Guatemala Site Visits: I’ll Never Forget

Three Pangea members visited our grant partners in Guatemala in November 2015. Following is an account written by Audrey Shiffman, who went on the trip.

After an amazing eight days I returned home from Guatemala—exhausted both physically and emotionally—and began to wonder how to convey the depth and richness of our experience and the lasting power it holds for me. The trip was extraordinary. There were memories I will cherish and never forget. And, as I’ve written before: You can’t return from a Pangea site visit without personal change. One theme that pervaded our trip was a connection and affinity that we shared with the people we met. There I was in a developing country where, on the surface, we were as different as night and day—culturally, economically, what we wear, how we speak—and yet what I felt was a mutual intimacy that enriched so many of our meetings. The openness of our grantees was overwhelming, even when talking about painfully difficult subjects.



Meeting with Danessa (far right) in Generando offices.

Generando provides multiple services (psychological, legal, advocacy) to women who have been abused. Their outreach to women in rural communities is impressive. They provide one-on-one therapy as well as support groups. One indelible memory for me was hearing Danessa, the Director, describe a support group for young girls who have been sexually abused. In one activity, the young girls are asked to decorate an egg (eggs symbolizing fertility). With great care, the eggs are adorned. When they are finished, the girls are told to break their egg, thus symbolizing the shattering damage done by sexual abuse. What a beautiful metaphor for such an ugly subject!


The Woman’s Justice Initiative empowers indigenous Guatemalan women to address gender inequality and violence. In one of their programs, WJI leaders go into rural communities and hold a 10-week support group for women. In the group we observed, 21 women were meeting in their eighth week. The women there were old and young, respectful of each other, and grateful for the opportunity to share their stories. One woman said this group helped her feel for the first time in her life that she had a sense of worth. They all acknowledged that violence should not be tolerated. The support group curriculum starts slowly with less controversial topics in order to build trust and an atmosphere of safety before “hotter” topics are introduced.


A WWJI support group discussing important issues

In the session we observed, the topic of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse from men was discussed. To a younger woman in the group, an older woman said, “I should have left my husband, but I never did. I wish now I would have. Even my children tell me today that they watched the violence and it affected them.” Not only was I astonished by how little we observers appeared to impact these women in their ability to share, vent, reflect, and discuss their problems with their men, but I could also understand these topics in my own way. Who doesn’t know about regret? What woman can’t relate to the topics of jealousy, conflict and fear? I felt privileged to share their confidence, and there were times I struggled to hold back tears.


Part of the responsibility of our field visits is to scout out new leaders representing organizations we can consider funding in the future. This year we met a very dynamic leader named Hilda.  Four years ago she founded a small middle school called Proyecto Educativo: La Esperanza (which means Education Project Hope in English) in response to loss of culture, violence, bullying, drugs, and gangs that her community faced. No other schools were addressing these problems. Hilda herself is the oldest daughter of five children raised by a single parent. As a girl she could not afford to go to school. Thanks to Common Hope she got a scholarship and was able to attend school, the first in her family to graduate and attend college. She became a teacher. Hilda was teaching adults in her community how to read when her students asked her to help teach their children. One thought led to another and she founded her school. She is now working with very same group of children that she was once herself (talk about giving back!).

In addition to regular school requirements, an important part of her school curriculum is alternatives to violence, enrichment activities, leadership, and arts, giving priority to kids who have the fewest resources. There are workshops for parents as well. All this takes place in a very small, primitive structure that she has transformed into a lively and exciting school. She barely has walls and a tin metal roof, yet adorning the school are flowers and medical herbs grown by the kids and brightly painted murals. Hilda exudes a steady calm. I can easily imagine how a child with low self-esteem and few options could begin to blossom under her care. She is tireless. She is inspiring! When we heard about her budget we were all astonished by what she had accomplished with so little money. At the end of our visit she wanted to show us her computer lab. We walked to her home around the corner from the school where she proudly opened a door to a room no bigger than a large closet with several computers all set up for work.


For our final site visit we went to Rabinal to visit Fundacion Nueva Esperanza (FNE). Pangea has provided operating expenses for this school since 2011. We sat around a table and met with the first graduating class of a new high school specializing in community development, one of only two of its’ kind in Guatemala. Each graduate shared their career aspirations and their hopes for the future. It was a proud moment for the students, most of whom share a chilling history of having family members murdered in one of the four massacres in Rio Negro in the 1980’s.


The Choxy Dam in the Rio Negro Valley

It all began with the Chixoy Dam project funded by a multi-national corporation that came to the Rio Negro River Valley to put in a dam that would flood over 40 communities and irreparably changed the lives of the people that lived there. The people were forcibly relocated. When resistance to the relocation began so did the violence. Over 5000 men, women, and children were brutally slaughtered in several different massacres, and Guatemala was charged (by The Inter-American Court in Costa Rica) with waging genocide. Jesus, the founder of the school, related his own horribly sad story. His whole family, save for one sister, was slaughtered during the massacre. Jesus, only 10 years old at the time, became an indentured slave until he turned 15, when he was reunited with his sister, who he hadn’t know had survived. As he grew to adulthood, it became his passion to let Guatemala and the world know what happened in The Rio Negro Valley. Slowly, he received more and more recognition for his efforts and in 1996 he received the Reebok Prize for Human Rights, which honors activists under the age of 30 who fight for human rights through non-violent means. He used the award money, $25,000, to set up his foundation FNE. The survivors of the massacres continue to wait for truth, justice and reconciliation.

Personal Note:  During our second day in Rabinal, Sandra, the school’s director, Jesus, 2 students (Manuel and Evaristo), and Betsy, Susan and myself went on a field trip to the Rio Negro Valley to view the beauty of the area and to witness the sight and memorial of the Rio Negro Massacre. It was a long scenic drive. On the way, Susan, Sandra, the 2 students, and I chatted. Our conversation slowly became more personal and Manuel began to share the story of his family. His mother was the sole survivor of one of the massacres. He then conveyed an important principle his family lives by today: Never Forget. As he was talking, I realized how much the mandate to Never Forget has determined and shaped so much of my own life. I decided to share my family story with them. I told them that my grandmother’s entire family (siblings and parents) was exterminated by the Nazis in Auschwitz. Manuel, Evaristo, and Sandra went wide-eyed. Sandra touched me and said, “You had the Nuremburg Trials. That is what we want. Your prisons were called concentration camps. Ours were called “Model villages.” After this exchange something shifted for the four of us, and we all felt closer and better for the sharing.

Finally, there is the relationship I developed with mis companeras, Betsy and Susan. They are remarkable women! They were essential in creating an atmosphere of engagement, compassion, and receptivity. As with last year’s site visit to Oaxaca, I returned from Guatemala proud to be a Pangea member!

Guatemala sitevisitteam

The 2015 Guatemala Team: Susan Sola, Audrey Shiffman, & Betsy Hale