A Photoessay about Determination and Survival
Adapted from the Fotokids quarterly newsletter, June 2010
Although I have lived in Guatemala for 21 years and experienced my share of crises, it seems to me that we are now pretty high on the Misery Meter. (Misery Meter in June: code orange). Giving in though is not an option.
As life goes on, the young people who are part of Fotokids try to take an active role in making Guatemala a better place. With younger and younger children being recruited by gangs, two of our university students Werner and Abdias have started a new photography class teaching five to seven year olds. We have found that by giving them cameras to document their surroundings, the children learn to express themselves both visually and verbally at an early age, and this is the first step in our youth leadership program. Having older Fotokids be the teachers insures empathy and trust, as well as providing good role models from their own neighborhoods.
It’s been a challenging time for us here in Guatemala City. You may have heard that our photography/graphic design school was robbed of 20 Mac computers and photo equipment this spring. The robbery, combined with the Pacaya volcano spewing ashes two inches deep throughout the City, followed rapidly by tropical storm Agatha that left more than 165 dead and 18,700 homeless from flooding and landslides, leaves me seriously worried about supporters compassion fatigue.
The ash from the volcano Pacaya resembled little pebbles, ranging from tiny pieces up to corn kernel size in our neighborhood. The bigger pieces came down sizzling and burned the arms of some people. There were big flaming rocks as well that landed on houses in villages on the skirts of the volcano and set them on fire. The lava shot up a mile into the sky. The ash was almost three inches deep in most places.
Then the rain started. At first it seemed like a good thing because it kept houses from igniting and kids from inhaling ash into their lungs. Then we realized that ash + water equaled cement that had to be swiftly swept up so it wouldn’t clog all the street drains. Tin roofs collapsed under its weight. Today as I came into work, hills of black ash as tall as me (5'5 1⁄4") lined the streets. Fotokids’ Evelyn, Berlin, Abdias, Werner, Gerardo and Vivi worked all day, sopping wet, to fill 30 garbage bags from our patios and terraces.
As the rain came down heavily all that night and the next morning, I began to get nervous because it looked like hurricane rain. I recognized it from Hurricanes Mitch and Stan; at first steady, then heavier, then too much for our soil to absorb. Three days of rain, rain, rain. Besides sweeping away homes, it destroyed bridges and left 107 communities nationwide without sufficient help and many without communications.
Marta from Tierra Nueva Dos called late Saturday night. Her backyard had collapsed into a ravine, leaving the tin house perched precariously close to the yawning chasm. Her neighbor who lives directly above her had used sandbags to shore up her foundation. The bags slid off and crashed onto Marta’s tin roof. Her usually calm mother anxiously demanded that they move out. Marta called reluctantly to ask to borrow money to buy a piece of land in a more secure area.
Fotokids and former Fotokids have been sending in photos of the volcano eruption and Tropical Storm Agatha. You can see them on the Fotokids or Fotokids Santiago page in FaceBook or online at www.fotokids.org.
Although natural disasters are horrible, I think the cyclone of violence we are living with here in Guatemala is even more depressing.
Kids we know, some as young as 14, have their own gangs; they are armed, and have motorcycles. One of the Fotokids’ mothers heard that a boy named Coco and Benito’s younger brother were involved and had robbed neighbors in the dump at gunpoint.
“Did you tell the mom?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, “I told Coco’s Mom. I said as a mother I knew she would want to know that her son had assaulted a neighbor.” Coco’s mom had looked at her and said, “Who are you? Where do you live?” She then slipped her hoodie off a shoulder to show off her gang tattoos, and asked again where she lived.
For me the saddest story of all was that of Maritza’s brother Walter. Maritza is no longer with Fotokids, but years ago, she was one of the kids that lived with her family as squatters on the railroad tracks. Her older brother Walter was always her protector and a truly kind, upstanding, good-looking boy.
Always religious, he became an Evangelical pastor. One of the only ways that the gangs will let you go is if you are in your twenties, get married and take up religion. Walter was living in Santa Faz, one of the most dangerous areas of the city where walking across from one street to the other can get you killed. There he was “saving” a lot of gang members, enabling them to leave the gangs. I guess he was way too successful.
One Thursday night, while he was praying alone in the church, a man entered, put his arm around him and shot him dead.
The moral fabric here has been ripped to shreds. The only thing that I know we can do, and have done pretty well for the last almost 20 years, is take the little kids and start teaching them values right away, creating a safe space for them. Their taking photographs provides them with not only a creative outlet but a sense of pride and group identity.
I admire the young people I work with and they inspire me to think that, with their determination and compassion, they can make a change, a change that will bring Guatemala out of the storm.
Nancy McGirr is Founder and Executive Director of Fundación de Niños Artistas de Guatemala/Fotokids.
The Fundación de Niños Artistas de Guatemala, FOTOKIDS, now in its 19th year, continues giving young people from some of the poorest barrios in Guatemala the opportunity to have a voice using photography and graphic design as tools to promote self-expression, critical thinking, and leadership, and as a means of employment. Fotokids also provides traditional education scholarships through private donors. To make a tax deductible donation on PayPal, to receive quarterly newsletters like the excerpt above or view our Gallery, visit our web site www.fotokids.org or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.