Frankly, this piece of writing is long overdue, and to be truthful, it has been sitting in my draft box for quite some time now. However, the time has really come to catch up with you. The difficult part is that I feel we've been out of touch for so long I'm not really sure where to start.
Currently, I am teaching American literature at Colegio Internacional de Guatemala. To say the least, the job has really been an eye-opener in terms of understanding just how profound the divide between the wealthy and poor here really is. Getting blackberry-obsessed sixteen year olds remotely interested in English literature has been a challenge to say the least. Perhaps it's just that they are sixteen, but more often, these sixteen year olds have never been exposed to their own countryside--the one in which infant mortality and respiratory diseases are among the highest in the Central America and the rest of the world, because open cooking fires pollute homes. Certainly, my students have seen the beaches, tourist attractions and grandiose Mayan ruins located in Tikal. (If you're interested, this is the incredible jungle where Episode VI of Star Wars was filmed with the Ewoks). But understanding just how cyclic the poverty in their country remains, or how desperately lacking the access is to healthcare in the highlands, is another concept entirely.
I have had the opportunity to enlighten a few of my 150 students by chaperoning their chance to work as medical translators with HELPS International--the nonprofit I have always been a part of with here. In March, I completed my 14th medical team, the last three of which were accompanied by my students. It is encouraging to sit back and allow them to experience their people in an entirely new way. They return to school enlivened, and determined to create change. They make me hopeful for Guatemala, knowing that they, quite literally, are the future. While adolescents now, they will become the country's stakeholders--those who eventually take over the family business and control the circles of money among the elite.
Really, my school has a variety of families; some kids are picked up in Toyota Corollas with the hub caps missing, others jump into Escalades with their armed body guards following behind in a Volkswagen Jetta. Fortunately, none of the kids at my school are sent there with body guards during the day, but it is not an uncommon practice at many other schools with other families. What most homes and schools do have, however, are small armies of housekeepers, gardeners or janitors. Experiencing the country's lower class serve the elite in friends homes still makes me uncomfortable. I suppose the discomfort comes from either my midwestern work ethic or my inevitable and unavoidable theories of the American dream, but it is different than having a cleaning lady come to help once a week. My boyfriend has a housekeep who came from the area in which their coffee farm is located, and who lives in the house with them. Sabina has her own room, but it is a humble space. She laughs and feels like the grandmother of the family, but having someone tell me "my breakfast was served" while I was living with them for the first month or so was strange. It is a constant reminder of the class divide here. And, of course, I am a de facto member of the upper class because I am both American and in a relationship with someone who comes from a wealthy family.
I can understand, however, just how easy it is to forget the realities of the country's poor. Aside from the dingy, dirty and dangerous half, the portion of Guatemala City in which I live is filled with restaurants and coffee shops and many of the houses mimic the beauty of Spanish architecture. I live in a fully furnished apartment with its own parking space. But the difference between my neighborhood and, say, Uptown Minneapolis is that I use three separate keys to enter my apartment, and its door lies behind two, tall security gates. Oh, and I can't walk to any coffee shops nor would I ever imagine biking or taking the city bus. The only time I walk anywhere is in the morning on my way to the school bus stop around six (that's right, I take the school bus with my students to school). Even then, there isn't a morning that I don't hear more than one car horn or that I am unaware of just who is walking within my vicinity. I don't have a fancy cell phone, nor do I wear jewelry that even appears expensive on my way to school. And this is the nicest part of town.
I love to escape to what I call "my Guatemala"--the highlands. I relate to those in the highlands in a simple, but more human way. There, people are more concerned about tortillas and firewood than the latest deal on iPods and Blackberrys; though frustrating and tragic, the simplicity is also refreshing. These experiences remind me to maintain my humility and remember where I come from. While I am sometimes discouraged by my students apparent lack of interest in my class, I go the highlands to remember that my life isn't so terrible. I don't plant corn by hand. I don't pick coffee for a living. Working as a medical translator makes my effort feel worthwhile and like I am part of a true change.