Each weekday, schoolchildren walk a narrow sliver of safety along two-lane roads in this beautiful Central American nation.
For many, adulthood and the future are just as precarious. Most will drop out of school to help support their family, said Robert E. Hinshaw, a PhD anthropologist and former University of Kansas professor. He and his wife, Linda, invited my partner Bette and me to this mountainous, volcanic and earthquake-prone country, which Hinshaw has studied since 1963.
In eight days, we traveled hundreds of miles by van, in boats and on foot. The Hinshaws took us to the lowlands in the south, the mountains, the tropics and to Mayan ruins in this nation that is about the size of Ohio.
What stands out are the hardworking, gracious people who endured a 36-year civil war claiming more than 200,000 lives and displacing even more before it ended in 1996. Military guards and private security cradle assault rifles or shotguns throughout this land south of Mexico and bordering Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.
Crime is fed by illegal drugs going to the U.S. Like the U.S., Guatemala has many divides. Its population of 15.4 million includes indigenous people whose ancestry is linked to the Mayan civilization that thrived 1,000 years ago.
The Spanish conquered the Mayans in the 1500s. The influence of Catholicism is everywhere, from cathedrals and convents in Antigua to a recent elaborate, hours-long Lenten procession.
The Hinshaws, who divide their time between homes in Kansas City and Guatemala, offered a lot of material to read, including a new word:Ladinos
They are Guatemalans mostly of Mayan-Spanish ancestry. They speak Spanish instead of the indigenous languages and wear Western instead of Mayan dress. The indigenous people, just like in the U.S., occupy the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
A wealth disparity cripples this country, too. More than half of Guatemalans live in poverty with the richest 20 percent holding more than half of the nation’s wealth.
Tourism and agriculture with exports of sugar, flowers, coffee, bananas and vegetables are the chief industries. But so are remittances from mostly young men who’ve illegally entered the U.S. for jobs, sending money back to their families.
Hinshaw points to steep hillsides that are terraced, tilled and tended for subsistence agriculture. Corn is a mainstay, used to make tortillas.
Vehicles race along the narrow highways past crops and farms with chickens, horses, pigs and cattle. In towns, merchants’ shop goods spill onto streets.
It’s common for adults and kids to approach cars, peddling clothing and other goods. There is hunger here. U.S. trade agreements haven’t help. Human trafficking is a problem.
Young men unable to find work head for the U.S. Women take jobs as domestics.
One school we toured, Amigos de Santa Cruz, tries to break the cycle of poverty, providing students with training in culinary arts, sewing, computers, carpentry, welding and foot-loom weaving. It and other schools strive to boost literacy and even sex education in Guatemala.
Better nutrition and medicine have reduced infant mortality, but birthrates have soared. Better educating girls and women will advance family planning and keep poverty in check.
Technology helps. Hinshaw said electric machines in homes grind corn for tortillas in minutes instead of the hours that women used devote to doing it by hand.
The schoolgirls we passed, Hinshaw said, hold the hope for a better future in Guatemala. With more education, fewer children to raise and more time they will widen today’s narrow paths into opportunities and new ways to improve the country.
Next week: Black people have their own rich history in Guatemala.