First Week in Guatemala


I have been in Guatemala for about a week with Susan and Emma, this being their second and my third occasion to visit this very interesting country.

Guatemala is the only predominantly Mayan country. These native American people have a very diverse culture with numerous languages and are united by the national language of the Spanish conquerors. Although the culture of the native people in the United States seems to have been nearly decimated, their cousins here in Guatemala have maintained a vibrant culture.

I have a strong sense of being foreign – separated by language, race, physical size, culture, climate, religion, education, economic opportunity, wealth, experience, perspective and history. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to be exposed to these differences. Because we are in the area of Antigua, a tourist haven, people are quite familiar with foreigners and have been almost universally accepting and accommodating, and most we have encountered are quite welcoming.

As visitors with a social service agency, Familias de Esperanza (Common Hope), we have had a chance to view the households, schools and communities of average people who are of very limited means in this largely impoverished country. I notice that several things have changed since I first visited in 1992. The civil war has concluded, the internet is available, even in some underdeveloped villages, and many people of very limited means have cell phones. In one home that I visited, an indigenous woman with a second grade education who was dressed in traditional clothing that she had woven herself, stepped out to take a call on her cell. In an impoverished village that I have visited, San Miguel Milpas Alpas, the government seems to be devoting some substantial resources to school construction. Although children are only required to go to school through the 6th grade, it does seem to be promising that the country is working toward educating the populace. Teachers, who only need a high school education, receive tenure upon being hired, and are protected in their positions by law. My impression is one of a people striving to better themselves.

Opinions vary widely as to whether the country is headed in a positive direction over the long term. Climate change may be altering the rain patterns here, disrupting the capacity of the people to feed themselves. Crime, corruption, domestic violence and sex discrimination are apparently widespread. I am told that the use and sale of illicit drugs is increasingly a problem because the area is a point of transit for cocaine and other drugs from South America that are destined for the United States. Crime also includes gang activity in Guatemala City, organized crime, extortion, kidnapping, pickpocketing and robbery. The distribution of wealth is a problem. The Spanish speaking minority of mixed descent, who identify themselves as “ladinos,” control a disproportionate amount of the land, wealth, resources and power. Notwithstanding these problems, I speculate that living standards will improve measurably over the next 25 years or so, assuming the country remains relatively at peace. It is hard to speculate beyond that time frame, especially given the uncertain impacts of climate change.

The residual effects of the genocidal war continue to exercise an influence, especially for the older generations that remember this era clearly. The most recent generation of adults grew up after the conclusion of the war and civil rights abuses, and so, they have a different perspective than that of their parents.

Emma has been attending Spanish language school. She is enjoying the experience and learning a lot. Susan made a presentation to the social workers on motivational interviewing, and I made a presentation to the psychologists on resiliency and positive psychology. Susan is interviewing social workers for an opportunity, offered by Brigham & Women’s Hospital, to come to Boston for a oneweek visiting scholar/exchange program. I am recuperating from a stressful dispute at work, where the lawyers were butting heads for several months like Bighorn sheep during mating season. The decompression/de-stress process is underway, and I expect a good recovery within the 7 days remaining in our visit.