When Maria Francisco first came to Hope Rural School in Indiantown, Fla. at the age of 6 three years ago, she was fragile and fearful of anyone but other Mayan refugees. Like most children arriving from the strife-plagued highlands of Guatemala, Maria spoke only her native Mayan language, Kanjobal, and token Spanish. “She had seen so much violence and was so quiet that we didn’t know what we had on our hands,” says Sister Esperanza Jasso, 53, the principal. “One day a TV news team arrived by helicopter to do a story on the school, and Maria and the other Mayans ran for cover. They believed the helicopter would drop bombs. We got over that one by having them draw what they remembered, letting them work out their fears with crayons instead of tears.”
Today Maria is one of 24 Guatemalans among the 79 students at Hope Rural, which was started in 1980 to serve the multilingual children of migrant farm workers. Seventy percent of its students are migrants, and the remainder are from resident farm-working families. “We’ve got quite a mix of backgrounds,” says Sister Esperanza. “Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Mexicans, a Salvadoran, a Cuban, a Haitian, Americans and Mexican-Americans. It’s not easy teaching such a variety, but we’ve had a lot of successes.”
Maria is one: She is now at the top of her second-grade class in the K-through-4 school, which is supported by the Catholic Church and donations. A minimal tuition is collected when work is plentiful.
Along with thousands of Mayans caught between government troops and leftist guerrillas in Guatemala, Maria’s family left their village in the province of Huehuetenango for refugee camps in southern Mexico in 1983. Jobless and without land to farm, her father, Felix, continued north with his wife and three children. After a one-week trek across the desert by night, living on bread and water, they reached Arizona. “I was hungry, scared of the dark, and my father carried me a lot,” Maria says. A truck driver took the ragged family to Florida, where some 18 months later Felix was granted permission to work in the U.S. pending a review of his case in an immigration court. Now 41, he works in a flower nursery near Indiantown, 35 miles northwest of Palm Beach.
Once distressingly shy, Maria has become open and eager. Says teacher Alfredia Sturrup: “I knew Maria was getting over her past the day she and two other Mayan girls wanted to put on my lipstick, dress up in my clothes and high heels and go struttin’ through a mall just as fancy as they could be.”
With the influx of Mayans, most of whose parents remain in the area as crop workers, the six-classroom school has been the subject of newspaper and TV stories and one book, Children of the Maya, by Brent Ashabranner (Dodd, Mead, $12.95). This attention has in turn attracted donations such as a $29,000, 64-passenger bus from actor Paul Newman. “It arrived just in time to replace the old one, which stalled on railroad tracks the last day we used it,” says Sister Esperanza. “So God bless Paul Newman.”
Several blocks away at Indiantown’s public elementary school, principal John Clyde says the Hope Rural children learn to speak English “phenomenally well” and quickly enter the academic mainstream. Sister Carol Putnam, who founded Hope Rural and now raises funds for it, while Sister Esperanza supervises the school, emphasizes that the six teachers try to ease their students into American ways without sacrificing their affection for their homelands. This day for instance an eager, ponytailed Maria is coaching American classmate Melicia Miles, 9, who is writing about a school outing to the beach. But after class, at the bus stop, Melicia hums for her friend the Whitney Houston version of The Greatest Love of All. Playing the music on a battered cassette machine, the pair are soon leading a crowd of kids in a boisterous chorus of “I believe the children are the future….” As Paul Newman’s loaded yellow bus chugs away in a swirl of dust, Maria’s shrill, unaccented voice can be heard leading one more round. “She’s on her way,” says Sister Esperanza. “Nothing will hold her back now.”