With Sharing the Dream in Guatemala

Elders gather for lunch at Sharing the Dream’s Elder Center.

Elders gather for lunch at Sharing the Dream’s Elder Center.

By Norma C. Wilson

Part three of a five-part series


On Lake Atitlán


In January I traveled with Sharing the Dream in Guatemala’s “Fair Trade and Indigenous Cultures” tour with my husband and STDG Board member Jerry Wilson, filmmaker Charles Nauman, weaver Grete Bodogaard, environmentalist Dana Loseke and information technologist Ronda Harrity.

Lake Atitlán is a magical place, a 1,000-foot deep ancient volcanic crater of clear blue water surrounded by Mayan villages nestled between volcanic peaks.

We skimmed across the water in a motorboat to the village of Santiago Atitlan, which lies in the shadow of Volcáns San Pedro, Atitlán and Tolimán. Near the shore fishermen rowed homemade wooden boats, cayucos, amongst blossoming bushes and trees.

From the dock we climbed the hill to Casa de Sueños (house of dreams), the Sharing the Dream hostel. We met night watchman and scholar assistant Estéban, then walked around the corner to El Centro de los Ancianos, the Elder Center.

Six young women, ages 14-20, worked at a balcony table, beading bracelets and necklaces. Several were from the village of Panabaj, destroyed by a mudslide in 2005. One lost her parents, and now provides for her family, paying for her brother’s schooling. Bernavela, who has worked for the Elder Center for 30 years, also directs the bead group.

Downstairs we met several dozen elders seated on benches. We introduced ourselves, and Diana translated to their Tzutuhil language. When Charles, who was filming the gathering, introduced himself saying he did not want to take their picture, but to give them pictures, Bernavela asked them to guess the age of “Carlos.” No one imagined he was 88, the eldest of the elders. But one woman said, “We’re glad you’re here because you are like us, and you are doing so well.”

Bernavela ladled meat and soup into each bowl an elder had brought, Lidia, her assistant, piled a stack of tortillas atop the lid, and our group served each elder. Julia, another assistant, helped our group serve coffee and multivitamins. Each elder hugged and thanked us as they left.

“I’ve never been kissed by so many women in one day,” said group leader Jerry.

While we recognized some of the elders from my daughter Laura Wilson’s 2009 book, “Stories of Survival,” Bernavela said that several have since passed away.

Lidia led the way as we delivered a “meal on sandals” to one elder in the book, Maria Chiquival. We ducked through a door in a stonewall beside a woman sitting on the sidewalk selling tortillas and walked a narrow passageway past a series of small, cement rooms to find Maria, age 69. She was glad to have visitors; her life is difficult because one of her arms was chopped off by a machete during Guatemala’s Civil War.

That afternoon we visited three more elders. We found Conception sitting on cardboard beside her dirt-floored bamboo, tin and stone shelter. She was glad to have visitors because she lives alone and worries that her neighbors want to take the tiny parcel of land she inherited from her parents.

Conception has a stomach ailment that requires medical attention, and Bernavela promised to take her to the hospital for treatment. She expressed thanks for the corté (skirt) Sharing the Dream gave her for Christmas.

Next we visited Rosa, who lives in a cement block house inherited from her parents. In her front yard, a banana tree was heavy with fruit and a pink rose bloomed. Rosa married at 18, but two years later her husband left her with three children. Only one survived, her now 40-year-old son, who lives with her and supports himself by manual labor. Rosa is unable to work because she broke her back in a fall. But Rosa has retained her sense of humor. Her parting words: “You should take the bananas – only $10!”

Our third visit was to a disabled 65-year-old man named Gregorio. He lay on planks stretched across sawhorses. When he was young, his parents gave him a piece of land, and he married Maria. But in his 30s, he began to have difficulty moving his legs and could no longer work. He sold his land, and Maria had to support them and their five children by doing laundry. They lost two children because she was not able to feed and take care of them.

Gregorio wept as he spoke with us, miserable that they must rely on charity, but grateful to organizations like Sharing the Dream for the food and other assistance they receive.

At the Elder Center we met with two women from Mujeres Artisan, women artisans who make small woven purses.

The president, Maria Victoria, said they started with 12 women in 2000, but lost everything in the 2005 mudslide, but regrouped and now have 18 members. Isabel, STDG’s artisan director, is teaching them new techniques to make their products more marketable.

For further information, visit sharingthedream.org.

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