Guatemala dreamin’

Dawn on Lake Atitlan, San Juan La Laguna. Photo by Allyson Hayden.

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.

The lovely Miss Keyla

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.

The incomparable Maria!

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.

Edna, Elvira & Juana with the weaving

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.

Impoverished and whacked by natural disasters, Guatemala is also incredibly beautiful and a biodiversity hotspot.

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.

The face of Guatemala's future.

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!