By Paul Kvinta
Guatemala City has plenty of slums and sketchy areas, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more challenging place to live than a neighborhood called Maria Teresa.
I’m receiving a tour of the community from Juanita Perez, a grandmother of four, who strides up and down the near-vertical walking paths here like a mountain goat. Me, not so much. “The government promised us 80 retaining walls,” she says, graciously stopping to give me a breather. “But they built only 15. As you can see, we need retaining walls.” Above and below us, shacks made of corrugated tin and rotting planks cling precariously to the deforested hillside, each sitting atop crumbling dirt. When the rainy season comes in May, mudslides will almost certainly send some of these homes crashing into the Naranja River below.
Juanita doesn’t dwell on such things. She’s the tough and determined president of Maria Teresa, and she’s simply providing me with the unvarnished facts. No time for pity parties. We continue walking, and she explains that many of the 250 families here arrived in 1995, as political refugees from the countryside. Guatemala’s brutal 36-year-old civil war hadn’t yet concluded, and the fighting displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Since their arrival, the residents here have worked together to improve things bit by bit. They now have electricity, and most of the walking paths have been paved. They’ve kept gangs and drugs out of the neighborhood. “We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished,” says Juanita.
Still, for many people here, life remains decidedly bleak.
Juanita brings me to the home of Juana Najaro. Over time, the earth beneath Juana’s house has crumbled away, and now the far wall is suspended over nothing. Daylight shines where the wall should meet the dirt floor. Juana lives here with her four children, one of which, Jamie, seems unusually small for a seven-year-old. Juana cradles her to her chest. Jamie has a tumor the size of an eggplant protruding from in the middle of her back and thus cannot walk. The family has no money for doctors, especially not since Juana’s husband was murdered a year-and-a-half ago.
Juanita introduces me to other folks. I meet a five-year-old boy who is deaf. I meet a four-year-old girl who suffered severe burns across her back recently when her family’s kitchen stove exploded. Finally, Juanita brings me down to the river, which is black and foamy with who-knows-what kind contaminants. There’s a gurgling spring next to the river that does provide the community with some clean water, but when the river rises during the rainy season, filthy water inundates the spring and renders it inaccessible.
Forever Changed International (FCI) has been helping this neighborhood since January.
We’ve distributed clothing to residents, and we’re providing medicine to the young burn victim, Sandy Lucero. Last week, FCI’s pediatrician, Dr. Francisco Castro, began examining Jamie Najaro and hopes to conduct surgery to remove her tumor soon. In the coming months we plan to build retaining walls and reinforce homes.
We also throw the occasional piñata party. At the end of my tour, as several dozen kids take whacks at a giant, candy-filled Tigger the Tiger, Juanita thanks FCI staffers Able Garcia and Desi Stephens. “God has sent you here,” she says. “We know that for you these are small things. But for us they are huge.”