I was in Guatemala for three weeks during the height of the family separation crisis.
But the Guatemala I saw and the families I met did not fit the narrative about violence, gangs and desperation so deep that families send little children to journey across Mexico to the Promised Land.
No doubt, those stories are true, as far as they go.
In fact, we were told about the violence in Guatemala City, where children of 9 or 10 are addicted to drugs.
Where killing is common and the police offer no help.
Where I was told to keep the car window rolled up as we inched along the hot, traffic-jammed highway because if I didn’t somebody would reach in and grab my purse. Or worse.
The woman who gave the warning had been robbed at gunpoint in Guatemala City.
But she isn’t from there.
Rosa Maria Cu De Jul — aka Maestra Rosita — is from Cobán, where we spent two weeks in her home with her family.
This is where the standard narrative fell apart.
Like my husband, Maestra Rosita is a teacher. In Guatemala — as in Mexico — teachers are referred to with the honorific “maestro” or “maestra.” It’s a title that reflects the value of what teachers do. I love saying it.
My husband, Sixto Valdez, is a Montessori teacher who was asked to travel to Cobán and Antigua to share some of his teaching techniques. It was in those schools — a public one in Cobán that had very few resources and a private one in Antigua that had plenty — where I saw some of the complexity of a country that Americans tend to dismiss with easy stereotypes that range from viciously negative to patronizingly sympathetic.
The public school classrooms surround a dirt courtyard that has a raised stage at one end. The day we arrived, the stage was decorated in our honor with elementary school art. The pathways in front of the classrooms were covered with fresh pine needles, which released their scent when we walked on them.
There were a few dignitaries. Speeches. And a lunch cooked in enormous pots over smoky fires in the school’s kitchen.
Sixto spent days working with the teachers, showing them how to create Montessori materials, which are hideously expensive to buy. He also worked with students, who were eager, respectful and ready to push the limits — just like the kids here.
Kids surrounded us — made bold by curiosity, yet vulnerable as only children can be. This is when I thought of the families being separated by a U.S. policy so cruel that it shamed my country before the world.
If only politicians could stop seeing these individuals as nothing more than pawns in ideological wars. If only the people who control U.S. policy could spend a few weeks with Maestra Rosita and her family in a home she described as humble, but full of love.
I fully endorse the love part. And it included great food to which she added herbs to make sure we didn’t get stomach misery. And we didn’t.
Maestra Rosita and her husband Carlos Enrique Jul Bin are Mayan. Both are fluent in Spanish, but their first language is Q’eqchi’. Their pride in their heritage is quiet and deep.
Maestra Rosita wears only traditional Mayan clothing of the region, including the huipil blouse over yards and yards of skirt.
She gave me one of those beautiful hand-woven blouses the first day we arrived and told me I could wear it over jeans, which I did.
Because I love the textiles of Guatemala, Maestra Rosita and another teacher, Maestra Irma Alicia Tujab, took us on a day trip to Salamá and San Miguel Chicaj, where we met women weavers.
Yes, I bought a lot. And one of the women allowed me to take a picture of her beautiful child wearing traditional clothing she had woven for her.
In Salamá, Maestra Irma took us to her sister’s house for lunch with the family. It was here that Sixto sat and talked quietly with their 15-year-old son, who was being courted by smugglers.
The smugglers told him that July was the perfect time to cross the Arizona desert. They said it was easy. They said there were jobs in the United States where he could make a lot of money. No problem.
His parents were trying to talk him out of it. Now it was Sixto’s turn to tell him all the reasons he should stay at home and not risk his life on the false promises of criminals who pretended to be his friends.
His parents are praying he will listen to that warning. I am, too, because the consequences of making that journey could be far harsher than any 15 year old deserves.
In addition to all the temptations parents in the United States hope their teenagers will resist, parents in Guatemala have to hope their kids won’t succumb to the siren call of the smugglers.
I’ve run out of space — and we haven’t even gotten to Antigua, that famous tourist island that drives photographers wild.
But in truth I left my heart in Cobán. All the pretty architecture in Antigua couldn’t replace the richness of coffee and laughter around Maestra Rosita’s table.
When we left, they said we were part of their family — and they cried at the goodbyes. It was touching, humbling — and almost too much emotion for this stoic North American.
I learned a lot from this family and the others we met in Guatemala.
Enough to know that I barely understand the place or the people.
Enough to know that the dueling stereotypes of Guatemalans as villains or victims are both wrong.
They are people with stories to tell and treasures they are eager to share.