Twenty years ago, Maura Cardona joined a program to train health promoters who would provide basic medical care and hygiene education for Guatemalan communities throughout the San Marcos area.
Today, she is as a model for what is possible in San Marcos, a country that hugs Guatemala’s border with Mexico from the coastal plains along the Pacific Ocean to the volcanic mountain highlands.
Cardona had only a first-grade education. As the oldest of 11 children, she had to quit school to help her mother care for family needs. But she could print and read; the only requirement for being a health promoter was the ability to read and write. Maryknoll Sisters Jane Buellesbach and Mary Lou Daoust, physicians who organized the health promoter program throughout San Marcos, accepted her as a student.
Today, Cardona provides a variety of care for residents of San Antonio las Flores, a community on the coast of San Marcos. She makes diagnoses, prescribes and sells prescriptions at a modest cost, tests for diabetes and helps those with the disease maintain their sugar levels. She teaches proper hygiene and sanitation, and maintains a patient log.
Her daughter, Brenda, grew up watching Cardona tend to the medical needs of their neighbors. Cardona recalls that Brenda, while still young, told her mother, “I want to be like you.”
Cardona’s face beamed as she said Brenda recently graduated from nursing school. Brenda now has the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty that enslaves much of the San Marcos population to agricultural jobs, which pay about $5 a day.
Similar scenes of hope played out across San Marcos as a five-member delegation from the Diocese of Wilmington visited the region in January: A mother at a new health clinic in the highlands city of Tacana breaking into tears after she learns her year-old son Jesus, who was born blind and appears to have a neurological disease, will receive specialized testing. Another mother at Finca (plantation) Nuevo Buena Vista outside of San Pablo telling how she hopes scholarships for two of her children, who want to become a computer teacher and an auto mechanic, will allow them to move off the finca, where there is little work. A couple on Finca Nuevo Paraiso, outside of the city of Catarina, celebrating the fact their cooperative has made the last payment for the land and residents now await title to their own land, 15 years after they moved to the then-bankrupt finca with nothing but hope.
I had learned much about San Marcos since the Dioceses of San Marcos (which has the same boundaries as the department, or state) and Wilmington developed a Global Solidarity Project in 2003. But it had been second-hand, told to me by people after visiting San Marcos or from members of delegations from Guatemala who visited the Wilmington diocese. I knew of the health promoters; of the scholarships for young people to attend what we call middle and high school (the government provides an education through sixth grade); of the ways the church operates when no more than two priests serve a multitude of communities, a number of which are inaccessible by automobile or truck. Those I had interviewed talked about the deep poverty of so many people, and how hospitable the people of San Marcos are.
As a member of the January delegation those observations became realities. We marveled at how the people seemed truly joyful and full of hope even in the midst of dire poverty. Despite the poor living conditions – the six members of the family at Finca Nuevo Buena Vista with two scholarship winners live in a one-room home filled almost entirely by three double beds – everyone seems to be clean and wear clean clothing. We were awed at Sunday Mass in the town of El Rodeo when, after a monetary collection, poorer parishioners lined up to bring baked and raw foods and other items to the altar, sharing what they had to help the church’s mission.
Before Mass we sat in on a formation class led by Father Silverio Chum. Each Sunday Father Silverio leads classes for one of four sets of parish ministers: evangelists, catechists, social outreach ministers, and liturgical ministers. Each class has 20 ministers who bring the church’s mission to people in the 16 communities where they live; Father Silverio gets to each community only once a month.
A class for evangelists focused on Pope Francis’ letter, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”). Father Silverio spoke of the pope’s emphasis on the need to be “Easter Catholics,” or joyful, happy Catholics, rather than “Lent Catholics,” who can be seen as dour. He spoke of the challenges of consumerism where the emphasis is on the newest, the biggest, the best, on “me, me, me,” yet leaves one still longing for more.
At Mass, as I looked around and saw some who were well off, by Guatemala standards, and many who were so poor, I learned the essence about which Pope Francis wrote. These people seemed truly happy.
At the same time I felt my consumerism rising within me as I found myself wanting more, more, more.
I wanted the rich happiness of these people who have so little.
Gary Morton, who writes for The Dialog, is a member of Parish of the Resurrection in Wilmington.