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 we asked him about how he manages his recurrent grief in light of losing young lives in zone 3 of Guatemala City. His insight, and more importantly his faith, was the lens through which Watu Moja viewed Guate as Black Americans exploring its beauty--and it is something we carried home with us when we left.
When our host family, Joel and Annette Aguilar, presented the opportunity for members of our non-profit to experience cultural exchange and hands-on education in Guatemala, we leapt at the opportunity, in spite of not knowing what to expect. In Watu Moja, travel is integrated into the fabric of the organization because our pursuit to connect the African diaspora is illuminated by what we know and experience in global Black and Brown communities. As a result, we bring the lessons and stories of our travels back to Camden. In 2015, we had this experience in Nairobi, Kenya, and our most recent experience was in Guatemala City.
Guatemala City is home to about 2.5 million people of Spanish, Mestizo, and 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’s become a cultural, economic, and political hub as Guatemala’s visually stunning capital, surrounded by grand volcanic landscapes and Spanish architecture. Yet the ghosts of colonialism still linger there in ways that are familiar to many Black and Brown communities around the world.
Guatemala city, locally called “Guate” by the residents, is made of 22 zones, all with their own streets and architectural 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. They also tend to be home to the city’s lower working- class and poor residents.
Many people living in this area have little formal education, or received an education in a deficient public schooling system--very few have enough money to pay for superior private schooling. While the people of zone 3 are scrapping for materials to sell and make use of in the toxic dump called the “basurero,” the church takes very little action and uses excerpts from the Bible to justify extreme poverty to people who lack the most basic necessities.
As we walked through the local cemetery with a bird’s eye view of the thick smog above the bustle of people in the basurero below while swamps of buzzards circled overhead, Fito recounted the dangers of landslides and nights of sleeping in the basurero with his father as a child in order to make the equivalent of only a few US dollars.
Despite the lack of services available to him and the community of zone 3, Fito’s organization and others make it a point to provide recreational club activities for children and teens and business opportunities for local craftsmen, presenting Christianity to them only when they’ve forged strong relationships. Occasionally, Fito and his colleagues will lose young people to violence and gang activity, but they continue their work within their faith, finding the beauty within zone 3.
When asked about leaving zone 3, he replied that he’s been to the United States and has seen poverty there, as well--and leaving doesn’t change anything. 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. 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 Egyptologist, who’s husband wanted to bury her amidst the culture that she loved. It’s authentic design and imposing structure sits less than 10 feet away from a public grave site in which thousands of families rent a small grave to bury their loved ones. After 6 years, loved ones are discarded from their resting places into a mass grave to make room for more tenants.
In addition to economic divides, racial divides are also present. Moving further into the cemetery, we came across graves with a particularly European look--many of them dating back hundreds of years ago to colonial Guatemala. The Spanish conquest of Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan cultures lingers in the way indigenous Guatemalans are treated today, with some still demanding for rights to their land from the government and private companies.
According to our host Joel, 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. Among a small garden of flowers in General Cemetery, there is a grave and monument dedicated to the former Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz. Arbenz enforced a land reform program in the early 1950s that seized hundreds of thousands of acres of land from the infamous United Fruit Company--which now goes by the well-known name Chiquita. The United States supported company dominated the banana trade and manipulated government officials to reap massive profit and sell cheap bananas. The massive amount of unused land in their power was given to impoverished people with no land, most of whom were indigenous.
Disgruntled, the United Fruit Company complained about the use of imminent domain to the United States and proclaimed it “communism,” resulting in a United States CIA-led coup in Guatemala that overthrew Arbenz from his position. The new president Carlos Castillo Armas quickly returned the land to the United Fruit Company thereafter, displacing indigenous people once again. Today, the bananas that we buy for 58 cents at the supermarket supports the same company that denied poor people their rightful land and strips farmers of profit--and yet we continue to enjoy the privilege of cheap fruit.
As we look back on our time spent in the city, we reflect on the ways in which we saw communities like Camden, NJ mirrored there--Fito’s resilience in the face of the death of young people, and 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 and cultural exchange.
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