I traveled to Guatemala between October 31 and November 6, 2018, to attend the inauguration of the new Colegio Impacto/Starfish (now called the Maia Impact) school that will open to students in January 2019. What I discovered and learned in Guatemala exceeded expectations I didn’t even realize I had, and also presented me with a different narrative about Central America than I had previously encountered.
There is so much to share about my impressions of Guatemala as a first time visitor. There is the Mayan influence, the traditional dress, the woven clothing, and the cultural customs of modesty and honoring the ancestors. There is the food – frijoles and pepian and tortillas, as well as fresh papaya, watermelon, avocadoes and limes, to name a few. There was the Kite Festival of Sumpango and the Day of the Dead ceremonies on November 1; we learned the next day that many families remained at the cemetery until noon on November 2 when the spirits of their ancestors returned to the Earth. There are the 310 microclimates as well as active volcanoes. There is Lake Atitlan, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, over which lightning storms light up the night sky and across which rainbows sometimes appear to erupt from the tip of a volcano. There is the old Spanish colonial city of Antigua, a designated UNESCO world heritage site, with its cobblestoned streets, bright and colorfully painted walls, trendy restaurants and cafes, ruins from a series of earthquakes in 1773 that destroyed much of the original city, and tourists from all over the world.
Guatemala – from its volcanoes and scenic vistas to its hand-woven textiles in myriad colors – is a truly stunning, colorful, and inspiring country. Stepping off the plane in Guatemala City I expected the wave of warm air but not the wide, gleaming hallways in the small but modern airport. Colorful posters adorn the airport walls in an organized marketing campaign advertising the many tourist attractions. Coffee shops and convenience stores beckon. Guatemala City itself features a skyline full of skyscrapers and architecture that would be familiar in any small U.S. city. The arrivals terminal bustles with energy; a large crowd, most dressed in traditional Mayan clothing, awaits arriving travelers just outside the terminal. The weather is a perennial spring – 75 or so during the day, generally sunny, and 50’s at night. The countryside is lush and verdant, with colorful tropical flowers adorning the roadside. The people are kind, gentle, talented and welcoming.
Guatemala is also a developing country that faces systemic poverty and gender inequality. The country’s population is the largest in Central America at almost 15.5 million people as of 2017. It has the highest fertility rate as well as the youngest population in all of Latin America, and suffers from high maternal and infant mortality rates. Based on 2017 data, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Fact Book ranked Guatemala 153rd out of 229 ranked countries in terms of GDP on a per capita basis (Purchasing Power Parity or PPP). For context, the U.S. PPP is $59,500 as compared with Guatemala’s $8,100. The distribution of income is also notably unequal in Guatemala, with more than half of the population living below the poverty line. Among the indigenous people, the income inequality gap stretches wider, with 79% living in poverty, 40% of whom live in extreme conditions.
The prevalence of child labor and adolescent birth rates are also higher in Guatemala than in any other Latin American country, according to data from Girl Up, a United Nations partner. Females, especially indigenous females, bear the burden of limited health information, sexual violence, constrained choices, and inadequate educational opportunities. Amnesty International reports that in 2018 unaccompanied children from Guatemala comprised the largest group of arrivals that were apprehended at the U.S. border. Inequality, limited opportunity, corruption, and localized gang violence spur Guatemalans to leave their beautiful country, their families, their history to make the difficult and uncertain journey north to seek refuge elsewhere. This is all part of the reality of modern day Guatemala. The challenges are real and difficult and unwieldy. AND there is so much good work happening there and so much hope for a brighter future being built from within. Those stories, those statistics, need to be amplified.
Colegio Impacto/Maia is a school for indigenous girls that is run by indigenous women. Their brand new, state of the art school is ready to receive students starting in January. This is a story of dreams coming true on so many levels…and it is just the beginning. Tomorrow’s post will begin a tale of hope personified…