Our friends in Portland recently took a journey with faculty and parents of Catlin Gable School to Chajul in Guatamala. Mundo has been partnering with Catlin Gable middle schoolers, supporting a local school in Chajul that focuses on teaching children their Maya heritage and language through literacy building activities and community projects. The students from Catlin and Cemik have been writing to one another, practicing their Spanish, and Catlin families have been sending school supplies, computers and funds to support the school’s operation. The most recent group to visit Chajul included a physician who graciously brought down essential medical supplies to two local clinics. Andy also conducted a clinic where he saw several individuals in Pal who would have otherwise have had to walk 8 hours to see a physician. Many of those attended to during the clinic spoke of longterm suffering as a result of trying to survive the almost 36 years of violence during the Guatemalan civil war between the late 1970’s and mid 1990’s.
We had been anticipating with great enthusiasm our journey to Guatemala…time for new adventures, meeting of old friends, time to be away from house chores and bills and work. Right before the trip I was busily trying to figure out what small present to take and how to tie loose ends together when I received a call from a dear friend who has lived and worked as a missionary in the country for over 39 years (just think of that, doing service for others for well over half of her lifetime and still smiling each morning and evening), letting me know that the middle son of the family we always stay with was kicked in the head by the family working horse and would not make it. Suddenly instead of preparing for a joyous reunion, we were preparing to help bury 10 year old Miguelito. It brought to the forefront how fragile life is. The family lives in Pal, which was a Community of Populations in Resistance during the 36 year Civil War. There are no roads or electricity or health care services other than a health promoter, who does incredibly well with the amount of training he has had, but cannot cope with medical emergencies. Right after the accident Miguelito’s family and friends carried him up the steep trail some four hours to the roadhead, hoping they would reach help before he died. First they took the boy to the clinic in Chajul, but there was nothing the doctors could do for him there, so they drove the 20 miles to Nebaj and again were told the facility did not have the capability of providing the level of care he needed, so they found a car that would drive them to the hospital in Quiche (another four hours away)where they were able to do a Cat scan and help with the discomfort. By that time there was really nothing to be done except keep Miguel comfortable. When we arrived to the family home (after 12 hours of being on planes and in airports and 7 hours of driving and three hours of walking), the house seemed quiet without the boisterous shouts and antics of Miguel to keep everyone entertained. Life has been really hard for this family, as it has been for the other 100+ families living in Pal who were basically on the run for the duration of the Civil War. Miguel’s father’s first wife was killed by the military for the family’s active role in fighting for social justice for the Maya. His second wife was sequestered. Several of Miguel’s mother’s brothers and sisters died from exposure, hunger, and illnesses that could not be addressed while her family was on the run for their lives. There was little we could do other than offer solace and partipate in the evening blessings to Miguel’s spirit, but somehow it seemed important for the family to know there was solidarity from the world at large and that they were not alone with their grief.
Over the last two decades I have been working and living in the Chajul area, I have grown to appreciate the importance of long-term ties. Over and over again I am reminded that while the physical things we bring in to these struggling communities are important, it is the developing relationships – the listening to voices that have historically gone unheard, the acknowledgement of the challenges they have surmounted, the sharing of hopes and dreams and sorrow – that is the most powerful part of solidarity. And so we were reminded again on this last trip.
Our group of four, Tna, Spencer, Andy, and myself, brought with us varying skills. Andy is an incredible ER doc, Tna is a very savvy traveler and risk manager, Spencer is an amazing Spanish teacher and International Director, and I am a community psychologist with long ties to the Ixil Triangle and the struggles the Maya in this area have endured over the centuries. Our skills were all put to good use, but the most powerful offering I think our group provided was the spirit of good will and openess to new experience. During the week we were in Pal and Chajul we hosted by Limitless Horizons, a NGO that is promoting excellence in education through sponsoring middle and high school students attending school in Chajul. This is a group of enthusiastic Guatemaltecos and extranjeros, joining together to assist students in their quest to attain a quality education. www.limitlesshorizonsixil.org They were incredibly helpful to us in arranging transportation and looking at various community health projects they are working on that students from Catlin Gable may eventually become involved in, including efficient/smokeless stove building, potable water, organic gardening and school building projects.
During the short week we were there we helped Andy do two days of medical consultations in Pal, distributed over a hundred pounds of medical and educational supplies that were donated in the States, visited and talked to families using the efficient stoves, and spent many wonderful hours with the students of CEMIK, a school Mundo has been helping to support over the last several years. These students are learning about the traditional Maya ways, Indigenous rights, Care of the land and literacy skills in Spanish and Ixil (their indigenous language). After the larger group left, I stayed on to visit with students currently receiving Mundo support to attend school and talk with students, families, and their teachers about their progress. Then I traveled to Rio Blanco where Sister Evie is working with community members on several projects. We spent one incredibly long day handing out rice and beans to women who are participating in an infant nutrition program. They live in such remote places with so little. We are all of us so fortunate to have a roof over our heads and the ability to access sufficient food! I also had a chance to see the new roof Mundo helped to pay for that now allows community members to have a dry, warm place to be year round to participate in literacy and women’s micro-economic activities, as well as make plans for our next trip down in August when a family of four will accompany me to help build a house for a 90 year old woman and her disabled granddaughter.
Looks like we have more words to create to address the Maya Cosmos. Quite a bit has been written about the blending/preserving of ancient Maya culture and modern times. If one googles Maya Cosmos you will find an incredible number of scholarly articles. It is really interesting to be in villages such as Pal where the people still live very much as did their ancestors, in a agronomy society that moves very closely with the tides of nature. Pal still has not cell phone reception, unlike so many parts of Guatemala. Life has changed rapidly in towns that have access to technology. It will be interesting to see what changes this new decade will bring.
I’m looking forward in particular to reading of how those helping there perceived the ancient Mayan culture and how it has adapted to modern times – especially in light of media attention focussed on the end of the Mayan calendar at 11:11 AM on December 21st 2012 which will undoubtedly generate some tourists ergo a short spree of high income. Is there an infrastructure in place to help with the massive spike in local economics and does it have sustainability woven into it for long term aid?