Josue lands on his back and hits his head against the hardwood floor. He immediately springs back and spins one more time on his head as the background beat continues. The white auditorium lights look down on him as he performs a flare over and over again -a classic break dance move. His feet keep suspended in the air as he spins on his arms not only once, but six times. Josue is drenched in sweat when he finishes, his grey sweater hanging loosely from his thin frame. He explains the frog, the freeze, the score mechanics in break dance. Josue is a 20-year-old teacher at the educational program Los Patojos, located in Jocotenango, Sacatepéquez, Guatemala.
“It’s all about the skill,” Josue says. “You learn in the street, but you need to practice to get skill.”
He heaves and demonstrates a freeze moment, his arms suspending his body.
“I’ve been dancing over six years."
As he explains techniques, other students – Wally Christopher, 17, and Denilson Larios, 18, – start to explore different steps to the banging beat in the auditorium. The two both teach at Los Patojos with Josue.
The thin line between learners and educators disappears quickly between the walls of Los Patojos.
“I teach younger kids what I learned here,” said Guillermo Corado, 13.
He juggles a diabolo and watches how it lands on the string between his batons. Gary Alexander García, 21, stands besides him, mirroring his movements. “Sometimes we go together to the plaza and juggle between each other.”
Corado is a student at Los Patojos coursing in eighth grade. He sports a flat brim hat with neon green lining. Like the other patojos in the room, Corado is not only a student but a hired cook, teacher assistant and handyman.
Los Patojos is an alternative education program founded in 2006 by Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes. The name of the program is a play on words of the Guatemalan slang for “young boy or girl:” patojo or patoja. The concept of the school starts and ends with the patojos who inhabit the building. The school not only represents a new pedagogy method but also a social movement.
Laura, Pamela and Flavia sit in a row at two tables pushed together for one collective desk. They prepare curriculum and bob to music coming from a portable speaker. Pamela sings along, “Bidi bidi bidi bidi bidi bam bam.” She takes the paper she has been working on and moves it to the next stack.
Flavia’s laptop has a CNN Heroes sticker on it.
A mug on Juan Pablo Romero’s desk says “Soy un Héro,” or “I am a Hero.” CNN featured Romero on its CNN Heroes special, and the Prensa Libre, one of Guatemala’s main newspapers, listed him as one of the “10 Angels of Guatemala.” Romero dismisses it quickly.
“Our heroes are our children,” he said.
He describes his job as making kids into cool people, but he corrects himself.
“They’re already cool, they just don’t know it yet.”
He touches a photo on the wall, which is painted like a tree with student photos hanging off branches like pine cones.
“My job is to make them visible.”
Now, Romero, 31, stands in the middle of Los Patojos’ open courtyard, the bright red background highlights his figure as he pushes back his reading glasses and loops his thumbs into his ripped jeans pockets. He stands under the midday sun and wipes sweat off his forehead under his flat brim hat. His left shoe is untied and his right shoelaces are on the verge of unravelling. Romero refuses to be called headmaster. Instead, he insists on being addressed as JP.
“This is a family thing,” Romero said.
The sun has crossed the courtyard and peeks inside the roof that covers the hallway. The three teachers, Pamela, Flavia and Laura, pause from their lesson-planning to move their tables, one at a time, across the courtyard to where the wall will provide them some shade.
Los Patojos is like the ultimate after-school program, plugged into a curriculum. Nothing is mandatory. No schedule. No punishment. The only requirement is to bring an open heart and a broad mindset.
“Freedom is a process. It sounds cool, but it’s a daily process.” Romero said.
The patojos seem confused when they explain why they attend the school. Wally flashes a dogtooth grin. He stumbles with his words but finally says, “This is my home.” Most young boys at Los Patojos can relate. The teachers and assistant teachers are there from morning until sunset, their hectic day fueled by cafeteria lunch breaks and sunbathing sessions. School commences Jan. 26 and they are all painting, gardening and cleaning up for the upcoming students. It is both their job and their leisure.
“It doesn’t feel like work,” says Fernando Ortiz Moreira, one of the school’s many art teachers.
Moreira studied literature in Mexico and published five books between Mexico and Guatemala. He is a Jocotenango native, just like school founder Juan Pablo Romero.
“We’ve known each other for a long time. I published my first book in 2005, he opened the school in 2006. When I returned from Mexico, I began to work here.”
He also acts and coaches theater for the school’s theater group.
Los Patojos focuses on the arts. Romero believes in the power of art to liberate the youth of Jocotenango.
“Art is our most powerful tool. I thought, if we save the worst, there won’t be a bad area anymore.” Romero looks at a wall behind him. He points to another hand-drawn image of a local map with different markings.
“The first thing they learn is where everyone lives,” he said. “It’s important to know where your peers live. They don’t teach us that at normal schools. It is most important that we teach kids to create a community feeling. If you teach this as the first part of learning, then you understand where you are, so you know where you want to go.”
At 21 years old, Romero traveled Guatemala for four months with his guitar. When he returned to his neighborhood the despondency he felt prompted him to quit everything and start a school in his home.
The school grew rapidly, and Romero knew his school needed to expand. Romero and his team built the school in four parts: main classrooms and a courtyard, a kitchen and dining area, an auditorium, and an annex of additional classrooms, offices, a garden, and a clinic. When the school started 10 years ago, 125 children shared one bathroom, which frequently stopped functioning from overuse. The new building, now complete, is 3 years old. Romero’s favorite part? The bathrooms.
Students and teachers prepare for the school year. The boys’ clothes match the walls. They wear bright colors and they bustle among each other, doing handstands and putting each other in headlocks.Wally flits between his brother and his friend, Diego Calderon. Gary bounces between the group sitting in a line on the wall and his paintbrush, which does not move unless he is laughing or dancing to the pop music Diego has pulsing from a portable speaker.
Corado gravitates toward the edges of the cluster when the boys congregate. He has a bulky, navy hoody zipped up to his broad shoulders that fold in when he feels eyes on him. His own eyes peek out from beneath the green underside of his flat-brimmed black cap. He is larger than Wally, and probably as tall as the older boys, but his head ducks as frequently as his shoulders fold.
A ping pong table materializes and Gary produces paddles almost as quickly as he can retrieve juggling pins. The game lasts until someone gets three points. They rotate, winner versus sub and the loser hands his paddle to whomever lacks one. Wally gives his paddle away and darts off while Guillermo’s eyes train the ball between his paddle and Diego’s. The ball bounces past Diego to the far left, and it’s Guillermo’s serve. Guillermo’s focus is unshakeable. Diego’s return whizzes past Guillermo without hitting the table: 2:0.
Wally returns with a tennis racket, ready to play. His snaggled grin makes a reappearance. Guillermo’s focus finally breaks and the boys fall into laughing.
Still a student at the school who teaches workshops in photography and graphic art, Wally wants to come back to Los Patojos and teach when he graduates. He says he is grateful for what the school has taught him.
Guillermo doesn’t know what he wants to be, but maybe a lawyer. He enjoys his classes in social studies and history, but that is not why he is interested in law.
“I like to protect people,” he says.
While a handful of teachers cook in the kitchen, some teachers stand on tables to paint, others clean, a small group stands in a circle chatting.
Most everyone rotates before long, not by any set schedule but more from a sense of whole. Corado embodies a quiet understanding of what the place means. For Guillermo, for Gary, for Wally, Josue and all the young people at Los Patojos, the school is a place in which outside factors are obsolete. Age, family, income and personal history make no difference in the Los Patojos family. What matters to Romero are the people his students choose to become while they are there.
Guillermo looks happiest when he juggles. He can easily keep up with García, his elder by several years, and they work in tandem with a steady beat, catching each others’ batons like a conversation. The characteristic black cap finds itself on backwards, no longer shading Corado’s eyes, which twinkle with the same lightness that plays at the corners of his mouth. The shoulders gradually unfold.