“Letter From …” is from a Mainer, or person with ties to this state, who is living or traveling far away from home. The following piece is by Bangor Daily News copy editor Tracy Collins who recently spent six weeks mentoring more than a dozen teenage girls as part of Camino Seguro, a volunteer program, in Guatemala. Camino Seguro (Safe Passage), a Maine-based program founded by Yarmouth resident Hanley Denning, assists children of Guatemalan dump pickers.
This is Guatemala: At 9 o’clock in the morning, driving a red ’94 Jeep Cherokee, somewhere between Antigua and Guatemala City, Fredy tells us a story. While visiting a family he had been working with some time ago on the southern coast of Guatemala, he asked the mother about one of her sons. He is dead, she said, of some infections. But, Fredy said, there is a farmacia not five blocks away. Why did you not buy medicine for him? Because, she answered, the medicine was more expensive than a casket.
It’s not discrimination of sex or origin, Fredy says, speaking in Spanish. This is not because they are Mayan – they call some of us Ladino, but no, we are all Mayan – or because they are women. This is a question of economics. About 80 percent are poor beyond survival: choosing between food and medicine, living in houses of dirt and corrugated aluminum, eating food that gives the children worms, the kind of worms that, when there is no food left inside the child, come out of the body, through the ears, through the nose, through the eyes. When they try to come out the mouth, he said, the children die, because they cannot breathe.
Fredy, who might be 40 years old, is from a village near Antigua called Jocotenango, and today he leads us through a cemetery. About 300 quetzales, about $38, is how much you have to pay every two years to keep a body in a mausoleum there. Thirty-eight dollars, from families some of whom live on as little as $3 a day. Families who must pay about $3 a day if they want one of their children to go to school. And what happens if they do not pay another 300 quetzales after the two years since their grandmother, their abuelita, died? The coffin is thrown into the neighboring garbage dump.
This is Guatemala: Riding the chicken bus to Casa Hogar, a kind of orphanage for kids whose parents scavenge in the Guatemala City garbage dump for plastic, aluminum, cardboard, anything they can resell. The chicken buses: old yellow school buses that are painted in brilliant colors, red, turquoise, yellow, white, blue, green, with some phrase about God on the windshield, such as Jesus en mi Corazon, and decals of busty women in silhouette. “Chicken buses:” a term coined by gringos referring to occasional avian passengers. At 1:30 in the afternoon, when we have to catch the bus, the seats are all full, three to a seat, and the aisle is packed, passengers hanging onto metal bars in the roof for balance. At each stop, as the ayudantes yell, “SAN PEDRO, SAN PEDRO,” (our destination) and “SE VAN CORRIENDO PORFA,” (squeeze in a little tighter, please) we somehow make ourselves smaller, stretching our spines and twisting our hips, to allow a woman with her baby, or an old man, or a teenager with a backpack, to slide by. It is impossible, but we do it, feeling the heat of another human being, meeting eyes, saying “gracias” and “con permiso” and “lo siento,” thank you and excuse me and I’m sorry, and saying nothing and just smiling with our eyes to say what words cannot.
Working with a boy from Casa Hogar with haunted eyes whose name I cannot tell you because he is not mine to give. He is 9 years old, maybe 10, with subtle scars on his face, climbing the bookshelf in the library at the school and hanging from the rafters, swinging his legs and bending the building with his weight. I reach for him, say “Ven aca, por favor, ven conmigo,” come, come with me please. After enough time passes for me to understand that I have no authority over him, he allows me to help him down. I say to him, “Don’t scare me like that. I don’t want you to get hurt.” I say it in English because I don’t know how to say it in Spanish and it needs to be said. He leaves me, sits on the other side of the library, which might be 25 feet by 20 feet. Five minutes later, he crawls into my lap, looks up at me. I look in his eyes and smile and tell him in Spanish he is perfect, and he hears me, but I wonder if he can hear me.
Walking with an 11-year-old girl from Casa Hogar who knows these streets. Who owns these streets. We are looking for bottle caps for a school project, asking the people hawking Doritos and bubble gum and sweet sodas if they have any to spare. They don’t. The stray dogs slink by. They are everywhere, their ribs protruding through dirty yellow fur. Their snouts are scarred and their eyes are red and I start to feel pity, and the Guatemalan at my side starts to feel fear. She passes to put me between herself and the dogs, and I tell the dogs with my eyes that I believe I could and would kill a dog, a puma, a human being to protect this child.
This, too, is Guatemala: Me and Amilcar, drinking Cubas in a park by a yellow church sometime after 1 in the morning. One of his last names is de Leon. (“No lion jokes.”) He is wearing an Abercrombie and Fitch T-shirt. His hair is gelled. He has a scar in the shape of a star on the bridge of his nose where a dog bit him when he was little. He is 22 years old, 23 in March, a student at the university in Antigua and a computer tech on the side. I am talking about how I need to return to Guatemala, how six weeks is not enough. Only three left. Only three. He is looking over his shoulder, checking for the policia, and talking about how he would like to visit the States someday, but how he would never raise his children there. Never. His mouth in this moment looks like he is tasting a lime or a chile or an unripe naranja. Why not, Amilcar? (Ah-MEEL-car. Roll the r a little. Say it with your tongue, not your jaw.) Because maybe there are not as many opportunities for work here, but you can be happy here. The people are happy.
Me and Amilcar, drinking Gallo beer at a bar that is playing songs in English, circa 1990. “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, “Don’t You Forget About Me” by the Simple Minds, and – I am not kidding – “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion. He grew up in Antigua, the youngest of four children, the little brother of three sisters. He listens to Pink Floyd. Oasis. Early Coldplay, but not the new stuff, because pretty soon those guys are going to be dancing on the stage like the Backstreet Boys, he says. A song called “En Tus Pupilas” by Shakira and another one called “El Muelle de San Blas” by Mana, both of which were among my favorites before I arrived here. He asks me if we have a song called “Gasolina” in the States, and I say, “Of course. We love it.”
Me and Amilcar, sitting outside the door of my host mother’s house at the end of 4a Avenida Sur in Antigua. The volcano called Agua, which is grumbling and oozing lava, looms magnificent and mysterious to our left. It is 1, then 2, then 3 in the morning. What was it we were talking about? And he says to me, “We look so different.” I say, “What?” He says, “Your eyes are blue, mine are brown. Your hair is blonde, mine is dark. You are white, I am … brunette? black? What do you call that in English?” I can’t find the word, and I realize suddenly that I had forgotten we were different at all.
For information about Casa Hogar, visit www.safepassage.org. Tracy Collins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.