) in 2003. Regardless of any ‘official status’, the ‘magic’ of the place can very easily take hold of the casual visitor and turn them into a semi-permanent resident.
More than climate and architecture however, the most striking thing for a visitor will be the indigenous culture and population embedded in the city. Roughly a third of the town’s population is indigenous, mostly Tzotzil and Tzeltal, the two largest indigenous groups in Chiapas. To a casual observer the indigenous women and girls (men and boys dress less traditionally and thus stand out less) might give a sense of ownership, that they are guardians of the area’s unique culture. While this is true, the inescapable fact is that a huge number of indigenous children in the vicinity of San Cristobal (as well as in the rest of Chiapas, other states in Southern Mexico, and in Guatemala) suffer greatly from the effects of poverty, lack of education, discrimination and deprivation of basic rights. While the world focusses its attention (rightly) on warzones and the most acute global humanitarian crises, and (wrongly) on the issues of drug trafficking and associated gang warfare in Mexico, indigenous children in Southern regions continue to be last in line as the benefits of modernity are unevenly distributed amongst Mexicans. Melel Xojobal seeks to redress this situation locally by providing direct and inexpensive support to indigenous children and young people in the vicinity of San Cristobal de las Casas.
While starvation is virtually unheard of in this fertile region, childhood malnutrition is a persistent problem in the region, and its prevalence is much higher in indigenous groups. Along with a lack of early stimulation, early childhood malnutrition is the most important factor in the gaps in later educational attainment between indigenous children and other groups. Melel Xojobal runs a day-care centre for babies and children aged 0-4. They receive two nutritious meals daily and, in cases of severe or chronic deficiencies, medical nutritional support. There are also early stimulation activities and play facilities, as well as workshops to which parents (some still in their teens) are invited. The majority of staff in the day-care centre are volunteers, increasing further the proportion of donations spent directly on supporting children. The same building is used for the day-care centre and all of Melel Xojobals’s administrative activities.
Many children aged 5-13 in the vicinity of San Cristobal work on the streets, with shoe-polishing and selling crafts as the two main areas of work. Melel Xojobal does not seek to take working children ‘off the streets’, but rather to provide them with educational activities and give support intended to prevent them dropping out of formal education, a persistent problem among indigenous families. Classes and workshops (directly funded by donations) in mathematics, Spanish and the children’s own indigenous languages are given in the areas where they typically work. These activities help cover gaps in the children’s education and help them develop the abilities and confidence to independently continue in formal education.
For teenagers aged 13-18, Melel Xojobal provides support by staging classes and workshops in the areas of education about basic rights, sex education, substance abuse and the right to self-determination. By taking part in these activities, the teenagers increase their chances of becoming self-determined adults with the ability to support themselves and their families and participate fully in the economic and political lives of their communities, their region and their country.
The support and activities provided by Melel Xojobal to the three different age-groups are intended to work holistically. Older children are often given the freedom to take part in the activities provided by Melel Xojobal and increase their school attendance (and also continue the economic activities that support their families) because younger siblings are at the day-care centre. Older teenagers increase their economic and political participation, which will in turn reduce the future need for large, inefficient foundations and social programmes.
Whether it’s toddlers who are both literally and figuratively ‘full of beans’, a twelve-year-old boy taking a break from shining shoes to attend a maths class, or a seventeen-year-old women speaking confidently at a press conference alongside a representative of the state government, Melel Xojobal hopes to remain a small, efficient organization that uses donations for the kind of direct assistance to children that has the most lasting effect on their well-being and prospects.
Donations to Melel Xojobal can be made directly through PayPal:
Alternatively, through GlobalGiving:
They can be contacted through their website: