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Reflections on Guatemala

IUCC Guatemala Trip – February/March 2012
Reports from Members of Irvine United Congregational Church
On a Week Spent Building Stoves, Immersing Themselves in a New Culture and Studying the Needs of Students at San Bartolome School in San Andres Itzapa


(Rev. Elizabeth Griswold)

Reflections on Guatemala by Rev. Elizabeth Griswold

(A sampling of writings from a year (2005-06) spent in San Andres Itzapa) 


     I’ve been really busy lately, which is how I think I function best, feeling happier and more useful.  In addition to my work at the school, I would like to get more involved in other projects out in the community—like making house visits with the mother in my host family (Everilda), who is the president of Mujeres de Maiz, a women’s association that organizes (among other things) a chicken and pig project.  I will take notes on the animals, since she can’t really write (which always surprises and saddens me when I remember.  Everyone talks about how she is so intelligent.  She was just never given the chance to learn.  I take so much pleasure in reading and writing and take it for granted…).  Also, I want to work with more reforestation and medicinal plants, work on this water project that I was so happy we finally found the funding to complete when some wealthy Kansan visitors came, help with translation for a child-sponsorship foundation, learn to weave and just generally have more varied activities.

     Also, there is the on-going debate of when/if I will my move out of the host family’s house. There are so many advantages/disadvantages, re: cultural immersion vs. more independence.  I learn so much there, especially about how people here view the world vs. how I’ve learned to view it and also about just different types of knowledge.  Everilda and one of the girls told me the first time they were given a tea bag, they respectively opened it and dumped it in the cup and opened it and ate it.  And I know I make similar silly mistakes every day with stuff people consider “common knowledge” here.  She also talks about the war sometimes or the on-going racism that caused her to receive death threats for her work supporting our school for mostly Mayan poor children.  Besides, I seem to be known around town as “Everilda’s gringa,” in some sort of relationship oddly reminiscent of slave ownership days, but inverted in so many ways. So, I’ll probably stay at the house for now… 

     Our house was food prep headquarters for the “Day of the Family” the school put on.  Making tortillas up on the roof with about 10 other women, I honestly thought, “If I believed in Hell, this is what it would be like”—with the heat and smoke making you cry and cough and sweat.  And the delicate gringa had to leave, but the others just kept working, eyes and lungs be damned.

     Often I really miss alternative US culture and being able to talk with friends about progressive ideas and make ourselves feel we’re so educated and “enlightened.”  The machismo and homophobia really bring me down sometimes. But it’s funny how males from toddlers to viejitos are always hanging all over each other in public in ways you’d never see back home.

     Anyway, I’ll close by describing the most magical morning I’ve probably ever had.  Last Saturday, after breakfast I accompanied six-year-old Dalyla to bring tubing glue to her dad up at the well. We walked through the misty coffee plants, grown under the branches of shadier trees, arriving at the well on the top of the hill that affords expansive views of the mountains beyond, framed by fuchsia bougainvillea  Then, with her dad, we hunted in the nearby pine grove for edible mushrooms amongst the ferns at our feet.  And we walked home joyously singing of Maria the Blanca Paloma.  All my homesickness is so worth such moments.


     It has also been interesting to hear the stories of men who have gone to work in the US and come back.  I can certainly relate to their descriptions of missing home, loved ones, their own culture.  But the similarities end with my paid-for trip on an airplane and the way everyone treats me like a queen here.  I actually try to discourage people from going, or at least paint a realistic picture of immigrant life.  Many people are very surprised to hear that there are even people who are poor in the US. They think of it as the “promised land.”  And their extensive knowledge of so much of US culture is both hilarious and so sad in its second-handedness.  I read that Nike and US pop music are accomplishing greater feats of conquest of the Maya than the Spanish conquistadors ever dreamed.  And yet I try to believe my teaching here is beneficial–in giving them more opportunities and just exercising their minds in wrapping around another language.  More than one child has told me, “I know how to say mouse in English…Mickey!”

(Carmelite Convent where mission group stayed)

     The family also asked me how to say “Corn Flakes” in English and if we have Pepsi in the US.  The daughter-in-law asked me if Disney characters walk the streets, as she saw that in a picture.  “Winnie Pooh” is huge here, along with Sponge Bob, Dora the Exploradora, and Barbie. I haven’t watched this much TV (or drank this much soda) in a long, long time.  And one of the funniest sights I’ve ever seen was looking in the window at McDonald’s in Antigua to see a woman all in traditional clothing sitting on the same bench as and staring up at a giant Ronald McDonald, as if just about to begin a conversation.


     Since the beginning one of my friends here has asked me about my dreams. After I vaguely meander through talk of a career that fits my principles, consistent simple living, “making a difference” for peace and justice; he tells me his dream is to have a family—a wife, two kids, a little house and a job. He wants to work hard.  In his wildest dreams he owns an old pick-up (though he doesn’t know how to drive).  That’s it.  I tried to explain that in our culture, at least for me, I’ve always assumed that of course I would have those things—it’s a given.  The dream is beyond that–ambitious goals, etc.  And his family focus isn’t self-serving, it’s more that those basic things would make him happy.  Though cable TV and a private bathroom also make him happy! 

     But he is still unemployed.  He had a friend, Hector, who took off to the US with a group of guys from here, led by a coyote.  Hector died in the desert of Arizona a couple months ago.  His uncle in LA who went to look for his body, said wandering through the desert in that area was like a graveyard–deserted human and animal corpses everywhere. He took pictures of one he thought was the nephew he hadn’t seen in years and sent them here.  Hector’s mom had to identify her son’s already rotting body.  She then had this friend confirm it was him and begged him never to go to the US undocumented.  This is their American Dream.  But Jorge, another unemployed friend, with a wife and son, told him he wanted to go.  And he is so desperate he said he hopes what happened to Hector happens to him too.  But the two of them went to the capital job hunting on Monday, finding every place they went packed with others looking for work.  The problem is that it costs about $2 round-trip on the bus to the capital, and you may get hungry there, so many folks don’t even have the money to go look for work!


     This month the biggest thing to happen was definitely the effects of Hurricane Stan on our town.  I had never experienced so much rain for such a long time in my life.  The river burst its banks and swept away hundreds of homes in its widened path, also washing away many bridges.  Hundreds of people had to stay in shelters, and almost everybody’s water was cut, since downed trees up the mountain broke pipes flowing from the spring.  I got a lot of work done on the traditional weaving I made for my family before being able to go out and try to help in the town’s impressive relief effort.  At least we weren’t affected nearly as badly as other communities with landslides and casualties.  Makes you think ofBut from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away…” [Matthew 25: 29]

     But this is still a developing country in the midst of an interesting time of culture clash. Walking out the door, I’m greeted by traditionally-clad women carrying corn to the mill on their heads, somebody walking a pig, and others blaring rap from their SUVs.  Or often it’s the ancient humble campesino who pulls the cell phone out of his pocket after hearing his customized ringtone.  What a crossroads in preserving culture and accepting technology.

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