In the United States some families begin their Thanksgiving with warm coffee and a parade on TV, others prefer a “friendly” game of football on the lawn, and many are in the midst of traveling long distances to be with those they love. Here in Guatemala the day begins with fireworks, lots of fireworks. Loud booms echo across sleepy San Miguel Escobar and are followed by the thumping beat of celebratory music. Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday in Guatemala so what exactly we’re celebrating early in the morning isn’t clear. But that’s okay, because if Guatemala has taught us one thing its to be thankful for what we have and find the joy in everyday.
And there has been a lot of be joyful about. Last week we began our service partnership with the Garden of Hope located just outside of Antigua in the underserved community of Jocotenango. Beginning as an afterschool program for students of the nearby School of Hope, the garden has grown to become a community hub and safe space for students across the valley. The garden offers afterschool programming for local students, mentors teenagers in environmental awareness/activism, and operates a library and special needs classroom in El Hato high above Antigua. We learned about the therapeutic role that the garden has played in many students lives as they work hard in school while processing the trauma they may be carrying from home. Over the next few weeks we will be spending some of our afternoons working at the garden on a variety of projects. Already one team is translating donated picture books from English to Spanish for the library in El Hato, another group is building benches to expand the classroom space at the garden, and a third team weeding and replanting some sections of the garden to prepare for the upcoming season.
After two weeks of embedding in the communities around San Miguel Escobar we took to the road on an overnight bus bound for the Peten. Driving through the night we traveled from the tropical coffee fields of south central Guatemala to the lush jungles of the Mayan biosphere. Located in the far north, the biosphere is home to the largest contiguous tract of American tropical rainforest outside of the Amazon. The 8,300 sq. mile zone supports thousands of species of flora and fauna and is the site of several prominent Mayan ruins including the famous Tikal. Believed to once be home to almost 90,000 people the city is the world’s best example of pre-Colombian Mayan civilization. After over 2000 years of continuous habitation the grand city was reclaimed by the jungle for almost 1000 years before being re-discovered in the late 1800s. Our group rose at 3am and hiked into the park by headlamp. As we silently climbed the stairs to the top of Temple 4 we listened to the muted sounds of the jungle in stupor. From our vantage point above the jungle canopy we saw the first dim rays of morning light illuminate the mist noiselessly rising from the treetops. From far to our left a fearsome roar shattered the stillness of the morning. It was immediately answered from the left and then the jungle came alive. Howler monkeys (who’s cries are often used as velociraptors in films) shouted back and forth across the ruins building to a cacophonous din. As the dawn light turned golden orange the birds took flight and began to sing. Softly at first they slowly took over for the monkeys as the sun came over the horizon and the day began. From our perch on Temple 4 we could look out on Mayan temples poking up through the trees and an unspoiled jungle stretching to the horizon in every direction. Traveling with our guide we spent the day winding through some of Tikal’s incredible temples and plazas gaining a little more perspective on who the Mayan people were and what mysteries they left behind.
Spread out across San Miguel Escobar in homestays we have all settled into the rhythm of life here. Our days start early with the roosters and stretch until past dark over games of cards (Uno is a perennial favorite). In class we’ve dug deeper into Guatemala’s early history and traced the developments of its culture and peoples through to the modern era. We are now beginning to explore the forcings behind and deep trauma caused by the civil war. The gravity of the conflict was brought into sharp relief this past Tuesday when we travelled into Guatemala City to meet with organizations that are sorting through the aftermath of the conflict. We started by touring Casa de la Memoria, Guatemala’s only museum dedicated to the conflict. The moving exhibits trace the fight all the way back to its roots in Spanish colonialism almost 500 years ago. Seeing the legacy of systematized oppression and murder of indigenous people gave gravity to the reading and work we’d been doing for class. One particularly somber moment came when each of us walked through a dark tunnel covered with the names of the over 40,000 people that were “disappeared” during the civil war and at the end faced with a mirror that asked us “How would you feel to be judged and killed for how you look”. A somber reminder it is only privilege that separates from those who were persecuted.
We travelled across town to Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (UdSCG), the nation’s only public university. With over 150,000 students enrolled it is the pillar of higher learning in Guatemala. On campus we received a tour from two students who are members of Hijos a de-centralized activist art collective that is comprised of the children of those that were “disappeared” during the conflict. They describe themselves as the “Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence”. They work to create murals and works of street art across Guatemala City to keep the memory of those lost alive and to raise the profile the human rights abuses that still occur. Our guides showed us their university and explained its history and role in Guatemalan society. Based on a model pioneered in 1918 in Argentina UdSCG is completely independent of the government. Its funding comes from a clause in the national constitution which dictates that 5% of the national budget goes to the school. In addition the school has its own security force so the army and police are not allowed on campus. Historically this has meant that the students have the ability to be a voice of dissension against tyranny and government overreach. We learned that currently the government is attempting to defund the school and diminish the student’s voice. The immediacy of the conflict was made more serious beneath murals paying tribute to the students and educators who had died at the hands of the same government only decades earlier.
No matter how you choose to recognize today we hope that your day is as special ours. Although far from our biological families the GAP family is thankful to be celebrating together. Over the past several months we’ve travelled thousands of miles by foot, plane, train, canoe, and automobile with each other. We’ve learned to support each other no matter what, find the joy in everyday, and to approach each person we meet with curiosity and grace. So maybe that is cause for early morning fireworks. No matter what there is a lot to be thankful for.