I have returned again to Guatemala, I’ve lost count of which trip this is, which for me is a very good thing. I know I am a visitor and will likely always be one, but I am not a tourist. By that I mean that I don’t come to see anything, but instead I come to see people, the same people each trip. Maria and Benedicto are expecting their second child. Brian will be eleven when the new one comes. He was actually the one that told me, at dinner one night. I learned today that my teacher Erwin and his wife Carmen are also expecting — a new baby will be joining their young son Oliver, age three.
This trip has been different because Edna, Benedicto’s sister, is away in her nursing internship. She is gone for three months this time. It is odd to see Juana in the kitchen alone, without her daughter by her side, but I can tell how proud she is of Edna for not just going to college, but excelling there. In Guatemala and especially in the rural and indigenous highlands where I stay, going to college is still a dream for most. Without the opportunity of higher education, most Guatemaltecans here are likely to work either in the home (for women) or the fields or mountains (for men). Life for this generation doesn’t look much different than the lives of their parents and trust me, we are talking about a very hard life. Don Pedro, the patriarch of the family with which I live, begins his workday at four a.m., picking coffee beans or avocados, or doing odd jobs around the village. This week he is actually building a room to add onto the home for his son Romeo who was born disabled because the curfew the army imposed during the civil war here would not allow the midwife to come and help deliver him. Romeo is 25 now and he stopped eating a few months back, except for a few meals a week. He almost never leaves his old room anymore, but this week, he has re-appeared. I don’t know if it has anything to do with my being here, but we have a little routine we do when we see each other that I think we both love.
Two years ago, Edna was graduating from high school at the top of her class. She was working part-time as a cashier in the market in the village — Super Chic. I asked Benedicto what she was planning to do after high school and he said she would likely work some at an unskilled job until she married. “Why wouldn’t she go to college?”, I inquired. There was just no money for her to even consider such a thing, so she never had. Edna and I talked that night. My Spanish is weak and her English even worse, but she understood what I was asking: If she could go the college, what would she study? I told her I would be back in a few months and we would talk again.
When I returned, she told me she wanted to be a nurse and that a new nursing program had opened up a few towns away. The program was for three years and cost $60 a month for ten months a year. Do the math. For $1800 this young woman who was top in her class could live the Guatemalan dream. An education could change her life, the life of her family, and the lives of the villagers in San Juan de Laguna. 7000 people live in San Juan. There are no doctors and I think three nurses. About 50 students started the program with Edna. Two years later, less than ten remain. Edna is again at the top of her class. No surprise there. I miss her this time, but I too am incredibly proud of what she is doing. Her little sister Kayla (actually her niece, but Kayla was raised by Juana and Pedro) is also a superstar in school. I don’t know yet what her dream will be, but I do know I will be there to see it come true.
Lawrence M. Schall
Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, GA 30319