Students experience poverty firsthand in Guatemala

By Kelsey Kastrava
February 4, 2010

Guatemala is known to its natives as not only home, but a place of eternal spring. To the rest of the world it’s known as being among one of the 10 poorest nations in the world.

Located in Central America, the city exists in the high altitudes sitting near Lagodi Atitlan. San Lucas Toliman was founded by the Kaqchikels, descendants of the K’iche’an people, after the collapse of the Mayan civilization. Once known for their military expertise and as the rising power in the land as the Spanish arrived, it became a nation robbed of its resources.

In the late 19th century, certain state policies wanted to create a national export of the area’s agriculture. In doing so a land owning elite confi scated the people’s land, leaving them without crops or employment. Instead they became victims to forced labor laws and subjected to contemptible labor practices.

For some time in the 20th century, several progressive governments were elected, and after a century of land appropriation, forced labor laws were eradicated. What remained, however, was income disparity among the majority of families living in San Lucas. It was impossible for common families to have land ownership making it hard to rise above the extreme poverty line.

After a short time with democracy, the elected progressive government was overthrown with the aid of the American CIA, and a repressive government took over, followed by decades of civil war.

During this period of confl ict in the mid-20th century, a mission in San Lucas began to breathe hope into the repressed community. Although the mission was founded in the late 16th century, it was not until 1958 that help was really given to the people. The Catholic Church infused new hope into the region when a priest from Minnesota graced the land with his devotion to helping the Mayan people.

Father Greg Schaffer has committed his life to the community of San Lucas Toliman and, in doing so, he has brilliantly assisted the community to rise out of poverty.

He labored with them inspired by the teachings of Christian Social Doctrine. This teaches food security, shelter, education, health care and work to be vital for the growth of a nation.

Fr. Greg, along with all the community of the mission of San Lucas, has helped the Mayan people to help themselves. Over the past few decades more than 4,000 families were granted four acres of land to once again grow their own harvest.

San Lucas, although surrounded by many another communities, is one of the most advanced towns in the area. Today the town, which once had cornstalk homes lining the roads to the church, now has cement block and stone homes in the majority of the city. Roadways are being built to make transportation of agriculture more efficient.

The mission also offers scholarships to those who wish to be proficient in carpentry, electricity, plumbing and stone masonry.

In addition to what the parish has done to allow the people to create their own stability, the mission has opened its doors to students and volunteers around the world to play a role in the restoration of a culture that has so long been abused and ignored.

Above all of the progress that the mission of San Lucas has allowed the Mayan people to make, the biggest accomplishment is their efforts in truly listening to the needs of the people. The people have been trampled and misused for centuries but at last people are now growing in their culture as a more effective society of people. If it were not for the mission and Fr. Greg it’s possible the culture may have died out due to lack of advancements and means of survival.

It is not to be mistaken, however, that San Lucas is a solely independent prosperous community. They still are battling years of financial hardships and will need to work together to continue the progress that has already begun.

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Kelsey Kastrava

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