José Luis Barán: An NPH Graduate Committed to Zero Hunger
José Luis Barán had a tough start to life. However, through his love of farming and NPH’s help, he went to university and now implements sustainable programs to fight hunger in communities inside and outside of NPH. May 25, 2021 - Guatemala
Jose Luis and his wife in 2021.
José Luis is affectionately known as “Chepe”. He entered NPH Guatemala in January 2001, when he was 14-years-old, after an impoverished childhood with an inadequate education. He grew up in the state of Chimaltenango in the highlands of central Guatemala, in a small village in the municipality of Patzun, called Xeatzan, which means 'under the salt' in the Kaqchikel Mayan language, and is approximately 34 km by road to NPH Guatemala.
Chepe’s family background is complicated. He was born in 1986 in an area affected by the Guatemalan civil war that lasted from 1960 – 1996. José Luis and his family are Kakchiquel Maya and much of the combat occurred in areas with a high indigenous population. In 1988, when José Luis was only two years old, his father Emilio was killed by guerilla forces as he was returning from work in the capital. His body was found only a mile away from his home. Emilio left behind his pregnant wife Feliza and baby José Luis.
Feliza’s physical and emotional condition suffered due to this loss, leading to the death of José Luis’ three-month-old baby brother. After Feliza remarried in 1990, the 10-member family lived in a small house with three rooms for sleeping and living, plus a tin-sheeted kitchen where they cooked on firewood.
José Luis has five step-sisters and two step-brothers. Being the oldest boy of the new family meant that he was given responsibilities that limited him from having a normal childhood.
Some of the tasks included taking care of his step-siblings, and helping his mother to roll yarn used for the colorful traditional blouses she makes. He also attended the village primary school.
At age 8 he began working with his step-father in their cornfields and vegetable gardens. After classes, Chepe brought lunch to his step-father in the fields two miles outside town, where they ate together. The rest of the afternoon they worked the plots and that’s where José Luis became passionate about agriculture and growing food.
“I had very little time for playing with my friends. They knew that I always had to leave quickly when my mom shouted for me to come home or to go help my step-father,” remembers José Luis, with a smile. “Nonetheless, it was an important educational experience, despite the hardship. Working the land is part of my culture, so it is part of my genes. However, it gave me hands-on experience and agricultural skills, which have since evolved, but were fundamental to my development.”
José Luis finished primary school but had to stop getting an education for two years. This is because there is no middle school in Xeatzan, and his mother couldn’t afford to send him to middle school out of town. So, for those years without classes, he had to help his family with his daily chores.
Some years later, a social worker from Manos Amigas, a partnering childcare organization, met Chepe’s family and then helped to connect them with NPH. They believed that José Luis deserved a chance to continue his education with NPH Guatemala.
One day José Luis saw a car come to his town and two people went into his house. Shortly after, his mother came to him and said: “Prepare your bags, son, you will go to Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos today!” Though happy, José Luis cried all the way to the home. He remembers his first days well. The other NPH boys welcomed him, showing him to his bed and his locker. Yet he experienced the difficulties felt by many new children when integrating into a new environment.
José Luis came to NPH Guatemala when the NPH children’s home in Chimaltenango was called 'El Castillo', the castle. This was a time of transition and expansion for NPH Guatemala. They were building a bigger place in San Andres Itzapa, which opened in 2005.
These were busy times for Chepe, especially when he started attending middle school at the Integral Científico en Computación school in Chimaltenango. After classes, all NPH employees, boys, and girls went to help for two hours at the construction site in San Andres Itzapa where the new home was being built. Everyone chipped in, like preparing the area, weeding, shoveling dirt, and other tasks.
“At that time at NPH, we earned our gifts by helping. If you needed a new pair of soccer shoes you had to help for two days!” explains José Luis, laughing.
José Luis spent most of his time helping at the NPH animal farm. “I liked the farm work, so I was happy feeding the chickens and learning how to milk a cow!” remembers José Luis. Spending time on the farm gave him joy. Chepe liked the idea of producing and eating his own food, something that had been normal for him during his childhood in Xeatzan.
After graduating from middle school in 2003, signing up to do his first year of service on the farm in 2004 was an easy decision. “Everyone prefers the office jobs and sees the farm as dirty work, but not me. I love to work outside because the farm is a great place for the body and mind,” states José Luis.
During his year of service, José Luis oversaw the farm program at NPH Guatemala, managing the production of food crops. Today, NPH Guatemala produces tomatoes, onions, lettuce, cabbage, chard, celery, carrots, beets, cucumber, radish, beans, and other vegetables, worth US$5,500 during 2020. These crops help NPH to nourish the young people while saving money that can be used for other purposes.
Thanks to his good grades, Constantino Azuara, NPH Guatemala’s national director at the time, offered to help José Luis to go study at a high school. He chose to study agronomy at the Adolfo V. Hall del Sur military school in Retalhuleu in 2005.
José Luis returned to NPH Guatemala in 2008 after graduating from high school with good grades, receiving a diploma in agronomy. He chose to complete his second year of service at his favorite place: the farm at NPH Guatemala. Using his new knowledge and experience, Chepe successfully launched the production of vegetables like tomato, cucumber, and lettuce.
The Zamorano Pan-American Agricultural School
His destiny in agriculture became even more brighter that year. Two agronomists from Spain, Eduardo Briones and his wife Pilar, came to Guatemala to implement a greenhouse project at the Casa San Andres. At the farm, they met young José Luis. They noticed his affinity for agriculture, especially his talent and patience with the farm animals. It was clear to Eduardo Briones that this young man was qualified to go study at an internationally renowned agricultural university, the Zamorano Pan-American Agricultural School in Honduras.
Fortunately, back when José Luis was in high school, he already passed the university admission test for the Zamorano. However, studying at a prestigious university like Zamorano seemed an unreachable wish for Chepe. Zamorano is one of the most expensive universities in Latin America, far beyond his ability to pay for it.
This impossible dream came true one day in October 2008, when José Luis was called into the director’s office at NPH Guatemala, where he received some great news. A letter had arrived from Xavier Adsara, the director of NPH Spain, saying that they had helped him obtain a full scholarship through the Marfà Foundation, allowing him to study at Zamorano in Honduras.
Leaving Guatemala for the first time in 2009, he went to Honduras to study at the Zamorano agricultural school. He lived on the university’s campus, sharing his room with a Nicaraguan student.
After some difficulties in adapting to the university’s rigorous academic pace, Chepe began to study successfully for his agriculture degree. He also enjoyed other aspects of student life, participating in extracurricular activities such as sports, art courses, and cross-cultural dance competitions. José Luis also developed close friendships with his international colleagues at the university.
When he finally graduated with his bachelor’s degree from Zamorano in 2012, José Luis felt very proud and grateful for the good fortune in his life. He knew that success is not a matter of coincidence, it is a matter of dedication. He understood that his hard work had paid off and that it would have to continue.
The next challenge didn’t have to wait too long. Marlon Velasquez, the national director of NPH Nicaragua, was just about to begin an agriculture project and animal farm in Nicaragua. He invited freshly-graduated José Luis to take over this task in 2013, telling to him: “Te encargas de la alimentaciòn de mis chavalos!” - “You are in charge of feeding my kids!”
José Luis agreed to take up the task. He began by cultivating basic foods, such as corn, rice, and beans. He then implemented a plantain orchard, a tilapia fish pond, and increased the pig population to 50. They also counted on more than 500 laying hens, 500 broiler chickens, and some cows to produce milk and cheese, all to help boost the children’s nutrition. Watermelons, papaya, tomato, and onion were grown in a greenhouse.
When Chepe ran the farm at NPH Nicaragua it produced around 80 percent of the home’s food supply for approximately 150 youths. José Luis lived at NPH Nicaragua for two years while developing the project. The children helped to harvest the crops. José Luis felt very happy for successfully achieving his plans for establishing sustainable agriculture production for one of the NPH homes.
After six years of being away from home, José Luis returned to Guatemala in 2015. He worked at different jobs related to his agronomy experience. He left for three months to work in a microloan program for farmers in the Dominican Republic. Finally, he found his current position as a Technician of Integral Development with Fondo de Tierra - meaning the Earth Fund. This is a Guatemala governmental institution that helps to reinforce rural people’s rights and their land entitlements, based on part of the 1996 peace agreement that ended the civil war.
Working for Fondo de Tierra, 34-year-old José Luis now manages Finca Las Cataratas el Niagara, a farm in Oratorio, Santa Rosa, in south-eastern Guatemala. Here he works with 42 families who reclaimed the land in order to cultivate it. Today they have a cattle ranch and produce sesame seeds, gourd seeds, tomato, chili, and corn to feed themselves and to sell commercially.
José Luis has also implemented a reforestation project and an ecotourism program at the farm, offering travelers the chance to walk up to nearby waterfalls, camp overnight, do climbing activities or just relax in a hammock and enjoy the sunset. Despite the distance from his hometown, he is happy to be able to help the people of his country with his expertise in agriculture.
“NPH saved my life by helping me and my family breaking out of the cycle of poverty,” claims José Luis. “Therefore, I feel I can pay it forward. Thanks to the generosity of NPH Guatemala, I can use my skills and knowledge so other families can find sustainable ways to live. This not only fights hunger but also provides them with an income and they can become active members of society. Through NPH, I have now been able to support dozens of families who were in a similar situation to my own.”
Nowadays, all his step-siblings live in different areas of Guatemala and his mother lives together with her two youngest daughters in the nearby village of San Martin Jilotepequez. Today José Luis is married to Alda, a former caregiver of NPH Guatemala. He also manages a Guatemalan Hermanos Mayores group on Facebook that helps over 500 friends, volunteers, staff, and caregivers to stay connected with the extended NPH family.