We’ve spent a lot of time in our afternoon classes talking about the political and economic realities in Guatemala. Poverty in rural Guatemala is about 75%, and 60% of the commerce in Guatemala City is informal (street vending, etc). The wealth disparity is also really extreme in Guatemala. There are 8 families in Guatemala who control about 90% of the country’s wealth. They are the top 1%. These families essentially have a monopoly on the economy and can buy out or destroy competitors. Tax regulations here are also very hit or miss. In my Spanish class the other day, my teacher was talking about how in Guatemala, citizens pay taxes on what they buy, but large corporations rarely ever do. And Guatemala is a really young country, with about 70% of the population between ages 15-30. There aren’t a lot of sustainable employment opportunities for young adults in Guatemala; in one of our afternoon classes, we learned that the 3 main options for young adults are informal sector work (street vendors), gangs/organized crime, or migration.
We’ve also discussed how corruption targets poverty in Guatemala, especially generational poverty. There is a certain kind of desperation within poverty that can be exploited by corruption; leading people to accept deals and offers without considering how other people around them might be affected. It’s a survival mechanism. When everyone’s needs are met, then people are able to think ahead to sustainable communities, and change. But until then, each person has to look out for their own needs and the needs of those in their immediate family. This is not unique to Guatemala; the negative impacts of poverty are pretty universal. However, Guatemala struggles with deeply entrenched corruption within and outside of government, as well as significant wealth disparity and lack of social resources. On the flip side, our professors have been quick to emphasize that Guatemala is not a country full of poor people but rather an impoverished country full of resilient people. And that, in my opinion, is what is most important to differentiate. There’s a harmful stigma surrounding poverty, and people in poverty that can manifest in toxic charity and unsustainable aid from outside sources. I want to avoid perpetuating that stigma when I talk about my experiences here.
Wednesday, September 20th school was cancelled because of city wide protests and strikes. There was a protest like this 2 years ago as well and university students are becoming the lead voices. There has been some talk that the rising generations are ready for change and less willing to settle for the patterns of the Guatemala of the past. Change has to be grown, not given, and it starts within communities themselves. This has been really fascinating to learn about and observe even just within the past month.
This past Saturday our Bluffton group spent the day in Antigua which was the original capital of Guatemala. It’s about a 45 minute drive from Semilla depending on traffic. Antigua is a popular place for tourists and backpackers, with rich colonial history. We visited a number of museums and spent a lot of time walking around. The streets are still cobblestone, and many of the colonial ruins still stand preserved, or are built around. Antigua is also one of the most popular places in the country for language schools.
We’re now just over halfway through our language classes and time with our first host families. Even though most of our learning has been structurally focused on Spanish and history, here are a few bonus things I’ve learned in a month to add to the mix:
*The exchange rate changes depending on the quality of bills. US bills in good condition get a better exchange rate than worn bills, and sometimes they won’t even be accepted.
*cell phone plans here are almost exclusively pay as you go. It’s fairly pricey to buy a lot of cell service, but data is super cheap and there are plans that make data for WhatsApp nearly free.
*a lot of stores (at least in Guatemala City) require, or highly encourage, checking personal bags and other belongings in lockers/cubbies at the entrance of the store. I’ve gathered that this is a policy to discourage shoplifting.
And here are a few more photos from the past two weeks 🙂