I have heard the story of Carlos’ past, but I didn’t realize he came from Almolonga (in Guatemala) until I met an old woman there on our collection rounds.
Carlos’ wife, Sandra, runs the Estudia Con Amor program which helps desperately poor children receive an education while providing them a loving support system. When we got involved with Sandra and the small program, we wanted to help the family greatly expand the program’s reach and reduce its dependency on donations. To achieve those goals, Carlos and Sandra approached us about funding a microcredit business that Carlos could run (giving very small loans to businesses that commercial banks won’t bother with). We were hesitant at first, but, seeing the wonderful relationships they had with the clients, we agreed to fund the business since it was a terrific way to raise funds for the Estudia Con Amor program.
Almolonga is an agricultural town where Carlos runs the microcredit business. Most of the land that is farmed is situated in the bottom of the long valley with the houses encircling it in a long oval. Each household owns a piece of the land, so it is a patchwork of rectangles filled with a huge variety of vegetables. Secondary industries have sprung up as well, and the marketplace is bustling every day. The women all still wear the colorful, traditional clothes of rural communities here, and their primary language is a beautiful indigenous language that reminds me of Navajo.
Carlos grew up in Almolonga until he was six. His father was extremely abusive, so his mother left and his father wouldn’t allow her to take Carlos. To escape his family, he often hung out in the home of a now elderly woman, Ana Maria, who happens to be one of his current clients. As we visited this sweet woman to collect her payment, she told me that Carlos suffered terribly as a child. His father used to beat him all the time, she said, and his stepmother wouldn’t feed him or give him new clothes so his clothes were tattered. Over and over she mentioned how much Carlos suffered, and, after all these decades, tears started streaming down her face as she remembered.
When Carlos was six, he couldn’t take his home life anymore and he ran away to live on the streets of Xela. That brought its own dangers and suffering and traumatic experiences, and eventually he turned to alcohol to numb his pain. Sandra is also from an abusive, alcoholic family, and she only completed the third grade because her family was too poor to buy the obligatory uniforms and books. The cards were completely stacked against them, and the poverty on all levels seemed like it would continue to the next generation.
But then their daughters were chosen to receive uniforms and textbooks through the Estudia Con Amor program – that is only a small help, but it made the difference so they could attend school. Time and again I have learned that a small help can have a big impact because it restores hope – something in desperately short supply amongst the very poor. Carlos stopped drinking, and I believe he received some counseling for some of the traumatic events in his past. Sandra grew in confidence and became the director of the program. Now Carlos is running his own microcredit business, and the profits have allowed us to quadruple the Estudia Con Amor program – which means more “forgotten” children who now, receiving an education, have hope and feel loved.
I worry that Carlos is working too hard, but he says, “No, Lisa. Quiero trabajar mas para que podemos crecer mas los programas.” He wants to work even harder so we’ll have funds to expand the program to young street children living as he did. That first year that we started partnering with Estudia Con Amor, I celebrated Carlos’ birthday with the family. He gave a little speech in which he stated that it was his first birthday ever that he was happy. He has had two more birthdays since, and his happiness has only grown. We all have problems. We all have troubles from our past that haunt us. But with a little bit of hope, like this suffering child from Almolonga, we can re-write our futures.
Okay, that’s the good news. Now for the bad.
In male dominated societies, which is what we have here particularly among the indigenous communities, women effectively have no legal rights. Two days after I wrote the update above, Ana Maria was visited by one of her sons. He was violently drunk, and he proceeded to beat her to the point of death. She is currently in the hospital and isn’t expected to live. Did the police arrest the son? Absolutely not. She is a woman, so the men in her life can do what they want to her. It is barbaric.
Many people say that the only solution is to educate the girls. That is essential. Without an education, girls learn from their culture that they have no value and must submit to whatever treatment they receive. They turn into women who believe the same. An education opens their minds to alternatives and gives them the ability to break free from their dependence on and domination by males.
But I believe that is only half the equation. It is also important to educate the boys. Without an education, impoverished boys grow into men without hope, and they turn to alcohol to numb their pain. Women end up the victims. Let us educate the boys as well, give them hope, and teach them the value of every living person: male and female, young and old, American, African, Asian, … The solution isn’t to separate women from men, but to teach both a healthier way to view themselves and others. When we degrade any one of us, we degrade human life as a whole.