Manuel Arenas’ dream was to have a place to provide training for pastors and leaders of the Totonac tribe. At that time there were very few churches among the Totonac, and those that were there (Zapotitlan, Nanacatlan) depended on the presence of the missionary or Bible translator. When they left, the churches falter. The one in Zapotitlan disappeared altogether.
After returning from studies in Germany in 1964, Manuel made many trips around the tribal area. He focused in on a piece of land in La Union, near Jicotepec de Juarez, Puebla. While on staff at Wycliffe’s Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, he wrote Felipe Ramos, a young man from Nanacatlan he had heard of but never met. Felipe was the only other Totonac Manuel was aware of that had gone out of the tribe for further education. Felipe joined Manuel, and the school at La Union opened in 1967 to seven teenage male students, none of whom could read or write. In four years they were able to pass Mexico’s high school entrance exam.
The school was situated in a valley with an abundance of water. Manuel brought in fruit trees of all sorts as demonstration for tribal people. He invited student groups, notably from John Brown University in Arkansas, to come help build the buildings needed. He encouraged visits from dentists and doctors to serve the people. He had the vision of a radio program in Totonaco, for which Felipe became the “voice”, and Felipe made the announcement on the air that Manuel could help people with their legal problems. The Center became the de facto “capital” of the tribe.
The Center never had more than about twenty students at any one time. Eventually some of these slots were taken by young people from other language groups. This meant that instruction had to be done in Spanish. This made it possible for people to compare the school unfavorably with other institutes available in Mexico. Manuel was very conscious of this problem at the time of his death in 1992, and wondered about the further usefulness of the school. Felipe Ramos moved to Nanacatlan in 1995, and with that move, the Center became more a conference center, often used by the linguists for their workshops, or churches for retreats.
The effectiveness of the program, as informal as it seemed to some, is shown by the number of congregations now pastored by men trained at the Center, or by the number of town mayors, including several women, who were trained there. There is also a large group of people throughout North America who visited there, some staying for a week or two to help with construction, or in the clinic, or repairing equipment, but all enjoying Manuel’s gracious hospitality and the wisdom he displayed in the leisurely conversations around the meals, whose preparation he personally supervised.