Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Jocote Tree

Jocotes are a treasured fruit in the highlands of Guatemala, small, round, yellow or green and red. They are very sweet and about the size of a small plum. Too small to interest most gringos but to have a jocote tree is a good thing to a Guatemalan, especially to a child.

Purchasing a small lot in Guatemala fell into place as things do when they are meant to happen. The lot, that in the eyes of Alexander and Estela fell from heaven, quickly became a reality after engaging a Guatemalan attorney to handle the transaction. A lovely Dutch woman turned up; she is an engineer and runs a non-profit that builds decent houses for the poor. Caroline agreed to share her resources in the building of the house. We decided to build around the jocote tree.

I visited the current home of Alex and Estela where the five of them share a room that is approximately 12’ by 16’. The children proudly called out their numbers in English as I paced off the room which contains two double beds, the refrigerator I had bought last year for Estela’s birthday, the television, a small table for the children to do their homework and a bookshelf containing pots, pans, the convection oven that was a Christmas present a year ago, kitty litter (also a gift) and more. The television sat on a table under which the children’s books (almost unknown in the average Guatemalan home) were neatly lined up. There was only one light in the ceiling and only one window that opened into a small room up a few steps that held the “pila” (Guatemalan sink used for bathing, laundry, washing dishes), a hot plate for cooking, an Ecofilter for filtering their drinking water and two large, falling apart wall units that held the clothing, dishes and other assorted paraphernalia for five people, one dog and one kitten. It was clean and neat but it was full. There was no bedding other than a thin cover on the beds and no pillows. It was all bare concrete, dark and the few windows had bars over them but no glass. The bathroom that Estela had borrowed Q3000 (US $400) to build contained only a toilet and was outside somewhere. Alex showed me the one photo he had of his deceased mother working in a stall in the Antigua market. He had a few photos of himself as a “solito” teen but no baby pictures. He had five or six photos of Estela and the children and one baby photo of Denis. The cinderblock walls were “decorated” with a collection of quite obviously free calendars and there were a few electrical cords strung around to connect appliances. Alex proudly showed me the bicycle that he had bought for his son’s last birthday. It had cost him a month’s earnings

I told the family that their mother and I were meeting with the Dutch lady about the design of the house. I asked “who wants hot water for the shower (they have never had a shower before)?” Eight-year old Astrid, who has enjoyed the occasional hot shower at my house) shot up her hand followed by the hands of the two older children. Alex and Estela, neither of whom have ever had a hot shower in their lives would only say “whatever you think.” I asked nine-year old Denis, who has never slept alone in his life, if he wanted to have his own room and got a big grin and a big “si” in response. In my mind I added three desks, three chairs and three reading lights to the list of minimal necessities. It boggled my mind that these three children could be excelling in school with neither a place to do their homework nor any light to do it by. They were doing their homework anyway because they wanted to. As the front door of their house opens directly onto the street the only place the children can play is in the street.

It is easy to think that the poor don’t yearn for the things that they have never had nor experienced or that somehow we all adapt to our circumstances. I spent several hours talking with Alexander. For the first time I was able to understand the pain of poverty. Not just poverty of things but poverty of dignity, poverty of opportunity, poverty of spirit and poverty of hope. He showed me a photo of himself receiving his sixth grade (and only) diploma. He was wearing a white shirt and tie but there was no one there to witness his achievement. He had liked school, especially math and history and, he said with a grin, “We got to play basketball.” Alex spoke sadly about the fact that his only possessions consisted of an old television that a gringo was tossing out and the DVD player that I had bought him three years before. We talked about the prospects of positive changes in his relationship with Estela in the new house where there would be some private space for everyone. We talked about Alex feeling like he had a home for the first time in his 31 years. I wondered if he would be able to truly come in from the street.

I had also taken time to talk with Estela. Alex and Estela have been together for 13 years and seem to really like each other but poverty has made their relationship fairly rocky. I had them each tell me the good things and bad things about each other. Estela told me how it had felt when her kids were hungry and she had nothing to feed them and no money. She spoke glowingly of how Alexander had borrowed money to buy medicine when the children were sick. Alex talked about what a wonderful mother Estela was but that he worries about her strong character (which may be necessary to keep him in line).

With some friends I went to Lake Atitlan for a few days. Alex drove. We paid him for the ride and for his time and had him stay with us. It made him nervous that he couldn’t work but I had bought him a gardening book and he spent an entire afternoon reading not only the gardening book but also a book about speaking English. With some others we took a boat to a small Mayan village and visited a community library, a project of the Riecken Foundation ( where twenty or so of us sat around a table. Gringo, Guatemalteco, indigenous, educated, not. Alex sat next to me and when it was his turn to introduce himself he very self-assuredly talked about how wonderful the library was and how excited he was to meet so many people who were trying to help the people of Guatemala. I was rendered speechless by his remarks.

Thanks to ConstruCasa we have a design that will not only save the Jocote tree, its sweet fruit and potential for a tree house, but it will also have a view of the ever erupting Fuego volcano. The construction costs will be greatly minimized by the discounted building supplies available to ConstruCasa. In a few short weeks I am confident that I can find $17,000 of tax deductible donations for ConstruCasa so that the house with a bedroom for everyone can be started in March and completed in May. Volunteers are welcome the first half of May to help with the finish work, including the tree house, and to join in for the housewarming party and witness the transformation of one family who has never even dared to dream about having a refrigerator much less a decent home.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was born and raised in Guatemala and as a child I used to climb a jocote tree. It was a wonderful experience. I admire the work you did for this poor family and I am very thankful to you for having helped a Guatemalan family. It is true what you said that one ordinary person que make a significant difference in the world.