Jamal Coates, a member of the Hoops Sagrado team, reaches for the basket in the Guatemalan village of Pachaj. (Bryan Weaver)

Before their trip to Guatemala this summer, Carlos Espinosa and Johanna Ayala had never traveled outside the Washington area. Neither had even set foot on an airplane. But their trip to the Central American country was not a summer vacation. The students were there to share their love of basketball through a program called Hoops Sagrado.

Hoops Sagrado Basquetbol — which means “Sacred Hoops Basketball” in Spanish — is a youth leadership organization based in Washington. Every summer, the organization selects a team of about 20 kids from the D.C. area to spend three weeks in Quetzaltenango, a city in the highlands of Guatemala. The cost of the trip is paid for by donations. In Quetzaltenango, known commonly as Xela (pronounced “shell-ah”), the students run basketball camps for Mayan children who live in four of the surrounding villages, called aldeas.

When the Hoops Sagrado students are not teaching or playing basketball, they attend classes in Spanish or Quiché (a Mayan language that is pronounced “KEY-shay”), visit homes of Mayan artisans and travel to archaeological ruins.


The 2014 team Hoops Sagrado Basketbol poses in Washington before going to Guatemala. The teenagers will spend three weeks in Guatemala sharing their love of basketball with fifth- and sixth-grade kids. (Jason Dixson)

Basketballs are deflated to take on the trip to Guatemala. (Bryan Weaver)
Making the team

Not everybody who applies to be part of Hoops Sagrado Basquetbol gets selected to go to Guatemala. The chosen students, ages 13 to 17, filled out an application, wrote an essay about why they want to be on the team and attended an interview. Typically, about half of the applying students — most of whom are experienced players — make the team.

Johanna, 15, was in math class at the E.L. Haynes charter school in Washington when she received her acceptance e-mail. She shouted, “Yes!” and all eyes turned to her. Carlos, 14, who attends Chelsea School, a private school in Hyattsville, was just as excited to learn that he had been accepted.

“It’s just intriguing that someone like me, at my young age, could help other little kids through a sport that we love,” Carlos said.

The Mayan children who attend the Hoops Sagrado basketball camps are in fifth and sixth grades. Public education for many Mayans in Guatemala ends after sixth grade because their parents cannot afford to pay the school fees. The kids will be expected to find work to help support their families.

“For most of [the campers], this is a huge deal for them,” said Hoops Sagrado founder Bryan Weaver. “It’s their last big thing” before finding work, he said.


Johanna Ayala, left, and Jioni Tuck, right, get a lesson in the Mayan language of Quiché from tutor Yanira Yaxon. (Bryan Weaver)
Home away from home

Although Carlos and Johanna were excited about traveling to Guatemala, both were a little nervous. The students would be living with host families.

“I was scared, because I would be staying with these people I didn’t really know,” Johanna said.

Life in Xela is different than in Washington. Most people speak only Spanish or Quiché. Mayan women and girls wear long skirts and tops, which they call típica. The clothes are woven from brightly colored yarn. And the food is traditional Mayan cooking, which includes chicken, vegetables, rice and homemade corn tortillas.

But Carlos and Johanna’s nerves went away as soon as they met their host families.

“My host mom, Mama Marina, was really fun,” Johanna says. She loved Mama Marina’s food, which her host mother kept piling onto her plate even after Johanna’s stomach was full.

Carlos’s host family lived just down the street from Mama Marina. “Me and Mama Carmen just had an instant connection,” Carlos said of his host mom.

It helped that Carlos and Johanna both speak Spanish: Their parents are from Spanish-speaking El Salvador, a Central American country that borders Guatemala. But the entire Hoops Sagrado team quickly settled into daily routines.


Kids in the village of Chirijquiac practice with Hoops Sagrado team members Ronnie Charles, in red shirt, and Demani Wallace, in black shirt. (Bryan Weaver)

Guatemalan kids often have to find work after sixth grade because their parents can’t afford the school fees. The basketball camp is often their last big activity before they look for a job. (Bryan Weaver)
The camps

Every morning, the students ate breakfast with their host families before walking to a local cafe, where they met their Spanish and Quiché teachers. In the afternoon, the students traveled by bus or pickup truck to the aldeas of Pachaj, Xejuyup, Chirijiquiac and Chuisuic.

The camps were made up of 10 boys and 10 girls. And the campers welcomed their new teachers.

“The kids were just so happy to see us,” Carlos said. “They wanted autographs, hugs and kisses on the cheeks.”

Johanna received an equally enthusiastic greeting. “They opened up to me so fast, and they saw us as really important people,” she said.

Every day, Carlos, Johanna and their teammates put the campers through dribbling and passing drills, layup lines and defensive stances. But because most of the visitors spoke only English and the campers spoke only Spanish or Quiché, communication was a challenge.

Sometimes the Washington kids used gestures, acting out what they wanted the kids to do. Sometimes they spoke through pictures, drawing X’s and O’s on wipe-off boards. The bravest attempted to speak Spanish phrases they remembered from morning lessons. And Johanna and Carlos helped translate for their teammates.

After 21 / 2 weeks of building skills (and friendships), the camp ended with a two-day tournament among the four villages. The campers played hard. They wanted to impress their coaches. In the end, there could be only one boys’ winner and one girls’ winner. Both of Johanna’s teams — the boys and the girls of Pachaj aldea — emerged victorious.

“Pachaj hasn’t won [the tournament] for five years,” Johanna said. “So they really wanted to represent.”

The campers cheered and jumped across the court.

Afterward, the young teachers and campers exchanged hugs and tearful goodbyes. By then Carlos and Johanna realized they wanted to return next summer.

“My campers said they felt like I was their family member,” Johanna said. “That felt really nice.” The older kids told Johanna that even if they were working next summer, they would come and visit her at the basketball court.

Carlos has a more specific goal. “I want to see how much the kids improved,” he said. “Because they told me that next year they’re going to win the tournament.”

Johanna’s response? “Bring it.”

— Ashlee Brown Blewett

Glossary

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basketballbásquetbol/baloncesto

campcampamento

countrypaís

courtcancha

hooparo/canasta

kidsniños

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teamequipo

to playjugar

tournamenttorneo

tripviaje

winnerganador/campeón