Life in Zone 3: A Reflection on Guatemala

I am coming up on almost one month at Safe Passage. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long; there is so much I’m still learning. But I have at least developed a general sense of my environment.

I work in Guatemala City, but I live in Antigua, about a 40-minute drive from the capitol. Antigua is smaller, safer, and more foreigner-friendly than the City. Its cobblestone streets are lined with colorfully painted one- to two-story buildings, along with ruins galore; the vacant remains of 17th-ish century churches speckle the map. The tiny, one-block park is the center of town, the hub of its charm. The Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) marks the north, and Volcano Agua dominates the skyline to the south. Every afternoon, the market on the west side booms with cheap produce. Avocados grow rampant here, and native Antiguans are known as “Panzaverdes” or “Green-bellies” for their avocado-heavy diets.

Antigua attracts heaps of international ex-pats, as well as wealthy Guatemala City residents, who saturate the streets on weekends. There are spas, language schools, and gourmet restaurants. I’ve seen menu items here I never dreamed would have reached Central America – gnocchi, crepes, bagels and lox, a bottomless mimosa brunch?? Even in St. Louis those are hard to come by. Thank you, tourism industry.

By contrast, I spend most of my days in Guatemala City’s Zone 3, a place adamantly avoided by tourists and Guatemalans alike. The primary features of Zone 3 are the City Cemetery and the Basurero (Garbage Dump). Before I get off the bus, I can usually smell it – the putrid scent of rotting… everything. Vultures swoop overhead. Above dirt-caked asphalt, dusty tennis shoes hang from electric lines by the dozens. Makeshift tin and/or grey concrete homes fill every square foot available.

The communities surrounding the dump arose during Guatemala’s Civil War. Their story echoes many around the world: Circa the 1970’s and 80’s, state military and guerrilla forces pursued each other in a battle for control of territory/resources. Rural communities got swept up in the violence. People witnessed violent atrocities. They saw their innocent neighbors, friends, family members murdered. Tortured. Massacred. People ran. They ran to the capitol, and they survived, settling in the least desirable sections of the city.

In Guatemala City’s garbage dump, the children and grandchildren of the war’s internal refugees continue to fight for survival. Many make a living digging, waste-deep, through the trash, salvaging and re-selling anything of value that they can find. Many more operate as middle men, buying salvaged materials from the dump and refurbishing them for sale to manufacturers.

I often reflect on the terrible synchronicity of it all. The people whom those in power considered trash now live in trash. In the land society has designated to bury its dead, reside those who are dead to society. And in the ravines of this land, day after day, these people bury themselves in waste and decay, in order to live on that which has been left for dead, forgotten. As they seem to be.

Our mission at Safe Passage is to break the cycle of working in the dump, to empower our students to move UP. If a young person achieves a high enough level of education, s/he may get hired in a formal capacity. If the mothers of our students can learn a new trade through our social entrepreneurship programs, they can make more money and save for their families in ways that were never before possible. If the fathers can advance their own education in adult literacy classes, perhaps they can use what they’ve learned to take on a new level of employment. The smallest increments of progress make an indefinable difference, a truth I discovered early on.

On my first day in Zone 3, I acted as classroom assistant in our preschool, where the five-year-olds were practicing writing their names. Each child was given a paper with his or her name at the top and told to write it fifteen times. One little boy, concentrating so hard that he poked several holes in the paper, got to fifteen and asked to write more. He practiced writing his name until well after all his peers had moved on to other distractions (as five-year-olds do), and each time he finished the name, he held the paper up to show me. I would say, yes, perfect, that’s very good, and he would return to the page to repeat it. A kid that diligent, even so young, already has the mindset to go way beyond the conditions in which he’s living. We are here to give him the tools he needs to do so.

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Contributed by Andrea Bachmann, an affiliate of the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America.  For more information on Safe Passage, please visit http://www.safepassage.org