Article Author - Camille Wilson
"I pray that my heart doesn’t become hardened. That I’ll continue to feel every loss in my community.” This was the response youth mentor and community leader, Fito, gave when Watu Moja asked him about how he manages his grief in light of losing young lives in zone 3 of Guatemala City. His insight, and more importantly his approach to Christianity, was the lens through which we viewed Guatemala City as Black Americans exploring its history and its beauty--and that sentiment is something we carried home with us when we left.
When our host family, Joel and Annette Aguilar, presented the opportunity for the members of Watu Moja to participate in a hands-on cultural and educational experience in Guatemala, we leapt at the opportunity, in spite of not truly knowing what to expect from it. Here at Watu Moja, in true young-adult millennial fashion, we value education through cultural immersion. Travel is integrated into the fabric of the organization because our pursuit to connect the African diaspora is illuminated by what we learn and experience first-hand within global Black and Brown communities. This is the way we're able to bring authentic lessons and stories back to Camden, NJ. And although we left for this adventure to Central America without many concrete goals, we brought invaluable knowledge and stories back with us.
Guatemala's vibrant capital of Guatemala City is home to about 2.5 million people of Spanish, Mestizo, indigenous Mayan descent, as well as a small percentage of African-descending people called the Garifuna (brought into the country through Spanish slave-trading). In the years since the Spanish conquest, it has become a cultural, economic, and political hub, surrounded by simmering volcanic landscapes and Spanish architecture. Yet the ghosts of colonialism and oppression still linger in ways that are familiar to many Black and Brown communities around the world.
Guatemala City, sometimes referred to as simply “Guate” by the locals, is made of 21 zones, each with a unique personality and structural design. Fito’s home in zone 3, along with zones 2,5,6,7,8, and others are considered to be dangerous with higher crime rates than the other zones, and are typically avoided by tourists and well-to-do Guatemalans. These areas house the city’s lower working- class and poor residents.
Many people living in zone 3 have just a few years of formal education (only the first six years of schooling are free), and have received their education from a deficient public schooling system. And while alternative schooling is available, very few residents have enough money to pay the exorbitant price of sending their children to private school.
To make ends meet or as a main source of income, some residents scrap for materials to sell and make use of in a toxic and particularly dangerous dumpsite called the “basurero." Through personal accounts and anecdotes, Fito explained to us how the system of poverty is so formidable that even the local churches take very little interest in seeking justice for locals against the hegemonic structures of the city. To the contrary, the common ideology of the religious institutions in the area utilizes excerpts and themes from the Bible as a basis to rationalize extreme economic inequality to people who lack the most basic necessities.
As our team and Fito made our way through the local cemetery situated on a hill looming over the basurero, we had a bird's eye view of the thick smog above a throng of people moving through garbage under the hot sun in the valley below, a group of buzzards circling eerily overhead. Fito recounted his childhood memories of the fear of landslides caused by raw sewage and other hazards while spending some nights in the basurero with his father in order to get by, earning the equivalent of a few US dollars. Stories like this are unremarkable and common fare for the people who forage there daily, just a few hundred yards away from the cemetery.
Despite the lack of helpful services available to him and the community of zone 3, Fito’s own organization and others make it a point to provide recreational club activities for children/teens and business opportunities for local craftsmen, presenting Christian teachings to them only when he's forged strong interpersonal relationships with the youth. One barrier to Fito's work is the presence of gangs and drugs, admitting that even he was once involved in and enamored with the sense of security and belonging that gangs can provide for young, impressionable minds. Occasionally, he and his colleagues in this work will lose young people to violence and gang activity, but they continue faithfully, finding the beauty within their own community.
When asked about the idea of leaving zone 3, he replied that he’s been to the United States and has seen how poverty operates here--and leaving doesn’t change anything for him. For Fito, zone 3 is not only his home, but he says it’s “where God called me to be.”
Even in Death
Even in death, economic disparity is apparent in Guate, and poverty has consequences there. The Guatemala City General Cemetery, which resembles a small city itself, is surprisingly divided. Not far into the front gates, an opulent Egyptian pyramid-inspired tomb sits in honor of one wealthy Guatemalan Egyptologist, who’s husband wanted to bury her amidst the culture that she loved. Its undoubtedly pricey, authentic design and imposing structure sits less than 10 feet away from the public grave site, in which thousands of families rent a small grave to bury their loved ones. Because space is limited, after six years of occupancy those loved ones are discarded from their resting places into a mass grave to make room for future tenants.
Along with economic division, racial division is also a factor of life (and, in this case, death) in Guate. Moving further into the cemetery, we came across graves with a particularly European look, many of them appearing like monuments to Spanish imperialism dating back hundreds of years ago to colonial Guatemala. The Spanish conquest of Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan cultures remains in the way indigenous Guatemalans are treated today, with some still demanding rights to their land from the government and private companies.
Joel said when considering the injustices of history it’s important to consider this: as much as we are wounded, there are ways in which we participate in our own woundedness and the woundedness of others.
Among a small flower garden in General Cemetery, there is a grave and a memorial dedicated to the former Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz. Árbenz enforced a land reform program in favor of granting land to the indigenous peoples of Guatemala during the early 1950s, seizing hundreds of thousands of acres of land from the infamous United Fruit Company--which now goes by a name that has become a staple in our American kitchens: Chiquita Brands International. With the support of the United States, the United Fruit Company had dominated the banana trade and manipulated government officials of Guatemala to reap massive profit and sell the low-cost bananas. Under Árbenz, a massive amount of land owned by The United Fruit Comapany was returned to impoverished people, most of whom were indigenous.
Disgruntled by this move, the United Fruit Company complained about the government's use of imminent domain to the United States and proclaimed it “communism,” resulting in a United States CIA-led coup in Guatemala that overthrew Árbenz from his position. The succeeding president and former military officer, Carlos Castillo Armas, quickly returned the land to the United Fruit Company thereafter, uprooting the livelihoods of indigenous and poor farmers once again.
Today, the hidden price of the bananas that we buy for 58 cents at the grocery store still lies in supporting a company that dominated the land of rural Guatemalan farmers, and denied their rights to ownership and profit from their own work. And yet everyone continues to enjoy the privilege of cheap tropical fruit. It's an example of "collective woundedness," as described by Joel, illustrating one of many ways in which marginalized groups can willingly participate in a system that oppresses others even as they, themselves, experience oppression.
As we look back on our time spent in the city, we reflect on the ways in which we saw communities like our own, and like Camden, NJ mirrored there--Fito’s resilience in the face of the death of young people, Joel’s idea of collective woundedness--and how we can use what we’ve learned to affect and inform similar situations at home. In the near future, Watu Moja hopes to introduce local Camden artists to young artists in Guatemala City for creative workshops, cultural exchange and an active dialogue.
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