I’ve always been an adventure junkie.
In the summer of 1995, against my parents’ wishes (and without medical insurance), I would decide to travel to Guatemala and Central America on a kind-of pilgrimage to learn about the religious martyrs I had read about in graduate school. I had a deep desire to see the country, get to know the people and culture, and learn the Spanish language (something deeply regret letting slide over the years.)
I also had this strange idea that I wanted to make a difference in the world. I know, not an uncommon thought for a 20-something year old gal fresh out of grad school. This was many years prior to embarking on my Social Work career–a career which, ten years later, left me jaded and feeling confused and defeated. It’s hard being an idealist.
1995 was obviously before the days of Instagram and social media, but I managed to snap this picture during my travels. I do not remember this girl’s name, and I’m frankly embarrassed about that. If you look closely, you will see something in her hand. It is a quetzal, which at the time was equivalent to about .9 of a US dollar. Those of us traveling who wanted a photo with the people in the villages knew it was customary to give them a little something in appreciation for their taking a picture with you, to capture the experience, if you will. At that time, I was quite impressed with the renegade femme traveler mystique, so this picture held some meaning for me.
I do remember trying to have a conversation with her and her brother about their village of Santiago Atitlan, situated near the base of a volcano and sparkling beautiful lake. She was wearing black shoes which were tattered and scuffled, yet the fact that she had shoes meant that she was better-off than some of the villagers in Santiago Atitlan. Many simply cannot afford shoes at all.
This beautiful Tzutujil Mayan girl with a radiant smile lived in a village where, on July 28th, 1981, Franciscan priest Stan Rother was ambushed and murdered. The gun which killed him was one used by the army and government-backed paramilitaries. “Word of the priest’s murder raged through the village and summoned the Atitecos [residents of the village] to the town’s heart….they had already lost over 30 of their brothers, fathers, uncles, sons and neighbors. Now their priest was gone.” (Father Stan Rother: American Martyr in Guatemala: Franciscanmedia.org).
The people in this little village, along with countless others, suffered years and years of paramilitary attacks in which men, women and children were tortured and killed–Many “with their skin peeled off their face and eyes gouged out.” Generations of families have lived with this trauma deeply embedded within their bones.
I am no stranger to trauma.
I think of her often during these times, and mourn for my previously idealistic self. I wonder about how she and her family are doing. Are they persisting in keeping hope alive, despite our country’s complicity in the pillaging of her people?
I have had some great takeaways from my time in Guatemala–the beauty of the people, the color and texture of the land, and the almost idyllic behavior of the children I met there on the busses and in the marketplace. Because children are worn on the backs of their mothers for most of their entire infancies, they are imbued with a deep sense of love, connection and belonging. I truthfully struggled to find ONE child having a tantrum in the two months I was in Guatemala, but could not find a single behaviorally challenged kiddo.
Fast-forward to the news today, and the children separated from their families at our US borders in Texas and elsewhere, clearly trying to escape a way harsher reality than we could ever imagine. My heart weeps.
Has our US self-interest really come to this? Why have we hardened our hearts to the humanity of others?
I am long-past the delusion that I am going to make a huge difference on the world, but as I dig deeply into my experience, I am often surprised at what I am able to find. Alas, I discovered this meaningful little gem in a dusty old little pocket photo album. Experience is a great teacher. I am grateful.
My Spanish still sucks and is virtually non-existent. Yet I was touched so greatly by the people of Guatemala and their deep enduring struggle to maintain hope and integrity despite their decades of immense suffering. Their struggles are really shared by all of those in Central America and those fleeing persecution.
I want to grab the hand of my old self–the idealist (now in recovery mode.) to affirm her. I want to tell her that there is still merit in valuing human dignity, and remind her that kernels of strength are sewn during these trying times.
…and I want to tell my little friend in this photo (who is now in her 30’s) that it will be okay. But I can’t.