By James Addis, photography by Cecilio Martinez
There are so many significant strands to Leonel Xuya Pastor’s life. He is an outspoken champion of his people, the Kaqchikel—a sub-group of the indigenous Maya peoples of Guatemala. He is a prolific writer on Maya and agricultural affairs. He has degrees and diplomas from several universities and won a scholarship to study business in the United States. He is married to Maria, an attorney who has a master’s degree in human rights and, like Leonel, is active in advocating on behalf of impoverished and exploited children.
In his view, his sponsor’s support during in his youth helped make all these accomplishments possible.
Things did not look promising 44 years ago when Leonel was born in the former Maya capital of Tecpán. Leonel’s mother married at 15 but separated at 19 after discovering her husband was having an affair. Leonel went to live with his grandparents. His aunt and her husband lived in one room, while Leonel and his mother, brother, another aunt, and grandparents shared a smaller room.
In the cramped conditions, squabbles were frequent and violent. Adding to the stress was a shortage of food. Sometimes Leonel would steal tortillas from the married aunt and always feared a brutal confrontation if discovered. “My aunt had a hard heart,” he says.
Other times, Leonel and his brother, Mardoqueo, would scrape food from tin cans and packages their cousins threw in the garbage. The boys also had to learn to dodge older neighborhood children whose parents had no qualms in telling them to give Kaqchikel kids a beating.
Leonel’s mother provided for the boys as best she could by selling hot drinks in the market and taking in laundry. The hard times made Leonel delight in every small act of kindness. He still remembers the joy he felt as a 4-year-old when his mother gave him a new hat. “In my town, only respected men wore hats,” he says.
Another great moment was being able to continue to attend school. His mother had planned to take him out of school because she could not afford to educate both Leonel and Mardoqueo. Fortunately, the principal learned of the family’s predicament and enrolled both boys in World Vision’s child sponsorship program. Sponsorship covered school fees and the cost of books, uniforms, and a daily snack. Leonel remembers receiving a letter from his U.S. sponsor that he treasured for many years, but it was lost when his family eventually moved.
Sponsorship also meant celebrating Christmas—something the brothers had never done at home. Children had a party, shared gifts, and wrote letters of thanks to their sponsors. Leonel also learned about Jesus through Bible lessons at school. In 1972, he became a follower of Christ, a decision that has guided his life ever since.
Leonel proved a stellar student. He was one of only 168 students out of 3,000 applicants to win a scholarship to study at the Agricultural School of Secondary Studies. Later, he graduated from the prestigious Rafael Landivar University in Guatemala City as an agronomist and attended various other colleges and universities, including Rochester Community College in Minnesota, where he studied business administration.
After Leonel completed his education, he returned to Guatemala and worked as a farm manager for one of the country’s wealthiest families. Children as young as 8 would start at 5 a.m. and work 12-hour days, their faces covered in sweat and dust. “It broke my heart to see them,” he says.
Leonel switched to working for various humanitarian organizations, including World Vision, to help improve the lives of Guatemala’s impoverished children. Today, he is gathering support to fulfill his ambition to found the first university directed by Maya-speaking people.
“I dream that girls and boys have access to education and opportunities to succeed, no matter their ethnic group,” he says. “I firmly believe that education is one of the best ways for children to develop their gifts and talents.”