I arrived in Guatemala with a knowing in my soul that said, “this is gonna hurt”, and for that reason I was scared. All too recently I had overcome my own terribly vulnerable state of being, and here I was heading into communities of systemic injustice and chronic vulnerability. When presented with the opportunity to feel compassion, it can be tempting to choose judgement as a swift and quick end to vulnerability. Fortunately, my heart remained open and I permitted myself to feel the suffering of Guatemalan’s indigenous people.
It’s too long and detailed a story to tell here, suffice to say that in the 1980’s, native lands were stolen by American corporations, tens of thousands of husbands and fathers were secretly murdered and buried in hidden mass graves, and all of this was condoned by the US government.
Those native people that remained relocated to Guatemala City with no money or applicable job skills. They began to build shanties in a long, steep sided ravine which becomes quite dangerous in the rainy season. Today, this ravine is home to nearly 100,000 people and is the largest urban slum in Central America. Gangs to wage war in broad daylight and someone in Guatemala City dies of gun violence every 90 minutes.
I left my 3 star hotel lobby one humid Guatemala morning and in the company of 20 other Westerners, I descended into the heart of this slum, called by it’s residents La Limonada because of their necessary belief that they, tough as lemons, will one day prevail. The deeper our descent, the fewer people we saw on the street until it was just eyes peering out of slits in makeshift window frames. The walk from our van to a nearby school was the most harrowing as we were all so exposed. Did I hear gunshots? Is that a large blood stain on the unpaved earth? Why are we here?
Our guide is well respected in the community, and she was the only reason we were permitted to walk freely through this neighborhood. As she shared about the work they do with young children, I grabbed on to the hope in her words, like a passing raft in a raging sea. And for a moment this was not my problem. I remembered my 3-star hotel and loving family back in America. I remember walking back out into the streets with a welcome self-deception. I had survived this trip. I would donate some money to this amazing organization. It was going to be okay.
Walking out of the school you turn a sharp corner and face a small bridge, beyond it the steep sided ravine climbs high with shanties. There just 100 feet in front of us was an old woman with a laundry basket on her head, presumably going to do her wash. I watched her walk and then stop at the bridge. The normalcy I was desperately looking for was once again ripped from me as I washed her tip her basket full of plastic trash bags right over the edge of the bridge. A split-second later they landed wet and heavy with a sound I will possibly never forget. It was now my turn to cross the bridge, and as I peered over the edge every last vestige of hope spilled out of me. What was once a small river had become the slums dumping grounds. I found out later that the poorest of poor in this place will walk barefoot through the sludge and trash in search of small bits of metal that can be sold.
Back in the van I pulled my hat over my eyes and wept. Then I wrote the poem, La Limonada. When I returned home a week later, I began painting scenes from the stream at the bottom of the ravine, where I stood on Devil’s bridge and remembered why I had been so scared to come to Guatemala.