Bricks and Mortars

Where beauty abounds

By Lawrence Reichard | Feb 02, 2018

I have been traveling in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala since Jan. 2. I was three weeks in Nicaragua, and then I endured a brutally cold air-conditioned bus from Managua to Guatemala City, punctuated by half a night in a decidedly budget San Salvador hotel, $14 a night.

It's an odd thing to be traveling in countries recently dismissed in profane terms by one's president. I sometimes, or often, wonder what people think of my country in the wake of such a thing. And what they might think of me, being from such a country, whose leader says such things and seemingly suffers no consequences. Does the absence of consequences equal acquiescence of the citizenry?

But you'd need a pretty hefty crowbar to pry a disparaging word about another human being or another person's country out of the Central Americans I've met on this trip and over many years of travel in Central America. Especially here in Guatemala, which is one of only two countries in Latin America that are majority indigenous — the other is Bolivia. People here are much too polite, respectful and non-judgmental, all of which seems incongruous with their recently acquired status of hole-dwellers.

I am now in Guatemala, in the beautiful mountain town of (San Juan) Comalapa. At 7,000 feet, the mornings can be quite chilly, but the afternoons are often warm and sunny.

Comalapa has a Maine connection. The Emmaus community here, which has a soup kitchen, and housing for indigent single mothers, was founded by Miguel Tuc Tuc, who lived and worked in the Emmaus-affiliated H.O.M.E. Co-op community in Orland for six years, undocumented all the while. I've known Miguel for 28 years. The long kitchen table of Miguel and his wife Gloria here in Comalapa is always full of family, friends and co-workers, and the conversation is always lively and humorous.

Eduardo, who works at Emmaus Comalapa, teaches me about the herbs we're planting in the Emmaus garden. He guides me on long walks through the beautiful hills, mountains, forests and villages that surround Comalapa. The landscape is dotted with towering, perfectly conical volcanoes, some of them smoking. And he takes me home to a simple meal of rice, beans and tortillas, cooked over a wood fire, and he introduces me to his wife and kids in their humble, semi-enclosed kitchen, while chickens and dogs run around the yard and underfoot.

On weekdays I help Gilma with her middle-school English classes at Long Way Home, a green, sustainable school built from tires and cob that was founded by young trailblazing Americans eight years ago. The faces of Gilma's students light up as I enter the classroom and I'm greeted by a melodic chorus of well-pronounced "Good morning!" It's a far cry from my days as a substitute teacher back in the states. I urge the students to speak up, and loudly, when they so much as think they might know an answer. But it runs contrary to their indigenous Kaqchikel DNA to be so assertive.

In the center of Comalapa is the Parque Central, which is dominated by a beautiful 16th-century cathedral. I go down there every morning for my newspaper and carrot juice, and the jovial newspaper vendor greets me. He's glad to see me after my absence of almost a year. "What's up with Trump and what he said about El Salvador?" he asks me. And when I answer, he shakes his head, seemingly in sadness over how far my country has fallen from grace, and in a kind of pity for me and my country. And it is an odd thing to be pitied, however mildly, by a man who for a living sells a handful of newspapers for 40 cents each and glasses of fresh juice for 65 cents.

But maybe there's a lesson there. Maybe there's more to a country than the level of its wealth. Maybe there's beauty in the resilience of a people surviving crushing poverty and vast amounts of violence, much of it state-sponsored. Maybe there's beauty in surviving centuries of rabid exploitation by foreign powers, and 36 years of bloody civil war, and a long list of deadly earthquakes — Wikipedia lists 27 since 1717. The Feb. 4, 1976, earthquake killed 23,000 and injured 76,000. In Comalapa alone, 4,000 were killed, and every building save one, a primary school, was destroyed. And after Guatemala's civil war ended, a mass grave with 300 to 400 remains was found just outside town in the bucolic countryside where I walk every day.

Maybe there is beauty in a country beset by violence coming to grips with the darker side of its past and at great risk trying, convicting and sentencing the high and mighty responsible for nothing short of genocide. Maybe there is beauty in a small, impoverished land arresting, cuffing and locking up top-level government officials accused of corruption.

Maybe there is beauty in a country where family values are such that leaving one's family in a dangerous and perilous search for employment is a noble though gut-wrenching experience undertaken only in the most extreme circumstances, when the family's very survival is on the line. I once asked an undocumented Honduran why he came to the States, and his one-word answer is seared into my memory. "Hunger," he said.

Maybe this is a heroism unworthy of scorn and ridicule.

And maybe there is something to be learned in all of this. Maybe it is more than dollars and cents that determine the character of a country.

Lawrence Reichard is a first-place Maine Press Association winner, freelance writer and activist living in Belfast.


Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.