Danville Congregational Church visits with San Antonio

by Bette Felton

Delegates and Sister Parish staff on Guatemala City historical tour.

It was a wonderful, refreshing trip, starting in Guatemala City.    We visited three amazing programs before we went to Antigua to meet our 8 friends from San Antonio.    We visited the Popol Vuh, a Mayan museum that has amazing time lines, ancient altar pieces, mural revivals and hieroglyphs from personal collections.   The museum is in a private university, Universidad Francisco Marroquin- considered home of right wing rich families for university studies.   However, they have assembled and curated an amazing history of the many of the Mayan cultures.   And next door was a remarkable textile museum with maps and ‘huipilies and cortes’ from more than 50 towns and regions in Guatemala.   There were displays from the early 1800s and you could see the evolution of weaving and style over the years.  We also shared a laugh filled picnic with women from Tierra Nueva 1 and 2-two Sister Parish communities in Guatemala City, in an archaeological site with Mayan pyramids called Kaminal Juyu. It was from this archaeological site that an exquisite altar piece in the shape of toad on display in Popol Vuh.

Picnic with Sister Parish communities at Kaminal Juyu site.

We visited for 3 hours with Lisa Rankin, from Canada, who works with Breaking the Silence, an organization that monitors and exposes extractive industries, primarily mining,  in Guatemala.  Most mines are run by multinational corporations who have done deals with the Guatemalan government for rights to mine, pollute water, grow palm in plantations, etc.   Citizens have no recourse except to organize and protest and let the truth be known.  Lisa is another former ‘accompanier’ who works diligently to follow Hudson Bay Minerals (now Russian owned) and the Escobar Mine in particular.   She seems to really know international labor rights and encourages community consultations, like the one our sister community has done.  We were connected and introduced to these amazing folks by the courageous Carrie Stengel, who is the Executive Director of Sister Parish.   Along with Bryan Tyler, also from Sister Parish, we were shepherded to remarkable places and  people, each one more interesting than the one before.

We also talked with an amazing digital activist and future attorney Andrea Ixchiu who with her partners, organizes Solidarity Festivals in communities all over Guatemala, trying to raise awareness about extractive industries and the harm they do. She thinks that militarization is the current fear, with a government that considers organized citizen groups as enemies of the state.  The military feels able and willing to do ‘exceptional interventions’ in 22 communities that have organized around climate change.   The charges that the community activists are ‘narco-organizers’ is completely erroneous according to Andrea , but it stimulates more fear and justifies the declaration of  ‘states of siege’ (similar to martial law) in rural communities and counties.  Another interesting trend is the privatization of security, and the people who own and manage these private security firms are the old guard from the civil war of the 80’s- friends and family who now are making huge profits, ‘protecting’ the rich.  In small and rural communities, there is fear that these private security firms are a return to the civil patrols of the civil war that rounded up fellow citizens, and often caused their deaths.

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

Before we greeted our ‘hermanimiento’, on 10/28 in the morning, we went to Pop No’j, an organization that provides accompaniment for returning and reintegrating children who have been separated from their families by immigration authorities in the U.S.  We were greeted by Sylvia, a social worker who described the mission and services of this organization that is focused on indigenous communities, primarily in Huehuetenango, a northern province that has along the border with Mexico   Their migration program started in 2010 with assistance from the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), and KIND (a US non-profit organization-Kids in Need of Defense).   They consider migration an act of love, that families find they must do together if possible, to provide futures for their children.  They are currently supporting 54 children and their families (as of present day) as the children return home and reintegrate.  Many of the kids have been in the same detention centers in the U.S.,  and are referred to Pop No’j from agencies in the U.S.  Social services Pop No’j provides in the families’ native language include home visits, education, health care and counseling.  Pop No’j coordinates with local hospitals and municipal governments when needed..  Sylvia shared two very serious facts:  More than 2000 Guatemalan children have yet to be returned, and in 2018, U.S. ICE agents have been training and participating in operations with local police, so the crisis continues. U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents are operating at the Mexico/Guatemala border in Huehuetenango.   I later asked my Congressman about this, and he replied,  ‘I am not at all surprised.’

After Pop No’j in Guatemala City, we traveled to Antigua to meet our friends from our Sister Parish in San Antonio, Quiche. We were not able to do home stays in San Antonio this time due to some local community tensions. Fortunately we were able to be together for 4 wonderful days with 8 of our friends who travelled 6 hours from San Antonio to Antigua.  We laughed and cried, and played and cooked with Tomas, Maria, Pedro, Guadalupe, Lucia, Yoselin, Manuel, and Leslie. And we were accompanied by Brian Tyler, Carrie Stengel, her son Milo, her brother in law, Estuardo, and the remarkable driver, Martin.   Our Casa Don Pedro was a very large house with room for 20 of us.   A staff of two women helped serve us meals, except when we cooked with our friends.

Breakfast with friends – San Antonio and Danville communities reunited.

One highlight of my stay was grocery shopping with some of our friends and Milo, especially after a cool exercise that Carrie had us do in Guatemala City.  Before we met up in Antigua, Carrie had the Danville bunch shop with 100 quetzals (about $12-$13)  We shopped for a week’s menu for 4 and realized how difficult it would be to provide adequate nutrition with limited funds.   When we actually did shop for 20 (2 meals), we were made aware of how far their income is stretched.   And we were reminded of why beans with tortillas, made on a wood fire, provide almost 100% of their nutritional intake. Our American diet is so varied, and caloric that three adults could have adequate nutrition and satiety with only one of our daily intakes.

Almost a full day was spent at Caoba Organic Farm in Antigua, where the founder, Alex, spent almost 4 hours describing and showing us the animals, and vegetables and fruit that he produces.   Alex came from Wyoming and started growing romaine lettuce in 2008 for the growing ex-pat community in Antigua.   He spent intense time with Tomas and Pedro, learning their needs-high altitude farming and climate changes-and then recommended trees, composting, and other practices to improve their crops. He also provided seeds that work at high altitudes and talked about the importance of harvesting seeds from your first crop, to use the following year (which farmers in San Antonio absolutely do with corn and beans).  The gardens were beautiful and practices were on display to provide information to San Antonio and Danville farmers.

Tour of Caoba Farms in Antigua.

And then there was our time together. That was the reason for our trip.   As separate communities, we worked up a tree of life-where we started and where we are going- and presented them to the other community.   We taught each other songs, and did the hokey-pokey.   We heard from Linda’s friend from Aid in Education, that described the process for finding students who want to continue in school.  We became comfortable with saying ‘Maltiox’ (thank you in Quiche) and ‘Saqarik’ (good morning in Quiche).  We heard their joys and concerns and talked more about how we can support each other going forward. Being with people of faith from San Antonio, Sister Parish, and Danville Congregational, I have gained confidence that our shared journeys, and the love that surrounds them are the real thing.   Authentic relationships, based on faith and love, are what we need to find our place in this world, and it was a privilege to feel it and share it on this trip.

Maltiox to all of you awesome ones!

About sisterparishinc

Building community across borders.
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