The Escuela de la Montaña is located among four communities of families who lived and worked for generations on nearby coffee fincas. Most of our neighbours are descended from “Mam” Mayan migrant workers who originally lived in the highlands outside Quetzaltenango. Our students take meals with the families of two communities who had labour struggles on the fincas where they lived, eventually winning money they were owed but losing their homes and their jobs in the process.
The community of Nuevo San José was set up by the workers of the coffee finca San José Altamira, who won their back pay and benefits after years of struggle against an owner who had refused to pay their wages. The workers were then evicted from the finca they had called "home" for generations. Twenty-five families pooled their resources and, with assistance from the Catholic parish in Colomba, they bought land to start their new community in 1993. Since then, the people of Nuevo San Jose have purchased two springs and installed a potable water system, built a school and basic block houses and dug a drainage system with funding from the Spanish Red Cross.
In June 2001, the school received new neighbours when 18 organised families founded the community, Fátima. Like Nuevo San José, Fátima relocated to the area after a bitter labour struggle on the finca where they had previously lived. After being forced to work 18-hour days for less than Q18 at times, a group of workers organised in 1996. The workers were fired and black-listed as labour organisers and instigators, denying them work in the region. During the legal proceedings, the owners deprived those who remained on the finca of water, firewood and closed the doors of the primary school to their children. After failing to break the union during 5 years of retaliations and unemployment through blacklists, the owners finally agreed to a settlement providing back wages and benefits to the workers. Some of the families in the union decided to settle in a community together and bought the land where they now live from the Catholic Church. That same year, they built houses with help from a housing program linked to the Church in Quetzaltenango. In 2007 community members managed to get water and electricity in their homes and build a primary school, and in 2008 they dug a drainage system – thanks to their hard work and fund-raising by former students.
Both communities opened community health clinics, through a Catholic Church run program in the local area. The clinics sell low cost medicine and are staffed by community members, who received training as health promoters through this program (and continue to receive ongoing training). Meals and celebrations in Nuevo San Jose and Fátima are a means of learning about the reality of life for rural campesinos. Most of our neighbors now look for work as casual day laborers and suffer from hunger, unemployment and destitute poverty. Because of the low wages and loss of jobs many men are leaving the area and traveling long distances searching for work in construction, agriculture and the informal sector in the cities. There is increased migration to southern Mexico and the United States in search of jobs.