Well here we are in Guatemala City!! We (the RIC contingent) arrived after 2 delays late last night. Thank goodness because our flight out of DC was late getting to Miami which left us about 5 minutes to run to the next gate for our connection to Guatemala (the last flight to Guatemala City for the day). Luckily that flight was also late and so we made it!
We were met at the airport in Guatemala City by the GHRC Executive Director Amanda Martin. We packed our luggage into the van and Gerardo (our trusted driver) brought us to Sister Parish who is hosting the delegation. (www.sisterparish.org) Sister Parish is in Zona 2 in Guatemala City. The house is set right on the street and is well secured with iron doors- we never, ever open the door without asking "quien?" and looking out the small window. The door is also to remain locked at all times. We are not allowed to go anywhere without letting someone know forst and we must travel in groups of at least two people. This is obviously for our safety.
There are a few bedrooms with enough beds and each room has a bathroom (don't use the water to brush your teeth!). There is a patio in the back and also steps that lead to an upstairs patio which is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence.
We got to the house and Amanda was gracious and had prepared a traditional Guatemalan meal of tortillas, frijoles negros and queso blanco. We were famished. We stayed up and talked for a bit about what our plan was for today while we waited for the rest of the delegation to arrive from various places in the US.
It was now time for bed...we were all exhausted. As exhausted as we were a few of us could not sleep! I was one of them. The street noise was pretty loud, airplanes fly low and there is a bright light shining in my bedroom. Then I woke up at 6:30am for no good reason.
We came down to a great breakfast of fresh hard-boiled eggs, lychee fruit, fresh bread from St. Martin bakery which is a few blocks away. Then we were going to La Esperanza to meet with a group of women.
We traveled to La Ezperanza which is in La Zona 12 (one of if not the most dangerous Zone in Guatemala City). We were with Gerardo, Amanda and the RIC contingent and also a few newcomers. Gerardo had to drive the truck right into the driveway which was promptly shut and locked.
We were at UPAVIM- Unidas para vivir mejor which translates to United to live better-this is a group of women that have been working together since 1988 and have built a strong program which I will try to describe here.
We were greeted by Dina (the director of the childcare center and collaborator and all around doer) and taken upstairs through the first floor which appeared to be a nursery school, complete with child sized toilets that actually flushed! Our delegation sat in a circle and introduced ourselves to our hostesses- Dina, Tirsa (Administrative Assistant), Blanca Estrella (she takes care of the maintenance of the building), Mayra (Vice President of UPAVIM and upper school teacher).
Dina began by telling us of the history of the community of La Esperanza. La Esperanza (Hope), is a squatter settlement located to the south of Guatemala City in the area of Mezquital. These communities began in the 80s with the arrival of people displaced from rural areas during Guatemala´s 42-year Civil War that the country suffered.Today the are six locations in our areas. the colony Mezquital, Villa Lobos I, Villa Lobos II, El Bucaro and y La Jolla. La Esperanza has more than 5000 citizens. When these settlers first arrived in the valleys there were absolutely no resources and no potable water. Children were sick and their were epidemics like diarhhea constantly. The community of La Esperanza would use "aguas negras" or dirty water for whatever they needed. The settlers in La Esperanza tried to bargain with the settlers Mezquital for potable water. Mezquital would not sell their water so La Esperanza hooked up PVC pipes that allowed them to get potable water from the Mezquital region. In time this community began to organize themselves in order to build and sustain their community. The army wanted to come in and run them out because technically the land did not belong to them.
At one point the army came and surrounded the community, the communities response was to stand in a circle with their children in front of them in between the army and themselves to see if the army would shoot all of their children, they did not. Changes began to occur with the government's assistance only after the commuity left the corpse of one of the poorest members of their communities dead child on the steps of the Palacio Nacional (the National Palace).
So the idea for UPAVIM came about when Dina and Mayra met an American woman by the name of Barbara Fenske a nurse who had heard about the situation in La Esperanza and was shocked by the number of children dying. Ms. Fenske went to Mezquital and was helping to treat children in a clinic in Mezquital when she met Dina. Dina and many women in the community had similar stories. Many children, illiteracy, alcoholic husbands, parents are gang members, instances of domestic violence and other tragic stories. The mothers in this community had to leave their children at home to go and work in order to feed their families at times their 6 year old children would be left to watch the babies. There were many accidents involving children while they were unattended at home such as burns, and accidental drownings in latrines.
UPAVIM has truly built an amazing program with the spark of empowerment that Ms. Fenske helped to instill in these women. Today they run 5 programs which include a Montessori nursery school, a grade school for children K-6th grade, a scholarship program, an artesania (arts and crafts- fair trade which can be bought in RIC at Ten Thousand Villages in Carytown http://www.tenthousandvillages.com/), and a medical clinic which has recently started operating its own lab.
The women in this collaborative have overcome many barriers in order to better their lives and the lives of their community. The pride they have is immeasurable and they are truly an inspiration. We were all so moved by their indivudual stories and how they succeeded in building this collaborative and these successful programs and continue to thrive. UPAVIM offers women a chance to provide for their families. It employs about 80 women from the community and offers a reduced rate for the school for employees of approximately 35 Quetzales and other community members pay about 70 Quetzales monthly. The school provides some scholarships on a need basis and also provides school supplies (we will be sending a donation soon!- Stay tuned for more information on how to donate school supplies). This work program allows the moms a flexible work schedule (artesania program) and also allows some of the mothers to work from home so that they may spend time with their children. Every month the artesania program donates some of its earnings to the school porgram. The school program also provides the children with a nutritious breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack.
After this exciting meeting with the ladies of UPAVIM we headed back into Zona 2 to get ready for lunch. We walked a few blocks over to a cafeteria that had some typical Guatemalteco lunch offerings. After lunch we walked over to a topographical map of Guatemala. This was very interesting as I did not realize how largea county Guatemala is nor how mountainous it is.
We left the park where the map is located and jumped in 2 cabs, we were excited as Amanda had arranged a tour of El Palacio Nacional which is almost unheard of . The Palacio Nacional is called El Centro de Cultura which is "Cultural Center". Well where we come from a cultural center is open to all people. In Guatemala that is not expecially true. El Palacio Nacional is a place that has a rich political history. We were given a private tour of this beautiful building and then went to dinner.
We returned to Sister Parish and continued our conversations about the situation here in Guatemala, then watched Killer's Paradise a BBC Documentary about the epidemic here.
Everyone else has left me to go to bed as it is late and we are getting up early.....I am signing off hope you found the recount of our first day informative and tomorrow you will have the pleasure of reading someone else recount our day!
- Written by Abby - Saturday evening August 1, 2009