By Norma C. Wilson
Part four of a five-part series
The Villages of 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, film maker Charles Nauman, weaver Grete Bodogaard, environmentalist Dana Loseke and information technologist Ronda Harrity.
There are three means of transportation in the villages – home-made canoes, tuk-tuks (enclosed motor scooters) and pickup trucks. We rode in the back of a pickup truck to San Lucas Tolimán to meet Los Cuchareros, the only men’s co-operative we visited.
Cucharero leader Julio and six craftsmen greeted us and showed us the workshop where they make beautiful spoons from local woods. Like most younger men, they wore jeans and T-shirts rather than the traditional stripped trousers worn by many older men.
When they began in 2003, they made spoons with three basic tools – a machete, sandpaper and beeswax for a non-toxic and waterproof finish. Gradually, they added a vise, rasps and chisels for finishing their products.
The men never expected they’d one day sell their spoons throughout the U.S. But from the beginning they used half their profits to help others in San Lucas and Santiago who were in need. They still sell their products in local stores, but now they also have a website and sell on the Internet and through non-profits like Sharing the Dream.
They use several woods, but mostly branches from coffee trees that must be pruned every 15 years. Julio and coworkers demonstrated the entire process – chopping a spoon-like shape with a machete, drawing the interior of the spoon, scooping out the hollow with a round chisel, rasping, sanding, and finally rubbing on beeswax, melting it over coals, then buffing the spoon until it shines.
The men express their artistry and cultural identity with distinctive designs, carving handles that resemble the ducks on Lake Atitlán and Guatemala’s national bird, the resplendent quetzal.
Returning to Santiago, we stopped at the new community of Chuk-Muk, where the Guatemalan government has built houses, a school, a museum, a church and a hospital for victims of the 2005 mudslide. At Chuck-Muk’s entrance is a mural painted by children depicting the community of their dreams. The movie theatre has not yet materialized, but other dreams have come true.
On Sunday we visited the Catholic Church where Father Stanley Rother, a beloved missionary priest from Oklahoma, was murdered by a right-wing death squad in 1981. A plaque inside the sanctuary recognizes him as a martyr.
We had lunch with Maria, Jaime, Sara, Diego and Antonio – Santiago area students who receive scholarships from Sharing the Dream donors, and guidance from STDG staff.
Middle-schooler Maria hopes to attend secondary school in Quetzaltenango and become a teacher. Her friend Jaime wants to study business administration. Sara wants to teach kindergarten. Diego, who dreams of being a pro-soccer player, also has the more practical ambition of working as an accountant. Antonio wants to be a doctor.
The scholars study their native language as well as Spanish and English, math, science and other basic subjects during their six-hour school days. Like their North American counterparts, they don’t seem much interested in politics and history, but they are committed to voting.
Monday morning was everybody’s favorite, a journey across Lake Atitlán to Chacaya by cayuco. The lake was placid and glorious with blue and green herons, egrets and sparkling sun. We were two to a boat, each paddled by a man who stood in back. Our boatman said the fishermen in cayucos were catching mojarras in their nets, which he said are good to eat.
We passed the steep Volcán San Pedro, the slope patch-worked with corn and coffee growing near shore, and arrived at the village of Chacaya. A teacher, Pedro, greeted the women in our group with a kiss on the cheek, and he and his sixth-graders led us through town to the school, past gardens of pole beans and vines loaded with green tomatoes.
The rooms of the sturdy masonry building face a central courtyard where everyone was assembled for a ceremony marking the first day of school.
The women and some of the girls wore traditional trajes, while other girls and the boys wore jeans and T-shirts. The students applauded their visitors, and then we all stood for the pledge of allegiance to Guatemala’s flag and their national anthem. Each teacher was introduced, and the principal, Pascual, wished us all a Happy New Year.
Pascual said the children studied in a makeshift structure of plastic and sticks before Diane Nesselhuf began helping them in 2004. Sharing the Dream supplied them some of the materials to build the school in 2007; and when a mudslide destroyed a wall last year, STDG provided money to rebuild.
Sharing the Dream also supplied desks and chairs, and now the Chacaya school is helping poorer schools. The Coffee Care organization provides meals for students.
As Charles filmed the assembly, one little girl drew close, and soon he was surrounded by children fascinated with him and his camera. We visited each classroom and the cramped principal’s office with one bookshelf stocked with donated textbooks.
Sadly, the classrooms held few learning materials, and a barbed-wire fence is necessary to protect the school from theft and vandalism.
We returned to Santiago and visited the Panabaj mudslide area, now mostly deserted, and the nearby Peace Park, built where soldiers formerly stationed here shot down thirteen villagers on Dec. 2, 1990. Villagers had assembled to protest abuses, including rape, perpetrated by soldiers.
After the massacre, the city petitioned the Guatemalan president to remove the army base. Their demand was granted, and they created the peace park to remember the victims and their sacrifice for the peace of their community.