Last Saturday I said goodbye to the children of Semillero, my homestay, and the friends I met traveling through Guatemala this summer. I was eager to see family back home and definitely exhausted by the obstacles of navigating a language and culture so different from my own, but also reluctant to leave Semillero in such a vulnerable state.
The hardest part, of course, was saying goodbye to the children. My last day, the children spent almost the entire time each drawing multiple thank you cards, showering me in construction paper cut-outs and thoughtful notes. In their growing accustomed to my presence at Semillero, their appreciation wore off throughout the summer and their rebelliousness shined through at different trying moments. But this last day, the majority of the kids had a surprisingly apt understanding of my departure (save the few cards I received that wished me “¡Feliz Cumpleaños!” from the youngest kids).
We had been gearing up for this day as my trip came to an end and Marta gathered us around for our last few minutes together. They all said a prayer and the typically outgoing older kids fought their sudden bashfulness to give Daniel and me brief words of thanks. The main room that was usually the site of chaos became quiet and somber. Marta thanked us for all our time and contributions emphasizing that we would always remain a part of Semillero’s heart.
The kids begged us to go to the park with them for one last soccer game—something we had done a few times throughout the summer on special days. It was relieving that we didn’t have to leave on such an uncharacteristically solemn note. So we headed over to the park and played the longest soccer game yet—an hour and a half-- chicos contra chicas. Chicas won an impressive last minute victory just as the sun was setting. My last moments were spent rejoicing our win, jumping up and down in a huddled circle. It was a much more fitting note to end on because it embodied the uncontainable energy that, in good times and bad, epitomized the kids of Semillero.
I packed the mountains of cards and presents up in my suitcase and set off for the states—the land of throwing toilet paper into toilets and brushing teeth with tap water without falling tremendously ill. I returned with a fresh recognition of the privilege I was born into and new questions about educational nonprofit projects, politics, and life in Guatemala.
Fears and Hopes: What is to come
The organization of Semillero is struggling. It lacks so many things that I wish I could provide. Three weeks in, the professor who was making a noticeable difference, quit for a higher-paying job. And since Marta is so busy trying to find money for Semillero, its organization is faltering and I can’t help but wonder who is going to remember to put toilet paper in the bathroom, let alone be there to push the kids through their studies.
The lease on the space they use now is expiring soon, and Marta seemed dejected in the last few days I was there. Their ability to raise enough money for a permanent shelter seemed to be diminishing and Marta soon began entertaining the idea of transforming Semillero into an affordable mini bus to transport the kids to the project of Florencia, the farm where poor, single mothers work for food. No matter what, I think that Semillero’s existence and shelter provides a safer alternative to the streets that the kids would otherwise wander. But I worry that in these desperate times Semillero's focus on providing educational support will falter as they consider turning Semillero into a shuttle service to a farm to teach vocational farming skills in place of educational enrichment.
As a volunteer, I came with a directed notion of what I wanted to do. But many volunteers do not, and I don’t feel they are always utilized to their fullest abilities. They always serve as role models to the kids, but I also think that some of these well-educated volunteers could do more than just help on homework. They could maybe even teach classes. But then again, that is difficult because getting to know the kids, and setting up a class takes time, and many volunteers are short term and thus don’t have more than a few days. While Semillero is eager to get all the help possible, even if it is only for a day, the discontinuity of volunteer visits makes it difficult to develop a reliable, stable environment for the kids’ development.
I was lucky to stay for a long time, create my own schedule, set my own objectives, and become a constant support in the kids’ lives. So I hope my video solicits donors, but also people who can commit more than a few days to Semillero for the sake of a more reliable educational atmosphere that can better utilize volunteers’ time through long-term lesson plans rather than single-day help on homework.
As a small, relatively unknown organization, the director and the kids are eager to find any help they can get, even in the form of promises. Right now Guatemala is papered in political campaign posters and every party is trying to get all the support they can for this fall’s election. Some of this support is solicited by brochures that are delivered to each town with promises to specific people and organizations, as a means of gaining political support.
Members of Partido Patriota promised Marta to help her find a new house and establish a permanent security for her struggling organization. Marta, heartened by this idea, eagerly informed me of this promising news early on in the trip. I didn’t totally understand the political affiliation but got the gist of her excitement. She told us Semillero had a bright future because Partido Patriota was going to help Semillero get a house and get it for twenty years or so, ensuring the longevity of the organization. In her elation, she taught the kids of Semillero, many of them indigenous, a Partido Patriota cheer and they chanted it throughout the streets. But this allegedly charitable party is that of Otto Perez, a retired national director of military intelligence, who some people accuse of being involved in the killing of 200,000 indigenous people in 1992.
At this point, between the cultural and language barrier, it’s hard to know who to believe. But I also don’t think that this ambiguity is solely the result of being a foreigner. I think it also plagues many natives themselves. Resources that we might use here for clear answers and unbiased facts, like the internet or television, are hard to access, newspapers are useless for the many illiterate, and radio stations are just as much filled with propaganda as the streets of Guatemala, since they too are dominated by political parties.
I was struck by the permeation of corrupt politics into what seems like every category of communication. And I was astonished at the direct way that this affects the opinions and lives of the perpetually marginalized and impoverished people of Santa Ana-- even the children. The inaccessibility of communications and undeniably trying times seem to engender not just eagerness in the people of Semillero, but gullibility to accept promises, no matter the source and its reliability.
I hope to be proved wrong. I hope the promises of this political party are fulfilled. I hope that Semillero finds a permanent home and can thrive off of continued political support. But I can’t totally shed my skepticism of these political promises until I see it—the new house, the ensured life of Semillero, the nourished kids. And until then Marta and the kids continue to practice their Partido Patriota cheers, with high hopes of better days.
I will continue to support Semillero from the states just as their small network of dedicated international volunteers do. From fundraising to media support, I plan to provide. And with the continued work of volunteers, not just at the project, but also from afar, I think it is possible for Semillero to thrive. It just needs a lot of help.
So I left Guatemala with more questions and doubts than I arrived with-- unsure of so many things and awakened by the tough reality of a small educational non-profit. But the one thing I am sure of, is that the kids of Semillero are brimming with potential. Like the wealthy kids I babysit here in the U.S., the kids of Santa Ana have big dreams. And I truly can see some of them with extremely bright futures. One little girl, Katharine, loves geography. She is fascinated by the map, by the far place I come from, and the magical transport of the airplane. I hope she continues to be so stimulated by her curiosity. And I hope one day I can return to Santa Ana to visit the kids, see where they are, and remind them of the youthful marvel I know they all have, even though it is difficult to dream big in the small town of Santa Ana.
Thank you to the Watson Institute of International Studies for the Smoke fellowship that enabled me to do all this. Thank you to Deborah Nicklaus, a fellow Semillero volunteer who has been my mentor through the fellowship application process and my daily work with the children. Thank you to everyone who works at Semillero every day—from the cooks to the assistants to Marta. And finally, thank you to the kids of Semillero.