GoAbroad Interview

Cristina Coc - Program Coordinator - Toledo District

Cristina Coc has been an activist for Maya Land Rights and forest conservation since 2003. She has worked directly, over the last 10 years, with the Maya villages of Toledo in southern Belize to mobilize the campaign to secure indigenous land rights. As a Q'eqchi Maya woman she has an intimate knowledge of the issues related to land use and social struggles of the Maya.

Over the years she has built tremendous credibility through her community organizing, advocacy and leadership of several Land Rights Lawsuits before the Supreme Court of Belize. She was elected by the traditional leaders, the Alcaldes of Toledo, to be part of the implementation team of the land claims judgments, with a mandate to represent the Maya through on-going negotiations with the Government of Belize. She is also presently co-spokesperson for the Maya Leaders Alliance, an umbrella organization for various indigenous groups in southern Belize.

Maya communities and children gathering at Indian Creek Toledo in Belize

Gathering of children of the earth Indian Creek Toledo (38 Maya communities).

You are the Program Coordinator for the Toledo District in southern Belize where over half the population is Mayan. What is the first step to establishing a service learning program in this area of Belize?

The first step to establishing a service learning program in Toledo where over half the population is of Maya heritage, is to recognize where a mutually beneficial partnership can be forged. Being able to determine whether or not the partners engaged in service learning have a common goal where one can learn from the experience to better improve their own development, but also provide service to a community in rural Toledo and meet a need that enhances the community well being. Making a suitable match requires that there is a common understanding of the community, its cultural and customary values and way of life, and at the same time understanding the expectation of service learning groups/students, their areas of interest, and expertise.

ISIS students at a dinner in the Tropical Education Center in Belize.

ISIS orientation dinner at Tropical Education Center.

ISIS Belize puts a great deal of value on respecting the culture of Belize which seems right in line with your values since you are a passionate activist for Mayan rights. What elements are you sure to include in your service learning programs in Belize to respect Mayan beliefs?

Service learning is less about service one provides to any given community, and more about relationships that can be fostered to better understand a community and all its diversities in order to better understand our relationship and place in the global world. Perhaps the most important element for me is mutual respect, helping groups to understand that they are no longer in their own environment or community, but opening themselves to experience a new way of life, people, place, and situations. It is crucial that in doing so one places aside built in biases as much as possible, and this can only be done from platform of respect for self, and for others. Another element is being able to appreciate the diversity and differences that might be encountered, living in the moment rather than trying to make it what is familiar to oneself. And finally, being able to inquire by asking questions on issues that are unclear, unfamiliar, or unique to your experience. Learning begins by questioning in a respectful manner and in accordance to a peoples customary practices.

Spiritual Ceremony in Belize with First peoples of Santa Rosa Arima Trinidad.

Spiritual ceremony with First peoples of Santa Rosa Arima Trinidad.

Your heritage is Mayan, were you brought up in a traditionally Mayan household? What is a Mayan tradition or belief you love to share with your ISIS Belize participants?

Program Coordinator of ISIS Belize with Pablo

Cristina of ISIS Belize with Pablo

Yes, I am a Q’eqchi Maya woman. Both my parents are Q’eqchi Maya. I was raised speaking my language, which is an important part of my identity. My father is a subsistence farmer, and both my parents have taught me the value of living off and respecting the land, the water, and the air we depend on for our existence. I value greatly my people’s way of life, land and forest dependent, as we hold with utmost respect mother nature. I am always striving to learn more from my own people, especially my elders, because I believe they hold profound wisdom that we can learn from so that we can continue live on this planet in an honorable way which guarantees the future existence of our children and grandchildren.

I also love to learn about other people cultures and ways of life because I believe in drawing parallels and learning from each other how to co-exist and how to share in the responsibility of our changing environments. What I love to share with all groups who visit and experience our communities is the unique relationship we have to our land in the context of my own upbringing. Coming from a traditional Maya way and being exposed to other places and world views, but returning to my people to engage in finding solutions to our various social issues and challenges.

International student posing under a thatched roof in Belize.

ISIS student showing off the traditional Maya thatch roof he help thatch for his SL project.

Are your ISIS Belize participants able to help support your mission of establishing land rights for the Mayan population of Belize?

Yes, absolutely. I became a part of ISIS as a result of my involvement with student groups who have come to Toledo to learn and experience the Maya communities. In sharing our struggle for land rights they have learnt a lot about development issues, justice issues, and human rights. ISIS has been very supportive to continue to incorporate these issues among their student groups, while still catering to their broader areas of interests. Helping us to spread the awareness surrounding the Maya land rights claims in southern Belize takes our struggle and makes it global, and that is an important support to us as a Maya people. But perhaps more important is the fact that we are helping to shape young minds to be greater critical thinkers, more conscious of the struggles of indigenous peoples worldwide, and this is a major support to the Maya people whose mission is to create a more just world by demanding justice for the Maya peoples and their territories.

You are fluent in three languages: English, Q’eqchi’, and Creole. Do you teach the students in Belize some of the local languages? What is useful phrase participants should learn for doing a service learning project in Belize?

Many of the students who have spent time with me and my family, and even with the leaders of the Maya communities, have been exposed to our language in many different ways. Its always amazing how quickly students pick up a Q’eqchi word here or there and begin to use it. It is most fun when students have the opportunity to interact one on one with children who teach them creole or q’eqchi in informal and less uncomfortable settings. A useful and easy phrase one might consider learning is bandiox, meaning “thank you”.

Program Coordinator of ISIS Belize with commissioners from the Inter American Commission on Human Rights in Washington D.C.

Cristina with commissioners from the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (women's conference Washington DC).

Your participants can earn college credits while studying in Belize, but what really makes your programs stand out?

I would have to say the “people” we connect our students to during their stay in Belize. After every student group evaluation, perhaps the most common highlight is always the people they meet and engage with in each community--whether that be a traditional healer, a single mom who manages her own farm, or a child who followed them all around the village. The interaction with the people makes the natural wonders and sites in Belize even more exciting and real to their experiences. This is why service learning has added value, because it places you in an ideal situation to learn as you do through interactions with community.

Students playing football (soccer) in Belize.

ISIS students playing football with Laguna youths after SL project.

Since you are from Belize, you can provide your students with expert advice. What is something you hope each student learns about your country while studying in Belize?

That the history books are outdated and misleading where it concerns the Maya people existence. The Maya civilization is still existing and just as vibrant as our ancestors left it to us, the descendant Maya communities. Students can witness this first hand by meeting present day Maya people. Also, that a developing country like Belize has much to offer to the developed world.

ISIS Belize works with a huge variety of organizations from The Belize Zoo, to the Community Baboon Sanctuary, to the Friends of Conservation and Development. What makes an organization stand out as one you would want to work with?

As is perhaps evident, many of the organizations we partner with have a mission and vision that is consistent with the value of sustainable development, conservation, and safeguarding the well-being of our people and country. This is a common and shared value with ISIS and the people who work at ISIS. Any organization who shares this vision is likely a potential partner to work with.

Maya leaders with the Prime Minister of Belize.

Maya leaders negotiating team with Prime Minister of Belize.

Which program would you recommend to someone who wants to really engage with the locals in Belize?

Most of our programs will provide opportunity for engaging with the local Belizeans, but I would strongly recommend any program which carries a service learning component.  

ISIS Belize has such a unique variety of courses that it offers. What course would you most like to take and why?

Indigenous Resurgence and Sustainable Development, because studying with Dr. Fil is so much fun! 

Are there any exciting, new programs you are developing in Belize? What is something you hope to establish in the future?

In the future I hope that more Belizean scholars can engage in these programs and gain meaningful exchanges with fellow scholars from abroad. Often our students feel that everything we need to learn for our intellectual and personal development is somewhere out there, but in fact appreciating that much of the greatest lessons remain right here at home. We are blessed in Belize to have a diversity with a rich natural environment, interesting and unique cultures, ethnicities and customs, a wealth of natural resources, and some of the most intelligent people.

A Maya Spiritual ceremony in Tikal, Belize.

Maya Spiritual ceremony Tikal.