Wanda and I just returned from a wonderful adventure in Guatemala. We spent 10 days working with 22 other volunteers for Xela Aid. An organization dedicated to assisting the small village (Mam pueblo) of San Martin to build a sustainable lifestyle. This was our first visit to Guatemala and a first to work with an aid group. Our hotel was in Quetzaltenango (Xela) a larger city about 40 minutes away from San Martin. Our group consisted of young and old from all parts of the United States, Hawaii and Canada including a nurse, 5 college students, a doctor, biologist, anthropologist, geologist, actors and other specialists. Some in the group like us were on their first mission with Xela Aid and others on their twentieth annual excursion. People pitched in with all sorts of skills helping with construction, electrical, medicine, water purification and reading.
Last year there was a ground breaking for a small tienda (store) built for the women weavers Co-op in the village. This trip the store was wired with electricity, painted and furnished with display cabinets.
The hand woven products were priced, arranged and the store was open for business on the last day of our visit. This particular project was fully funded by one family on our trip. They saw the potential for these hard working talented ladies to earn some income selling their art. She will also create a web site in conjunction with the store to sell the weavings online. If they can sell art in a remote village such as this we all have a chance.
Xela Aid also supported another group of ladies making sausages (chorizo) for sale to the locals. We had a taste of their product and they were delicious. Xela aid purchased a large freezer for the sausage ladies. Now they can make, safely store and sell more products.
I wondered what I could offer as I have no skills and my IQ really drops when I put a tool in my hand but Wanda and I went to the grade school and performed a couple days of art for about 50 students. Like a three ring circus we juggled between two fifth and six grade classes. One of our young college student volunteers was fluent in Spanish so she helped us immensely translating my art lessons. First we had children draw with markers their friend’s face on a balloon. We taught the proper placement of the eyes, nose, mouth and ears on a head. Most of these children never had an opportunity for art in the classroom. It was so worth the experience just to see the joy on their faces. They were all enthused and had fun but also all took it serious. We brought pencils, paintbrushes, paint, and paper plates. After learning the proportions of the face we had them paint their classmates portrait on the paper plates.
While all the volunteers were painting the store, distributing purified water systems to households and treating all the people needing medical attention, I painted portraits of a few the women dressed in their everyday traditional hand woven clothing (Guipils). Each village has a unique traditional pattern to their weavings. The women made for great models with the ability to sit quite still. I did my best to make them feel at ease, get them to smile, but many were very conscious of their poor teeth and did not want to reveal their golden grin. Obviously their harsh existence shows on their faces and many look older beyond their years.
During the week I would photograph them when they were unaware. I plan to paint a portrait of each of the 13 weavers of the San Martin Tienda Co Op. I didn’t have enough time to paint them all from life, as would be my preference so I photographed them. My goal is to make greeting cards for them to sell and have copies of each portrait hang in their Tienda alongside their beautiful weavings.
Most Guatemalans speak Spanish, but each region also speaks their distinct native Maya language. This area their native tongue is “Mam.” There are 27 different minorities most of these people are decedents from the ancient Mayan culture.
The village of San Martin sits at 8000-foot elevation with lush green mountains, many rows of cornfields and other various vegetables cling to the steep hillsides. Milky fog would drift in almost every afternoon. We were here in Guatemala during the rainy season. We saw many colorfully dressed women carrying heavy loads on their heads and a baby strapped on their back.
Early one morning we loaded up two school buses with 160 villagers for a field trip to the Pacific coast. Many have never seen or stepped into the ocean and most don’t know how to swim. The ladies were still heavily dressed in their cool weather garb. No one had bathing suits but all eagerly squeezed on the bus for the three and a half hour journey. The road snaked from the cool high country all the way down to the hot tropical coastline. The bus driver managed to hit every pothole rattling us all as we sat 4 to a seat with children on top of children.
Large grins soon filled all the faces. They were overwhelmed with joy to see and smell the ocean air and dip into the warm water for the first time. We all held hands to form a safe chain on the water’s edge. We cautiously waded in knee deep together. The waves were forceful and the undertow strong. Their traditional long skirts must have weighed a ton soaked in salt water but it did not dampen their fun. We all went back to San Martin hot, salty, wet and tired.
We questioned if Wanda and I could contribute to an aid trip like this but the portrait painting was really well received. Many watched the magical process and all felt a sense of dignity, as I captured their likeness. This was another great adventure brought to me by painting.
Guatemala has some safety issues for travelers but wow, what a visual feast. The colorful costumes are not for ceremony but for their everyday wear. I found some local (not touristy) markets that were unbelievable. I snapped thousands of photos for future reference. I enjoyed roaming the streets and talking to the vendors in my broken Spanish sprinkled and confused with Chinese and English.
We came home to our place in Baja Mexico very exhausted but richer in spirit. We also became sponsors of four children. Three of which their mom and dad just left them. Fortunately one woman has brought them into her own home but struggles to even feed her own children. Our aid will help the four children attend school.
Xela Aid sponsored quite a few children through the 20 years that they have been visiting Guatemala. We had the opportunity to meet two young adults that were sponsored 19 years ago. This brother and sister are now grown up and have families of their own. The young woman became a teacher and the brother is now the school principal in the small village of San Juan along Lake Attltlan, quite a testimony for the sponsorship of Xela Aid. The money afforded the children to stay in school become productive citizens, now giving back and encouraging the next generation.
All anyone can hope for is an opportunity. This war torn nation has so many obstacles for their indigenous people. We can offer a helping hand but the hard work and motivation must come from the individual.
Succeeding in art is similar. It really boils down to only you. Dedication, desire, hard work, years of study and practice is the only real means of becoming a really fine artist.
Kevin and Wanda Macpherson