Volunteer Voices: Cherishing a Blessing

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by Peggy Christiansen, Guatemala Work Tour Participant

I came back from our Work Tour with Trees, Water & People humbled, amazed, inspired, joy-filled, and moved to the depths of my soul.

La Bendici√≥n, which means The Blessing, is the right name for the little village we visited in southern Guatemala. Two groups of Mayans from very different geographical settings and cultural traditions ‚Äď even different languages – share this land.¬† It‚Äôs an abandoned, overworked coffee plantation on a hillside that sits next to a virgin forest.¬† The area, which the Guatemalan government promised would be fertile and full of rivers, has one river and hurricane-strength winds six months out of the year.

And yet the people have named and claimed it as The Blessing.¬† They have coaxed a living out of that land for 15 years ‚Äď all the while with a huge debt to the government hanging over their heads.¬† Why?

Why would they stay in such challenging circumstances?  Apparently, some haven’t.  Some of the younger folks have found the lack of electricity, the inconsistent attendance on the part of schoolteachers, the difficult access to the remote village, the continual struggle with the wind, and the on-going failure on the part of the government to keep its promises to be too much.  Some have sacrificed their strong connection with the earth and have headed for the city. Others have found their way to the States, where they work ungodly long hours to send money home to their families.

But many have stayed.

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The Mayan people I have known in my life are strong. Patient. Resourceful. Playful. And very, very wise. After all, the Mayans have persevered for hundreds of years. They survived colonization by the Spaniards. They endured the fruit companies and plantations and foreign land ‚Äúowners‚ÄĚ of the last two centuries.¬† And now somehow they have survived the brutal years of oppression and massacres by their own government, a government that was financed and trained in ‚Äúanti-communism‚ÄĚ techniques by the United States.

Weakened in numbers, traumatized by torture…  they are STILL HERE!

Strong. Patient. Resourceful. Playful. And very, very wise.

When the death squads ‚Äúdisappeared‚ÄĚ people, and Central American refugees had to seek asylum, especially in the 1980‚Äôs when the situation was at its worst, a Sanctuary movement in the U.S. and Canada created an underground railroad to help people escape. Many gatherings were held during those years ‚Äď both here and in Central America ‚Äď and families and friends and strangers would call out the names of the disappeared and the assassinated, and the whole crowd would shout back, ‚Äú¬°Pres√©nte!‚ÄĚ

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‚ÄúHERE!‚Ä̬† ‚ÄúPresent!‚Ä̬† It was a declaration that those who were gone lived on, and a promise that their work would be carried on.¬† People stood together in solidarity against the vicious military campaign that targeted human rights workers, teachers, doctors, priest, and thousands and thousands of campesinos.

In 1996, when peace was finally declared in Guatemala, the indigenous Mayan peoples were promised a voice and basic human rights. The process since then has been long and difficult.  And there is far to go.

But the campesinos in La Bendici√≥n are an awe-inspiring example of the courage and the perseverance required on this journey.¬† Together they are creating a place where the values and the strengths of the Mayan people can shine forth and illuminate for the rest of us what it means to heal our earth.¬† They call it ‚Äúla lucha,‚ÄĚ the struggle to overcome obstacles and difficulties, the work for peace and healing and regeneration for all.

P1040628I learned many lessons in the short days that felt like a lifetime.  Those lessons will continue as our group and TWP develop the relationship and the friendship between Fort Collins and La Bendición.

In the future, I want to share some stories about the people who are teaching me those lessons.  For now, I simply want to say thanks.

Thank you, TWP, for introducing us to La Bendición and for sharing the amazing partnership you have created there.

Thank you, fellow travelers, for the wonderful ways you were present on this journey.

Thank you, Lucas, for your huge heart, your constant smile, and your constant care.

And, a huge thank you to all of the special people of La Bendición, who opened your hearts and your homes and your lives and your wisdom to a group of strangers. You worked so hard to care for us and still, after all that, you urged us to come back.

We will.

In solidarity, we will partner with you in ‚Äúla lucha‚ÄĚ ‚Äď both here and there.¬† And ‚Äúsi Dios quiere,‚ÄĚ we will be back.¬† As you said to us over and over, ‚Äúwe are one human family.‚Ä̬† And I can‚Äôt begin to tell you how grateful I am for The Blessing in that.

Work Tour Creates Community Across Borders

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Cynthia Sargent and a child from La Bendición work on the community house together.

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

For my third visit of the year to the rural community of La Bendición, Guatemala, I traveled with a group from Unity and The Geller Center of Fort Collins, Colorado. On Sunday, the 27th of December, I scurried from Antigua to the Guatemala City airport twice to meet our work tour participants. They arrived tired, but in good spirits after some extensive layovers in the Miami airport. Despite the exhaustion of travel, it was apparent that by choosing to spend the days after the Christmas holiday and the dawn of the New Year in a rural, off-grid community, this group showed immense dedication and compassion.

The Antigua departure on Monday morning was slightly delayed due to logistical errands. Before too much time went by, we were on the road, driving our rented van towards the main highway. Following 30 minutes of volcano and countryside views, with Volcano Agua and Volcano Fuego imposing their silhouettes on the route, we soon spotted the turnoff for El Rodeo and Oswaldo, our main local point of contact and esteemed ambassador for La Bendici√≥n and Utz’ Che (he serves as their Coordinator of Campesino Exchanges). Oswaldo jumped in the van and we were off to visit the community of La Trinidad, also known as 15 de Octubre, but commonly referred to by their cooperative name among the Utz’ Che family, Union Huiste.

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The visit to the cooperative’s¬†beneficio, or coffee processing area, was quite informative for our¬†group. The cooperative leaders also led us on a tour of the main community and key sites in addition to the coffee¬†production areas. This visit included a visual history, courtesy of a community mural, that depicted the group¬īs departure from western Guatemala, exile in Mexico, and eventual settling in the Escuintla area.

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A visual history of La Trinidad, Guatemala.

As the afternoon wore on, we made haste for La Bendici√≥n before nightfall. With the sun just going down, we arrived at the¬†community house bathed in the soft light of dusk with the shadows of the forest and the mountains welcoming us from all sides. A stunning sight to witness and an embracing welcome for the group. The next several days involved significant improvements to the community house, including a fresh coat of paint for the first time in over 20 years, as well as repairs to the walls and the cement floors. All of this ¬†was planned with the intention¬†of creating a better community space, but also moving¬†towards the community’s vision: creating a destination for possible ecotourism efforts in the future.

Beyond the repair efforts at the community house, our group was also able to see some of the clean cookstoves TWP has helped install throughout the village, the weaving and textile crafts, the beekeeping operations (including the all important honeycomb sampling), and hikes through the virgin forest that sustains the life and livelihoods of the community.

Often, we found ourselves stooped or squatting around a patch of ground while one of the local youth leaders drew diagrams on the ground depicting the importance of natural resource management and how to create livelihoods through the cycle of coffee, pineapple, and beekeeping production. They are wise beyond their years and fully aware of how important community forest management and conservation is for their future and the future of other generations, particularly as powerful hydroelectric and agribusiness interests continue to eye their land. These organic and impromptu sessions were a particular highlight for our group as we were able to facilitate casual question and answer sessions and expand the learning process.

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Osvin (The Bee Whisperer) and Oswaldo prepare to handle their beehives.

Another important theme of the visit to La Bendici√≥n concerned la lucha, or “the struggle,” that these particular types of indigenous communities face. We learned of their fight to gain proper valuation of their lands, the struggle to conserve and manage the forest, and the difficulties of creating employment for the residents.

Through it all, the push and pull factors of migration are apparent. We¬†met community members with family in the US or Guate (short for Guatemala City) or folks who had recently been deported back to Guatemala on the infamous deportation flights. While there is a strong pull to leave and look for a better life, the residents of La Bendici√≥n know that a long, dangerous path is involved, and many of the youth¬†are focused on channeling assistance from Trees, Water & People, Utz’ Che, and work groups like Unity and Geller into hope and opportunity for a better future on their own land. You can¬†hear this optimism in the voices of the women¬īs committee and the youth group, as they search for ways to improve the conditions of their community.

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Lucas Wolf with community members from La Bendición, Guatemala.

It was truly humbling and inspiring to lead this group. In the process I learned so much from Oswaldo and the other youth group members as well as the community as a whole. Of course, I learned so much from the trip participants as well. They were truly a special group, making their mark on the community with stories, laughter, compassion, and wisdom.

“What made our activities such a success at La Bendici√≥n was the participation and enthusiasm of its residents,” said Cynthia Sargent, a Work Tour participant. “Oswaldo is an amazing ambassador for his community. He is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his own culture. He is very curious and open about learning.”

When we left La Bendición, on Sunday, January 3rd, the air was full of emotion and the energy of new friendships and relationships facing a tough goodbye. Most of the community showed up to bid our group goodbye and it was a powerful moment to behold, full of hugs, high-fives, smiles, and tears.

From La Bendición, we drove across the sugarcane fields surrounding Escuintla and after one wrong turn we were on our way to the turnoff for the lake, in the town of Cocales, when we ran into some of the worst traffic I have seen in my life. A fairly straightforward minor accident caused about 8-10 kilometers of traffic to become backed up in a hilly section of pineapple and rubber plantations. Before we knew it, four hours of the day had gone by, battling buses and semi-trucks for position and I began to worry about getting out of the traffic before nightfall. Luckily, calm and patience prevailed and we were soon rising out of the lowlands and up into the Ruta del Café coffee highlands that line the areas surrounding Lake Atitlan.

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Before dark we arrived at the beautiful permaculture center on the edges of the lake that is the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute, where the group would stay on for another four days of work and learning. Unfortunately, I had to leave and move on to the next adventure, but it was good to know that the time we had together was profound and enlightening. At our goodbye breakfast, the group was kind enough to express their words of thanks and each person said something kind and inspiring about Trees, Water & People and their experiences on the trip. I look forward to more trips in the future and more events with the Unity and Geller folks.

If you have a group interested in joining Trees, Water & People for a Work Tour to Central America please contact Sebastian Africano at sebastian@treeswaterpeople.org.