Mil Milagros embraces a stranded village

Juana Acun
In July 2010, Mil Milagros ( extended emergency assistance to hurricane victims in Chutinamit. Six months later this humane reaction continues and dovetails with their successful nutrition and educational programs in Guatemala. The Boston based organization assists in coordinating the food supplies and shelters that have sustained over 20 families since Agatha completely destroyed their barrio in San Andres, Solola.

Mil Milagros’ Program Coordinator, Jose Aguilar kindly offered to introduce me to this project with a visit to the tent city. The organization’s Administrative Coordinator, Fredy Ujpan joined us. Jose said our first stop would be a baking class for children aged 8 to 11. I asked if they would be making Christmas cookies.

“No,” Jose said, reminding me that most indigenous children in Guatemala do not finish sixth grade and that children start working in their early teens and sometimes younger.

“We are encouraging the camp children to begin looking at careers (like baking) and to become self sufficient, artisans.”

Along the way are cliffs gushing waterfalls; across the valley, a verdant patchwork of tidy fields unfurls — draping itself across terraced hills. We are twisting through this tufted, leaky “moonscape;” traversing the very murderous mountains that rained truck-sized rocks and oceans of sludge on everything below them. In this light the offending cliffs look stropped sheer; almost chastened. Far below the imprint of the swollen riverbed has also dried and crusted. Last September, those eroding banks could barely cup the sloshing rio San Francisco. Suddenly, within a month, muscular ten foot café ole waves shriveled down to this little stream. In 2010, dramatic climate damage bankrupted the country of Eternal Spring – Guatemala’s GNP cannot cover road and infrastructure repairs without international help. Sadly for Mil Milagros’ displaced victims changing seasons hardly improve things. Drenching rains were followed by wind driven dust storms. And, next up are hot weather and water shortages.

The driver stopped at the school and the kids swirled affectionately around the visiting Coordinators. Jose met with the parents while Fredy, the maestro, Mauricio Cacil, and I attend the class. Fredy and Mauricio coached the apprentices on what to expect inside the wood burning bakery. We dodged in between the racks of bread leavening. The oven flame caught the kid’s eyes for a second until they adjusted to the dim. A work table had been prepared and bakers in white aprons stood at attention. One stout man explained how flower, water and yeast become bread, then, invited the kids to work the dough smooth. Some poked at the lumps and others plunged right into the process. Their “rolls” were already rising when we stepped back into the sunlight. The children mugged and posed; then, gifted us with a bouquet of hand painted balloons; some said, “Gracias, Mil Milagros.”

The temporary barrio is stuffed onto a ledge above a football field. One of the leaders, Juana Acun told me everyone believes that a piece of land will be purchased soon. As if to prove this, she stood firmly on the top of their hill and, pointing down to a cornfield about the same size as the current encampment, declared that if all went well, that would be their place. She added, incidentally, that the absentee landlord wanted a price much higher than the government would or could pay. (Land use law in Guatemala does not provide for imminent domain procedures. That is: there is no way for the state to compel an owner to sell for “public good.”) Inability to purchase land is the damning bottleneck on this project. There are plenty of NGO’s able to provide materials and volunteers ready to build-out but are there NGO’s chartered for land development?

Juana had marched me around the “promised land”(so I could pace off the sides.) Once she let slip that she had the official site plan, we laughed about her “tricking” me all the way back. Yes, she did have the real estate report tucked in a folder with a faded photo of her old home.

“We miss having our chickens and the gardens,” she said with stoic frankness, a bit of dry humor and, thanks to Mil Milagros, a reason for optimism.

Author: diane e. dreyfus

on the road until they put the lid down

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