Posted by: Project MicroMundo | September 30, 2010

Meet David

David Outside of the Biblioteca

Hey guys. It’s Ronnie. As one last San Andres post, I want to introduce you to one of the most familiar faces at the Biblioteca. David Quixhan is one of the very first people I met in San Andres, and he came to be a favorite student as well as a dear friend. (A note to the speed readers out there: Be sure not to miss the video of David at the bottom of this post.)

On one of our first days in the Biblioteca, the girls and I were chatting with some of the local kids—getting to know each other and teaching a bit of English.  I noticed a young man quietly observing, and so I said “¡Hola! ¿Cómo te llamas? ¿Quieres aprender inglés?” (“Hi. What’s your name? Want to learn English?”) He shrugged yes. And although David was quiet as we chatted (mostly in Spanish) with our new circle of friends, I noticed that he was understanding all of the English that the volunteers occasionally spoke amongst themselves. He grinned as I repeatedly asked Jess and Steph how to say this and that in Spanish (my Spanish was basically nil when we arrived), and when David started helping me a bit with translations, I realized that I could direct my questions at him! Eventually I took David aside so that I could hear more about him (he wasn’t getting much of a word in when we were in the big group). I learned that he was sixteen years old, a student at Volunteer Peten’s School of Natural Resources, and a big chess enthusiast. On the weekends, David studied chess, saxophone, and painting. David picked up English just by coming to the Biblioteca and hanging out with volunteers. He communicated incredibly well given that he had such an informal education. I also learned that David had been studying French with a volunteer who had just left and that he was interested in continuing to learn. So we made a deal: mis lecciónes de francés por sus lecciónes de español (my French lessons for his Spanish lessons).

Studying French Outside of the Biblioteca

Studying French outside of the Biblioteca

We started meeting regularly at the Biblioteca. Sometimes we learned French, sometimes we worked a little bit on his English, and oftentimes we just hung out and talked—in French, English, Spanish, and a rather comical combination of the three (David certainly kept up his end of the deal, giving me tips on my Spanish and answering my questions). I wasn’t surprised that David’s French accelerated dramatically, like his English. He just has a knack for understanding what people are trying to communicate. Within just a few lessons we worked our way up to having conversations in French (to be fair, it was sometimes it was more like Frespañol), and after several weeks he and I were already rapping to (some seriously dorky) French-learning rap songs!

One of our favorite activities for learning languages was to translate songs. We talked a lot about music and showed each other what we liked. The same day that David told me his favorite singer is Ricardo Arjona (about whom he talks in the video below), David brought me his favorite Arjona song—handwritten and translated to English by David himself. The song is called “El Problema” (“The Problem”). Here is the song, with David’s translations (and my suggestions in brackets):

El problema no fue hallarte
El problema es olvidarte
El problema no es tu ausencia
El problema es que te espero
El problema no es problema

El problema es que me duele
El problema no es que mientas
El problema es que te creo

El problem no es que juegues
El problema es que es conmigo
Si me gustaste por ser libre
Quién soy yo para cambiarte

Si me quedé queriendo solo
Cómo hacer para obligarte
El problema no es quererte
Es que tú no sientas lo mismo

Y cómo deshacerme de tí si no te tengo
Cómo alejarme de tí si estás tan lejos
Cómo encontrarle una pestaña
A lo que nunca tuvo ojos
Cómo encontrarle plataformas
A lo que siempre fue un barranco
Cómo encontrar en la alacena
Los besos que no me diste.

El problema no es que duela
El problema es que me gusta
El problem no es el daño
El problema son las huellas
El problema no es lo que haces

El problem es que lo olvido
El problema no es que digas
El problema es lo que callas.

The problem was not to find you
The problem is to forget you
The problem is not your absence
The problem is that I wait for you
The problem is not a problem
The problem is that [it hurts me]
The problem is not that you lie
The problem is that I believe you

The problem is not that you play
The problem is that it is with me
[If I liked you for being free]
Who am I to change you
[If I was left alone loving you]
[How can I make you]
[The problem is not loving you]
It is that you do not feel the same

[And how to rid myself of you when I don’t have you]
How do I move from you if you are
How to find an eyelash
[For something] that never had eyes

[How to find platforms]
[For something that was always a ravine]
How to find in the [pantry]
The kisses that you did not give me

The problem is not that it hurt[s]
The problem is that I like [it]
The problem is not the [damage]
The problem [is] the [scars]
The problem is not what you do
The problem is that I forget [it]
The problem is not what you [said]
[The problem is that which you keep silent]

Ricardo Arjona Song, Translated

Ricardo Arjona's "El Problema" translated by David

David continually wowed me, and our conversations and exchanges were moving. In our first few weeks as we dove into language studies, David and I became close friends, discussing everything from places and cultures around the world to family life. David is certainly the smartest, most perceptive, sensitive, and inquisitive 16-year-old boy I have ever known, as well as a great student. He quickly got concepts that were presented to him—from grammatical to mathematical to philosophical—and usually was able to apply them immediately.

One day at the Biblioteca I happened to notice a math test lying around. When I looked at the grade on the test, and then the name, I was very surprised: this was definitely not a reflection of David’s potential. I spoke to his teacher and learned that this test was not a fluke: it was part of a poor trend. David and I sat down together to take a look at the exam.  As we went through the questions he got wrong, it became clear that David knew how to answer them or at most needed a brief explanation of a concept or two.  He quickly turned a not-so-hot grade to a ninety percent.  It was hard to see why a kid with such obvious natural intelligence wasn’t at the top of his class.

Well, I don’t claim to have figured that out, but talks with him about the concepts of ambition and success—and what they mean to a Guatemalan teenage boy—were very insightful. There is no classic Guatemalan equivalent to the “American Dream,” the idea that through education and hard work one can rise. When the labor force doesn’t do a great job of absorbing the educated, it can be very difficult to see the point in working hard at school. We talked about that a lot, as well as about the merits of education. For the most part David and I just kept on having our French lessons and hanging out, with the added plus of my nagging him about schoolwork and having the future as a conversational piece. We made a good deal of progress with French, and had a lot of fun in the process.

End of "El Problema," translated by DavidTowards the end of our stay in San Andres, things appeared to be turning around. Math assessments came back with substantially better grades, and I was glad to have had some French lessons postponed because of higher priority school projects. And just today David told me during a great catch-up phone conversation that he got a good grade for a presentation he did on local trees.

During our phone conversation David also told me that he’ll be going to Guatemala City in a couple of weeks for a chess competition! He placed fourth in the region for chess and is moving on to nationals! I’m going to try to head over there to cheer him on, if I can get a day off from work here in Panajachel.

But that’s enough of my talking. Allow David to introduce himself. In this video, David talks about learning languages, where he wants to travel, the chess competition that he rocked, his scholarship at the School of Natural Resources, his take on global climate change, hobbies, and much more. For a Spanish transcription and English summary, click on the video to go to the Youtube page.

Now, here is where you come in: Volunteer Petén’s Biblioteca could really use more language-learning resources. There are no (in-Spanish) French textbooks at the Biblioteca, even though there is a handful of dedicated young students (including David, of course) who are very interested in pursuing French studies. Of course there are also tons of library frequenters interested in learning English–The library could really use English resources, too! More broadly, in-Spanish resources for learning any language, using any media form, and for any target age group would be greatly appreciated. French, English, German, Italian–you name it! Someone will pick it up! Multimedia resources would be a great, fun addition to the library’s collections, too, and most likely easier to ship.

Please let us know if you’re interested in making a contribution! And if you have fallen in love with Volunteer Petén (as have we), please check out their general Donations Page. Thanks, friends!


  1. Ronnie, this is a very moving post! What an adventure.. It’s great to see the changes you have made in all these people’s lives. Keep up the wonderful work and let me know if there is anything I can help with!

  2. Ronnie,

    This story reflects the rare and very enviable ability to pick up multiple languages which both you and your friend seem to possess. I enjoy your writing and that of Steph and Jess. You are doing great work and I look forward to each new post.


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