I go to Guatemala a lot. I’ve lost count of how many times. I’ve been there so much that it doesn’t seem foreign to me anymore. The brightly colored huipiles, the vendors selling trinkets on street corners and the dust billowing up from the road as pick-up trucks and chicken buses bounce past town all blend together and fade into the background at this point. Been there, done that. I experience these things not as a tourist anymore, but as part of the fabric of the country. I am in Guatemala, so naturally there are cows blocking the road.
However, I can’t seem to desensitize myself to the poverty. It’s everywhere I go, in every story I hear, and it never ever fades into the din of the rest of the country. Just when I decide to push the poverty away, to simply accept the fact that this is how things work in Guatemala, it slaps me in the face again and forces me to deal with the fact that an entire family of ten sleeps on the dirt floor of a dilapidated one-room shack, or that a single mother feeds her two young sons nothing but plain tortillas and still can’t afford to buy school supplies for them. That more often than not, parents have to choose between feeding their children or sending them to school.
I met Diego Set Cuc in February when I visited his school with Cooperative for Education. He was thrilled that we brought brand-new textbooks to his school, since he never had the opportunity to use them before. But he was even more thrilled to meet people from another country. He seemed truly honored and surprised that people would come so far to visit his school, saying, “It is incredible for you to travel all this way, and for me to have the opportunity to learn more about North America”.
He adjusted his glasses before sheepishly inquiring if he could ask a few questions about life in North America. His curiosity and love of learning were evident, his smile growing wider each time I answered a question. He was elated to have been given the gift of education by complete strangers so far away and couldn’t wait to learn more about us. It turns out that Diego also had extra motivation to learn about North America. His dad lives in Canada for half of every year, growing fruits and vegetables in Quebec as part of a temporary worker program. Neither of Diego’s parents ever attended school. His mother is completely illiterate, and his dad had to make the same impossible decision as so many parents in Guatemala: stay and remain mired in poverty, or leave for a chance to give their families something better.
Diego told me that he misses his dad when he is gone, but understands that he wouldn’t be able to stay in school without his sacrifice. Diego understands, but I don’t. I don’t understand why these impossible decisions have to be made over and over and over again in Guatemala. Why it has to be so hard. Why kids have to grow up so much sooner here. Why education is a luxury that almost no one can afford.
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do know that coming back to Guatemala time and time again, surprisingly enough, refreshes me. Yes, it’s hard and awful and heartbreaking, but it is also nourishing to meet the people who come to Guatemala with us and witness the poverty for themselves. It is revitalizing to meet kids like Diego who are grabbing onto the few opportunities they are given and holding on for dear life; who know what incredible sacrifices their parents are making so they can receive the education their parents never did. The volunteers I travel with and the students, teachers and parents we meet at the schools are building something big together and it’s amazing to witness. Diego understood that we were at his school to celebrate this opportunity with him and to learn about his life; to empathize and share. After Diego told me how incredible it was to him that complete strangers were genuinely invested in his education, he paused, and said, “But after all, I guess we aren’t strangers anymore, but friends.”
We are friends and we are in this together. I want everyone in the Rebel Storyteller community to know that you are invited to join me in this messy, wonderful, heart wrenching friendship with Guatemala.
Join Cooperative for Education for a five-day glimpse into the beauty and tragedy of Guatemala. You will meet children just like Diego who benefit from our educational programs, spend time volunteering in primary and middle school classrooms, witness the gratitude of the families and communities and form friendships that transcend language and cultures.
Rebel Storyteller readers are invited to enjoy an exclusive $200 discount for this tour only. The tour dates are July 28-August 2, 2015 and the signup deadline is July 1st. Learn more now!
Rebel Storytellers is all about sparking hope, empathy and action in the world. I can’t think of a place that needs these three things more than Guatemala.
Photo (Flickr CC) by David Amsler