delicate sprig of violet
with your breath sustaining
our poor faith the sunshine of Justice.
From The Certainty of Spring by Julia Esquivel, poet and theologian
We, the people of the United States, created the situation in Guatemala by financing the 36-year civil war to impose Capitalism - so we own the problems – they’re sealed and paid for.
Holy week is a festival in Guatemala. The streets are shoulder to shoulder with people – vendors everywhere. Kids with clever salesmanship sell craft items made by their families. Some spoke in English, “You buy from me,… maybe tomorrow? Do you promise?”
I asked a boy what the pageantry was about. For me, he said, “Holy Week was the time to make a decision.” “What decision?” I asked. “Whether to be a Catholic or an Evangelical,” he responded.
Although I had almost five years of experience in Bolivia and had traveled to many other countries in Latin America, I felt overwhelmed by the meeting with Julia Esquivel, by the discussion at NISGUA and by the trip to the Guatemala City dump. By the time we reached the village of Santa Apolonia and the Milwaukee School Sisters of St. Francis’ Orphanage, I felt I couldn’t absorb more. I took no notes; I have memories, but to be accurate and clear as possible, I interviewed Sister Marietta Hanus, S.S.S.F., one of the founders of the orphanage. Sister Marietta now lives in Milwaukee and is a supporter of the Voces de la Frontera New Sanctuary Movement.
Sister Marietta explained that the story of the orphanage begins in 1981. Milwaukee School Sisters of Saint Francis had a group of nuns in the municipality of Los Amates de Izabal. The Milwaukee sisters intended to establish a Guatemala presence of the School Sisters of Saint Francis. S. Marietta did counseling and teaching at the convent. The sisters also did pastoral work, but they were in the midst of the Guatemalan civil war. Pastoral work based on “love God and love your neighbor” was subversive. And then their parish priest was murdered. The sisters had to leave Los Amates and go into hiding. Some went to Guatemala City, others to Honduras and Mexico.
The next year the sisters that were refugees in other countries reunited with their displaced sisters in Guatemala City. A Guatemalan sister noted that the horrible war had destroyed many Guatemalan families, the basis of civil society. It was decided to establish new homes for mothers widowed by the war and for the orphan children. It would not be an institution or orphanage as such, so the name chosen was Homes of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Bishop of Solola provided land in the village of Santa Apolonia with a 99 year lease. The buildings were constructed in 1985.
The first children in the orphanage were from the village of Santa Apolonia and other children displaced by the war were soon added. War widows were the family caretakers. In the following years the children were to take responsibility for family living and their future. At ten years old they would decide on which training at the complex they wanted to pursue: shoe making, sewing and tailoring, carpentry, or farming. Children could stay until they were 18 years old. Now there is a government law that the children are to be available for adoption, but the loss of one of the children from a community family can be disrupting.
Sister Marietta told some stories of the children, such as the twins whose mother died in childbirth. The dad, a local farmer, could not take care of the newborns. He would come with one of his other children to visit and he brought eggs to the Sisters in gratitude for caring for his sons. The twins, David and Christopher, prospered at Guadalupe Homes and became competent workers. One was skilled with computers and the other a mechanic.
One boy was the survivor of an automobile accident in which his whole family was killed except for his mom. She was pregnant with him at the time. The mom went into a coma, but the baby was born. She was unable to care for the boy so he was taken in by Guadalupe Homes. At baptism the baby boy was named Moses because he had been saved by God from death.
Lia, another orphan, was taken into town so she could see a doctor. When she heard marimba music playing on a radio, she became very upset and cried, “That was the music I heard when they killed daddy.” When soldiers appeared at the community gates she pleaded, “You’re not going to kill us like you did my daddy.”
What about the soldiers?... they too are just kids recruited from the countryside. During the Holy Week pageantry they were very visible on the streets. I asked one very young soldier, armed with an automatic weapon, if it was true that in the past the military massacred people in various municipalities. He said, “Yes.” I asked if he also would do that – he said, “I don’t know.”
When they reached the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
(Luke 23, 33-34)