Thursday, April 9, 2015

Border Crossing

By: Sarah Degraff

The journey to La Vega de Volcan was two days in duration – an eight hour drive from Guatemala City into the northwestern mountains to the town of Sibinal, where we spent the night, then a 20 minute pickup truck ride out of Sibinal, followed by a four hour hike over the steep hill that separates Sibinal from the small village of La Vega.

Walking down into the verdant valley in which the village is nestled, with trickling streams running through the center amidst boulder-strewn grazing fields, white lilies growing on the banks, I imagine I felt awe and wonder to almost the same degree as those who gain access to Machu Pichu by way of the longer, four-day route, but with one difference: instead of viewing ancient tribal ruins of the dead Inca, these people were the living, breathing remnants of an ancient Maya society.

Walking into La Vega from Sibinal.
Walking into La Vega from Sibinal.

By no means to I intend to trivialize or romanticize the Maya culture or way of life in my description of the beauty, splendor, and tranquility in which they live here on the outskirts of the country. Daily life for these Mam people is insufferably difficult: This is a subsistence farming community in which families suffer malnutrition, starvation, few opportunities for economic advancement beyond sending family members to the US or Canada illegally to send back remittances, racism and injustices on the part of the Guatemalan government and ladino culture, and lack of education and medical treatment.
Into this juxtaposition of beauty and suffering I was thrown by way of assisting my coworker, Nancy, as she led a service-learning group of high schoolers from Canada. I was also there to meet MCC partner staff for the first time and to learn about our current projects in person.

Nancy and me on our hike to La Vega.
Nancy and me on our hike to La Vega.

The next two days focused on learning about two topics: immigration as it relates to the community, and the various farming projects carried out by our partners. I write two, but truly they are inherently intertwined.
These lovely streams provide a source of running water for the community to use in their homes.
These lovely streams provide a source of running water for the community to use in their homes.

One of our partner staff shared the story of his journey from this tiny village on the border near Chiapas, Mexico, to the US. I won’t share the specifics of his story because I haven’t asked his permission to, but I do want to share something he said that has stuck with me:
“We’re not immigrating because we want the American dream,” he said of himself and his fellow community members, “we’re going because we’re forced to go.” What is the driving force behind illegal immigration here? Hunger. Not just hunger, but starvation and lack of resources to the point of death. Desperation. Currently, 95% of families in La Vega have at least one member in the US who sends back remittances so they can purchase medicine when their children are sick and get a ride on the bus into Sibinal so they can actually make that purchase; to send their kids to school; to have enough to eat each day.

8km to Mexico.
8km to the Mexican border.

This isn’t a sustainable solution, however, and can even fly in the face of Mam culture, which dictates that there should be a use for everything one owns. A house with unused rooms, for example, (like our guest bedrooms in North America),  or extra clothing that isn’t worn often, is considered negative to a person’s overall health and well being. The point is to have enough, not too little and not too much, in order to live well and be whole as a person, as a family, and as a community.
That being said, the current projects in the community include diversifying crops in small gardens using permaculture techniques and teaching participants why a diet of variety is important for nutrition and how to prepare foods with these new additions. Traditional foods include corn, beans, and squash, but even if one has these in abundance, one can still easily become malnourished.

The garden of a participant family using permaculture techniques learned through the program. Here they have planted radishes, cilantro, and Maya medicinal herbs.
The garden of a participant family using permaculture techniques learned through the program. Here they have planted radishes, cilantro, and Maya medicinal herbs.

The project includes training in animal husbandry and trout farming as well. With a total of 25 participant families, the trout project has in the last two years been able to raise its own fingerlings by fertilizing trout eggs by hand from mature, healthy trout specifically selected for this purpose. The trout they sell weighs between five and seven pounds and is sold in markets as far as five hours away. The group was served this trout fried up whole for lunch on the first day, (before we saw the tanks, of course), to emphatic gustatory reviews.

A lamb having lunch as the fog rolled into the valley, giving the village a surreal, ethereal feel.
A lamb having lunch as the fog rolled into the valley, giving the village a surreal, ethereal feel.

On our last day in La Vega we woke up at 4:30 AM and piled into the back of an old pick up truck for a grueling hour up a road so bumpy and rutted it was hardly worthy of the name, to the trail head of the second tallest volcano in Central America – Tacaná. The volcano is dormant and is 4,092 meters above sea level (13,425 ft).

Almost to our breakfasting spot!
Almost to our breakfasting spot!

On this particular morning we began hiking at 6 AM, before breakfast, accompanied by two Mam guides from La Vega and a dense fog that enshrouded the mountains. Nancy stayed back to take a personal rest day and I got to lead and translate for the group. I had no idea I would be doing any such thing at the beginning of the trip, but there I was, hiking up a steep mountain in the fog while translating between languages and following on the heels of our guide.

When we made it to the top of the volcano, (only five of us went to the top while the others stayed below to rest before lunch), the fog was still with us, and we had crossed in and out of Mexico several times.  The irony of crossing between borders unhindered and without a passport was not exactly subtle. Instead of reflecting on this, however, I was simply glad to have made it, and thought only of lunch and that after our long journey down from the volcano, out of La Vega and Sibinal to the town of San Marcos, there would be hot showers and a warm bed.

It is hard to sum up all of these experiences while I am still learning from them. Living in the capital, I live a life relatively isolated from our partners and from subsistence farming communities. Entering into daily life with them is difficult and eye-opening, and both professionally and personally, doing this helps to remind me why I am here in Guatemala; that the sometimes mundane work I do at the office really does play a part in coming alongside others in order to learn their stories and work with them to affect positive, sustainable change. I remain humbled by these exchanges of knowledge, experiences, and stories and hope to continue to learn from them as I form relationships with the people in these communities.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

ANADESA: A community organization promoting education and development in Santiago Atitlan

Floradale Church group from Ontario with Juan Ramirez, legal representative of ANADESA

Last month, the Guatemala Connecting peoples program started off the year on the right foot after being visited by 10 participants from the Floradale Mennonite Church, Ontario, Canada. The purpose of the group´s trip was to visit the community development organization ANADESA (which stands for New Dawn Association of Santiago Atitlan in Spanish) and connect with their context, struggle and dreams, as well as accompanying them in the hard work of building an educational center and the creation of an ecological park.

ANADESA is located in the community of Panabaj, on the shores of Lake Atitlan. In this place, the T'zutuhil Mayan group prevails and its population is approximately 3,000 people.
The recent history of this community includes the bloody episode of 1990 in which 13 civilians were killed by the military during a peaceful demonstration. Previously, other massacres and disappearances had occurred in the community, in the context of the armed conflict that ravaged Guatemala for 36 years. Thanks to an exhausting advocacy work and international media attention, the community managed to successfully oust the military from their community. The Peace Park located right beside ANADESA serves as a tribute to remember the victims of this slaughter.

Sharing traditions during cultural night.
Another recent incident that is part of the history of the community is the disaster caused by Hurricane Stan in 2005. A landslide buried an entire neighborhood, leaving a death toll of over 300 people. ANADESA overcame this tragedy, organizing communities and responding to the disaster.

 For some years, ANADESA operated in the house of the coordinator of the Association, Juan Ramirez, to conduct the after school and literacy programs for adults, as well as the women's cooperative, among other projects. Two years ago ANADESA began the construction of a new building that is still in process. The goal is to build a space where the ANADESA programs can grow and expand to better serve the community.

The group of visitors from Canada spent most of their time and effort in collaborating with the construction of the kitchen area of this building that will serve as another source of income for ANADESA and the women's cooperative. Participants also helped in planting trees for the ecological community park, and participated in a beading workshop provided by the women from the cooperative. All these experiences enriched the group with a better understanding of the local culture, and the correlation between profit-effort.

During the debriefing session, the participants concluded that this trip had provided them with a better understanding of ¨the hope that local people have despite the challenges, their hard work, the connection between violence and oppression and the dramatic difference between social classes.¨
Recent picture of ANADESA´s kitchen construction process

Beading workshop provided by the women from ANADESA´s cooperative to share their knowledge and raise awareness to the participants on the complicated relation between effort-profit

ANADESA: Una organización comunitaria apostando por la educación y desarrollo en Santiago Atitlán

Por: Nancy Sabas

El mes pasado, el programa de Connecting peoples Guatemala empezó su año con el pie derecho tras recibir la visita de 10 participantes de parte de la Iglesia Menonita de Floradale, Ontario, Canadá. El próposito del grupo era visitar a la organización de desarrollo comunitario ANADESA (Asociación Nuevo Amanecer de Santiago Atitlán, por sus siglas) y conectarse con su contexto, lucha y sueños, a la vez que dar un acompañamiento en el duro trabajo de la construcción de un centro de formación y la creación de un parque ecológico.  

ANADESA está ubicado en la comunidad de Panabaj, a las orillas del Lago Atitlán. En este lugar prevalece el grupo maya T´zutuhil y está habitado por aproximadamente 3,000 personas. 
La historia reciente de esta comunidad incluye el sangriento episodio de 1990 en donde 13 civiles fueron asesinados por los militares durante una manifestación pacífica. Previamente,  otras masacres y desapariciones de personas ya habían ocurrido en la comunidad, en el marco del conflicto armado que azotó a Guatemala durante 36 años. Tras exhaustas labores de incidencia y atención mediática internacional, la comunidad logró expulsar exitosamente a los militares de su lugar. El Parque de la Paz ubicado justo a la par de ANADESA, sirve como homenaje para recordar a las víctimas de esta masacre.

Otro reciente incidente que forma parte de la historia de la comunidad es el desastre provocado por la tormenta Stan en el año 2005. Un deslave soterró a un vecindario entero, dejando como saldo la muerte de más de 300 personas. ANADESA surgió a partir de esta tragedia, organizando a las comunidades y respondiendo al desastre.

 Por algunos años, ANADESA usó como instalación la casa del coordinador de la Asociación, Juan Ramirez, para llevar a cabo los programas de educación para adultos, de refuerzo escolar, y también la cooperativa de mujeres ANADESA, entre otros proyectos. Hace dos años ANADESA comenzó la construcción de un nuevo edificio que aún está en proceso. El objetivo es construir un espacio en el que los programas de ANADESA pueden crecer y expandirse a fin de servir mejor a la comunidad.

El grupo de visitantes de Canadá dedicaron buena parte de sus esfuerzos y tiempo en colaborar con la construcción del área de cocina de este edificio que servirá como otra forma de ingresos para ANADESA y la cooperativa de mujeres. Los participantes también ayudaron en la siembra de árboles para el parque ecológico de la comunidad, y participaron en un taller de artesanía con mostacilla provisto por las mujeres de la cooperativa. Todas estas experiencias enriquecieron al grupo con un mejor entendimiento de la cultura local, y la correlación entre ganancias-esfuerzo.

Durante la sesión de despedida y reflexión, los participantes concluyeron en que este viaje les había provisto con un mejor entendimiento sobre ¨La esperanza que la gente local tiene frente a los desafíos, las jornadas duras, la conexión entre violencia y opresión y la dramática diferencia entre clases sociales¨.

Foto reciente sobre avances en la construcción de la cocina de ANADESA
Participantes de la Iglesia Floradale trabajan en conjunto con la organización local para construir el área de cocina en ANADESA.
Mujeres de la cooperativa de ANADESA proveen talleres de mostacilla para compartir sus conocimientos y despertar conciencia en los participantes sobre la complicada relación entre esfuerzo-ganancia en sus contextos.

Grupo de la Iglesia Floradale, Canadá junto con Juan Ramirez, representante legal de ANADESA

Compartiendo tradiciones durante la noche cultural

Para aprender más sobre ANADESA:

Correo Electrónico/Email:

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

No human being is illegal

Young adults gather in Nebaj to discuss the issue of migration.

By: Nancy Sabas


¨ Imagine all the people sharing all the world¨
-John Lennon

The Service Week started last week in Nebaj, Quiche with 35 young participants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, United States and Canada to discuss the causes, effects and alternatives for migration.  
The Service Week is an annual activity that the Mennonite Central Committee for Guatemala and El Salvador organizes by gathering youth from its different partner organizations to discuss an issue of regional importance.  This activity was developed thanks to the support of FUNDAMAYA and MCC through its Connecting Peoples Program.

The causes of migration may be related to political or economic reasons that affect the survival of youth. Migration is very human. It is political and it is a business,” explained Giovanni Batz, Social Anthropologist graduate of the University of Texas, who opened the second day of the event with a presentation on International and Local Migration.

“Currently, it is estimated that 232 million people live outside their country of origin. In Guatemala remittances represented the main source of income surpassing even the coffee category in 2005. People have become a product and migration big business,” Batz said.

Unfortunately, migration has very strong consequences, particularly for those whom are denied access to other countries through the formal system. This causes them to jump into seeking alternatives to make a living. “It is estimated that 60-80% of women migrants to the United States suffer from sexual violence,” Batz explained. “When we speak of immigrants, we must be careful to use terms like 'wetbacks' or `illegals´ because they are very political. They dehumanize people and it becomes easier to accept violence to expel them.”

The first day of the activity included a series of skits where different groups of young people were requested to act out the causes of migration in their urban and rural communities.
“Why do we migrate? Because we want to, or because we are forced to do so?asked Marco Antonio during the discussion with his skit group. Marco belongs to the Tacaná community which is very close to the border between Mexico and Guatemala. “We seek the dream to help our family to get ahead, but we ignore the risks that the road brings. A strong wind blows outside and we leave without shelter,” he added.

The youth discussed in groups the underlying causes that provoked migration. They explored the possibility of consumerism as a reason why young people migrated from their rural indigenous communities. Elias Solis, graduate from the University Ixil, believes that “extreme poverty must be a consequence of historical reasons, since colonization. The Spaniards not only invaded our lands, but influenced our way of thinking. The system has taught us that rural life has no value.” 

Gaspar Cobos, also a student graduate from the Ixil University added,the system brought us the idea of being ashamed of our peasant labor because it is dirty. If you are a farmer, 'you are poor,' even when the small farmers are the ones who produce the food for the country. Small farmers in Guatemala currently have only 15% of the fertile land but produce over half of the food consumed by the entire country. When young people in our community abandon their land to go to America, once they get there they also end up getting jobs as workers in the agricultural sector but they are no longer ashamed of it.

However, consumerism isn´t the only factor pushing youth to migrate. Amelia Ramirez, from the community of Santiago Atitlan, said, “the pressure on families to contribute financially can sometimes be very strong. I have listened to families telling their children who are only studying but not working: ´Do not eat too many tortillas, because you don´t contribute in this house'. Then it's easy to think ‘If my family sees me that way, I´d rather go to the United States.’”

Young people from urban areas explored other possible causes: “In the cities the space is so small that people do not own a piece of land to work on,” explained Yasmin Mendez from San Salvador.

“It is of great concern if you compare the number of people graduating from educational institutions against the few available jobs for them,” added Luis Reyes, from Metapan, El Salvador.

Through the process of debating the causes of migration in their communities, the youth finally were able to prepare their skits. Due to the nature of the activity, problems were exposed in a very precise yet non-intrusive way. Humor helped the group deal with the difficult topics that came to the surface.

  The causes that the young people represented in the skits were:
* Poverty
* Violence (gangs, extortion, assaults)
* Family Reunification
* Broken families / violence
*Loss of lands
* Consumerism
* Unemployment

The third day of the activity was devoted to creating a space for young people to come up with alternatives to the causes of migration in their specific contexts. The methodology included a collage of photos that represented alternatives and solutions to the causes of migration.  These solutions and alternatives presented by each group were then put to the test during a round of debate that questioned their feasibility.
Among the answers they proposed: projects to boost economic initiatives for small business owners, community organization to protect neighborhoods, loans for small farmers, advocacy for policies around the use of abandoned land, and awareness workshops ongood living versus better living” that encourages children and youth to use their income on local markets and producers to prevent consumerism. Every young person was encouraged to give a follow-up to their ideas, and to keep reformulating answers to the problem.

During the afternoon of that day, the youth listened to the powerful stories of two young people who had migrated to the United States and after a few years were deported. They spoke very honestly about the abuses suffered by migrants on their way north and the labor exploitation and discrimination that they suffered in the United States.

The youth network from Chemol Txumbal of FUNDAMAYA introduced to the group their plan on migration response which included the creation of a farmers' market where young people could trade their products and receive income through their work on the land at a fair price. Given that many young people today are not interested in the farmer´s life, the Youth Network has undertaken a number of activities to recover the pride of working the land, such as the “young peasants competition” that they organized, among other initiatives. These efforts are intended to create decent conditions in communities to  keep young people from migrating to the United States.
The week of service concluded with a ceremony that featured a Mayan spiritual leader, a priest, and an evangelical pastor, where each participant from his own faith prayed for migrants who are currently making their way north.

Future plans that came out of this activity include the publication of a summary of this activity written by Giovanni Batz. The groups of participants also plan to stay in touch and write a letter advocating for the human rights of the migrants.

“Borders are imaginary, but now they have become dangerous and deadly. No human being is illegal,” concluded Batz.

The youth representing on their skit a person being caught by Migration agents and discussing about alternatives to Migration.