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Guatemala: With open eyes

Small+houses+line+a+street+in+the+city+of+Antigua+in+Guatemala.
Small houses line a street in the city of Antigua in Guatemala.

Small houses line a street in the city of Antigua in Guatemala.

John Nicoletti

John Nicoletti

Small houses line a street in the city of Antigua in Guatemala.

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While I roamed the cobblestone streets of the city of Antigua in Guatemala, a subliminal sliver of truth became a total reality to me: Impoverishment on a colossal scale.

With no end in sight, and no help to defeat this epidemic, Guatemalans grow up in conditions that would make any American’s skin crawl – including mine. When I was nine years old, I would go right home after school, do my homework, and end my day by riding bikes with friends, or playing video games. In Guatemala, wolfpacks of third graders shine shoes every day.

Outside of La Merced, an Antiguan church built in 1543, clusters of boys are out shining shoes for less than a dollar per pair. These aren’t kids who go home and relax – they are not looking for money through thievery, but by honest work.

Their arms are scarred; their hands blistered. These  boys are not disheartened, for their broken English rings aloud, “Mister, mister!” Even after a brutal day in the sun, these boys still find strength in pain to trudge on, and feed their families. A boy named Delgri approached me, and asked if I wanted my shoes shined. He was wearing a dirty LA Lakers cap, and a stained NY Yankees shirt. His feet were bare, and his hands were blackened from the polish. I stood twice his size, and I wore a gray tuxedo, with fancy shoes. My hands were clean. I was less than a half hour away from witnessing the marriage of my second oldest brother. I asked Delgri if he liked ice cream, and his response, though ostensibly weightless, impacted me greatly. In Spanish, he said,

“I never had ice cream.”

When I was nine, I was eating ice cream all the time. This small exchange made me compare our lives in every aspect. I was no longer just an American – but a servant to the protection and preservation of human life and good will. Not every day gives you the chance to change someone’s life, but every day gives you the chance to affect one. The other groomsman I was with bought Delgri some ice cream. Delgri’s life remains deprived, but his day was made a little better. Delgri, along with the other Guatemalans, changed our lives forever.

America has no shortage of citizens that have no clue what real poverty is. Sure, the news says there are poor people, and there are thousands and thousands of charities for a multitude of causes – but how many of us can see the pandemic of economic failure that has chewed up entire nations?

How many credit cards do you or your parents have? How often do you use it/them? How soon are these debts paid off? Here’s poverty:

Our tour guide for our hike up the Pacaya Volcano grew up in Antigua. His name was Lionel, and he looked like a regular man. He seemed healthy, and was a happy fellow. But behind Lionel’s big brown eyes of boisterous joy, were memories of being penniless. When he was 12, Lionel bought his first bicycle – a staple of American youth. It cost 221 Quetzales – that is just $30 of our money (And I thought American inflation was bad). It took Lionel two and a half years to pay off this debt. Most of us leave our jobs with more money at the end of the day.

As a boy, Lionel harvested tobacco, one of Guatemala’s staple crops, along with coffee beans. Age 16 is the required age for boys to work in the fields. In fact, the school year is weaved around the times these crops grow. When 16 year olds are not in school, they work up to 14 hours a day in the blistering heat to harvest the staple crops.

I write this juxtaposition to perhaps open the eyes of you, the reader, in hopes that you will recognize the true faults of the world we live in. America is not a dystopia, so do not treat it as such. We are programmed to want, want, want. I am no different.

The key here, is to know what others need, need, need. Clean water. Fresh food. Some ice cream. You don’t have to go out and change someone’s life – but for the love of God – help one out.

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