Vibrant candy-colored streetscapes, the peculiar combination of gas fumes layered within waves of fresh coffee, chicken buses rumbling in the distance, and echoes of fireworks down the block – where else in the world could Gap be other than Guatemala!
Looking back, our 6:00 a.m. flight from Green Bay is all but a distant memory, for today marks one week since our entry into this intoxicating country. And what a week it has been! Upon arrival, we wove our way through the chaotic and crowded streets of Guatemala City until we found ourselves in San Miguel Escobar (SMG), a quaint, sleepy town in the outskirts of Antigua. The town is situated beneath the gaze of three volcanoes, and is not only home to approximately 3000 Guatemalans, but also the base of our partner organization, De La Gente.
Founded in 2007, De Le Gente (DLG), meaning “of the people”, is an non-profit organization that works with local small-holder coffee farmers and cooperatives in Guatemala to improve the quality of life for their families and communities by creating sustainable economic opportunities. The organization creates direct connections with buyers and consumers and is a source of income for the local farmers they work with. Additionally, DLG helps cooperative farmers build their capacity so that they can be autonomous, democratic, and profitable organizations that provide a well-deserved income. Our dedicated and insightful DLG leaders, Emma and Ronald have been at the forefront of immersing us into the work of the co-op, in addition to giving us the lay of the local land.
At the beginning of this week we resided across the street from the DLG office at “la casona” (the big house), which allowed us to fully immerse ourselves into the lifestyle of cooperative farmers. Thanks to farmers like Daniel, Miguel, and Timo, we were able to venture up the hillsides of Volcan de Agua where we witnessed first hand the time commitment and attention to detail that is crucial to growing healthy coffee plants. We even got to try our hand at some farm work by weeding around the plants.
Beyond spending time in the coffee fields themselves, we have had additional hands-on coffee related experiences this week – all of them both enjoyable and educational. We have appreciated freshly prepared dinners in the homes of several farmers – one of which included a workshop where we helped prepare pepian, a national dish served on special occasions and holidays. Roasting and hand-grinding our own coffee beans was also amusing (and delicious)!
Throughout our time with Emma, Ronald, and various farmers we learned a great deal about the coffee industry at large. Specifically, we discussed the myriad of challenges farmers face today including, but not limited to: biased management, unfair wages, lack of training, and climate change. We learned the importance of addressing these issues in order for these farmers to break out of cycles of poverty. As we continued to unpack this disastrous reality, we could not help but make connections to similar structural violences we unearthed in Chicago, Albuquerque, and El Paso.
Our coursework for this segment of our Gap Experience has us learning about “Colonialism, Cultural Imperialism and Hegemony in Central America: Guatemala as a Case Study”. Before we dove deep into such concepts, Dr. Laura set the stage for our time in Guatemala by means of a discussion on “bearing witness” and “accompaniment”. Our dialogue helped us understand the importance of truly seeing a people and bearing witness to their suffering as well as the work they are doing as a form of service. We were able to connect this notion to our experiences within the SMG community thus far. We spoke about how gracious co-op members have been for inviting us into their lives to observe, listen, and ask questions alongside of them. With this understanding we were able to unpack a few conceptual underpinnings for the class such as liberation theology, colonialism, cultural imperialism, and hegemony. Our class week concluded with a teaser video (Mayan Renaissance) of what is to come throughout our course: an overview of the ancient Mayan civilization, the Spanish conquest, 500 years of Mayan oppression, and these effects on the current political situation in Guatemala.
On Friday evening we moved from “la casona” to the homes of our host families. What better way to practice bearing witness and accompaniment than in the home of a local family? We are scattered throughout town and are currently three days into our cultural immersion experience. Most of us are finding the language barrier rather difficult at times, but with handmade greeting cards prepared for us ahead of time, open arms upon our initial meeting, and a welcoming first few days we are gradually starting to feel right at home.