The truth is a mysterious aspect of human life. We either seek the truth with the expectation of discovering something, or strive to hide the truth because of the fear of loss, whether it be lost respect or lost love; nonetheless, truthfulness is an insatiable virtue. I recently discovered a bit of human truth through interaction and simple love during a trip to Guatemala between July 17th and 24th. This wasn’t a vacation or a business venture, rather it was labor of love and a lesson in courage.
I stayed with 15 other team members in the city of Nebaj in the state of Quiche. Nebaj, as it turned out, was merely a temporary destination following a ten-and-a-half-hour bus ride through the perilous mountains of Guatemala from Guatemala City; our reason for visiting would bring us out of the city each day. From Nebaj, we would travel 45 minutes up the mountains every day to the remote village of Vipecbalam, a village so distant that not even the most obscure Jeopardy! question would raise consciousness of its existence. To be fair, most folks don’t know Vipecbalam unless they are from the village itself or know the genocidal history of the Ixil region.
In Vipecbalam, the team and I started a work project building a new school building in the village, augmenting the grounds of a school which my church group built from the ground up and continues to support today. After the construction work which filled each morning, we would gather the village’s children together in the afternoon for school lessons about the Bible. I try to refrain from using the term “vacation bible school” as the kids of Vipecbalam wouldn’t even be able to fathom the idea of vacation yet alone a “fun activity” outside of work. Nevertheless, what I saw in Vipecbalam was beautiful — it was the unyielding character of truth and the overpowering realization of the blessings we have here in America.
The people of Vipecbalam and Nebaj were the most industrious people I have ever had the pleasure to interact with in my life. I saw the backbreaking labor in the fields, the heartbreaking labor to love a family in the midst of crippling poverty, and the bonding power of a determined community. The auxiliary mayor of Vipecbalam broke down in tears as he told me how thankful he was, that truly the Guatemalan government does nothing for them and that if it were not for us, a team from the states, education in his village would not be possible. For me, an American who like it or not takes education for granted, this was a defining moment. To think that there are children two flights away from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania whose right to education is rather a persistent marathon as opposed to a way of life was numbing. Knowing the consequences of a society without even the most basic educational opportunity, the other societal ills I learned of seemed unavoidable. For me, for instance, this was only the beginning of insight into a country of roughly 14 million in which only two percent of murder trials reach final judgment and the murder rate is three times higher than that of its neighbor to the north, Mexico.
For almost four decades, Guatemala was plagued by civil war perhaps more accurately called a genocide. Throughout my journey, signs of the war were evident everywhere, educational reminders of an endlessly brutal fight between government and guerillas in which the government killed more than 200,000 innocent indigenous people under the banner of civil war. I came to realize quickly, through my own observations as well as through my interactions with the people of Nebaj and Vipecbalam, that the government used the war as an excuse to slaughter the indigenous people, direct descendants of the Mayans before them, yet my bitter feelings toward those responsible were met with a much different sentiment from the victims themselves. During my stay, for example, I had the pleasure of meeting a man who for his concerns will remain anonymous, yet his wisdom and story is surely worth knowing:
When he was only four years old, he would walk five miles every single day to fetch water for his family, as his brothers stood lookout up on the mountains for fear that the government could and would come at any moment. At an age when most American children are playing with Silly Bands or watching Dora the Explorer, he would be forced to cover his tracks as he walked, traversing new trails and walking back a completely different way so that, if he were indeed followed, he would not lead the army to his family. His was a great burden to bear as a mere child, but it was the support of his family that drove him forward.
One day, his brothers spotted military personnel outside of the village and he and his family were forced to hide under a fallen tree, silently, for 14 hours. At one point, the soldiers were standing on the top of that very tree, and this man and his family were certain they would be killed. It was not G-d’s will, however, as he and his family survived, only to find on their return to the village that everyone else had been murdered, cut down by a bloodthirsty government bent on ethnic cleansing. At only four years of age, an age at which most American kids are busy doing art projects and learning to write their A-B-C’s in pre-kindergarten, he had no choice but to help his brothers and father bury his friends and neighbors in a mass grave. At one point, he told me, he grabbed a woman only to realize that the baby on her back was still alive! It was a miracle, he said, a life in the midst of such atrocity.
After their village was burned and its people slaughtered, his father decided there was no longer a life for them in that area so they traveled through the mountains, living in any single place for no longer than a week, constantly fearing the government’s wrath. Eventually, this boy’s father could not take the burden any longer and turned himself in at the nearest military base. For three days, he was interrogated, only to be released after been found to have no guerilla ties, and permitted to gather his family for relocation. It was at that moment that a true miracle happened — at six years old, this boy was finally to have an education. Soon, he was enrolled in school — a miracle, considering that that without such pain and hardship, there was no conceivable way this boy was ever going to get an education. It was only through the fortuitousness of his relocation that education was possible.
This “boy” went on the go past the sixth grade, which is still uncommon in his village, and even graduated high school. He then traveled to the United States and earned two college degrees. Now back in Guatemala, this man works every day to inspire a sense of community and self-empowerment in the Guatemalan people. Guatemala, he told me, “can only change from within.” He explained that the government is so corrupt that even in Nebaj, far from the terrors of Guatemala City, the police will not respond to calls for help, that corruption is the status quo. I couldn’t understand how this man could work day in and day out to try and change his country yet hold no bitter feelings towards its history of injustice, a history which brought with it such pain and hardship. When asked, his response was simple: “Justice,” he said, “is not ours.”
Profound words coming from a man who lost family, friends and years of his life to a government which meticulously raped, murdered and tortured hundreds of thousands of his people. This man taught me that change must truly come from within, that purpose is not given by rationale but rather by the conviction to improve your community and that humility is a lesson to love.
Two years ago, I made the same trip. I traveled to Guatemala and Nebaj and worked in the same village of Vipecbalam. What I didn’t understand two years ago was the courage the people of Vipecbalam and Nebaj carry, nor the burden they bear. Two years ago, I met a kid in Vipecbalam named Camello, who is now nine years old and with whom I had the sincere pleasure of being reunited. It was an unforgettable experience.
Camello loves to smile, yet he hides his smile under his hat. Each of his movements seem calculated for a nine-year-old. He’s much quieter than the other kids. Taller as well. An intelligent kid whose passion is contagious but whose life is far from comparable to that of an American nine-year-old, Camello attends school in a one-room building that my church built. For lunch he is served a cloudy drink from USAID that contains all of the nutrients a child needs to simply survive. After school, he runs home to help his family. For me, however, for Jesse Civello — Camello stays.
Camello quickly became my best “amigo.” He taught me more about life and loving others than he will ever understand. He would walk by my side, looking out for his funny looking American friend, and he would tickle me when I wasn’t looking. I taught him how to take a photograph using my camera, and off he went, intrigued by the instant display of a digital camera and snapping off shot after shot as though he was his village’s own Annie Liebowitz. (He took the photo to the left.) When Camello and I would thumb wrestle, a game which I was able to share without worry of a language barrier, I would always let him win. He loved holding my hand and seeing me smile and act goofy, but when I arrived in the village a few weeks ago, it was the fact that Camello recognized me after two years that broke my heart.
It must have been something to see me walk down the path to his school after two years and remember that we were once friends. I told him on my last day in the village that one day he is going to really be someone, a leader who is going to change his community for the better. Of course, Camello did not understand a word I said; he doesn’t even speak Spanish, let alone English. Instead, he speaks Ixil, a Mayan language passed from generation to generation over the course of hundreds and hundreds of years. One thing I hope he understood and one thing I think he probably did was that I really cared about him, that I still do, and that I always will. He remembered a rather insignificant American from Philadelphia, and this really brought things to perspective. It’s not the clothes or the money that truly makes this world go ’round, it’s the love of our neighbor, of a friend and of our family. It’s the outreach to the less fortunate, to the sick and to the burdened, not because you have to or because someone tells you to or expects you to, but because you want to. There is truly a difference between what we see in a welfare state and the what I saw was support needed to self-sustain.
One thing is for certain: Camello understood I was saying goodbye for the last time as I slipped two Lemonhead candies into his jacket pocket and gave him a hug. I waved a final goodbye and even cried a bit telling myself that Camello would grow up to be a man who graduates sixth grade and goes to high school, that he would even go to university and bring back that knowledge and perspective to his family and community. Camello, to me, is proof that Guatemala can change, but even more so that this world is full of a bright future, full of children and adults alike who, regardless of color, religion or creed, need only to know that tomorrow will be a brighter day than the injustice of yesterday.
In the end, I believe my trip was totally ironic — I was taught justice by the discriminated, I was taught love by the despised, and I was taught purpose by the rejected. These are the truths which lead me to believe that I can make a difference for my own country, that I can lend a hand regardless of my strengths or my weaknesses, that each and every one of us can have a say in our communities. This path may be windy and surely less traveled, yet we stand with Camello and we stand with the man who survived the genocide because surely at the root of human truth rests the power of community, the strength of family, and the resilience of those who take it upon themselves to make their own little corner of the world a better place for the ones they love.