Guatemala: Weekend Trips, Halfway Mark, & Hope
With March upon us, it’s clear that time is flying by. While some days may seem long, the weeks truly are short. As we continue to attend the final days of Spanish classes during the week, the weekends serve as memorable and educational getaways, full of learning opportunities and memory-making. Coming into this semester study-abroad, we knew that a focus would be cultural immersion- or at least as close to immersion as we could manage during the pandemic. What normally would’ve been host family stays have had to shift to hotel or group stays together, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been observing and interacting with cultures different from our own. Every trip we take is uniquely significant.
The weekend of March 4-6, we traveled with Jack Lesniewski, MCC country representative for Guatemala and El Salvador, to Santiago Atitlan. We were greeted with friendly faces at ANADESA (Asociación Nuevo Amanecer de Santiago Atitlan) by Maya Tz’utujil women. There, we learned all about the MCC-accompanied organization that works to support indigenous women ages 20-40. ANADESA provides a place for women to gather, teaches them self-sufficiency such as beadwork and business skills, and connects them with other women and social workers who make home visits and check in regularly to offer support in cases of abuse and other tough situations. ANADESA also works with children and adolescents to encourage, support, and assist their attendance and participation in school and schoolwork. Like almost everything else, due to the pandemic, school attendance has been extremely challenging. In Guatemala, distance learning is very much still prevalent, and a lack of access to materials, technology, and/or internet connection can make access to education nearly impossible for some children and families. ANADESA’s after-school tutoring program takes around 90 kids from the surrounding rural and more-urban communities and gives them access to technology and/or internet for school, vouchers for school supplies, and homework help at the center.
The mere existence of ANADESA represents a symbol of hope; we talked a lot about what hope itself can look like that weekend. ANADESA was founded by Maya Tz’utujil women after they came together to assist surrounding communities that had been completely wiped out by mudslides caused by Hurricane Stan in 2005. Since then, they have continued their mission to empower others and offer aid to women and children. Jack offered lots of insight during our travels, mentioning that someone had once pointed out the unfinished rebar that stuck out of roofs on every block. That, he said, was hope. Hope of possibility, hope for the future with plans to continue to build and grow and develop. (Not that a bigger building means success or happiness, because we have recognized the cultural importance of closeness to others, especially family, and the sharing of everything and every space!)
After our welcome tour and introductions and a delicious meal, we tucked in for the night in a local hotel in place of what would’ve normally been host family stays. We rose with the sun on Saturday with a full day of learning ahead of us. We started the day with what is now a familiar breakfast; black beans, eggs, queso fresco, plantains, and of course, tortillas! Accompanied by the ANADESA women Concepción Esquina Damián, Mayra Magdalena Reanda Tacaxoy, Carmen Lourdes Petzey Chiviliú, and Josefa Damian Sosof, we walked in small groups to the local market to buy ingredients for our lunch. With our bags of fresh produce and herbs and other goodies in hand, we piled into the local form of public transportation: pickup truck beds. When we returned, a fruitful process of washing, chopping, slicing, grinding waited for us. With the direction of the women, we helped prepare a delicious traditional caldo of guisquil, carrots, potatoes, and chicken. It was a meaningful process, complete with getting on the ground and really working for the sauce, which required a volcanic rock grinding stone to really make it good.
After enjoying our lunch, we continued with our learning and strung beaded bracelets and listened to a presentation on cultural traditions and cultural shifts within the Maya Tz’utujil people. We ground corn for tortillas, and most of us wouldn’t hesitate to say that it was much more difficult to do than it appeared. We ended the night with a meal graciously prepared by the workers and then called it a day!
The next morning, we rose with the sun and attended mass at Saint James the Apostle Church, conducted in a mix of both Spanish and Tz’utujil languages. After perusing the markets and contributing to the local economy, we gathered our belongings, said our thank yous to ANADESA, and embarked on the return to Guatemala City and our host families.
On Thursday, March 10, we bittersweetly celebrated our halfway point. How can that be? (At least that’s what I was thinking!) We have learned so much, seen so many new places, and met so many amazing people! It’s hard to believe that this semester abroad will ever end. But for now, we take it one day at a time!
This past weekend, March 11-13, we headed to San Marcos with MCC for another learning tour. We stayed at the Catholic Diocese retreat center, a quiet little spot in town. Jack accompanied us once again, giving tips and sharing tidbits of knowledge that he has acquired along the way, having lived in Guatemala for a number of years.
Friday night we met Ricardo Salinas, a friendly young man from Honduras who is currently participating in MCC’s 2-year SEED program. Ricardo told us about himself and the path he took to get where he is now, living in San Marcos and working as the facilitator for a youth program called Colectivo Verde. Colectivo Verde works with 20 “jóvenes” around the ages of 17-30 to promote social communication of topics like identifying and using natural medicine, the reclaiming of Maya traditional medicinal practices, and more. They work to unite their passions and share their knowledge through social media, especially their podcast, titled “De Cero a 42-20”. (Check them out on Spotify!)
Saturday morning, we headed out for a learning tour at a gold mine (owned by a foreign corporation) that has since shut down. We learned a lot about abusive power, environmental atrocities, and oppression among other themes. It’s hard to do justice to the ideas presented, but in short, a foreign mining company exploited indigenous land for years while simultaneously contaminating their environmental resources with long-term lead and arsenic deposits that have yet to be disposed of. And, what does “disposing of” the metals even mean? How did this pass through so many loopholes? Why was it approved? We struggled to grapple with the interconnected injustices presented in this situation. We pray for restoration, and healing, and peace, and, hope.
We then visited the agro-parcel of Marcial Mejia, a local man involved with a program titled Pastoral de la Tierra that promotes sustainable farming, a program of the local Catholic church and supported by MCC. We were shown extreme kindness and generosity by Marcial as he invited us each to take 5 tomatoes from his little greenhouse. He later made sure we all took carrots. And after that, he asked for our hands to fill with seeds from different clay jars in which they were stored. This was yet another symbol of the incredible hospitality and generosity of those whom we’ve encountered.
And while we did witness a total abomination of land earlier in the day, we saw life and hope sewed into the ground in the form of Marcial’s self-cultivated seeds.
On Sunday, we got the chance to meet with some of the members of the Colectivo Verde! We exchanged introductions and played a few ice breaker-type games. We saw just how much of a leader Ricardo was, his passion visible. One of the highlights of our time together was a panel discussion consisting of Madilyn, Maria B, Ethan, and Micah from our group, and four from the Colectivo Verde (names listed below photos). They exchanged personal experiences and stories of life in their respective contexts, wrapping up the talk with Ricardo’s perfectly-fitting question of “What gives you hope?”
As we gear up for the final weeks of Spanish classes, we carry a lot of the weight of the things we hear about with us. We hear about these problems, now what? How can we move forward in solidarity and continue to learn from the stranger while simultaneously being the stranger?
It’s hard to sum up all of what I’m feeling, and I’m sure the others would say the same. But we continue to appreciate all the experiences we’ve had thus far, taking them with us day by day.
– Lucy Unzicker