Guatemala Snapshots: Continuing the Guatemala Sister Community Trip
By Pat Geier
Editor’s Note: In January, Mary Ann McGivern, Irma Avila, Alicia Ramirez and Pat Geier spent 10 days in Guatemala visiting our sister community, Las Hermanas de la Sagrada Familia. The following are Pat’s “snapshots” from that visit:
Midway through our time in Guatemala, the four of us set out in different directions. Alicia and I took the six-hour bus ride to Chiantla, a small town in the Cuchumatanes Mountains. On the edge of town, the Holy Family Sisters have created a small paradise — a boarding school for girls, mostly indigenous, all very poor, whose families live hours away in remote areas of the highlands. The school has operated for nearly 60 years, serving students at the middle school level, ages 12 to 15.
Located on several acres of land, the school is beautiful in its tranquility and its abundant flora. Food from a cottage garden and an orchard, and meat and eggs from small farm animals complement the student’s daily fare.
The boarding school has room for 80 students. Enrollment is down this year by half. More government schools have been built in rural areas that allow students to remain with their families. The monthly tuition is $100, though few students are able to pay the whole fare. On Sundays, the school is open to day students of both sexes. The sisters say that English teachers are a primary need because parents want their children to study English.
It’s impossible to put into words the sweetness and innocence of these girls, dressed in their beautiful trajes (dresses), holding hands with each other and giggling that middle school-girl silliness. They work hard at their studies and after school chores. The sisters are tireless in their devotion to them. The evening before we left, the students regaled us with their simple indigenous dance and insisted we join in. How fortunate were we for those days in paradise!
Grit. The Holy Family Sisters have plenty of it. Take Maruca, for example. Most of the sisters teach in one of their four schools. Maruca ventures a little farther afield. She works at the basurero, the garbage dump. Imagine a city dump as your work place.
In April 2016, part of the basurero caved in burying 15 people underneath tons of garbage. More than 350 people live on the edge of the dump, building their huts from pieces of wood, corrugated tin or plastic, scavenging for rotting food and salvaging what items might be usable. “The stench is horrible and inescapable,” she said. Maruca visits the basurero regularly. She meets with women at the dump who, with her encouragement, have formed three support groups. Each group meets weekly for prayer, Scripture reading and reflection.
The women share their stories — the pain from extreme poverty and dislocation; the lack of education, healthcare and sanitation; the deaths of their children from hunger and disease; the daily violence from gangs and guns; drugs and prostitution; and the pervasive sexual assault that is a part of almost every woman’s story.
Maruca shows up. She listens and laughs, hugs and heals. She brings remedies such as massage, acupuncture, herbal medicine, food, clothing and heaps of love. She knows every family that finds a way out of the dump will be replaced by another. Still, she shows up. “These are the poorest of the poor. We have to be there,” she said.