A Summer in Guatemala with UHPer Patty Silva

19 Oct

This post is written by UHPer Patty Silva.

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I come from a one square mile beach town town best described in country-song lyrics, Norman Rockwell paintings and New England fishing stereotypes- true life. Clearly, there’s no more logical place for me to spend a summer than Quetzaltenango, Guatemala: in K’iche’ and to its residents, Xelajú, “the City Under Ten Mountains”. Xela, for short.

Before I arrived, the Google Map of Xela just showed me a Y-shaped intersection of two yellow roads on light gray. Sometime in the last four months, however, downtown has been fleshed out and somehow Google heard about the chicken buses and micros and they’re marked down as real public transportation. I had a few thousand quetzales,  an 8×8 room in a guesthouse, a volunteer job at Asocación Hogar Nuevos Horizontes, and a camera. And no guidebook.

Asocación Hogar Nuevos Horizontes, (Nuevos or Nuevos Horizontes for short) is a domestic violence shelter for women and their children escaping from abusive marriages, placed there by the courts, or pregnant girls kicked out by their families. During the civil war it was established as a place for widowed and abused women and orphans to be safe, but at the end of the war evolved into what it is now: the only domestic violence shelter in Guatemala, and probably the largest of its kind in Central America. I worked in the shelter and in a daycare program that they also run, during June of this year.

On my first day the volunteer coordinator warned me that since volunteers usually work with the kids, I might not get to run as many classes as I had planned since they mostly were just toddlers at the moment. When we walked into the shelter, I thought she had been kidding- there were preteens and teenagers everywhere, doing homework and sewing. When one toddler pushed another off the slide, though, I realized by their reactions that they were the moms. At an age when most of us hadn’t even started worrying about proms yet, these girls have had lifetimes of responsibility and of abuse. It was so easy to look at that and forget that really, they were still basically children. Still, though, they somehow managed to be young.

“Ay mire, ¡que Justin Bieber fui a la Hawaii con Selena Gomez! Yo quiero ir a Hawaii!” Have I been to Hawaii? No, I haven’t, it’s really far away. But it’s in America! I’d been to New York, right? Yes, I went to New York to see a play- but I didn’t see Justin Bieber there. Do I like Justin Bieber? Okay fine, well what about Selena Gomez? Okay I like Selena Gomez, what about Shakira? Or Wisin y Yandel?

These moments: being in the shelter is like sitting at a seventh-grade lunch table sometimes. Then someone’s baby cries and you remember that Justin Bieber is too old for these girls, but they have infants and toddlers.

There’s Evelia*, who came to the shelter two years ago as an eleven-year-old mother and sexual abuse victim. A few weeks later she fell asleep nursing and the baby smothered. She’s thirteen now. When I was thirteen, I was in the chorus of “Grease” and wrote my first thesis paper.

There’s Wendi, a fourteen-year-old mom and victim of incest. She hits her two-year-old, and the shelter staff had to remove baby MariaElena from her custody. She lives with her baby and sees her every day, but until she finishes her next counseling and parenting course she can’t touch her or talk to her. When I was fourteen, picking out what to wear to the first day of high school was a big deal.

Where did their childhoods go?

Most of the residents at the shelter were teenage girls, about 13-17. Their childhoods began just as the civil war in Guatemala finally ended- they’re the generation that was supposed to have every opportunity those before them didn’t, to grow up in peace and freedom. These girls- and they’re still girls, really, even though they’ve had adulthood forced on them- haven’t. During the civil war, violence against women was used as a weapon by both sides. The war is over, but that violence hasn’t gone away- as most of the scars are healing, women are still hurt. Let me bomb you with facts and statistics for a minute:

Twenty-six percent of girls between fifteen and nineteen in Guatemala are married, divorced, or widowed, according to the UN- this number doesn’t include girls who have children unmarried.

Spousal rape?

Not illegal.

Domestic violence is illegal, and cases can be brought to court.

If there are still visible traces of the abusive incident after ten days.

To quote a Guatemala Human Rights Commission report,

-In 2004, the UN estimated that 36% of Guatemalan women faced violence in the home, an admittedly conservative approximation.” Let me add to this that about a third of households in Guatemala are headed by women

-Between 2005 and 2007 only 2% of 2,000 cases involving the violent deaths of women were “resolved” (some without convictions).

-In 2004 only one case out of 500 resulted in a conviction- that’s .002%

It’s bad. The numbers are scary. A pregnant teenager with a black eye in the market is scarier. It’s bad, yes, but progress is being made: reporting and prosecution of domestic violence has increased, women are being better educated about their rights, and grassroots movements to promote the rights and safety of women are expanding rapidly.

During my time there, Nuevos was in the process of moving to a brand new building, built just for them. My last day of work was move-in day and the first day at the new shelter. The building has three times the capacity of the current shelter, five times at “emergency capacity”- which still gives each woman more space than at the current shelter. It’s the largest shelter building in Latin America, and much bigger and newer than many I’ve worked at in the US. The fact that a new, bigger, shelter is being built might seem like a bad sign- why do so many women need to escape abusive situations?- but in reality shows the positive change that is occurring. More women are telling each other their rights, helping each other know when and how to leave, and where to go when they do. Slowly, a growing network of women is changing life for many in Xela.

No somas muchas, pero somas machas”, the coordinator of the shelter, Maria, kept saying on move-in day. We had to move beds, bookcases, a giant cast-iron stove, and hoist them all up into our giant moving truck. “Es difícillll,” some of the girls kept complaining, “pregunte a un hombre, ¡no queremos hacerlo!” Maria shot back that she knows it’s not too hard for them, and they definitely don’t need to ask a man to do it- no somas muchas, pero somas machas. That is true- somas machas, we are tough. But we don’t have to say “no somas muchas”- because there are a lot of us.

When I was at the shelter (in between questions about Justin Bieber, and living near the ocean, and how I got my braids to stay in) the girls would ask about America, about going to college and what the White House looks like in real life. Do all of us know where Guatemala is? Had I heard of Xela before I came? The girls there can’t imagine people knowing about them, caring about them. They spent most of their lives invisible, without anyone knowing what was happening to them. Let’s change that.

No somas muchas, pero somas machas, I learned. Even if there aren’t many of us, we can do a lot. But a lot of us- together, we could do even more. Somas muchas, y somas machas. There are a lot of us, and together, we are powerful.

*Mothers’ names are changed

Resources:

http://ahnh.org/index.php?idioma=en Nuevos website

http://www.ghrc-usa.org/Publications/Femicide_Law_ProgressAgainstImpunity.pdf

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/world/jan-june11/guatemala_03-07.html

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