Sophomore Juan Carlos Chum Ramos is fluent in K’iche’, a traditional Mayan language. (Photo by Kathryn Castanoli)
Sophomore Juan Carlos Chum Ramos is fluent in K’iche’, a traditional Mayan language.

Photo by Kathryn Castanoli

Under the Monocle: K’iche’ speaker Juan Carlos Chum Ramos paving his own path

April 4, 2023

Sophomore Juan Carlos Chum Ramos began attending York in March of 2022, after moving to Bensenville from Guatemala with his brother. He has brought with him the rare and indigenous culture of the K’iche’.

Before moving to Elmhurst, Ramos had been living in Aguacatán, Huehuetenango, a town in Guatemala. His upbringing may look different than many in the Elmhurst community.

When I was 12, I moved out and started living on my own in Guatemala,” Ramos said. “After primary school I worked for a family for a while. I just did any job they wanted me to do – I would be in the garden, or be doing maintenance. I don’t have anyone to take care of me but I’m kind of used to being alone and having to do things for myself.”

Juan Carlos and his older brother Maximo, who graduated from York in 2022. Maximo currently works to support himself and Juan Carlos. “We try to recreate the meals that we would eat in Guatemala, but it’s hard because a lot of times the ingredients here are different,” Ramos said. “We eat a lot of things with corn, but the corn here is different so we can’t always make the same things.”

Currently, Ramos works as a line chef at Francesca’s Amici in Elmhurst, making appetizers and meats so that he can support himself and his older brother Maximo, who are renting out a room in Bensenville on their own.

“It’s harder here because back at home I just had to work, but now I have to go to school for eight hours and then work for seven hours, so it’s really tiring,” Ramos said.

The only schooling that Ramos completed in Guatemala was primary school, where he learned Spanish. Spanish has allowed him to communicate with his coworkers at Francesca’s as well as Spanish-speaking students and teachers at York. He is even able to meet Spanish learners at York through Amigos y Palabras, which has brought him closer to the school in general.

“I wouldn’t have met these kids outside of Amigos y Palabras because we’re not in any classes together, and it’s nice to see them in the hallways,” Ramos said.

Ramos isn’t only fluent in Spanish, though – his first language was actually K’iche’.

K’iche’, formerly spelled Quiché, is the name for both the indigenous Mayan people and the language that they speak, which are believed to have origins dated back to as far as 4,000 years ago; Ramos’ grandparents were one of the last few traditional K’iche’ people.

“They didn’t wear shoes – they dressed a certain way and people would look at them a certain way, so they got stereotyped, but they lived a very traditional Mayan life,” Ramos said. “My grandfather lived until he was 105, and my grandmother until she was 97. They only ate organic foods because they were farmers, and they always drank a lot of coffee. Even when my grandmother was 97 she was doing everything for herself like walking and going to the market. My parents grew up with them, but they are starting to lose the K’iche’. Slowly the generations have begun to forget different traditions and different things about the language.”

From left to right, Ramos’ sister, Ramos and Ramos’ cousin in Guatemala in 2020. Ramos is one of 11 children in his family – he has 7 brothers and 3 sisters. Of that, 8 are currently married with children.

Ramos speaks Spanish to his father, who responds to him in K’iche’. He speaks only K’iche’ with his mother, though. He is able to understand the different dialects of K’iche’, and even when someone may mix in Spanish words he can still understand them. English is something Ramos is currently learning at York, and hopes that in the next few years he can become fluent so he can communicate with everyone he is surrounded with.

“Inside I feel proud that I have a culture that nobody else knows about, but at the same time I sit down and feel like I can’t say anything, and I’m just looking – and they can’t say anything, and it’s frustrating because you don’t know how it feels to not be able to communicate and want to participate but you can’t,” Ramos said. “When I have kids, I want them to study, to learn K’iche’, Spanish, and English so they can communicate with everyone, and I want to teach them about my grandparents’ and parents’ culture.”

Already a first generation graduate from primary school in his family, Ramos is now on his way to graduating high school.

“I’m learning things that I never would’ve learned in Guatemala,” Ramos said.

Ramos dreams of one day being able to play on the York soccer team – he only has time to play in a Sunday recreational league due to his heavy work schedule. And after graduating, Ramos plans to save up money and build a house in Guatemala.

“I don’t know if I would be able to do this, but I really want to be a pilot,” Ramos said. “Todo es posible.”

Editor’s note: Throughout his interview, Ramos spoke in Spanish and was translated by Becky Morales, EL teacher, and the writer.

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