Located in Central America, Guatemala is bordered by Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize. From certain points in the United States, you can drive through Mexico and straight into Guatemala. Flights into Guatemala from North Carolina via Atlanta or Miami take three hours, making Guatemalans close neighbors.
Glimpse of the People and Life in Guatemala
The population of Guatemala, approaching 15 million people, continues to grow at nearly 3% annually. At the current rate, the nation’s population will more than double in 25 years. There are 25 sociolinguistic groups that make up Guatemala’s diverse population (22 Mayan, Spanish, Xinca, and Garífuna). The first language of most residents of Nimasac (the village we work with) is K’iche, a Mayan language.
Guatemalan income distribution is very unequal. More than half of its people live in poverty. According to the United States Agency for International Development, “Most of Guatemala’s poor are rural indigenous people of Mayan descent who have a long history of discrimination and exclusion from full economic, political, and social participation. The rural indigenous were the most seriously affected by the 36-year armed conflict (1960-1996) that claimed more lives than the conflicts in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, and Argentina combined.”
Terrain and Travel
Quetzaltenango, also known by its indigenous name Xela, is the second largest city of Guatemala and boasts shopping malls, universities, potholes, and traffic!
It is located in a mountain valley at an elevation of 7,655 feet (2,330 meters) above sea level at its lowest part in the southwestern highlands. The year-round temperatures average 70-80°F (21°C) during the daytime and 45° F (7° C) at night. Quetzaltenango’s population is close to 225,000 people; more than 60% of them are indigenous.
In this city, you experience the proud heritage of the Mayan culture and customs. Women dress not only in modern styles with jeans and graphic tees, but also in full Mayan dress, wearing huipils (pronounced ‘wee-peels’), a blouse that is embroidered in striking colors with embellishments for bling, embroidered belts, and long skirts. Men wear shirts and pants such as would be found anywhere, but occasionally, you can catch a glimpse of traditional clothing: a long skirt-like fabric over pants, woven shirt and the ever-present full brimmed hat.
Travel by bus a little more than an hour up the mountain from Quetzaltenango and you arrive in the village of Nimasac, with a population of about 8,000 people. Nimasac is an inviting village comprised mostly of farmers and their families. Several folks also work as weavers and candle makers. Poverty is prevalent, but the spirit of the people in Nimasac is rich. This is where Esperanza’s work takes shape.
There are about 8,000 people living in Nimasac. Most people in Nimasac are farmers who work small plots of land. Their principal crop is corn, and raising chickens for meat is also common. There is almost no industry of any kind and there are few shops. There are, however, cottage industries that produce hand-dipped candles (which sell wholesale for $.02 cents profit per pound) and wholesale contracted weaving of whole cloth to be used for clothing.
In 2015, the average income of the families we worked with was approximately $1,200 per year. (In the Western Highlands of Guatemala, the poverty rate reaches 76%, and extreme poverty is at 27%. The chronic malnutrition rate for children under five is 67%.)
Housing in Nimasac varies. It is very common to see unfinished homes and/or homes that are built by the families themselves. Generally, these homes have packed dirt floors, wood stoves for cooking, basic electricity, and no running water. Most homes are multi-generational.
In Guatemala, 54% of the population lives in poverty and 13% lives in extreme poverty. Limited access to food is not unusual. The diet primarily consists of corn, and malnutrition is common. Half of all children under five are chronically malnourished, the worst level of malnutrition in the Western Hemisphere. The availability of clean water is limited. Contamination makes the local water sources dangerous. There is limited access to agua pura (purified water) but it is costly to the townspeople.
Although public school is free in Guatemala, the cost of the required school uniform, shoes, backpack, books, school supplies, etc. is more than most families can afford. As in most of rural Guatemala, education is mostly available through 6th grade for boys, and less so for girls. Many children do not make it through 6th grade as they are needed to help at home. Some students are fortunate to attend school through 8th grade; even fewer can attend high school. Nimasac does have a full elementary school with an enrollment of 500 students, with both morning and afternoon sessions (children go to school for a half day). There is not a middle or high school in Nimasac, and the nearest upper-level school is a 45-minute walk. The school building in Nimasac is in disrepair; it has no water, broken windows, and very few supplies. However, like their counterparts in other countries, the teachers are dedicated to teaching their students, and would welcome more training and more modern teaching methods.
The public bus, commonly called a “chicken bus,” stops in Nimasac on route from Quetzaltenango, the second largest metropolitan area of Guatemala. This gives the townspeople the opportunity to go to the city for supplies, bathing, and more, as they are able. The trip is more than an hour one way.