Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes with a student © Courtesy of El Patojismo
By Raye Mocioiu
Growing up in Guatemala, Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes saw a problem: between the harsh environment and the lack of support, children and youth were falling victim to drugs, crime, and gang violence.
While he had the love and support of his parents, both of whom were adamant about teaching him the value of speaking up and fighting for what’s right, Fuentes saw that his peers did not have the same experiences.
“My parents were always there for me,” recalled Fuentes. “They guided me and raised me with freedom, letting me decide what kind of life I wanted. We didn’t have much, but we had things more important than money—like education.”
Fuentes revealed that, in school, he was a problem child and a class clown—known to veer toward sports and music over academic subjects and always valued the social aspect of school over learning. But as an adult, he realized that the upside of being so sociable meant that he was naturally great with people.
While working as a private school English teacher, Fuentes had the opportunity to explore a method of teaching that he felt he would have benefited from as a child, focusing on creativity and fun. Fuentes discovered that school should be a safe place, not an institution. With this mission in mind, he runs El Patojismo, an alternative school and non-profit that focuses on improving the quality of life for Guatemalan children.
Initially, El Patojismo was run out of Fuentes’ parent’s garage—a makeshift community center that, over time, took over the entirety of his childhood home.
“I started in the garage, teaching three kids, then 12 came, and then 60 came…I had to build a few more rooms in the backyard,” he said. “In a year, it was a 24/7 community center.”
Fuentes explained that in Guatemala, where the opportunities are slim and the drug culture is so big, having a place like this was necessary. For these students, the center became a safe space—often, it was the first time in their young lives that they had ever experienced such a place, as many did not have strong family structures to rely on as Fuentes did.
At El Patojismo, education suits the needs of the community. Fuentes shared that the education provided at the center aligns with the opportunities available to students once they graduate. Moreover, the center is committed to supporting their dreams: Fuentes explained that they do everything in their power to ensure that if a student wants to attend post-secondary education or start a business, they can do so.
For Fuentes, what’s important is seeing the impact of the center.
“Seeing the kids safe and happy, with no negativity, knowing that they have a place where they can be themselves…that’s what keeps me going,” he said.
Thousands of children have since passed through the doors of the center. The program has expanded to two buildings, with an in-house cafe, a medical clinic, and much more to come.
Said Fuentes: “When you look at a place where nothing is happening, try to imagine the good that could happen there. I took a dangerous area in Guatemala and made it into something beautiful—a school, a safe haven.”