Guatemala has been through so much in its history, and struggles with a large amount of food insecurity and poverty throughout the country. Close to 50% of the country is considered malnourished, and that number only gets higher in rural areas. I have been to Guatemala on two different study abroad trips now.
In 2014, we spent eight days in Chajul, a small town in the Western Highlands that has a very large population living under the poverty line of two dollars a day. During our time in Chajul, we worked with two different non-governmental organizations to build a community vegetable garden. Doing this enabled us to get to know many of the families in Chajul, and learn about their everyday lives.
In 2015, we visited many different rural towns in the Central Highlands such as Zacaleu and Patzun. We met with some smallholder farmers as well as visited a primary school and local health center. Even though these two study aboard trips were completely different, I have noticed something similar on broth trips; Guatemalans (especially in rural areas) have a huge amount of faith.
Whether it be faith in the indigenous Mayan religions, Catholicism, or Protestantism, most of the people in Guatemala take their faith very seriously. Even in times of hardship, I have noticed that the people here rejoice in whatever faith they believe in. We were told that in Guatemala, there are “fiestas” for almost everything that the churches believe should be celebrated. These gatherings build a sense of community for the people and give them something to look forward to, especially if their families are going through hard times.
In Chajul during the week we were in Guatemala, there was a week long “feria” celebrating a saint in the Catholic Church. Thousands of people from neighboring towns made the trip to participate, and it was a time of fun and celebration for everyone in the town. I had the opportunity to attend mass in Chajul, and was able to see how involved many of the community is in their church. Chajul is a town that suffers with large numbers of food insecure people. It was amazing to me that people can still be joyful and have faith in these hard times. I think that sometimes we take for granted everything that we have.
This year, we have had the opportunity to visit multiple churches, and learn a little bit more about the Mayan religions of the indigenous people. During the civil war in Guatemala, lasting from the 1970s to 1996, many of the Mayan religions were persecuted. Mayan people figured out that they could still practice their religion through the Catholic Church by hiding their beliefs but still attending mass. I found it interesting, that the indigenous people were willing to risk their lives to keep practicing their religion because of their strong faith in their God.
During one of the days we worked with a Peace Corps volunteer, Alexa, we were given the opportunity to pass by one of the local Anglican churches, which was having a local party. The whole community got together to celebrate the occasion and have a meal together. It looked like they were having a great time! We were also able to see a local school in Antigua have a small parade in honor of St. Joseph. The children seemed to be having a great time and you could tell that they really cared about what they were celebrating.
My take home message from both of my experiences in Guatemala, is that even in times of hardship, faith can really get you through anything, no matter what you believe in. It is amazing to me that so many of the people in Guatemala living in poverty and hunger get such a large amount of strength in their faith. I hope that I can learn from them in any of my hard times to come.