I’m back in the USA– specifically in the sublime paradise of Santa Barbara with my fabulous friend Mimi. But my mind keeps turning back to Guatemala, partly because I still have the bruises from my spectacular acts of clumsiness there, and partly because the people I met keep trolling around in my heart.
My husband and I stayed with his Mayan family in San Juan La Laguna –and I fell in love as deeply as Larry did with Juana and Don Pedro, the parents of the family; their granddaughter Keyla whom they are raising; and Benedicto, their son and his beautiful and formidably brilliant wife Maria and their child Brian.
We stayed in Benedicto and Maria’s house across the courtyard from Juana & Don Pedro and got to know them in the way you do when you’re sharing meals, bathrooms, and daily space. Benedicto is a whirlwind of positive energy and sunny disposition but Maria is the rock of the family and their beautiful Eco Spanish School –which we all attended. Maria is completely unflappable, a modern feminist concerned with the rights of indigenous women, a mother, a university student in law school, a fabulous tamale- and tortilla-maker, and village philanthropist – doing her homework and writing invoices on the computer while proudly wearing traditional Mayan garb, woven by her mother’s weaving cooperative.
Despite the beautiful smiling faces of our family, Guatemala has a long and sad history of bad interactions with the blancos – its proud Mayan empire decimated by drought in 900 AD, its cities overrun by the disease-laden Spanish in the 1500s, and its independence movements of the 1900s overthrown by dictators and paramilitary squads financed and trained by the United Fruit Company (that’s Chiquita, folks) and the CIA. In the last big revolution of the 1980s, over 200,000 indigenous people were slaughtered – with a great deal of help from Santa Barbara’s own President Reagan.
Today, Guatemala is the 2nd poorest country in Central America—second only to Haiti – with over 60% of its population living in poverty, about 80% functionally illiterate, and people struggling to survive. Yet somehow, the people are almost embarrassingly generous and welcoming to Americans, they are hopeful and joyful, and the spirit of the communities we visited was very much intact and intent upon democracy, independence and reform.
I miss the people we got to know in San Juan. I’m glad we are able to send a little money and help to our family for education and the basics of life, and I can’t wait to go back and visit. It’s such a privilege to be welcomed into their life and have a village we love so deeply.
Nos encanta Guatemala!
It’s always shocking to learn how there can be such poverty so close to the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth. And as Simple Life added, within that nation, as well. But do we know how to help without being intrusive or destructive? How do we lend a hand without clumsily trying to turn other cultures into smaller versions of us? Do the people of Guatemala wish for the same things we would wish for them?
Piercing words and beautiful images, Betty — as always. Thank you.
Man oh man, BB — that is so true! Guatemala is just 3 hours from Atlanta, but a world away in terms of abundance and prosperity, except for a very tiny minority. It becomes really difficult to understand the corruption of the government and the people’s seeming inability to affect any kind of meaningful change, even with the upcoming elections. And when 50% of the country is composed of indigenous peoples who suffer the most, it’s really hard to comprehend why any kind of meaningful change seems so elusive — but then, America has routinely interfered with all their liberation movements, so it’s too ironic to blame the people. I’m just hoping things will get better — one super encouraging sign: even in a family like Don Pedro & Juana’s (each came from a family of over 8 and had 7 children of their own) … their kids have only 1 or 2 children, which means they are able to afford a better life, education, and hopefully even advanced degrees! That’s a good sign!!! xoxo b
What a wonderful opportunity for you and your husband. I bet it’s hard to find a mental balance where you know you’ve done the best you can. It can be overwhelming to feel like there is so much need. We see that here, with the Native American reservations. So much turmoil, alcoholism, poverty and violence … however most people would probably not believe it until they visited it themselves. It’s literally a whole other world within America.
Thanks so much for writing! It was an incredible opportunity — although it’s kind of ironic that it’s only now that I’m not blogging every day that I can take these service trips and be in different places. Love traveling around, though — nothing like it to open your eyes & heart!!
WOW! Thank you for including us every step of the way. What beauty and great spirits flowing through the land of Guatamala AND you tell it so well. You show us the finger of God through your photos. I see a best-selling book in the making!