Joaquin runs up the mountain trail from his village in the Sierra Madre mountains of southern Mexico. There will be many trips back and forth over this arduous hazardous trail in the years to come. The trail runs high to Villa Alta, (the “high village”) down valleys and up hills. Going by foot it will take eight hours. Joaquin learns to navigate the trail alone, sometimes running and jogging six of those hours during the 60 kilometer (37 miles) trip to Yalalag. He knows mountain lions live up there hiding in the brambles and hillside caves. He may see a  golden flash of color, or hear a strange hiss or purr. He may even confront a lion standing on the trail ahead. Joaquin says “ If this happens, I know what to do. I will stand tall, make eye contact, look as big as I can, raise my arms over my head and talk or sing in a loud voice.” This is native wisdom that all mountain boys learn.

Joaquin continues his journey to Yalalag and a hope for a future. There is no education beyond the eighth grade in his village. He has heard of a new opportunity to get a High School education. But he has not  heard of the great surprise that awaits him in Yalalag.


Saul and Pilar Cruz, Founders of Armonia

There is a man and his wife in Mexico who have a dream. Their names are Saul and Pilar Cruz. Saul is the founder and director of Armonia Ministries, a Christian Transformation Center dedicated to helping the poor in Mexico. Saul and Pilar knows that helping the poor means more than charity. It means helping individuals to be transformed by the gospel of Jesus, to find their place in life.  Armonia deals with the downtrodden, the hopeless, the powerless. Armonia strives to help individuals find their Christian life and rise out of powerlessness. Armonia walks with the poor, paso a paso, step by step.


Education is one powerful tool in this struggle, and this man and wife team  have devised an exciting plan to harness education to bring these poor ones into life. A thirteen year old Indian boy is going to experience this change. And open the possibility to countless others.  This is the story of Joaquin and Armonia. This is the evidence.

Joaquin woke up on the hard clay floor and looked around the little room. His mom and dad lay sleeping on the floor. Outside early gray dawn came through the small window.  Damp. Cold.  Mexico is not warm in the Sierra Madre del Sud in the winter, at 7000 feet.

“This is the day I go to Yalalag. All my life I was told to go to school and study. My father always ever since I can remember told me that. I did not like to work in the field. All my life since I was young I always thought of doing something different. Lupe told me they have a school there. I don’t want to work in the field today, or any day! I don’t want to be like my dad.”

Joaquin’s  village is a small town of nearly 1000 people.  Everyone works in the fields to produce the food they eat.  They raise corn, beans, chiles and coffee. There is no other employment.

Joaquin is a Mountain Chinanteca. He speaks the Chinanteca  tribal dialect. The  Chinantecas have lived in the Sierra Madre as well as the tropical lands to the East for hundreds of years. The Chinantecas living on the Eastern plains are spoken of as “Plains people” and speak a different dialect from the mountain Chinantecas. There may be more than sixteen different dialects spoken among the Chinantecas and even individual villages may have differences in dialect.  Chinantecas are a part of the indigenous mass of people in Mexico who are impoverished, discriminated against, and largely ignored. However the number of Chinantecas in Oaxaca has risen from about 50,000 in 1970 to over 100,000 in 1990 census. A few have escaped and become educated. There is a restaurant in New York City run by a Chinanteca who is a college graduate.

“And just last night my Dad said the same thing he has said for years:  ‘I want you to be educated my son. This is no life for you.’  How wise he is. I love him and I will miss him. But I am thirteen years old, and almost a man already.”

Yalalag is a village south of Joaquin’s village, San Juan de Tapas. The Mexican government provides education through the eighth grade with teachers who come from the capital city of Oaxaca, Oaxaca city. They come on the bus and work in the village Monday through Friday, then take the bus 60 kilometers back to their homes in Oaxaca City. The Mexican government now provides a four year high school program which is transmitted over Television to Yalalag so that indigenous Indian children get a High School education of sorts. This is called  TEBAO which stands for Senior High Through Television.

This is the only opportunity Indigenous Indians living in the mountains can have to get a High School education because the government only provides teachers through the eighth grade in the mountains. Joaquin has completed eighth grade, after a fashion, in his village, but his Grade Point Average (GPA) shows his difficulties and will haunt him for some time to come.

Joaquin’s uncle agrees to go with Joaquin on his first trip. They catch a broken down bus for part of the trip. This costs  500 pesos each ($50 U.S) and they arrive three hours later in Yalalag. The village of Yalalag, also called Hidalgo, lies on a mountain side along a substantial road leading over a 12,000 foot mountain pass to Oaxaca City, the capital of the state of Oaxaca. On the Zocalo, or city square, of Yalalag there is an old, ornate Catholic Church, a red brick structure. Across the street is Chapei, the student residence. This is an old building. The boys and girls had to sleep on the floor until volunteers from the U.S. built bunks for them. Most of the students, like Joaquin, come from long distances and live in Yalalag during the school year.

The students talked about many new changes at the Shelter. There was a new attitude. Bible study took place every night.  Everybody took turns cooking, cleaning the bathrooms and making beds.. They made tortillas, tacos and enchiladas.  Joaquin laughed that guys were doing women’s work. He began to hear about “Armonia”

“Armonia” is the Spanish equivalent of “Shalom”, the Jewish word for “harmony”.  Armonia is a Mexican Christian organization directed by Saul Cruz Ramoz. It operates four community center in Mexico City and one in Oaxaca. Joaquin learned that Armonia owned a house in Yalalag. He got a job cleaning and met a lady who cleaned there also. She told him about the director of Armonia, Saul Cruz, and his wife Pilar who came to Yalalag and stayed at the house. And that they talked about scholarships for boys and girls from the mountains to go to University. Joaquin knew that he wanted to go to University but his grades were not that good.

“One day we walked into the house and I saw a room with a computer in it. We walked in and there was a man sitting at the computer. It was Saul Cruz.

He said ‘How can I help you?’ I was very shy but I said ‘I came to see about scholarships before you leave’. He said ‘Yes’ and I stayed with him.”Pilar, Saul’s wife, said “Wouldn’t you like to go to Mexico, go to the University, have a chance to really advance yourself, educate yourself?  You could work a little, and go to the University.” Many conversations took place and then Saul and Pilar were gone. Later Armonia sent application papers to Yalalag for Joaquin. But Joaquin didn’t sign them. He could not make up his mind. Then Saul came back and said: “Those that want to apply have to do it now. Because I am leaving again in a few days and I am going to forget about you!!”

Well, this did it! He went to Oaxaca where Saul was just starting a new student residence for boys and girls who wanted to go to high school and get a college education. He left the mountains for the sixty mile trip to Oaxaca. It was a big change. He had a lot of doubts and thought sometimes that it would never work, and that he was wasting his time. But he stayed in the residence in Oaxaca anyway.”

Saul said : “This is a working scholarship. Before you come to the University you need to learn to work.” This was the beginning of the older brother concept. A student must also take care of younger students coming to the residence. And he must participate in all the activities of housekeeping, cooking, meal preparation, cleaning. He must be responsible and teach responsibility.

Joaquin had been living and working as an older brother. Saul came and said “O.K., we’re leaving now. We are going to get you ready for your admissions test.”

Joaquin went to Mexico and stayed at the Ahleli house, another residence owned by Armonia while studying for his admission exam. Then the great day came.

“I could not believe it.  I passed!!”

Joaquin was admitted to a level I professional University in engineering. This is equivalent to our Community College degree. His GPA (Grade point average in the Television High School in Yalalag) was too low for the level II complete professional University. He studied and worked constantly. This was a total change from High School. Because he was an indigenous Indian he was not allowed to handle the engineering equipment in the lab.

“I heard Spanish which sounded different.  Sometimes I had no idea of what they were talking about. They tackled big technical words in Spanish which I did not understand.  It was like another language.”

But after one year his expertise was recognized and he was called on to tutor other students who sought him for help in handling the equipment. He worked constantly sometimes sleeping only three or four hours. He quit helping his roommate who was struggling and focused on himself.  Math, physics, and computer programming were his most demanding subjects.

In 2006 Joaquin graduated from paraprofessional school in engineering. He went back to Oaxaca to work at the student residence of Armonia and held down a job on the side . He had an obligation to work at the student residence as an “older brother” to pay back to Armonia for his University education. That summer Joaquin passed a special exam and was admitted to the four year advanced University level institution in Oaxaca. This was possible because of his very high performance in the level I University.

When he graduates he will be a complete professional engineer able to do advanced work and command a high salary. He will also be a shining example of the success which a poor hard working Indian boy can achieve when nurtured and guided by such an organization as Armonia

Armonia’s newest program, AIMS or Armonia Indigenous Mexican Scholars was formed three years ago to provide a high school education and residence for poor indigenous Indians in the mountains surrounding Oaxaca. Due to volunteers like you the first student residence in Oaxaca is now complete and young Mexicans are completing High School and preparing for the University.

How exciting and profound this Mission is! These boys and girls would have no choice but to remain peasants in their remote Indian villages or illegal  migrants to the U.S. without an opportunity to complete their education.

When Joaquin came from his mountain village he spoke only his Chinanteca dialect  and rudimentary Spanish. Joaquin is the first graduate of the AIMS program and is working on his second University degree in engineering while leading the high school students in their residence in Oaxaca. Other students follow his lead. He gives back a year of his time to Armonia to repay for all he has received.  You can help educate  other indigenous students like Joaquin by supporting AIMS through Armonia U.S. Inc.


$500 is the start up cost for 1 student (clothing, medical, computer, school supplies etc.)

$100 each month will provide  full support for 1 student for one month, $1700 for one year, $4100 for three years.$12,300 provides full support for 3 students for 3 years

You can give any amount to help the AIMS program or other

Armonia program by pushing the DONATE NOW button in the right

column of the blog.

This is Joaquin

Saul Cruz talks about the meaning of Transformation

“When we speak of the work of Armonia, we need to be sure that we are speaking of transformation. Not relief.  When we start working with a group, or when the group is victim of a tragedy or in the midst of a serious lack, then we come and serve them, give them things to do. That is a relief work. But, as soon as it is possible, we begin teaching people to go from relief to self – reliance; to rehabilitate if necessary, and then show them how to take full responsibility of their own problems. When they learn to organize, to create their own institutions and assume responsibility to serve God and neighbor, we speak of people in transformation.

Transformation takes the form of individuals who are becoming  responsible for their own problems.  They get out of the natural dependence that their relief needs put them in and learn to be responsible, independent and to be participants in their own transformation. Together with Armonia, they will create possibilities to change poverty into independent living. The real success happens when they understand their own value. Then they  can break with their isolation and believe in God’s love. Through the love we at Armonia show them, they are able to take a stand and learn to fight for their own  people and for their own future.

Juan Carlos is an example. He grew up at Jalalpa Community Center and now serves the Hornos community. Hornos is a community of homeless people learning to live together, preparing themselves to be home owners.  Armonia has successfully helped them preserve their social fabric during these years of suffering. When the government wanted to relocate them by sending each of them to different housing programs in the City, Armonia fought beside them so they could remain their community, live in the same neighborhood, and preserve their network of relations with friends, relatives and neighbors.

Great news! After 3 years of hard work the student residence is completed! This beautiful building serves as home for Indigenous Mexican boys and girls who are completing High School in Oaxaca and preparing for admission to University in Mexico City. The building is located on a beautiful tract of land 9 miles from the center of Oaxaca City. Saul is already planning for a second residence on this site. This represents the only chance for a college education and a productive life that these poor Indian boys and girls from the Sierra Madre mountains will ever have. And most importantly their Christian Transformation can take place in this structured but loving environment.

“A longer weekend to see, to feel
compassion, and to use your hands
to further build the kingdom of God”

Saul is organizing short “Vision Trips” for those who have an interest in helping Armonia but have never been to Mexico to visit the centers. These trips are very intense, short trips which enable visitors to see first hand the work that Armonia does with the poor. An individual who wishes to donate financially to Armonia but does not have the time or desire to participate in person in Mexico may understand in a deep way what the needs and goals of Armonia are. And potential volunteers who wish to work at Armonia may gain a more thorough understanding of the opportunities and how their skills and interests may be put to best use. On many occasions persons ask “What can I do?” and have reluctance to volunteer until this question is answered. A Vision Trip is designed to provide that answer.

If you have an interest in taking a vision trip in the future please contact me at A typical trip schedule follows:
Arrive in Mexico City
Reception with light food at
Casablanca residence
Bible Study
Breakfast with AIMS (Armonia Indigenous Mexican Students
Visit Violetas
Visit Hornos
Visit Presidentes CUTC
Visit Jalalpa CUTC
Visit with family
Dinner at Café Tacuba
Return to Casablanca
Bible Study
Visit with family
Christian gathering at Santa
Travel to Oaxaca
Visit Tule and Oaxaca City
Dinner at Casa Naranja
Visit with AIMS students
Breakfast and prayer
Visit the school
Visit Pyramids
Lunch at Santa Marta
Visit students’ residence
Shopping with AIMS students
Closing reflection with Saul and
light dinner
Rise early and depart for airport
*CUTC= Christian Urban Transformation Center

Suddenly a scream comes from the barred entrance of the Armonia Transformation Center in Jalalpa. Doctor! Help! Come! We rush up the stairs and out the door. We follow a man running down the street, turn right and enter a little two floor house. Up the stairs there is a small room. A hammock is there, torn on one end but fixed to the wall on the other. On the floor lies a small, motionless boy. He has no pulse. He is not breathing. He is warm. We chant ABC – “airway, breathing, circulation” as we ready ourselves. We commence two person CPR, two old retired doctors working at the Armonia center a short block away. And we continue. No pulse, no respiration after thirty minutes or more. Pupils fixed. This beautiful boy is dead.

His father bursts into the room. He picks up the little boy by his arms, raises him up and down using a method of artificial respiration we used 40 years ago. We go downstairs. Finally after an hour a police car arrives, then later an ambulance. We don’t need an ambulance. We don’t need the police. We would have needed a defibrillator, and EMS personnel, but not an hour later. There is no 911 in Mexico for the poor. For them, the nearest hospital is three hours away on a good day through the traffic.

That night we return to console the family. They, of course, are grief stricken. They say this had to be an accident with the hammock. But one relative tells us that the little boy’s uncle killed himself several months ago. A patchy story. They must cling to the accident theory. But we know. How to help this family? How to unravel the relationship between the boy and his uncle? Should we try? How did they know to come to the Armonia Transformation center just around the corner for help? How did they know there were doctors there? Could we involve the family in counseling at the center?

And what of the total lack of response by the authorities? The lack of emergency care in one of the largest cities in the world, Mexico City?
And how about us? How would he fare in downtown Detroit, or L.A. amongst our urban poor?

Student Residence under Construction

Student Residence under Construction

When I visited Oaxaca, Mexico, in February 2009 the student residence was well underway. Under Saul’s leadership many volunteer groups from the U.S. and the U.K had worked over two summers in the construction. The indigenous Indian high school students living in the temporary residences in Oaxaca City worked every weekend and in most of their spare time on this exciting project. This residence lies on land purchased by Armonia with contributions from individuals, churches, and Armonia U.S. Inc in the U.S. and Armonia U.K in the United Kingdom. The land lies in a valley with mountains in the background. Water for the residence comes from springs in the mountains above. There is ample land for more than one student residence as the high school education program grows. In addition land is being set aside to grow various crops to enhance food production and to teach new agricultural technics to students who may wish to return to their native villages with new productive ideas