Reflections on Guatemala

Me Eleni and SantaAs I sit here safe at home nursing my exhausted aching body from eight days of rigorous labor and learning in the attempt to give something to the marginalized Mayan communities in the highlands of Guatemala, I cannot help but feel as though it was they, not us, that had done all of the giving. I was there to give back not to be part of the taking.

During a fiery lecture from Guatemalan resistance activist Benicio Lopez on the harmful effects of imperialist mining in Guatemala, AMA founder Lupe Ramirez joined in the discussion to argue the importance of fair trade for the independence of her people. “Yes we want your technology,” she pleaded, “But not in exchange for the mines that rape our earth and the coffee plantations that enslave our people. Why can’t you let us have our land so that we can plant you lush trees and farms that will supply you with fresh air and fruit in exchange? This is the fair trade that we need!”  Ramirez explained that what her people needed was respect for their culture and independence to negotiate fairly for their interests. This idea of fair trade haunted me throughout our trip in Guatemala.

As a student of history, I am well aware of the taking.  We have trumped up our traditional fair trade agreements with Latin America to sell them as American humanitarianism and have wondered why, in spite of all of the money, goods, training, and technology we have given them they remain poor, dependent and “developing.”  U.S.  giving to Guatemala came in forms of exploitation and control. Maybe this is why I feel so guilty that I have come home feeling as though we all received more than we gave. I do not want to be any part of an unfair trade between our people.

However, as I reflect on all that I have seen and that I have learned on this trip I find reason for hope. Hope for Guatemala and hope for our country as well. Hope that we can repair the damages done and forge new, more meaningful, fruitful and respectful relationships.

Our final service days were filled with the nursing portion of our class as we set up clinics in the highlands surrounding Quetzaltenango with the intention to find ways to blend western medical practices with the traditional Mayan healing traditions.  We aided AMA in testing, charting and documenting the health records of Mayan communities in Chiquix and Espumpuja and we taught them how they could control illnesses such as diabetes by changing their diets. In return, AMA provided us with experiences of traditional Mayan healing which included a visit to a Mayan bonesetter and healer in the town of Cantel named Macario.

I watched as the dozens of nursing students ran in the rain past the beautiful garden of healing plants to grab a seat in the small modest one room office of Macario the bonesetter. After almost a week of daily hard work and nightly lectures about Guatemala and the work of AMA with practically zero down time one would have expected our group of students on Spring Break to have been even more restless than they had been during previous lectures, but not so. This visit brought the nurses and future healers of Rutgers alive! The bonesetter could hardly complete three sentences at a time without rapid-fire questions from the students. I watched each student listen to Macario as he answered their questions and explained his healing work and I suddenly could see my new friends as healers and could almost identify which of them would be the most effective by the look in their eyes that day.

I suddenly knew what AMA was up to: they were training and teaching us. They were sharing their wisdom and their culture with us by pretending that they needed us the way that we like to think that they need us.  Looking back it became obvious that those strong Mayan women could have built those stoves in one-tenth of the time that it took us out of shape students. In addition, after meeting with the local healers and village leaders our silly and unprepared diabetes instructions seemed rather silly compared to their traditional knowledge.  However, our time spent with these people in these villages changed us as people, as conscious global citizens and as healers.

I will remember the many transformative moments of our trip as precious gifts from the Mayan people.  The time that we spent with Mayan priest and healer Audelino, the visit to a Tamascal, the traditional Mayan birthing and physical rehab sauna, and the visit to a traditional Mayan bonesetter in Cantel made each of us more aware of the world and hopefully ourselves.

During Benicio Lopez’s’ lecture earlier in the week he was asked what the students could do to make things better for the people of Guatemala. He replied, “You as young people should be conscious and go out and create consciousness.”  It is my greatest hope and dream that we, as future healers, return the blessings that we received this past week in Guatemala three fold and that we start a new tradition of true fair trade with the people of Latin America based on mutual respect and higher consciousness.

By Robin Parry

Students at the Rutgers School of Nursing-Camden are spending their spring break on a service learning trip in Guatemala. Throughout the week, they will be blogging about their experiences.

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