Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 09/13/2011

Lessons from 9-11…and quiet diplomacy

12 septiembre 2011 martes  

On this day after the 10th anniversary of the tragedy of 9-11, I am sitting at the kitchen table of my dear fellow Peace Corps friend, Yuna, in a town near Xela (Quetzaltenango) in Guatemala….some volunteers, like myself, have been asked to leave our site for a few days as a precautionary measure should there be any violence resulting from the national and local elections that took place yesterday. Truthfully, my town is so tranquilo that it amazes me that it ended up on the watch list. My great hope is that Guatemala can demonstrate calm and civility as they practice the treasured democratic activity of voting….

So although my immediate attention has been focused on elections here in Guatemala, my thoughts today have also been drawn to that fateful and tragic event 10 years ago…I remember that day, as I was awakened early in the morning while visiting a friend in Seattle; an incredible sadness washed throughout me as I watched the unreal images unfold on the television…feeling pain for the victims and their families, but also for my children and their generation, knowing that there would be dramatic changes in our lives and politics from that day forward. Downtown Seattle was nearly a ghost town due to the fear of future attacks…none knew what might come next.

Finally after several days airline travel resumed; I joined a line snaking throughout the airport with other worried passengers and soon was reunited with my waiting family in Virginia. And yes, life did indeed change, not just airline security but in a myriad of social, political, and economic practices and policies…from how we treated and suspected Muslims to our military response abroad and even general outlook towards other nations. As someone who has lived in France, I was incredibly embarrassed by the “Freedom Fries” episode, because it showed intolerance for a country that dared to have a difference of opinion from us.

I believe that it is through small humanitarian gestures that we help promote peace and equality in the world….

Election of the Mayan princess for feria

“Tere, Tere, TERE!!!” was the cry of a child banging at my door. A few days earlier, a family of six had taken residence in the wooden out-building behind my elderly neighbor’s home.  Leaving behind their small village of Patulup,  a 2hr walk from the center of my town, the parents sought to make a profit during our town’s feria by selling tacos. This meant that the four children, ages 3-10, were left mostly on their own during the day…it only took one day of my baking Snickerdoodles with them to become #1 favorite person, and head of their fan club!  Anywhere I went, so did they.

Happy hour: Baking brownies!!

The yelling by 5 year old Maynor was to remind me that I had promised them another baking session. This time Brownies were on the menu…laying in bed the night before, I had puzzled over the dilemma of these 4 children of poor parents, knowing that their loving parents had neither much time nor money to give their children during the three festive days of feria. An idea dawned on me… “let them sell their goodies to make money to spend!” I spoke with their mother about this idea and she supported it, and the kids REALLY liked the idea. We baked 1 ½ pan of Brownies… “el molde grande son los pasteles para vender y el molde chiquito es para ustedes.” (We’ll sell those in the big pan and those in the small pan are for you.”)

Baking time began…My mixer was a hit with them…vroom and whirr! At the time of selling, timidity set in and I did most of the talking… “Son pasteles de chocolate y son bien ricos!!”  The older girls would shyly chime in regarding cost, 2 queltzales each ($ 0.30). After a few refusals to purchase, I worried that this idea might fail and we’d be left with the brownies and no money, but then we sought out store owners who I knew (and were hostage to their stores), so we ultimately found hungry and willing customers.  Occasionally, we’d sit down to count the mounting treasure. Grand total after 2hrs of sales, 60 quetzales or $8.

Munching sweet brownies!

Let the spending spree begin…rides, snacks, toys!! Four pairs of eyes sized up all of the wonders of feria, and made careful choices with their precious earnings.  I relished in the trust of these children, holding my hands and pulling me towards their next desire or adventure. The older two girls were more circumspect in their purchases.  My fellow townspeople  and friends teased that they were either my children or grandchildren, and I would happily reply, “Son mis nuevos amigos!”  Occasionally we’d stop by to say hi to their parents, who would greet  them briefly and then be back to work selling.  Never did $8 buy such happiness!! After a few hours, they decided to save half for the following day…so they got 2 days of pleasure for their efforts.

My Guatemalan landlady applauded that I had taught the children how to earn money and not to seek a handout, thus, empowering them instead of diminishing their status to that of helpless recipients. Too often well-intentioned foreigners and their NGOs ride in on their “valiant steeds” to save the day, handing out donations to the impoverished people of this country. Yet as I watched the love and laughter and solidarity of this economically poor family, I saw a richness in their lives that is often missing in American families….I received the gift of trust and friendship from these children and their parents, which made this year’s feria ever more special to me.

My new friends...children from Patulup

This is my work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala…many small efforts to empower and restore dignity, especially to the indigenous Mayan population in my town. Truly, these small acts multiplied all over the world can build trust and respect; it is a quiet diplomacy that does not seek fame nor requires much financing. Thus, I am greatly saddened by the recent budget cuts to the Peace Corps and ultimate downsizing of number of future volunteers in Guatemala and elsewhere in the world.  It is hard to quantify my small effort with these four children, yet I know that they will fondly remember their time together with this American for a very long time.

Capturing the dream of living in America...with a photo if nothing else

Think hard, America, think hard about how we want to spend our vast economic resources to build a better world, and I encourage all of you as friends, family, and my readers to speak up to our politicians regarding your preferences of how we carry out this mission. 



  1. Excellent, Janet!

  2. We often rhink we struggle with trying to pay the insurance on two cars and a mortgage on a house large enough for three families. Many of us have not experienced life where our house is a single room and the couch doubles as a bed. Few of us have had only a hole in the ground for a toilet. Thank you Janet for allowing us to reflect on how fortunate we are.

  3. I actually live in luxury by Guatemalan standards…I have a large room with a tile floor and electricity, also with a fairly nice bathroom with flush toilet, and electric showerhead for hot water. Yes, my pila (outside sink) is outside, so hand-washing clothes and doing the dishes is challenging during this rainy season…I have to time my uses when it’s not raining. Tomorrow I will be working with a group in a village…dirt floor and letrine for the family. that is the norm here…so yes, Americans should feel VERY blessed with their housing and amenities. People here dream of having those….

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