First things first – Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
While some of you may have filled your day with a parade, parties, and pie, it’s seemingly just another Thursday here in Guatemala. However, this was not the case for our Gap cohort, for today has provided us an opportunity to pause, reflect, and celebrate all we are thankful for despite distance from our loved ones. As we shared what each of us is thankful for this year around our own Thanksgiving table (we had pie too!) it is evident there’s been much to be thankful for – particularly over the past two weeks!
Just when we thought Guatemala could not get any more beautiful, our visit to Lake Atitlán last weekend had us exploring another gorgeous region of this diverse country. Among our various adventures we visited Lema, a women’s weaving coop in San Juan le Laguna. We learned about the organic dye process and the makers behind the pieces – talented females who have made many sacrifices in order to earn additional income for their families. We also had a free day, which saw our group splitting off on our own adventures where some of us hiked, swam, and explored different small towns scattered around the lake via tuk tuk or water taxi.
The flipside of the coin to our laidback stay in Lake Atitlán, was our two visits to the fast-paced, energetic, utterly fascinating capital city that is Guate (Guatemala City). Here we were able to understand more clearly the connectedness of colonialism, cultural imperialism and hegemony to the deep trauma caused by the country’s 36-year-long civil war that still stains the country today.
We visited Universidad de San Carlos, the county’s largest and oldest institution of higher education in Guatemala. The university is somewhat independent of the government whereby it has its own security force which means neither the police nor military are allowed on campus. The university is supposed to receive 5% of the annual federal budget, although they have not received that amount of funding in decades. Historically, students have played a critical role within the institution using their collective voices to speak out against military brutality and governmental corruption. This was exhibited by numerous politically fueled murals on campus, many of which depicted past students and educators that had disappeared or died at the hand of the government. We were privileged to tour the campus with four strong and inspiring leaders — Kevin, Jacobo, Alejandro, and Ronald. Their resounding message was the importance of allowing oneself to feel, and letting those strong feelings fuel one’s actions to speak out against various social injustices, for it is only when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, can we truly process and respond to hurtful and hateful acts.
An additional visit within Guatemala City included Casa de Memoria, a museum that thoroughly unpacked the initial Spanish invasion and colonization of the indigenous Maya, the evolution of racism in the country, decades of military dictatorship, and perhaps most impactfully, the heinous acts of violence committed during the civil war. In more recent history, the civil war is now referred to as genocide; between 1954 and 1996 another 40,000 were disappeared by the military. The mission of Casa de Memoria is to keep the memory alive of all those individuals who were killed or disappeared in one of Central America’s most brutal wars. What is most impressive is that the museum’s displays have been curated by Guatemalan youth, and is staffed by young volunteers under the age of 25.
Our second trip into the city saw us visiting ¿Por qué estamos como estamos?, an interactive museum that provides a historical journey of Guatemala and explains “Why We Are the Way We Are”. It is dedicated to addressing the challenges of racism, discrimination, and structural violence that the country continues to face today. Additionally, we were honored to hear from Checha Vega, a representative from Acción Ciudadana, a civil society organization that aims to promote conscientious and committed citizenship around issues that focus on human rights as well as promoting transparency around public management of government funds and initiatives. Checha spoke to us about some of the important projects the organization is currently tackling in order to achieve a democratic, corruption-free Guatemala.
Since we have arrived back in San Miguel Escobar, one could say these past few days have marked the beginning of the end. We’ve finished up our last class sessions at El Sitio as well as wrapped up our final volunteer days at Garden of Hope. Emotions ran high as we celebrated our last get together with our host families a few evenings back with a pizza party held at “La Casona”. While intense games of bingo and the obliteration of a piñata were highlights of the evening, the words of love and gratitude exchanged with our host families brought our hearts the most joy.
Now that we have moved back into “La Casona” as one whole cohort once more, we’ve found this space that was once unfamiliar to be strangely comfortable. Additionally, the streets that seemed so foreign only a few weeks ago, the overwhelming, jam packed chicken buses, and the exotic goods and materials we strolled by at the market no longer seem so strange. As our time in Guatemala nears to an end we are looking forward to soaking up our last few days in our beloved community as well as one final challenge, for tomorrow we take on Pacaya as we hike to base camp and spend the night camping upon volcanic rock.