The Colgate Scene
March 2006

A bridge for understanding

As a lay Franciscan missionary in Patzún, Guatemala, David LaDuca '91 has compiled a specialized dictionary that makes it easier for Spanish-speakers to learn English. Here, he works with students Maria Canux and Mynor Ixén. [Photos courtesy of the LaDuca family]

My son, David LaDuca '91, has developed a new dictionary.

As far as dictionaries go, it may be small, but the words it contains have a lot of power: they have vowel sounds that Guatemalan children can pronounce.

"The ability to speak English is a ticket to a better job for young people in Guatemala," said David, who as a lay Franciscan missionary there teaches English to about 250 upper-grade children. Local speakers have a difficult time sounding out English words because Spanish has fewer vowel sounds than English. Classes are large, and the time with students is short, so David's objective was to start his students off with a basic vocabulary of words that they can easily pronounce correctly.

My wife and I recently returned from a 13-day visit to Guatemala, where David and I had the opportunity to reflect on his pursuit of a life of service and how his Colgate experience contributed to taking that route.

Graduating with a major in religion and a minor in Asian studies, David first worked with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (where he met his wife, Beth) and taught at the Jesuit Nativity Mission School in New York City. After earning a master's in science education at City College Of New York and teaching at a high school in Harlem, he and Beth spent two years with the Peace Corps in a remote village in Suriname, South America.

There, living in a cottage with a dirt floor and no water or sanitary sewer, among people who depended on the land for their survival, they first learned the importance of trying to understand local attitudes.

"In the local language, the words for `reading a book' are the same words for `lazy,'" he told me. "When children saw me with a book in my hand, they would make fun of me and repeat the words for `lazy.' I quickly learned that the priorities of the village were far different from those of our culture."

When David returned to Beaufort, S.C., I saw in him a different attitude toward the "necessities of life" that so many Americans feel are important. He also came back with an interest in wood carving, and for a brief time he took on new challenges -- tutoring at a local college and a job in a custom woodworking shop. But it wasn't long before both David and Beth, now with a son, Philip, sought another volunteer experience, which led them to Guatemala.

Last January, David and his family set forth for a three-year commitment there with the Franciscan Missionary Service, whose objective is for missionaries to become bridges for understanding between the places that they serve and the places to which they will return. After a three-month total immersion language program in Antigua, the family settled in Patzún in what is known as the highlands, about 70 miles west of Guatemala City.

Patzún has a population of 28,000, and the community serves a surrounding countryside population of 21,000. With little industry in the area, residents are dependent upon the area's small farms for work. Homes are primarily cinder block with metal or tile roofs. Many do not have running water; electricity is sporadic and central heating rare. The town square is the hub of activity and the site of a church, a general store, local shops, and an outdoor market where residents bring things to sell.

"Walking on the edge of town is like walking on the edge of a bowl, with cornfields surrounding a mainly one-story town," LaDuca commented. "Patzún had a considerable earthquake in the '70s that has continued to discourage building of tall structures.

During our visit, everywhere we went David greeted friendly, familiar faces. It was remarkable to see my three-year-old grandson easily shifting from English to Spanish as he talked to other children and adults. The Franciscan community operates an orphanage, hospital, library, elementary school, and the upper-grade school, Colegio San Bernardino, where David teaches.

David also assists adults who wish to speak better English. He holds evening group meetings, sharing both fellowship and language skills. I met some of the participants, a groundskeeper at the school, a husband and wife who had a small stall at the local market, and another man who was a plumbing and electrical handyman. We were invited to a surprise birthday party, which was attended by his whole family, and joined in an evening of music and wonderful fellowship. This man, Juan Tujal, also operates a local short-range radio station that enables Juan to broadcast his messages. It was clear that David's concept of community service extends beyond his message of faith, reaching out to all the people of the area.

"I find my efforts are a two-way street," he said. "I have learned a great deal from the people with whom I come in contact. I also try, when I am home, to help others understand misconceptions they have about the people I come in contact with."

To bridge the gap of understanding between those in Guatemala and those back at home, David circulates a weekly e-mail newsletter, La Cruz en Frente, that combines reflections on the weekly scriptures and his experiences in Guatemala and a second, monthly publication, The Voices of San Bernardino, that shares thoughts written by himself, members of his sharing group, and staff of the Colegio. David has also written and recorded several songs, which he sends out to friends and supporters. As a missionary, he assists FSM by fundraising and speaking at schools, churches, and local community meetings.

Reflecting on his college experience, David told me that Colgate provided "an environment that fostered going outside my personal viewpoint. I acquired a willingness to reach beyond the usual -- I was challenged to try new endeavors like being a DJ for WRCU, joining the Sojourners gospel choir, writing articles for the Maroon, and giving a GenEd lecture."

Through off-campus study programs in India and inner-city Buffalo and volunteer work in Hamilton-area rural communities, he said, "my mind was opened to the value of personally experiencing an environment in order to better understand the differences that make it difficult for people to communicate."

Although the cost of David's journey off the beaten path has been to give up luxuries that many Americans take for granted, the value comes in his appreciation for how much we need to share and for the struggles that all people have in common.

Before leaving Guatemala, I offered to make a banner for David's classroom. We brainstormed, and decided upon this theme: Somos Una Familia (We Are One Family). I have to think that if more people shared this ideal, that there would be far more peace in today's world. I am proud to have a son who is working toward that objective.

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