Monday, January 3, 2011

A different view of Guatemala

I knew when I decided to go to Guatemala that I would see poverty at a level I had never seen before in person. I didn't know how it would affect me and I was fairly anxious about it. It's not that I'm not keenly aware of the poverty in my own city or around the world but there is a kind of poverty that I knew I had never seen personally.

Before I try to tell you about some of that, I want to stress something: Guatemala is a beautiful country. Its natural beauty is breathtaking. The people are beautiful, too. This is the view from the roof of the home where we were staying--the long distance view of the city and the mountains beyond. The way the story was told to me, this neighborhood was designed to be a working-class neighborhood, mainly for refugees from the US-backed civil war that convulsed Guatemala for decades. Homeowners are really homesteaders--anyone could have the land if they would build a home there, just like in the American West. The homes they built were concrete, built around a courtyard, comfortable, middle-class.

Unfortunately, there were several unintended consequences of this. One, there was not adequate infrastructure or systemic stability to support this community. You've seen this photo before but I'm using it again here to illustrate this lack of systemic community support.

This school is in utter ruin--and hundreds of children from kindergarten through 8th grade attend school there every day. Thanks to the fundraising efforts of my friend JTH and his partnership with Pastor Jorge, the school now has electricity paid for through the school year. However, the school can only accomodate a fraction of the children who live in the neighborhood and private schools are prohibitively expensive (although ridiculously cheap by US standards.)

Another thing that happened was that while many of the homesteaders built comfortable homes, others were unable to maintain the homes they built and still others came as squatters. Rusty corrugated tin is everywhere--forming the roofs of many concrete buildings and then erected between buildings to house squatters and the desperately poor. Remember, although city utilities are available, the people in these photos have neither electricity nor running water. (A government water truck comes along once a week and fills the barrel outside each door, providing water for the family that lives there for one week.) This photo was taken from the roof of the home where I stayed:

Although the home I stayed in was a comfortable two-story duplex, the photo above and the one below were taken one morning from the roof. Above, you can see the makeshift tin shacks that abut the concrete buildings. Below, you can see an old woman looking through the trash on a small hillside next to the home where we stayed. (Our photographer Juli stood behind a post to take this photo, not wanting to disturb her or objectify her.) She found several salvageable items (I don't know what) and put them in her plastic bag.

This photo was taken in the parking lot of a strip center. The boy is shining the shoes of a police officer. I was told that there are thousands of homeless children on the streets of Guatemala City and that they often shine shoes to make enough money to eat.

This is Brian. Brian is 15 years old, very bright (he won second-place in a city-wide contest to sit on the Guatemalan supreme court for a day). He plays in the church's praise band and is on the church's dance team. He is shy but likes to speak English with visitors when encouraged. He is one of the brightest spots in this story because although he and his three siblings were abandoned by their parents, he was "adopted" by the grandmother in my last post and has stayed in school and involved with his surrogate family in the church. However, free public education ended for Brian in December when he finished 8th grade. JTH put his story on Facebook and in one hour, a generous American had committed to pay for Brian to attend high school for four years--to the tune of $500 per year. Thanks to this benefactor, Brian will finish high school and have a chance at a different life.

The contrast between the kind of poverty that we saw in the slums of Guatemala and the surrounding, growing middle class is stark (as it is in our own country.) After decades of civil war, Guatemala is now a place where capitalism is given free reign (some great stories there) and where many people have a real chance at a better quality of life. This photo was taken on the edge of the slum where a local business has put up nice condominiums for its middle class workers to live in. The tin shacks and the new construction are separated by a fence, not a wall, which is both sad and hopeful.

It remains to be seen whether the emerging middle class will live in fear of the poor and isolate themselves or whether it will reach back and bring the rest of the country along with it. I guess that remains to be seen here, too.
I want to write about the emotional impact of these images but I'm not sure that I can yet. Although my heart felt very tender and I often felt melancholy, I never cried, although what I saw deserved tears. More feelings than words, more questions than answers . . .

1 comment:

Janet said...

"More feelings than words, more questions than answers" ...I think your last statement has just become my prayer for all those who witness such poverty. A humble and great place to begin.