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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 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.
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).
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.