By Norma C. Wilson
Part five of a five-part series
Rising from the Ruins
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.
Boating back across the steaming volcano-surrounded lake, I sensed the tension the Maya must feel in this land of awesome beauty so prone to volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods and human violence.
In Panajachel we took a van toward Los Encuentros, through a deep valley terraced with gardens of cabbage, beans, tomatoes and corn and up the winding mountain road to the modern four-lane Pan American Highway. Watermelons and pottery were for sale beside the road.
We climbed back through five centuries of history, to the ruins of Iximché, a Kachiquel city founded in 1470 on a flat promontory surrounded by cliffs, a site easily defended against the enemy Quiché.
Melvin, our Kachiquel guide, described the stone pyramids of Sun and Moon. He said his traditional society was matriarchal, and the queen served as leader and judge. He showed us where palace dwellings once stood, altars, patios, ball courts, fragmentary remains of paintings, trenches used for drainage, and a stone cistern where rainwater was stored. At the edge of the ruin a ceremonial fire burned. Three Kachiquel people sang to welcome the New Year and ask the Creator’s help.
Iximché was an active city when Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado arrived in 1524. The Kachiquel fled, some to Lake Atitlán, others to live in the nearby city of Tecpan, first Spanish capital of the Central American Empire. But Iximché remains a sacred place to the Maya.
By noon we were in Antigua, the second Spanish Colonial city, built in a valley surrounded by Volcáns Pitaya, Agua and Fuego. After lunch in the garden courtyard of Café Condesa on the central plaza, we explored the city.
All that remains of the cathedral facing the plaza is the front; the rest lies in ruins – stone arches, crumbled columns, and underground, the spooky king’s chapel and crypt. Behind the city’s largest active church, Señora La Merced, lay the ruins of a convent, and on its patio the largest fountain in Central America, a fountain surrounded by angels in the shape of mermaids.
The magic faded as we reentered sprawling, smoky Guatemala City for the night, but reunited with Diana and Isabel, we enjoyed helping them make the guacamole and salsa we savored along with beans, fried plantains, pineapple and tortillas.
Sharing the Dream’s house in the suburb of Mixco is relatively safe, protected by gates, security guards, steel doors, walls and razor wire. But UPAVIM, the cooperative we visited next morning is forced to operate with even greater security.
UPAVIM – the Spanish acronym translates “united for a better life” – was formed in 1988 by women living in shanties in a squatter camp on the edge of the city dump.
We met Barbara Lorraine, a nurse from the United States who helped women living in severe poverty get training to make crafts of traditional Guatemalan textiles, and helped them market their products.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) helped the women form a board of directors. Sharing the Dream and other organizations helped fund their first building, and STDG has partnered with other UPAVIM projects, including raising $15,000 to help erect a second building. They now house and run a Montessori preschool and K-6 school, a library, a health clinic with resident doctor, a medical laboratory, a sewing workshop, craft workshops using recycled materials and beads, a bakery, a soy milk and cheese project, and a bakery.
The women named their squatter camp “Esperanza,” hope, and the name is truly appropriate. The organization can survive in this violent neighborhood only behind locked steel doors, barred windows and razor wire, but upstairs the big windows that overlook a neighborhood of sheet iron shanties also admit light and air. Classrooms are attractive and full of busy, smiling children.
The organization has provided scholarships for 600, both those who study here and outside in high schools, but recently they lost half their funding and are eager for help. The school principal, who was substituting in sixth grade, said the students were making their own rules, which they would then have to follow, a lesson that instills civic responsibility.
After a tasty lunch provided by UPAVIM, we headed for Museo Ixchel, named for the Maya goddess of the moon, women, reproduction and weaving. There we learned of the history of Maya dress from 200 B.C. to the present. We observed the ancient Maya clothing depicted in clay figures and paintings, and saw in the textiles and clothing on display, observing both the fusion of Maya and Spanish styles from the 16th through 19th centuries, and far more recent textile fabrics and designs incorporating metallic threads.
The museum’s collection of watercolor paintings from the 1970s by Carmen Pettersen illustrate the weaving and embroidery designs of various Maya communities, including the Mam, Quiché, Kachiquel, and Tzutuhil.
Finally we visited Guatemala City’s Central Park and Plaza of the Constitution. Bordering the plaza are the grand Cathedral and the National Palace. Outside the Cathedral, rectangular columns name thousands of individuals killed during Guatemala’s brutal 30-year war. Many worshippers inside the Cathedral prayed at the shrine of the black Christ.
Behind the Cathedral, we walked a block to the Central Market, a vast array of crafts, colorful vegetables and fruits. In the flower market, we purchased Bird of Paradise flowers for our lovely hosts, Diana and Isabel.
That evening, we six shared what we’d learned from our visit. We agreed we would cherish the life stories and dreams Guatemalans had imparted to us, and their artful commitment to sustainability. We came home searching for ways to help Sharing the Dream in Guatemala make those dreams come true.
For further information, visit sharingthedream.org.