Saturday, May 24, 2014


      Indian child                                                                                                 
      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)   

Sunday, May 11, 2014


   Before we left Guatemala City, we visited the city dump.  It is located in a ravine just below the city cemetery.  We viewed the dump from the cemetery.  The stench is immediate.  There are many mausoleums in the cemetery and many in disrepair – wide open shelf spaces.  Some are truly grand, built by wealthy families. 

   Below the cemetery in a deep ravine is the city garbage dump.  Garbage trucks run in and out over broken glass.  Children and families search for leftover food and for objects they might use or sell.  The U.N. estimates that roughly 50% of the nation’s children are chronically malnourished – the fourth highest rate in the world.  High overhead vultures circle ready to dive on a quick dinner. I asked a Guatemalan woman about the cemetery.  “My mother is in a mausoleum there; I don’t visit – I don’t feel her presence there.” 

   Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.  (Psalm 23)

                                           Photo by Joan Bleidorn
We stopped at a gas station where an entrance was being prepared.  I talked to one of the workers who were loading cinder blocks into a wheelbarrow.  I asked him if he belonged to a union; he said, “no - only skilled workers belonged to unions.”  He may have been mistaken; he probably meant that day laborers had no union and he was a day laborer- his day rate was 75 quetzales, about $10.

   Guatemalan labor opposes the U.S. sponsored neoliberal trade agreement called DR-CAFTA as well as other injustices. Labor has had little influence in Guatemala since the overthrow of the reform government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 by the CIA and directed by the Eisenhower administration.

   Since 2007, 64 trade unionists have been murdered.  Luis Antonio Alpirez Guzman secretary of the Health Workers Union said;

   If the bloodshed continues, the entire labor movement will be  irrevocably weakened….it is reminiscent of the chaotic 1980’s and   1990’s era when student and labor activists were murdered on a mass scale…(Chen, Michelle, “Unions Under Siege in Guatemala,” In These Times, 8-24-2013.) 

   The next station I’ll report on was a water project at Chutzoropi in the province of Quiché, a Province so devastated by the military that it was once left by Bishop Gerardi under threat.  The project was sponsored by the Caritas Pastoral Social del Quiche. Gerardi was later murdered by the military in Guatemala City in 1998. A report issued by the Historical Clarification Commission claimed 200,000 people were slaughtered in the 80’s; the Army committed 165 massacres against Mayan Villages. 

   We went into the highlands on unpaved roads and we were grateful for our very skillful Salvadoran driver, Cristobal. We were warmly greeted by the community and sat down to meet each other.  The men introduced themselves. They hung around in little groups along with the boys.   As visitors we introduced ourselves – our names, where we were from, and why we came to visit.  All had to be translated into their indigenous language.  Sister Jan, obviously well known and loved, suggested that the women introduce themselves. The women and girls sat on benches on one side, beautifully dressed in their native costumes - Guipils. With some shyness and through interpreters the women courageously stated their names and something about their family.

                                                                  Photo by Sister Jan Gregorich

   Sister Jan asked what the water project meant to them.  They explained in their native language with a couple women speaking in Spanish.  Without the water project they had to go two or three times a day to the river to bring back buckets of water with their children helping. Washing of clothes had to be done at the river. Thirty-three families received water in the immediate area of their homes.  Sanctions were levied for improper use.  Each family paid 10 quetzales, $1.35 per month, to create a fund to be kept in reserve for emergencies. 

   I was not able to discern a ‘communidad autónomo’ as in the Mayan communities just north of Guatemala in Chiapas, Mexico.  The Mayan people at the water project are not completely independent of the government in Guatemala City.

   I commented to Joanne how beautiful these people are – I don’t usually say that anywhere else we travel.  Joanne responded, “They make their own clothes with beautiful colors and wear them humbly without embarrassment. They celebrate who they are.” Joanne talked to a young man who had just returned from Texas for a visit; he planned to return to Texas to make his way in life.  His legal status was not questioned.

   I asked the leader of the project if there was hope for Guatemala; he said, “no!” but then paused and said – “maybe.”  Why maybe?  He said, “…if progressive leaders arise in Guatemala.”  Is this just ‘Waiting for Godot?’

   But for me, this is a reminder of Postville, Iowa in May of 2012.  Federal agents in helicopters and patrol cars swooped into a small Iowa farm town to raid a food processing plant where most of the workers were Guatemalans. Three hundred eighty-nine workers were detained, most of them from Guatemala.  Families were separated – children had no idea what happened to their parents.  Sr. Mary McCauley B.V.M. set up a refuge for the families in the local parish Church – St. Bridget’s. (N.Y. Times, “Postville,” July 11, 2012.)

                                                                    Postville protestor, 2008

   A colleague talked to one of the Guatemalan men who lost his family in the ‘80’s during one of the U.S. funded military massacres. The man had obviously not recovered from the devastation of his family.  The three mental health professionals who took the trip with us asked how these people survive the trauma of the genocide of their villages?  I wondered about the re-enacted Holy Week story,… is this pageantry,…therapy?... or both?