A magnificent delegation trip to Guatemala….reflections after 21 years of relationship with people of faith in Central America

by Bill Williams

A rocky road to start…. a delayed flight, a missed connection, a flight to Guatemala City that should have been a few hours morphed into 2 days and nights in airports. But after finally arriving, we were ready to journey into the swirling spiritual, colorful, and connecting time with new and old friends, and cultures we have come to know and love.

Some soaring good news to encapsulate the story: Our brothers and sisters from San Antonio Quiche who journeyed 7 hours by bus to accompany us for 3 days in Antigua delivered the news that our relationship has reached a point of partnership and trust, that their traditional community is open to suggestions and connections that can help them build a sustainable future in the threatened land they call home.

Breakfast with members from San Antonio and Danville – reunited!

They asked for help – specifically not in money, but in sources of learning and growing – around their challenges in agriculture, energy, medicine, education, water.  We also talked about ways to lift up some of their lost traditions (traditions that they can still re-teach and find markets for) that we might support. And we learned about additional challenges from both military oppression and extractive businesses [supported by government and military] that threaten their land ownership, or the contamination of their land and water – as well as threaten their traditional way of life. In the case of those exposing corruption or organizing for change – their lives are sometimes also threatened.

Our delegations visit started out with some orientation to Guatemalan reality in Guatemala city. Carrie, our Sister Parish director, found everyone a lovely accommodation in a Catholic center devoted to teaching young women how to prepare for- and protect themselves- as they enter private service in homes, The spirit of the nuns seeing to our comfort, convenience and food was beautiful.

Carrie arranged a compressed set of introductions to history and beauty, weaving traditions and horrors.  Our tour included a visit to the Cathedral with monuments similar to the Vietnam memorial, with the names of many of the  indigenous victims of U.S.-supported genocide on stone columns. And also to stories of groups fighting hard for justice in court cases and folk festivals designed to organize and protect indigenous communities.

Picnic with Sister Parish members at Kaminal Juyu archaeological site.

We journeyed to an archaeological park for a picnic, where we were greeted by a group of women from another Sister Parish-linked community poised on the brink of a steep ravine at the city’s edge. How does joy arise among a group of people who have never met before? It did – passing through the gateway of acknowledged faith and commitment to partnership in the building of the reign of God. We shared the refreshment of friendship and fun. Names, games, food, dance, walking in history, and celebrating children playing together [little 3 year olds Estrellita and Emilio]. We parted in hugs and love. People left refreshed and grounded in the knowledge that they have friends from the faith and the North who will continue to think about them, pray about them, and return to them.  I know of the struggle they were returning to in their daily lives surrounded by violence. And I saw the hope and joy in their faces that our visit had been to them…. bread for the journey. We would see it again in this trip.

Although in this delegation we did not get to stay in San Antonio homes or engage with their larger community, we all experienced the opportunity to get to know both those in our delegation more personally and intimately, as well as to cross connect with people from San Antonio. Exploring, cooking, eating, reflecting, playing, singing. Shyness, strengths, vulnerabilities, visions, smiles, delights, needs, faith, talents, all arising from the kitchen and the clothes line and the garden.

All our communication was slow, translated from Quiche to Spanish to English, and back again. But the process allows for time to be reflective, and to pay attention to cues that are completely non-verbal as the tones and expressions of the kaleidoscope of faces create the totality of that communication. All of that verbal communication happens through the filters of our profoundly gentle and skilled facilitators, Carrie and Brian…. years of cultural interaction  to help get the real meaning across, and to bridge the moments of cultural misunderstandings with cautions or suggestions…. all delivered in tones and carefully chosen words that create an image of how Christ might have been in such a setting.

“I am a child, not a criminal” – picture on the wall at Pop No’j office.

In Guatemala City, we were introduced to Silvia from an organization called Pop No’j. They have developed a program of accompaniment for indigenous children being returned after separation from their families at the U.S./Mexico border. They provide care in the native language to children under the age of 18, and we heard of cases where the children were very young, including a 3 year old who received counselling after experiencing sexual violence in the U.S. detention center. Silvia is a young woman herself, tender and poised, still studying social work in the university, which likely describes many of their staff who are engaged with a case load of 54 children. She described their clients as “those who are the most cut off from opportunity”, and that they saw migration as an “act of love for supporting their family”. Their work focuses on re-integration, and extends into the family after reunion- providing all the social services you would imagine such a situation requires.  The organization is operating knowing that the case load they are managing now of 54 is expected to swell next year as 2,000 children are expected to be returned to Guatemala from the U.S.  Although the organization does not currently have the capacity to address the issue, many of the families are also going to face a huge debt they incurred in trying to cross the border. A recent returnee I know from Mexico incurred a debt of about $7,000 to cross the border. The families are usually driven to migrate by poverty, so how they will deal with that debt- and often the threats of violence that come with it- are a heartbreaking concern outside the purview of this group.

Tour at Caoba Farms in Antigua.

Probably the highlight of our time together for our San Antonio folks was our extensive tour of the organic Caoba Farms on the outskirts of Antigua. The farmers from San Antonio were bright-eyed and riveted to descriptions and demonstrations of techniques that reminded them of how their ancestors had done farming…. and of the possibilities it held for them. Everyone was delighted to receive packets of organic seeds and cuttings, plants and small tree branches to plant at home – some of which they had never encountered before.  The farm owner suggested they use the seeds from the plants that did the best in their environment [above 8,000 feet!] to create their own personal seed bank for the future. When they got on the bus to go home from Antigua, they looked like they were carrying a small forest!

We also were blessed to have a university linguist, Ajpub from Aid in Education, make a presentation to our group about his efforts to uplift the languages and cultures of indigenous Maya.  He spoke – first in Quiche, then in Spanish, then translated to English – about a program to support children, youth, and young adults in pursuing further education, both formal and cultural. The program identifies students and families who want to pursue schooling, but are too poor to achieve that goal. At the level of elementary school, the program supplies the costs of uniforms and books, and during vacation, they organize a vacation school for instruction and play in the children’s language and culture. For those who want to continue in university, matching donors are found in the U.S. for scholarships that typically cover half the cost. This is a program that Linda and I have been involved with for many years, and we wanted to know if our community of San Antonio would be interested. As Ajpub finished his presentation, the group from San Antonio responded by calling him “brother” in their struggle. Tomas noted in his reflection that it was important that they not produce “unprepared students” for their struggle. And the good news here is that Ajpub has already received phone calls from parents of children in San Antonio who want to explore possibilities for their children.

Lake Atitlan – near Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (IMAP)

After our San Antonio friends left for their homes, we journeyed to Lake Atitlan.  A beautiful and unexpected part of our experience came from following Pastor Todd’s request to learn how “the day of the dead” is celebrated in Guatemala. The group from San Antonio had wanted to return to their community to celebrate that event at home with their families, so we went to visit a town on the shore of Lake Atitlan – the third largest volcanic caldera on earth- and one of earth’s most beautiful places. We asked a young woman who Linda had sponsored to study in the university over ten years ago to guide us through the way her family celebrates this day, which is seen as a day to refresh your connection with your deceased family. Dinora took us first to her home to meet her family. We traversed a very narrow hallway strung with laundry. Her mother supports the family [9 children] by washing laundry in the nearby lake. This encounter turned out to be one of the most spiritual times of our entire trip. Dinora’s dad is in failing health, but his handshakes were strong…. and the mother’s smiles and embraces were just as profound…. and they moved out of a connection of love and appreciation for what Dinora had been able to achieve by her university training to become a teacher. They were so proud of her, and so open to sharing their pride with us and all our friends…. they just opened their hearts to us all. Surrounded by about 12 people from the family, our 8 delegates from DCC sat together with them, received their prayers, and basked in the smiles of siblings and grandchildren [ in the tiniest room imaginable to hold us all!].

Cemetery in San Pedro.

This was the afternoon of preparation for the celebration that would be that night and the next day. Dinora took us to the local cemetery, which was being built up like a rising set of condo’s because the land was locked within the town, so the only way to go was up [except for a few graves that belong to families too poor to construct an above ground concrete niche]. People were everywhere, repainting and re-stuccoing, bringing fresh flowers, strewing the areas with flower petals, leaving traditional Mayan treats and incense… and a few kites were in evidence that would be gloriously arrayed the next day. As we left the cemetery, she took us by the craft stall that her brother Noe has grown to sell his art of stone and metal, and sell other local crafts and art. Our group joyously dived in to the wares, and I was delighted to find a portrait of a young boy to hang in our church.  As we left Noe’s stall, he told me that he would be donating 3,000 Quetzals to the local church for the poor.  That amount of money about equalled the amount of goods that all our group purchased from him that day. As we left, Dinora announced to us that she was engaged to be married. Her fiancé was a principal of another local school. She was beaming. We asked her age, and she told us she was 30. We followed that up by asking what the usual age for marriage is in her town and she replied, ’15 years old’. She had followed her dream along her own path. We later reflected that other young women who had been sponsored to go a university had followed the same path – many deciding to pursue education before marriage.

That evening during a reflection, our facilitator Brian Tyler made the comment that supporting Dinora’s dream had “changed that family’s trajectory”. Two of Dinora’s younger siblings had decided they too wanted to go to school – one had borrowed money from the bank to enroll in the university, and a younger brother was doing an internship in engineering to prepare for a university engineering program. Both of them were so bright eyed!

Seed bank at the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (IMAP)

We visited the coffee co-op CCDA (Small Farmers’ Committee of the Highlands) and met with Marcelo, who worked on a big coffee plantation for many years.  He described the CCDA’s work in producing, training, educating and organizing. CCDA tries to provide economic alternatives to families in the region.  On the large coffee plantations, the wages for current pickers and processors during the coffee season have stayed about the same over the last 35 years, and typically include a food ration just barely survivable for single adults- but no addition for the children they bring along. Over the last 10 years, the requirement for the amount of land each worker is responsible for clearing and maintaining has increased in size six fold. Since no single man can do that much, they are forced to bring their families along to help. Mothers still lose children to widespread malnutrition during the harvest season [ something described in the book “I, Rigoberta Menchu” published in 1984, 35 years ago]. CCDA effectively elected a member of congress in the previous term, in a campaign called “Take Back the Power”.  But when that politician opposed a mining company’s expansion, he was defeated in the last election by a campaign heavily financed by that company – that put campaign workers in every town in the district.

These coffee plantations, and the sugar cane fields [back-breaking and kidney -destroying places to work], are the places people from San Antonio go to work for the months when they can earn the tiny bit of money they need  beyond the food that they grow themselves. Both industries are controlled by a tiny number of wealthy families, who continue to extract wealth from the work [and land originally lived on] by the people they now treat as disposable workers. I met a premium coffee buyer along our way and in a heart-rending conversation, he told me that we are after the same thing, that workers are being squeezed harder and harder, and that we must find a way out of the grinding greed of this system.

Why can’t rural farmers sell a portion of what they grow to generate that extra money they need? Because their land holdings are so small.  Nationally, Guatemala has also been affected by free trade agreements and cycles of debt and repayment and ‘structural adjustment’ policies through international institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Many forces that have continued to marginalize and brutalize people blossomed from the U.S.-supported coup carried out in the support of the United Fruit Company in 1954 – a coup to overthrow the democratically elected president. That president had created many social institutions to benefit the population and had decreed that unused land would be re-purchased by the government, at its declared value, for subsistence farmers. He was deposed by a coup, and replaced by a series of dictators who could only maintain their power by military oppression. Those dictators continued to be supported by the U.S. – in the form of military training, funding, arms, loans – even through the most brutal regime of Rios Montt. This was a military general, and evangelical pastor, who was presented to Congress by President Reagan as “a man of great character”. This is the leader who was in power during some of the most brutal years of the war.  Now, decades after the official end of the war, the root causes and long-term effects – inequality, the concentration of land ownership, and increasing gang and drug-related violence (often with roots and connections to the military violence during war) – continue to affect the Guatemalan population.

Global warming has also had a huge impact in recent years. The people in San Antonio this year experienced a protracted drought, followed by such heavy rain that many lost their entire crop. They will not have food next year. Those families face a huge question. “How far will you walk to feed your family?” The U.S. is the largest contributor to global warming in the world. We are also the only place  people can send their young men to make the money necessary to feed their families. The attitude we encountered around that Northern trek was one of pride in the love that moved these young men to leave everything and everyone they loved, and venture North to find work for the few years it would take for them to send home enough to supplement their family income, and probably enough to build a concrete block home on their return.  Maybe even enough to supply a stove and chimney that would take only half the fire wood of the typical open fire in the home [Lucia told me that she spent most of every day collecting firewood], and protect the families from the ravages of respiratory illnesses that smoke inflicts.

How people in San Antonio see global warming? It is in their face and daily life. They describe how over the last 20 years, springs that had run for all memory have ceased to run. No one during our trip mentioned the role of the U.S. in this predicament, but the people in San Antonio know that cutting the trees from their hillsides once refreshed by adequate rain, had led to barren slopes. And they want to be replanting trees! But water has become the most divisive force in their community – as they face the need to sink a deeper and larger well just to sustain their lives.

There is good news.  We can change the politics between our two worlds, and we can work with people in San Antonio to partner in rebuilding a sustainable and dignified life in their home land that celebrates and builds on their unique place and traditions.

Much of the oppression that people experience in Guatemala has been, or continues to be, influenced or caused by policies of our own government. We can pay attention. People need us to change our politics.  We can demand politicians and institutions that lift up human life and dignity and possibility. We can make personal choices about our purchases AND participate as informed and engaged citizens in our democracy. Let our congressional representatives know that we demand trade agreements that benefit both sides. Let our dinner conversations with friends and family move into the lives that you now know which are being crushed by global warming – they need action now. Become an advocate for immigration… both for policies that relieve the causes that drive it and for work paradigms that serve human interests in both our countries. We can direct foreign aid at water projects and education, sustainable agriculture and reforestation, not military aid- that classic source of violence that sustains oppression. We can humanize our refugee policies for those running for their lives, whether that is from physical violence threatened by drug gangs or spouses, or whether it is from starvation. Let our local candidates know these are concerns of ours.

As we live into the relationships we have forged through love and faith, how do we find our place in this world? Justice. You are called. I am not the only one calling you.  They will know we are Christians by our love. We will know we are Christians by our love.

About sisterparishinc

Building community across borders.
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