Sunday, November 24, 2013

His name is José

Marielos had asked me to pick up all the children one Tuesday afternoon.  She had a story about being on an IV all day receiving "vitamins" from a nurse. A few days later she was in the hospital threatening to miscarry.  My suspicion is that, whatever happened vitamins were not involved and the "nurse" was really a midwife skilled in both delivering and not delivering babies.

Despite having my fingers crossed Marielos was discharged after five days still pregnant.  During those five days I had the chance to re-connect with her fairly sensible older sister, Gladys. I asked Gladys if Marielos had told her family that Alex, with a six-year old vasectomy, was the father of her baby.  She laughed and said "yes." 

Again I was witnessing something remarkable in that, with a crisis at hand, Gladys had moved her three kids back into the home of her parents and was caring for all six children.  She got all six off to school and then filled in for Marielos so that she wouldn't lose her cleaning job. As a result there was little disruption for the children who, in reality, and thankfully, have a multitude of parents.

Once Marielos had recovered from whatever happened at the hospital the day of reckoning was at hand. Olga, the psychologist, had an appointment at my house with Diego.  I had told her that I would pay for one more appointment for Marielos to see if we could impress upon her the importance of telling the truth if for no one else's sake but Diego's. After Olga's meeting with him I shepherded Diego upstairs where Cristofer was watching the video "Pinocchio".

I sat in on the conversation between Marielos and Olga and when the opportunity presented itself told Marielos that it was time that she told, at least, her eldest son the truth about his pending sibling.  I was surprised at her level of resistance.  I countered with the fact that I had paid for Alex's vasectomy, that I knew that he had gone back for two re-checks and carried a "no sperm" certificate.  I told her that I was not going to support the child regardless of whose it was. She continued to resist and only when I said that she had been seen in a car with an hombre did she start to crumble. 

First he was twenty (she is twenty-nine) then he became nineteen and even had a name.  His name is "José."  She then talked about her fear of telling her family whom she expected would put her out on the street. And why shouldn't they except for the children.

I then realized that behind many of the lies that we gringos find so objectionable is often abject terror.  The desperate live their lives every day so very close to the edge so why not tell a lie even if it only works for a few minutes?

Marielos is quite obviously clinically depressed as a result of way too many bad decisions.  I suspect Diego's angst is about being denied his childhood and being pushed into the role of parent way too young.  At least with this next one he will be in school and Marielos will need to care of it herself.

Otherwise, Jackie, the child mom seems to be doing a decent job with her offspring who still is not official with a birth certificate because she can't decide whether or not to add the father's name.  Reports are that he screams a lot and I have pointed out repeatedly that he needs to be stimulated, that he is bored.  Custom tells them that it is OK to leave him lying on his back in a dark room staring at the ceiling.  They are stunned when I pick him up and walk outside with him and he stops crying.  They are stunned that, at not quite three months, that he is fascinated by my cockatiels (birds), that he responds when people talk to him and that, given the opportunity he is reaching for things.  Estela, mother of three, is amazed at his development which seems quite normal to me.    Estela is certain that he is a genius. I explained that he needs to use his senses so that his brain develops.  For Jackie's birthday I bought a baby seat with things hanging from it so that he doesn't have to be lying on his back staring at the ceiling.  Reports are that he is reaching for and playing with the hanging things.

The younger two, Cris and Mishelle, seem oblivious to the travails of their mother.  They get along amazingly well and much of the time are laughing together.  Along with Diego they are taking swimming lessons during their school vacation.  Their mother, a non-swimmer, came once to watch and the following week neither wanted to go as mom had instilled her fear of swimming in them.  So they sat out while Diego got to swim for two hours. The owner of their school had a talk with them and they are now back in the pool and can't wait to get there. Cristofer, the future comedian, who is always either smiling or talking, has had to learn to shut his mouth when he goes under water.

Diego, after less than a year of English, is using English first with me and seems to understand most everything.  After a year of getting no school credit as his only task was to learn English I trust that he will be back on track in the fifth grade in January.  I may consider moving him to the international school after another year of English.  As he and Astrid are good friends they could provide support for each other.

Jackie and Denis both finished their school year successfully with good grades.  Jackie has one more year and will then be the first in her family to complete the equivalent of high school.  She will then pursue a teaching job which will require her to continue her education at the university level.  Accommodation is made here for those who need to work in order to study.  University classes are held all day on Saturdays.

In another year Denis will have completed basico or middle school.  Then he and I will decide if he continues for two more years to finish high school or whether he goes to a technical school to learn to become a mechanic, which is a very good job.  All the cars discarded years ago in the United States as being too old are running quite nicely here thanks to the skill of the mechanics.

Astrid continues to shoot for the moon.  She is in her third year at the international school where she has a large group of friends.  Last week she went to a birthday party for a boy in her class.  She told me that she had befriended him because others discriminated against him because they think he is gay.  She has a remarkable compassion for others which may be directly related to her roots.  Her best friend at school is also fatherless.  Her father was once a gang member who left the gang and achieved great success as a clown. His story was documented in a film after which his former gang members assassinated him.  She and her brother are being sponsored at the school by the filmmaker.  Astrid has shared the story of her father with her friend who, with her younger brother, are the only other students who ride the chicken bus to and from school.

Dental work for all is tapering off.  Diego has had the worst time.  He had teeth pulled, has two different retainers but will end up with straight teeth thanks to one of the world's greatest dentists.  Thankfully, it is all very affordable and he enjoys having help too.

No one has heard a word from Alex.  He hasn't called since Marielos found herself pregnant again. No one visits him that anyone knows of.  I hear that boredom is the hardest thing to bear in Guatemalan prisons.  It is hard to imagine how he is coping.  I wonder if anyone would even be notified if he were no longer living.  I have been told that the case (cases) against him are a matter of public record.  Somewhere I have his case number and one of these days I will go around and ask to see his file.  The day may come when the children might ask whatever happened to their father.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

New cell phone number for Marielos

Olga, the psychologist emailed and indicated that Marielos had something "muy serio" (very serious) to discuss with me and that she would be taking Diego's session the following Monday at my house.  I assumed that it was about money, that she was getting threats from some of those whom she owed.  As the children were all happily ensoncsed in my living room with various tech devices the three of us went into one of the bedrooms to talk.  I found myself thinking "anything but that you are pregnant again."  Almost immediately my worst fears were confirmed when, through tears, Marielos blurted out "I am pregnant."  And then to compound matters she had quite obviously convinced Olga that the imprisoned Alex, six years into a vasectomy was the father of the baby.  This new unwanted life was allegedly the result of her visit to the prison to tell Alex that she wouldn't be coming to see him anymore.  She had blamed me telling him that I would pull my support of the children if she continued to visit him. Not true and being made the fall guy made me a bit nervous in this land of little justice but I had decided that any excuse was OK.

No wonder Diego had been having issues with his mother.  And all this time I thought those television novelas were based on fiction.  I told my maid who was around when Alex had the vasectomy.  She indicated that Alex had gone back twice for re-checks and had been assurred by the doctors that he could never father another child.  Further she said that he had been issued a "sperm free" certificate.

Consequences are not something often considered at this socio-economic level.  Just say what is necessary at the moment. This is likely a result of growing up thinking that there may be no future as a result of dire poverty. Marielos has succeeded in destroying an already fragile relationship with Alex's older children. For once, their father is innocent.  Denis tells me that Diego is on the verge of leaving home. Estela has said that he could come and live with them.  She has always maintained the innocence of children and has always been willing to make room for one more, if necessary. "It would be good for Denis, " she told me.

I gave Diego some bus money to keep in his backpack along with my cell phone number just in case but I think his extended family will offer him the support he needs. I have not had the chance to confront Marielos as she spent a week in the hospital threatening to miscarry which, unfortunately, did not happen. She is now hiding out at home while her older, fairly sensible sister is filling in for her at work and in caring for her children. When I ask Gladys about Marielos she shakes her head and says "mas o menos." When I question whether she is referring to her head or her body she indicates both.  She agrees with me when I say that Marielos needs to tell the truth. She has even told her family that Alex is, miraculously, the father of the child she is carrying.

In the meantime Olga tells me that Diego is very angry with his mother.  He does not believe the baby is Alex's and questions how his mother can care for another child when she can't take care of the ones she has. A lot for a ten-year old to absorb.

As I had been asked to give a demonsration of both on and offline educational content to group of business people concerned about the shabby state of education in Guatemala, I decided to have Diego accompany me and run the computer.  He was a great success and went around the room helping people he might otherwise never have met to log on to the offline content from running on a $35 device called a Raspberry Pi. I drove him home around 8:30pm and noticed that his face was glued to the car window.  I asked him if he had ever been in Antigua at night before and he said "no." Ten minutes from home a whole new world of people wandering around at night, having a good time. This is unknown in the villages for a number of reasons: poverty, lack of security, long work days and no place to go.

Diego, 10, showing business people how to access offline educational material

Jackie has returned to her studies and seems determined to succeed academically.  I think that her mother is making room for that one more innocent child.  Jackie turned up yesterday with Astrid looking and acting brighter than she has since prior to meeting up with her sperm donor.

Astrid is dreaming about a visit to the United States next summer at the invitation of my brother and his wife. She was overwhelmed to learn that it might be possible to visit the US legally, with papers. We shall see. Once she has a passport we will tackle the visa process.

Denis often doesn't say much but his wheels are apparently always turning.  I recently took him to visit an NGO sponsored school in a nearby community and asked him to take photos for me.  He has a very good eye for photography though is still lacking in some technical skills. On our way back to my house he asked me if I would be going back to that school and I told him that I would be in about a month's time. "Can I come?" he asked. I wondered what it was that had so intrigued him about the school. It might have been that much of their funding comes from the Manchester United Soccer team in the UK.

School of Hope by Denis Turuy

School of Hope by Denis Turuy

The littlest ones remain oblivious to the pending addition to their family.  They continue to thrive in school and show tremendous potential and I am hopeful that the behavior of their mother won't ultimately compromise their progress.

Little interest in television.

Mishelle, 5, showing the owner of her school her
favorite learn to read app, "Learning with Homer"

Diego and I have another gig to demonstrate how motivated kids can circumvent the government system and educate themselves at a minimum cost in hardware and no cost in software.  We are hopeful that one of these days Diego will be invited to demonstrate his "home schooling" to the Ministry of Education.  You might recall that Diego is receiving no school credit for this year as that was the deal we cut to get him enrolled in a bi-lingual private school.  Our goal through his "home schooling" and English tutoring is to have him be placed where he belongs at the start of the new school year in January.

So, the rainy season ends on October 15th according to the locals, the volcano Fuego never stops going off, school vacation (also the coffee picking season) starts in six weeks, earthquakes come when they may, eggs, vegetables and fish are delivered to the door, drama occurs with great regularity and travel is curtailed when the roads wash away. But all in all it makes each day an adventure.

A typical brief but serious September downpour.

Fuego doing its thing most any day.

Organic eggs delivered to the door.

Monday, August 26, 2013

It's a Baby!

So, the baby wait is over and all is well with the teen mom and the unsuspecting infant who, unknown to him, was born in the wrong place like so many others.  Every time I take out my tattered passport upon entering an airport I think what a difference that document has made in my life.  After a range of due dates from July 30th to September 27th the baby found the courage to face life as an yet another impoverished, fatherless Guatemalan on Thursday, August 22nd 2013.

The baby's name is Liam and something that I cannot pronounce and none of his relatives are able to spell it for me. Changes are still possible as he doesn't yet have a birth certificate. I understand his reluctance in opening his eyes. To be determined is whether his father's name will be added to the birth certificate.  To add his name acknowledges paternity and also leaves the sperm donor vulnerable to support demands (Estela's choice of course).  To leave that space blank with all that implies is not that uncommon in the region.  No one will bat an eye. Diego who, at 10, wants to learn to write computer code has a blank space on his birth certificate too. 

Estela is less than thrilled about finding herself with yet another child which is the harsh reality.  She gets teary eyed and says "I never wanted any more kids" which is the lament of many, many poor Guatemalan women.  Denis and Astrid are trying to ignore the whole thing though I think all three will warm up and adapt when Liam first smiles at them.

The new mother continues to study at a feverish rate (even requesting printouts from the internet five days after a Cesarian) and with any luck (and a lot of help from her mother) will gain her "bachillerato" (high school diploma) in another year.  With that in hand from a respected private school her job prospects will be greatly enhanced and, hopefully, then, she and Liam will be launched.

Denis continues to show enthusiasm for his studies and actually has a plan which involves learning how to be a mechanic and then working as one while he studies to be an engineer.  He is working on non-school days as an apprentice mechanic with a mechanic recommended by my occasional driver, Vinicio.  Vinicio is a rare, honest decent Guatemalan gentleman who has taken an interest in Denis.  So, three days a week Denis spends his days away from his estrogen loaded house in a man's world.  Good for him.  He loves it and recently stepped right up when a tire on my car was hopelessly flat.  Like men all over the world he declined to read the instructions so we eventually had to call in some reinforcements which helped him to get the job done.

Astrid, 13 and pushing 21, is on vacation from school as her school is on the US schedule. She is looking forward to doing ninth grade in (hopefully) the US on an exchange program.  She and Diego both go for English tutoring most afternoons and they have become great buddies.  Recently, I took Astrid to Lake Átitlan for a few days with the provision that we only speak English.  Though she had seen the lake once before when she was about 6 or 7 she was pretty dazzled and mentioned wanting to stay for a month.

The expectation in all of the private schools is that there is a computer at home possibly even with Internet access.  The older kids have an old beat up desktop with "Khan on a Stick" (courtesy of on it so they can watch the Khan Academy math and science videos offline.  The younger kids don't even have a television much less a computer at home.

Thus, with the help of some cheap refurbished laptops I have more or less turned my house into a cyber café.  The laptops have the kids' names written in masking tape on top.  They use the Khan Academy website in English and when they need an assist in Spanish know how to switch to the offline videos.  Diego just took one home for two weeks while I was out of the country.  His is loaded with KA Lite, the offline version of the Khan Academy website.  He is charged with the responsibility of helping his little brother, Cristofer, with KA Lite.  Cristofer, 6, is not yet in first grade but is already a math whiz.

Mishelle, 5, prefers an iPad for her tiny fingers but recently got into playing some offline educational games from World Possible with her brothers.  She had to use both hands to drag letters into place but I was pleasantly surprised that she could read the words, translate the words and then drag the letters into place.  Bravo to her school, Oxford Bilingual Educational Institute and Maria Montessori.

                                                        As for "papa" we recently had a meeting with a psychologist to discuss where papa is and why.  Cristofer acknowledged that "he is in jail" and offered, when asked why, "I think he is a robber".  He admitted that one schoolmate had asked him if his father was in jail and that he had told him "yes, it is true but don't tell anyone because it is a secret."  We told the two that they could just say that their father had gone away, that he had taken a trip.  "He is in Spain," Cristofer offered.

"Papa" was the furthest thing from their mind on a recent trip to the Pacific coast.  The journey included a 12 kilometer drive off road through a large farm.  The five (not the pregnant teen) hung out of the car windows marveling at the sugar came, cattle, pigs, chicken, geese and more along the way.  On his first ever view of the ocean Cristofer said "wow, where did it come from?"  Good question.

Marielos (mom #2) seems to be finally letting go of "papa."  She has a new cell phone number and no longer answers the old one.  Hispanics everywhere end relationships by tossing their sim chips in the trash and changing their cell phone numbers.  Marielos expressed a fair amount of disgust when I told her that Alex had, once again, called my house asking for money.  Estela told him that I wasn't home.  Marielos has been given her first ever job cleaning at Cris and Mishelle's school.  I credit that ego boost and the work with the psychologist in getting her closer and closer to trashing that old cell phone chip.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Round and Round We Go

So, now I have a very pregnant child wandering in and out of my house.  Jackie has resisted all attempts to get her to consider adoption.  She remains determined to keep her baby and be a single mother without resources at age 17. When asked how she might get to the hospital when the baby arrives at the end of September she shrugs her shoulders.  Yet another very clear example of the amazing ability of the poor to not think past their next meal. I have agreed to see Jackie through her last year of high school albeit at a reduced level of both attention and cost.  She will be required to keep her grades up and also to figure out childcare for when she needs to report to her home schooling program to take exams.  She and her offspring will fall off of my payroll when she finishes high school. "No children while still a child" is the rule she broke.

Estela remains less than thrilled about the impending grandchild (and is very worried that given Jackie's size there might be two) which she knows she will have to support.  She says that Jackie will have to take the "chicken bus" to the hospital if the baby comes during the day time.  Imagine being in labor in an overcrowded chicken bus, though I would guess there will be a vast amount of experience available.  Imagine going through life saying that you were born on a chicken bus. As there is no bus service at night said baby, or babies, might have to rely on the volunteer firemen who often don't answer the phone at night.  Given the number of babies one sees everywhere I suppose it gets worked out somehow.

Astrid, on the other hand is scouring websites that offer foreign exchange opportunities for high schoolers.  She was stunned to find out that it would be possible to go to the US legally with such a program.  Just yesterday upon finishing with her math tutor she announced "I love math" and went on to say that her very new found love of math had opened up other career paths so, maybe architecture, but still maybe veterinarian. We went to a party the other night honoring said veterinarian and Astrid was subjected to a tirade about her father from a man clearly lacking in sensitivity. She took it in stride.

Future exchange student wearing new shoes.
Astrid had a bad day last week when a fellow student asked her loudly in the lunchroom why she only had one pair of jeans and one pair of shoes.  The offending student was silenced by her own friends and Astrid's ever increasing group of friends came to her defense.  It still stung however and she asked me why the girl would have done that.  I told her that the girl was likely jealous of the number of friends Astrid has. I suggested that, if it happened again, Astrid should give the girl a hug and tell her that she was sorry that it bothered her that she only had one pair of shoes but that her mother was a single parent with three kids who couldn't afford to buy her more shoes.

Denis who studies endlessly recently asked, one Saturday, if he could go in the car with me to pick up the younger kids at school. He clearly wanted to talk. He told me of a meeting with the director of his home schooling program and said he had decided to get his "bachillerato" (high school diploma, a big achievement) then take a one year course to become a mechanic. After that he planned to work as a mechanic while he studied either engineering or architecture and further he wanted to open a restaurant offering local food (the latter likely a dream of his mothers).  A somewhat ambitious plan for a kid who, just a year ago, was completely demoralized after flunking out of school and was certain that he had no future.  When I first met Denis as a six or seven year old he expressed interest in engineering or architecture.  It is nice to see those dreams resurface as his self-esteem recovers.

My current task is to find Denis a position as an apprentice with a mechanic as part of his home schooling regime.  The first person I asked turned him down because of the sins of his father, some of which were perpetrated in the mans neighborhood. It is very sad that these kids will be haunted forever by the misdeeds of their father.  They will have to work so much harder than others to prove themselves worthy.  My occasional driver, Vinicio who, having lost his own son in a motorcycle accident, has taken an interest in Denis and called today with the name of a mechanic who will let Denis work with him. 

Diego just wants to learn.  English, robotics, math ... he is not fussy.  I set him up with a refurbished laptop, the Khan Academy and "Scratch," the MIT software that teaches kids how to program and he is in heaven.  I have him testing offline versions of the Khan Academy and more that may well be used in rural areas in Central America where there is no internet access. He is carrying a heavy burden however, feeling responsible for his mother and his younger siblings. Poor kids here have a very real fear of starving to death if they see that a parent, often their only parent is not working.  Such is the case with Diego's mother right now. 

Diego and Astrid teaching themselves computer code using "Scratch."
Marielos is getting a well-earned dose of "tough love.  She borrowed some money and, looking me right in the eye, assured me that she could pay it back at a rate of Q500 ($65) per month. Fairly quickly I learned that it was all a lie and that she not only had no money to pay me she has a yet unknown quantity of debts to the kind of loan sharks who break knee caps and worse. As so often happens here help turned up when it was needed in the form of a very capable psychologist named Olga. Olga is working with Marielos (and also Diego) to get her to give up on Alex whom she still mourns and to understand that she will get no further help from me if she tells one more lie about anything. 

You might ask how in the world can she continue to carry on about a guy who has committed heinous crimes and left an unknown number of fatherless children to fend for themselves? The short answer is a total lack of self-esteem and the master psychopath tells her exactly what she wants to hear to keep her coming to visit him bringing food and money that she can ill afford.  I suspect he is the source of the debts that she cannot pay. Stay tuned. I will find out.

The highlight of their day was riding in the back of the car.
Los chiquitos (the littlest ones), Cris and Mishelle, remain delightfully oblivious to the drama swirling around them.  Both are thriving in the safe haven that is their school chattering away in a mix of Spanish and English.  Saturdays, rather than standing around in the market, while their mother now helps family members having lost her own shop due to lack of money for inventory, they all go to English classes then spend the rest of the day at my house being somewhat normal kids in spite of it all.

Cris had thrown up his lunch so his clothes were in the washer.  Denis was outside washing cars.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Is There No Hope for this Place?

Monday morning of Holy Week Estela arrived with Astrid who was headed to the vet clinic.  As there were others in the house Estela asked if she could speak to me privately.  We headed upstairs and I closed the bedroom door.  I expected her to tell me that Alex had been killed in prison.

But instead she started crying and told me that her tiny, 95-pound, virginal looking, barely 17-year old daughter, Jackie, was four months pregnant.  Just that morning she had taken the still vomiting teen to the local health center where she was quickly diagnosed as five months short of being a mother.  Estela will be a grandmother by the time she is 36.  Estela reported that everyone in the household was furious with Jackie.  Denis asked through tears "how could you do this after everything Tia Joan has done for us?"  Astrid shouted "we can't have a baby in this house; we are studying."  Estela furious because Jackie had declined all offers of birth control saying "I am too young to have a boyfriend."

Fortunately, I had upcoming travel plans which kept me from seeing Jackie for about ten days which was almost enough time to cool down and speak to her rationally.  I asked her what her plans for the baby where and she indicated that she had none.  I asked if she was going to move in with the boy and his family. "No." I asked her how she was going to pay for diapers, clothing, food, medicine, education and she shook her head and said "my mother will help."  I reminded her, in her mother's presence, that her mother was barely making ends meet as it was, that she could ill afford another child, that she needed to work and the baby would not be coming to work with her at my house.

I further told her that I thought that it would make sense to consider giving the baby up for adoption, that there were wonderful families for whom the baby would be a miracle and they could give the baby a two parent home and many more opportunties than she could provide.  She shook her head.  I told her that she needed to think about it, that she needed to put the baby's welfare before her own, that she also needed to think about herself, her mother, brother and sister.  So, that is where that is at this writing.

Many more are delivering the same message to Jackie including, this week, a wonderful Guatemalan woman who is a psycologist.  As it turns out I just happen to know a wonderful family who is looking to adopt after losing a child last year in an accident. Stay tuned.  Who knows how this will all play out. The decision has to be Jackie's but those of us with a few more miles need to make sure that she is thinking somewhat straight.

A few hours after talking to Jackie the wonderful psychologist came to my house with the director of Cristofer and Mishelle's school to meet with Marielos and her fairly wise older sister, Gladys. Gladly, my only role was to take Marielos's three kids out for some dinner. Naturally, they chose McDonalds.  I had a tuna salad while they ingested poison in the form of fries, chocolate milk and a questionable burger. Upon returning to my house I was given the signal to carry on upstairs.  Cris had the iPad, Mishelle the iPhone and Diego worked on a homework project.  Some three hours later I got the word that they were finished downstairs.

Once again, we shall see.  It turns out that some of Alex's stories about Marielos's mother were actually confirmed as true.  While I like her father I have always felt that there was something missing with her mother.  No one but the mother had had a key to the house so no one could be in the house if she wasn't there. Marielos and Gladys confirmed that their mother is an alcoholic and, for whatever reason (still to be explored - could be all her fatherless children) the mother has been particularly hard on Marielos.  While she struggles to feed three children her mother has been charging her rent, increasing the amount quite regularly and routinely threatening to throw her and her children out for being behind in her rent.

I had often wondered why the two sisters (Gladys is divorced and has three slighly older kids and a big house) hadn't joined forces.  Quite obviously Marielos was still subscribing to Alex's stories of his innocence and expecting him home any day.  With a sentence of 42 years she has had to deal with reality. At the end of the lengthy meeting it was decided that Marielos and her three kids would move into her sister's house.  The two came by the next evening to explain their plan to me. They had told their mother that Marielos would be leaving and apparently, the mother wanted to keep 10-year old Diego as payment for the unpaid rent.  She likely would have pulled him out of school and put him to work.  The sisters said "NO" so the mother said she would be keeping all of Marielos's furnishings except her beds and television.  At this writing the move has likely already taken place and the next chapter will involve some debt restructuring along with some conditions.

However, amidst all the drama there have been a couple of bright spots.  Denis saved up his car wash earnings so that he could be a "carrier" in the Good Friday procession, one of the biggest of Holy Week.  It took a bit of scrambling and following the procession of several thousand people around town in order to catch of a photo of him at about 1:30 in the morning.

Denis is the one with the smile.
Denis and Jackie just received their first set of grades from their home schooling program and Denis had his highest grades ever with an 85 average.  He was beaming. Jackie, who gets an F is common sense did very well in other subjects.

Astrid, who continues to grow by leaps and bounds, has been longing for a puppy as she has seen a few rescued street dogs come in and go out again at the clinic where she volunteers.  A few days ago the vet called me and said he had a four-month old pure bred Golden Retriever puppy that had been abandoned at the clinic and asked me if I thought Astrid would like it. Yesterday she took "Nala" home with her.

Astrid, Nala and vet tech, Christian.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

And Three Steps Forward .... except for Dad

Two days before the dreaded exams I was reading the newspaper while waiting for Jackie and Denis to finish their tutoring session.  A headline caught my eye and there it was.  Their father along with his three sleazy amigos had been sentenced to 42 years in prison, thirty each for kidnapping and twelve each for rape.  For some strange reason a prison "year" in Guatemala is only nine months long which immediately reduces that sentence by 25%. Estela and I decided to keep the news to ourselves until after the exams.  Estela collected the cell phones allegedly so that the two wouldn't be distracted from studying.  I sent a text message to Marielos who was visiting Alex that day asking her please not to communicate with the children about the news before Thursday afternoon.

Denis was the first to come out of the exams.  He was wearing a big grin so I knew that he had passed.  Jackie soon followed.  They said that they had only taken half of the exams, that the other half would come the following week but that they had passed the most difficult ones.  Over lunch their mother and I told them that we had news about their father, that he had been sentenced to a number of years but we weren't clear as to how many as there were conflicting reports. Marielos had reported that the sociopath himself had told her that his sentence was 12 years which was inconsistent with the news reports.  While Denis has pretty much written his father off Jackie is still wrestling with conflicting emotions. Now she knows that her father, while proclaiming his innocence and soon to be freedom, has been lying to her as well.  Likely also to himself.

Dad got 42 years today, kids got ice cream
We talked about life going on and the fact that everyone gets something that they have to deal with in life.  I reminded them that their father was very interested in them getting educated so the best thing that they could do was to distract themselves with their studies.  I told Jackie that each day it would be a little bit easier to accept.  I expected that the three would break the news to Astrid that afternoon but  apparently Astrid had read the same newspaper on the bus on her way home from school two days earlier.  At age 13, she had taken it upon herself not to say anything to her family because of the upcoming exams.  She had taken the newspaper off of the "chicken" bus and had thrown it away.  "I told you he was trash, " she told her older siblings.  

So, Marielos is finally mourning and well she should be but, hopefully, not for very long.  She told me that she was going to vist Alex and take Cris and Mishelle with her as they haven't seen their father for a year.  (So, why take them to a prison?) It is clear to me that he is pleading to see his children as a last desperate means of staying connected with his old, rotten life. He didn't care about his kids then, why would he now? He wants his desperately poor women to bring him food and money that they will be taking away from their children. Pay your dues dude. Too bad you can't hear your children all laughing together. Your loss.  

Denis is booming, his confidence well on its way to being restored.  He mentioned that he was studying astronomy in science and I told him that there was a Khan video on astronomy.  He had already watched it.  Last week he turned sixteen and I had vowed to find him some sex education so that he would know that his father's way of indiscrimate propagation wasn't the only way.  A friend helped me get him an appointment with a male staff person at WINGS, a non-profit family planning organization. I had promised him a box of condoms for his birthday.  With a visiting cousin I visited a local "farmacia" and said "please, we would like some condoms." The woman behind the counter was certain that I hadn't realized what I had asked for.  When I repeated my request her eyes got very large. After a pregnant (pun intended) moment I explained that they were a birthday present for a young man.  She then spread out the whole inventory and helped us to put together a great variety of "extra" this and "extra" that.  As I was afraid that Denis might try and escape I didn't tell him what we were up to until I dropped him off for his meeting.  I then told him that he was going to meet with a fellow who was going to tell him everything he wanted to know about sex and that he could ask him anything he wanted to.  Off I went. Much to my surprise several hours later Denis turned up and thanked me for setting up the meeting and said that it was very interesting. I am sure it was.

A day later Astrid showed up on for her Saturday volunteer job at the local vet clinic.  She seemed a little bit down.  I asked her what was wrong and she told me that the sister of her best friend at school was having her "quincenera" (15th birthday party) that evening at 6 and that she was unable to go because she didn't have a dress.  Her mother, who could well have afforded a dress for her daughter, clearly did not understand the importance of letting her daughter participate in school social events and even if she did wasn't about to participate financially.  I called Marielos in the market and asked her if she could help Astrid buy a dress and shoes so that she could go to the party.  Marielos and his sister spent the afternoon getting Astrid ready for the party. And what a party it was.  Guards, searchlights, music, dancing, fake champage (sparkling apple juice) and every kind of teen food imaginable.  Astrid had a blast.  One more step out of poverty.

Astrid ready for the party.

My next challenge is going to be to tackle Marielos's miserable level of self-esteem.  For reasons I don't yet understand she was not allowed to go past the second grade in school.  Now that she is starting to realize that her hombre is a lost cause she is dealing with the fact that she can scarcely support his children alone by selling hair ribbons in the market.  She is a good salesperson but getting a job elsewhere is impossible without a certificate showing that she has at least a sixth grade education.  She is looking for proof of completion of second grade and then we will talk about enrolling her in a home schooling program which would offer her the opportunity to not only build her self-esteem but complete more formal education.  The good news is that there are a number of children who are more than willing to help her.  The youngest (of the known children of Alex) who will be five in May will be able to help her with her English.

I speak English.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

And Two Steps Back ...

Just when I thought I had it all figured out cultural differences erupted.  I began hearing, second hand, that Estela (and what does she know being barely literate herself?) thought that Denis and Jackie should be in a proper school where they would be with friends.  I guess she had forgotten that both had flunked out of their most recent proper school. Also she didn't really understand that home schooling was not only the last choice but was likely the best.  Neither Estela nor the children could figure out where to place Victoria.  Was she a Guatemalan because she had a brown face or was she a gringa because she was raised in the US and spoke English as well as any other American?  Estela asked her if she had a maid (that would make her a gringa).  When Victoria told her that she did not Estela asked her if she had a washing machine.  When the answer to that question was also "no" she asked her who washed her clothes.  Victoria told Estela that she washed the family's clothes in a sink just as Estela does.  

Perhaps it was then that Estela decided that Victoria was really too Guatemalan to be teaching her children and she apparently communicated that fact to Denis and Jackie.  Denis did his best imitation of "macho" and announced that he should be able to listen to music while studying because it relaxed him.  While never impolite I heard Denis speaking to Victoria as a macho Guatemalan might speak to a Guatemalan woman.  One is always aware of the fact that the poor, dependent on the generosity of others, often have two very different faces:  one for gringos and quite another for their own kind.  The non-gringo face is quite often not a very pretty one and it is one that I fear that Estela's kids see all too often in their home. I was disappointed to hear it coming from Denis.

Whatever happened, Victoria announced that she was quitting.  We talked and I think that many of her buttons had been pushed as a result of the cultural confusion and the assumption that her brown face meant that she wasn't up to standard. And suddenly I found that I had reached my limit with the two adolescents.

Victoria and I made a plan.  We would talk to the two the next day before their mother arrived for work and then we would include Estela so there would only be one version of the conversation. I told them that Victoria was quitting, that I was tired of pouring money down the toilet and that, if they were not interested and willing to participate, they could just go home and just pick coffee for $3 a day for the rest of their lives.  I mean't it and they got it. When we had said everything we had to say I sent Estela and the two tormented teens home to decide what their future was going to look like.

I felt a sense of relief.  I had my house back and I had stopped the cash drain into the toilet.  I had done everything possible for the two and, as I had told them, I had run out of options and could not force them to take an interest in an opportunity that many other Guatemalan children could only dream about.  The three scurried out of the house wondering, I am sure, what had hit them.

Estela was very quiet the next day.  I was relishing the chance to get some other things done.  Towards the end of the day I told Estela that Victoria had reported that Jackie blamed all her recent failures and health issues on worry about her father.  Worry about a man who didn't care enough about any of his kids to stay out of jail, worry about a man who participated in a gang that kidnapped and raped women, worry about a man who won't even tell his children why he is still in prison after more than a year and a half? From the Internet I printed the front page newspaper articles from when Alex had been arrested and suggested that Estela take them home and have the two older children read them out loud.  Time for them to do a reality check rather than continue to believe the lies of their father who, of course, maintains that he is innocent, that it is all a big mistake and that he will be free very soon. I suspect that the truth is that he has been given a lengthy sentence but won't admit that to any of those whom he has devastated. 

I told Estela that, if the two didn't come to terms with the facts about their father that Denis would likely follow him to jail and Jackie would likely die from her inability to eat without vomiting.  And have a nice weekend!

On Monday Estela reported that the two had studied most of the weekend. True?  Hard to tell.  I was back and forth with the educational psychologist overseeing the homeschooling program.  She asked for a meeting.  I used the power of my checkbook and told her that Denis simply could not absorb another failure at the current time.  I had already been told that if the kids did not pass the exams scheduled for Wednesday they would not be able to continue.  I agreed to meet the director on Wednesday and told Estela that I was leaving at 8:30am, that if the children had decided that if either one or both wanted to continue their education that they should be at my house before 8:30.  I had no idea whether or not they would show up.  I further told Estela that if either wanted help I would be available Tuesday afternoon.

On Tuesday two smiling teens showed up at my door.  Jackie reported that she had finished everything but math and she needed help with reciprocals (in Spanish no less).  Astrid was there and found the appropriate Khan Academy video in Spanish and the two dealt with reciprocals.  Denis was in a panic as nothing came up when he googled "números cuadraticos" on the Khan Spanish channel.  I noticed that his favorite math teacher was online and typed in a message.  We need help with "números cuadraticos."  Within minutes I heard the Skype call from Ottawa, Canada and Denis got the help he needed.

Wednesday morning two very tense teens showed up at the appointed time.  We discussed that it would not be the end of the world if either failed the test.  That did little to reduce the tension.  Upon arriving at the homeschooling office, to the intense relief of Denis especially, the decision had been made to put off their exams until the following week.  A new schedule was settled on which includes more tutoring thus two visits a week for both.  Back in Antigua we went to a very cheap, cheerful and popular place for lunch.  We shared a table with a friend and her son who, coincidentally, was at the international school with Denis, did not want to go back and is now doing an online homeschooling program in English.  I could almost see Denis's brain make the switch from "stupid" to "privileged, even cool."  Homeschooling kids get to go out to lunch. The two boys are likely going to satisfy an extra-curricular requirement by volunteering together at a primary school in a nearby rural village.  We shall take it one month at a time and will hope for the best.  There is a Q100 phone card available to anyone who shows improvement. And that is just part of the bribery component.  It is my hope to drag these two, kicking and screaming if necessary, across the great divide from poverty.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Six Students and a Latte

The only reason I have had the time to update this blog is because I just returned from a lovely road trip to Chiapas, Mexico where I actually had time to sit still and write.  It makes me sad that there are so many wonderful places to visit and so little time.  San Cristobal de las Casas is reminiscent of Antigua but one cannot help marvel at how much progress Mexico has made in recent years.  Lots of artisans and colorful markets, real book stores, excellent restaurants, culture, inexpensive but chilly at 7200 feet of altitude.  We only found one restaurant that seemed to have heat and it was not in our hotel.  I was reminded of a Slovenian B&B owner once telling me "there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing."  True.  We all just bundled up and enjoyed the place.

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas
The highlight was a private piano concert by the artist in residence of Na Bolom, the one-time home of a Danish archeologist and his Swiss journalist wife who trekked into the mountains and became friends with the indigenous.  They are both deceased and their one-time home is now a combination museum, hotel, cultural center and place of study.

Richard Pierce Milner

Today it was back to reality and all that six active children bring with it.  For the most part the school year in Guatemala starts in January when the coffee picking season is over. One exception is the international schools that keep a schedule corresponding to that of the developed world from where they draw many of their teachers. Thus, Astrid started her school year in September.  She is repeating the sixth grade having survived a year of learning English and dealing with a huge cultural divide and an imprisoned father.  She has, quite obviously, decided to make it work.  The first edition of the school newsletter for the year touted Astrid as a star student.  She has friends, her grades are good, she is gaining fluency in English and she is not letting the cultural divide get in her way.  For Christmas I saw that she got a recycled first generation iPad which puts her on equal footing with her fellow, far more affluent, students.  She asked me to install the "Pages" app so she could use it for homework. During the Christmas school break Astrid volunteered at one of the Antigua veterinary clinics where she was on hand when a circus owner brought in a baby (17 pounds) female African lion with a broken leg.  Astrid continues to go to the clinic on Saturdays and the vet has been so impressed with her interest and dedication that he has let her assist him with surgeries.  Astrid at 13 is likely on her way to beating poverty.

Astrid and the lion.
Sadly, Denis had to say "adios" to his one-time math teacher who returned to Canada in December.  Alex (not to be confused with Denis father) had spent most of his afternoons for the previous several months tutoring Denis in math, English and life.  Denis experienced a father figure, someone who actually cared that he succeed.  Gladly, the two talk regularly on Skype and I have promised Denis a trip to visit Alex when he graduates from "basico" (9th grade).  So, between that bribery, ongoing work with both Alex and an educational psychologist and the arrival of the perfect home schooling tutor Denis is tackling his return to formal education with increased confidence and interest.  His fears of being stupid and failing are rapidly subsiding.  He smiles and says "thank you very much" a lot.

For now the challenge is Jackie who, at 17, has been the most affected by her father's behavior and imprisonment.  Once a good student she recently flunked her second to last year of "diversificado" (high school).  I fault the less than stellar bi-lingual secretarial program rather than Jackie but, nonetheless, flunking out of school isn't much of a confidence builder.   Fairly quickly, Jackie was signed up for home schooling along with her brother.  During her school vacation she volunteered at the vacation program at the Montessori school that Cris and Mishelle attend.  As a result (and with a bit of conversation) she is, for the moment, setting her sites on becoming a teacher. With the start of home schooling it became apparent that Jackie was lagging, perhaps even ailing.  The good Dr. Oscar was called and he came by the house a couple of hours later.  Lab work showed that Jackie is suffering from anemia, likely the result of living on tortillas and bread.  Dr. Oscar who declined payment for his house call prescribed something to settle her stomach and a decent diet which I can now see to at least two times a day. 

As luck would have it a few days before home schooling was to get underway Victoria showed up.  She was introduced by a neighbor.  Victoria is a Guatemalan who was supporting her younger siblings by selling fruit in Antigua's Central Park at age six some 48 years ago.   She was befriended by an American couple who were able to adopt her after her father was imprisoned for molesting her and her mother tossed her out.  She was then raised in the US by two professors and only returned to Guatemala after raising two American children.  She is now married to a Guatemalan and they have a 12-year old son.  Victoria's passion is teaching, she has home schooled her youngest son in the past and was looking for work.  She found it.  I don't have a clue as to what I would have done if she had not turned up but I do know that I couldn't find a more perfect candidate.  A one-time child fruit vendor with a deadbeat dad and the same color skin who has succeeded in spite of it all.   School takes place in my living room or in my garden.  School lunches (and snacks and breakfast when necessary) are wholesome and nourishing.  I hear laughter and lots of conversation.  I watch Denis writing enthusiastically in his notebooks, using the Khan Academy website and I hear him asking lots of questions.  What a change!  Hopefully, with a few weeks of Tia Joan's school meal program Jackie will perk up and share Denis's interest and enthusiasm.

And lastly there was Diego, bright, polite, deserving, fatherless.  Marielos has had him in a (cheap) private school since pre-school.  He loves school and learning and likes to read and practice the little English that he has learned.  His mother felt that his school had failed him over the past two years and was unsure of what to do for this school year.  Enter Victoria who gained Diego a chance to take the entrance exam at the same private, bi-lingual school that her son attends.  I collected Diego after his 3-hour entrance exam.  He was staring hopelessly at a written English test.  After determining  that he didn't speak much English the director announced that he could not come to the school.  Much to my surprise Diego the "old soul" who takes amazing care of his younger siblings started sobbing and ran out of the room.  Only then did I realize that, at age ten, Diego realized that he had just lost a real chance to succeed.  Feeling that I had nothing to lose I challenged the director (who coincidentally doesn't speak a word of English). I told her that his father was dead, his step-father in prison, that he felt responsible for his whole family and that she had just kicked him in the teeth. And just how was he going to learn English if a bi-lingual school wouldn't take a bright, determined kid?  So, Diego started last week as a "temporary" student with no particular standing for this school year.  I told the director that I didn't care, that she just needed to give the kid a chance.  So, he floats between third grade English classes and fifth grades classes in Spanish and I am quite certain that he will succeed.  He is happy and he tells me that his favorite classes are English and science.  One of the bi-lingual teachers took me aside that first day and assured me that she would keep an eye on Diego as will Victoria.  At 2pm Victoria picks Diego up with her son and delivers him to the school that his younger siblings attend where he gets an hour of homework assistance and and another hour of English.

Chris, Diego and Mishelle
And the littlest two, Cris and Mishelle, once just another couple of kids growing up in the market are starting to read and write along with becoming iPad and iPhone experts.  Along with Diego (who by the way is now sporting retainers as an initial step in sorting out his dental issues) Cris and Mishelle are remarkably secure thanks, I think, to their adoring mother and extended family.

Diego, 10 and Mishelle, 4
And, if six kids and one dog weren't enough I came home one day and found "Latte" tied to the table in the garden.  An 18 pound probable poodle mix of a café latte color he was sorely in need of veterinary care.  I had seen him a few days earlier at a nearby shelter and had offered to take him on a trial basis.  Riddled with mange and infected eyes and ears but otherwise spunky and puppy like.  He spent a few days in the vet clinic where it was determined that he is almost blind from "juvenile cataracts" (which might dissolve). He is still on the mend but all of the kids (if not my other dog) adore him.  He is just the right size yet can outrun Denis, the star soccer player.  Just what Denis needs right now.  

Perfect dog for a bunch of kids.