Today is March 1st. As the northeast of the United States digs out from the crippling snowstorms, we can only watch this unbelievable phenomenon (my housemates still cannot grasp the concept of snow and its difference from ice) on the news in the sweltering heat wave that currently has gripped Guatemala. As usual, I can hardly believe that the month of March has already poked its head through the door. February already seems like a distant daydream.
Today is March 1st. As the northeast of the United States digs out from the crippling snowstorms, we can only watch this unbelievable phenomenon (my housemates still cannot grasp the concept of snow and its difference from ice) on the news in the sweltering heat wave that currently has gripped Guatemala. As usual, I can hardly believe that the month of March has already poked its head through the door. February already seems like a distant daydream.It was an eventful and demanding month that cultivated a whole garden of writings, musings, reflections, etc. but as the month came to a close I was struck by this one event. My friends, Mateo and Albiana, welcomed a new baby girl to the family in the final days of February. I got a chance to see the 1-month premature 5-pound healthy little person yesterday at the hospital as they were finally about to take her home. She is perhaps the tiniest human being I have ever laid eyes upon but she is so precious. She is probably the length of half my arm and her face (the only part I have seen thus far since she was wrapped up in a scarf most of the time) is as red as a beet. It was a happy day yesterday when the family could take her home, though I found myself raising one eyebrow slightly in recognition of the differences in life here versus the States since I had to run 10 minutes to Central Park to find the family a taxi so that Albiana and the new baby (no name as of the writing of this piece) would not have to walk home. But, once again, this entire event spawned a whole other story and an entirely different thought process. In the bed next to Albiana was another woman who had also just had a baby. Both mother and baby were crying uncontrollably as the crowd gathered around Albiana. Her baby was also a month premature but weighed a miniscule 3 pounds. My housemate, Maria Cristina, inquired politely what was wrong and through tears she recounted how her husband had left her three weeks earlier for another woman; that she had three other children waiting at home; how no one came to visit her in the hospital; and how she had no money to buy diapers for the baby. Without hesitation, Maria Cristina and her husband Juan Carlos went out to buy diapers for the baby though they, themselves have very little money to spare. When they brought them back the woman asked if they would take the baby because she knew they could provide it with food, diapers, and a loving home. They had to decline but the next day Maria Cristina went back to visit the woman, to comfort her trembling arms in some small way. She had never met the woman before a few days ago but in these two interactions that lasted no more than 10 minutes a piece, two distinct snap shots of Guatemala were taken.
The first of these prints, locked in an emotionless gray steel frame, is of an unquestionably difficult problem facing the women and children of this country. It's not just that many women have lost their husbands and the fathers of their children to some type of violence (usually the case cited is the 200,000 people that were killed, among those men, women, and children, or just disappeared during the armed conflict.) Many men are not dependable for their families and the “machismo” of this country helps some of the men to shrug off their responsibilities for their own children and move on to another woman. Though I might want to, I cannot just lay the problem at the feet of the male “machismo” because it reaches much farther than that. I have heard the stories of families who can’t have children just walking to the local hospital to find women willing to give up their children, or the stories of the “business” of smuggling Guatemalan children illegally into other countries for sale, or families just leaving their newborns at the hospital. I don’t pretend to know a lot about these issues, to be able to judge in any way their actions, to know the circumstances behind the husband in this scenario’s leaving, etc. Like I said, I have heard a number of tales about children and most specifically about this very thing, about husbands leaving their wives in the 8th month of their pregnancy, of shacking up with another woman, and severing all ties with their other family. This is just another piece of the reality here that is hard to be witness to, which is difficult to look at through my eyes…
The second photo, caressed by a warm scarlet rounded frame, is of compassion. Maria Cristina (who I wrote about dealing with the loss of her own child in a previous reflection piece), while taking all her own troubles and commitments into account, still reached out to this woman. She spent a few minutes talking to her and in her conversation with me later in the evening, gave the hint that she had thought about accepting the child but that since it was not within her and Juan’s plan, they could not. This sense of empathy between Maria and the other Guatemalan woman, while reflecting a heartrending circumstance, gives you a small idea about the selflessness and love which many people share in Guatemala, especially the women. I have written before about how strong the woman here are. I saw, reflected in this interaction a piece of their unity, a glimmer of the connection that allows them to bond together in the face of “machismo”, beneath the shadow of discrimination, and under the thumb of inequality that saturates the culture, etc. I have never seen stronger woman in my life.
February 2, 2005 marked my exactly 1 year anniversary of beginning work at ACG. I spent the month of January last year in language school and arrived on the doorstep of the office here in Santa Cruz del Quiche at 8am that Monday morning with all my belongings stuffed into a hiking pack and a duffle bag. That day I weathered a 3-hour meeting in which I was just one of the many agenda items so as to define what would be my work for ACG. The part that was just a little overwhelming, besides the fact that the whole meeting was in Spanish and I still was quite timid with my Spanish, was the small detail that my list of tasks seemed to be about a page long. From looking down that long numbered list with coordinating and translating anything and everything that had to do with the English language or groups from the United States to traveling out to meet with and photograph any of ACG’s 36 communities and everything in between, that morning was a far cry from this last February 2, 2005, one year to the day later. That morning I stood out on the fields in the community of La Puerta Chinique with most of the ACG staff and participated in a soccer tournament to celebrate the anniversary of the community’s founding. In between that meeting February 2, 2004 and last months soccer game, which now seems to me to be the most ordinary of days, I have done everything that was put on that list a year ago in some way, shape, or variety of forms, and it has been wonderful at times and the most difficult of tasks at others. From looking through the eyes of this poverty riddled country to feeling the compassion of its people it has been the fullest, most difficult, and most rewarding year of my life.
Paul Pitcher is a missionary with the Christian Action of Guatemala (ACG). He serves as a communication and youth worker with ACG.