Monday, February 25, 2019

Leaving Guatemala

I was in Guatemala on the top deck of a boat traveling across Lake Atitlan from San Antonio Polapo to San Lucas Toliman after the first day of I Care International’s free eye clinic when my friend Tim asked me this question;

“So what would it take for you to pack it all in and move to a warmer place?”

I was in a tee shirt and shorts.  The sun was starting to set and it was a little chilly, but I was drinking in the good weather and the beauty of the lake.
photo by Lynn Zwica
I had been complaining to Tim about our winter in Illinois.  We had a mild December and then were slammed, one snowstorm and frigid spell after another.  Tim lives in San Luis Obispo, California and finds it hard to relate.  It’s one of the more beautiful and temperate parts of our Pacific coast.  SLO has managed to avoid the wildfires and mudslides that recently have plagued that state.  I’ve visited there.  It’s lovely.  Here was my answer;

“Oh, I’m not going anywhere.  Illinois is home.  The winters are tough to take but I’m not looking to leave.”

I surprised myself in a way but I know well the place from where that quick answer comes.  My kids are here, working and succeeding in Chicago less than a hundred miles away.  I have two brothers and a sister living in Illinois, one who moved back from California to be near us among other things.

I have lived in my small community of Ottawa, off and on, mostly on, since 1973.  I attend a church here that is important to me.  I have familiarity with the area, to say nothing of my house which has been my home since 1987 and is now paid off.  I have my garden, my neighbors, and most importantly good friends.

While I designed the shack to be technically portable, able to be picked up, transported by semi with a low boy trailer, down the interstate without even a WIDE LOAD sign, and placed in another beautiful spot anywhere simply by pouring four level concrete posts and dropping it on them, I have a feeling the shack it not going anywhere either.  And I’m certainly not going anywhere without it.

Illinois’ winters are not my favorite, especially as I age, but I get a little giddy with the beauty of spring, summer, and fall in the Illinois Valley.  For me it’s a no brainer.  I was born a hundred miles downstate, grew up on a farm, as did my parents and their parents as well.  I hope to always take trips but I am fairly certain I will always come home to Illinois.

As the Guatemala trip progressed I quietly inventoried what keeps me in Illinois, pondering the reverse of that question too.  What would compel to leave my home?  Certainly not the weather, but what?  Vacations are a good time for long thinks.  I gave that question a lot of thought.

Twice a day for four days we chugged across Lake Atitlan to our eye clinic in San Antonio Polapo.  There is no road that circles the lake.  Roads that do exist are in very poor condition.  Our clinic was staged in an evangelical church halfway up the steeply sloped hillside village.  Our patients were mostly local but some traveled from nearby villages by bus, boat, or on foot.  They were primarily Mayan Indians.  About a third of those seeking eye care spoke no Spanish, but rather Pre-Columbian languages, Tz’utujil and Kaqchickel, two of the reported 21 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala by its Indian population.

Many of the American volunteers know enough Spanish to get by, but none of us know those ancient languages.  It slowed us down a bit, but brought us closer to local volunteers, speakers of both Spanish and the Mayan languages and sometimes English as well.  They were primarily young people able to spend days with us in the clinic.  We became close with them over the four days.  It’s one of the benefits of volunteering that surpasses the experience of most tourists.

The lake we traveled across is the deepest in Central America, over 1100 feet at its greatest depth.  It covers an area of about 50 square miles and is ringed by villages named after Christian biblical figures, the apostles, John the Baptist, etc..  However most are tagged with a Kaqchikel or Tz’utujil modifier.  I asked locals on the boat dock what the word Palopo meant, which followed Saint Anthony (San Antonio) as the name of their town.  They looked at each other, discussed it in depth in their native language, looked quizzically at each other, and then replied in Spanish that it didn’t translate.  They shrugged, looked a little sheepish, but left it at that.

The fact that the Mayans have preserved 21 separate languages, maintained their traditional dress, incorporated their ancient religion into Christianity, and kept community intact in small villages where life is hard is testament to the strength of their Mayan culture, which began in 2000 B.C, collapsed as a civilization in 900 A.D., but lives on today in the everyday lives of the rural indigenous people of Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America.    
The separateness of Guatemala’s Indian peoples has been aided, unfortunately, by a Guatemalan national government which has always excluded them.  The government is dominated by Mestizos, those of mixed European and Indian ancestry, who are the oligarchs of Guatemala, the rich ruling class which controls both elected officials and the military.  55% of Guatemala’s nearly 17 million citizens are indigenous, the vast majority of those Mayan Indian, yet the indigenous have never been in control.

History plays a part in the now of every country.   On the surface Guatemala is filled with bright colors, friendly people, and wonderful weather.   But Guatemala’s history has a dark side.

 During the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), Lake Atitlan was the scene of terrible human rights abuses, as the government pursued a scorched earth policy.  Indigenous people were assumed to be universally supportive of the guerillas fighting against the government, and were targeted for brutal reprisals. At least 300 Maya from Santiago Atitlán, a large town on the lake near our clinic, are believed to have disappeared during the conflict.

That conflict was fueled in the early 1980’s by the rise of Daniel Ortega’s leftist Sandinista  government in Nicaragua, and the U.S. government’s support and funding of the “Contras” a reactionary force organized to quash the guerilla movement.  In Guatemala that resistance took the form of death squads, vigilante groups aiding the army which acted with impunity against native villagers.

Two events of this era made international news. One was the assassination of Stanley Rother, a missionary from Oklahoma, in the church at Santiago Atitlán in 1981. In 1990, a spontaneous protest march to the army base on the edge of town was met by gunfire, resulting in the death of 11 unarmed civilians.

But the bulk of the resistance, and subsequent killings by the death squads, was away from the lake, in a mountainous triangle defined by the towns of Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, and Santa Cruz del Quiche.  No one knows how many people throughout Guatemala died in that conflict, but all agree the overwhelming majority were indigenous people.  Estimates put the number at 200,000 souls.  Mass graves were discovered, but many of that number simply disappeared, never to be heard from or seen again.
That is the quiet backdrop against which life in the rural highlands of Guatemala plays out.  Families and communities recovering, with individual traumas still being overcome.  Older people remembering the reality, young people hearing their stories. 

And so we brought the rural people of Guatemala glasses.  Because of the difficulty of local travel, the time and expense required of patients to travel to the clinic, we served but 950 people in four days.  That is below our capacity.  But those that made it to us needed help substantially. 
They were infinitely patient.  We Americans are always impressed at how kind the individuals in the clinic are to each other, and to us, during the long wait.  Family members accompany the elderly.  Mothers bring their babies and toddlers.  Amazingly few of those children cry or act out.

Our intake form, a vital piece of paper that gives us a snapshot of each patient’s life and vision problems, asks if the patient can read.  A fair number, mostly older, said no.  Most never had an eye exam or had worn glasses, even those with the most extensive visual problems. 
We brought about 6,000 pairs of glasses given to us by the Lion’s Club, which were cleaned, evaluated, and sorted into boxes  back home.  They formed a catalog of prescriptions we matched as closely as possible to the one suggested by one of our eight eye doctors.  It works amazingly well.  We provide substantial help, if not a near perfect script, for what their eyes require.  Let me tell you about just three patients I served, all in one morning.

I called the name of a woman, Maria, without looking at her age.  A quiet 7-year-old girl rose up from those waiting on folding chairs in response, her head bobbing barely above those still sitting.  She was dressed in the colorful and intricate embroidered woven cloth that is used to make traditional skirts and blouses worn by the indigenous in Guatemala.  We served a lot of children in this clinic, but few that were alone.  I bid her good morning, asked how she was doing, and shook her hand.  She smiled and spoke Spanish in return.  I looked at her intake sheet.
Maria had fairly bad eyes for someone so young.  She was myopic, without astigmatism, but a fairly strong prescription, -3.50 sphere, was needed.  A lot of correction for a 7-year-old.  We had what she needed.  I adjusted the glasses to her small face, and she was quickly done.

A little later I was sitting across from a tiny elderly woman accompanied by her daughter.  She was an Indian woman with a scarf covering her head and part of her face.  I had her intake sheet and glasses selected by our volunteer pickers.  She did not read or speak Spanish.  They had selected a fairly standard bifocal prescription for her.  She seemed shy.
I unfolded the glasses, and reached to place them on her face.  When she pulled back her scarf she revealed a large port-wine birthmark nearly covering the right half her face.  The eye on that side appeared lifeless and blank.  I checked the intake form.  There was no prescription for the right eye.  I looked at her daughter, and asked, just to make sure.  

“No Sirve?  El Ojo derecho?” (Not working, the right eye?)


I placed the glasses on her face and they were much too big.  Old style goggles from the 70’s that rode way down on her cheeks.  Hopeless.

Then I thought of my friend’s glasses.  He had given them to me late, and we were not able to include them in the boxes.  I was carrying them in my backpack.  They were small and light.  When we arrived I asked a one of the eye doctors to determine their prescription on the portable lensometer.  If I was right, that script was close to the one contained in the heavy pair of glasses currently sliding down that poor woman’s nose.

I retrieved my friend’s donated glasses and it was the same prescription.  I put them on her face and they fit perfectly.  Small and sturdy, they had belonged to my friend’s mother, recently passed away.  He asked me to give them to someone who needed them.  I promised to both complete that task and take a picture.

But I couldn’t.  When I looked at her tiny face with the birthmark I just couldn’t request a photo.  She was too self-conscious.  I don’t take as many pictures of people as I used to for that reason.

The little woman smiled, looked across the room, through her first pair of glasses ever, and began to speak rapidly in Kaqchickel, pointing to the sky, then pointing to me.  I looked again to her daughter.

“Que Pasa?”  (What’s happening?)

“Un Bendiga. (A blessing.)

“Catolica?” (Catholic?)

“No.  Un Bendiga del Maya.  Mucho mas Viejo.”  (A Mayan blessing.  Much older.)

We get a lot of bendigas or blessings in fitting.  It’s where the process ends, where glasses are finally received, and  improved vision is realized.  It’s not fair really.  All of the I Care volunteers work together to improve our patients’ vision.  So do the people who give us glasses.  I want to share that Mayan blessing with all of them, including my friend who gave I Care the gift of his mother’s glasses.  It was my pleasure to put them to continued use, and put them on that poor woman’s face, on everyone’s behalf. 

The last patient showed up with Maria, my previous seven-year-old patient with the serious myopia.  It was her father, who had been delayed in clinic due to having his eyes dilated.  I was surprised to see her, but glad to see she was wearing her glasses.  She smiled.
Maria’s father, not unexpectedly, was also myopic.  But his myopia was more advanced.  His prescription was -6.00 sphere.  The pickers had wrapped two strong pairs of glasses in his intake sheet.  I read it.  Day laborer.  Lived in a nearby village.  32 years of age. 

He was wearing the kind of bedraggled glasses we often see in these clinics.  Broken, scratched, held together with wire.  This pair had a string in the back, tied to the temples, to hold them on his head.  I asked if I could see them and he handed them to me.  They were a wreck.  Holding them up to the light and looking through them, I could tell they were not nearly as strong as the ones we had picked for him.  I set them aside on a table, unfolded one of the new pair, and put them on him, hooking them over his ears.  They fit him well.
Without waiting to be asked he immediately exclaimed

“Oh, mucho mas claro.” (Much clearer.)

He looked around the room.  He looked at Maria and they smiled at each other.

Quantos anos tienes estos?” I asked, pointing to the old glasses he had worn in.  (How many years have you had these?)

“Ocho.  Yo pago much in Antigua.  Creo que me robaron. “  (Eight years.  I paid too much in Antigua.  Maybe I was robbed.)

“Quanto costaron?” (What was the cost?)
“$600 dollars US.  Mi padre me ayudó a pagar. Pero se ha ido ahora.  ($600 U.S. dollars.  My father helped me pay.  But he is gone now.)

I whistled and shook my head.  That’s a hell of a lot of money for a day laborer in Guatemala.  It’s a lot of money for anyone.  Maybe he was robbed.
“Como esta tu familia por dinero?”  (How is your family for money?)

I hoped that wasn’t rude, but I wanted to know.  He seemed eager to answer.

“Malo.  No tenemos dinero para meter a María en la escuela. Los libros, los uniformes. (Bad.  We don’t have money to put Maria in school.  The books, the uniforms.)

Unlike most of the Guatemalans in the clinic he seemed angry and anxious. 
I adjusted the new glasses which he would wear out of the clinic.  Then I carefully cleaned and folded up his old glasses and returned them to him.  After that I gave him the second pair of glasses we had picked for him also.  We usually only dispense one pair to a patient.  I decided on the spot he needed a backup pair.

“Por usted, dos.”  (For you, two.)
I also gave Maria a Pez dispenser, and pressed three packs of extra candies into her father’s hand.  It was one of the princess Pez figures.  Maria lit up like a candle. The father didn’t give me a blessing, instead we exchanged that cool handshake, the regular grip, the one where you hook thumbs, then back to the regular.  You know it.  The old hippie handshake.  I wished him luck. 

“Buena suerta por usted y tu familia.” (Good luck for you and your family.)

Allow me to go back to the beginning.  What would compel me to leave my home?  I decided it would be one or a combination of these three things.

o   The inability to feed or otherwise support my family.

o   Living in fearing for my own safety or that of my family.

o   Genuinely believing the future held no hope.

If I was Maria’s Dad I would leave Guatemala.  Some McClure at some point left Scotland (we think), and sometime later my great grandfather left Northern Ireland to come to America.  It’s very likely those same criteria played into their decisions.  People are compelled seek opportunity and a better life.  Should we blame them?

The majority of legal asylum seekers that approach our country’s southern border are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.  The U.S. long ago stopped helping in their economic development in any material way, opting instead to invest in wars in the Middle East.  Maria’s Dad, and possibly Maria herself, might well make that long journey out of desperation.  I don’t think the man I gave two pairs of glasses will any day soon afford an airplane ticket and manage to obtain a visa.

 If you were convinced you must leave your home and your way of life where would you go?  You would go where there is opportunity and hope.   No country symbolizes those qualities more than ours.

It’s one thing to think of immigration and the problems it presents as a matter of law and policy, but it is quite another to look  poverty and despair in the face, while dispensing glasses, and judge those who seek a better life.  Immigration, particularly in regard to our southern border and our Central American neighbors, will continue to be on the front burner of American politics.

I ask you consider Maria and her Dad when you are confronted with talking points from both sides of our immigration debate.  There’s a reality there that we cannot dodge.  Our country has in the past, and continues now even if by default, to play a major role in the lives of our neighbors in this hemisphere.  We have an obligation to think more deeply about what we are doing, and how it affects the lives of real people.  I’ve seen them, talked to them, and shaken their hands.  They are like you and I.  Please remember that.


  1. Well said, Dave. I need to look around and find old glasses I can donate. Have to admit I've been lazy and not done that. A simple thing for me that would mean so much to others.

  2. It amazed me as I visited the homes of the campesinos in Nicaragua how they easily seperate the US government from the US people.
    I really relate to this one, Dave. The bendiga from the lady just warms my heart.

  3. A powerful story, Dave. You are a great example of how "writers resist" (see website by that name).

  4. Thank you for writing this post! A lot of people don't consider all it takes to leave your country and family behind--they just see lines of random people at the border.