I’ve often heard that it is important, especially for Americans, to travel to another country. Traveling allows one to see how people live in other parts of the world and experience the differences in culture. In the end, though, as countless memoirs will tell you, you find out that there are many more similarities among us, as human beings, than differences. No matter what the socio-economic climate, there are certain universals: most people are decent and want to take care of and provide for their families, we all need basic food, water, shelter, governments often become increasingly disconnected from the common person, etc. There is, however, another universal that I discovered in Guatemala last week: teenage girls generally agree that Johnny Depp is cool.
The first few evenings at the Hogar were spent making crafts and jewelry with the older girls, the senoritas. The girls loved “teaching” us Spanish – sometimes with purposeful inaccuracy – “Padre! Es cabeza (pointing to my arm)”, and so on. We painted wooden birdhouses the first night, and made jewelry the other nights. Barbara, one of the senoritas, slyly filled her arm (which is brazo in Spanish, thank you very much), with bracelets originally meant to be taken apart and refashioned into new creations, while explaining to me, along with her amigas, Miriam, Elisa, and Reina, the meaning of the word “chilero”. Johnny Depp is chilero. Cool. Or, as I found out when I looked it up after returning, can also mean “damn awesome.” I wonder if the Mothers knew what the girls were teaching us J
The current Hogar (which means “House of Mercy”) is located in Zona 1 of Guatemala City, one of the roughest sections of the city. We had explained to us that new initiatives by the government in the past few years have made the situation worse. Brothels were legalized in certain parts of the city, including the area immediately surrounding the Hogar. “One side is for men, the other for women,” Madre Inez explained. New government measures have also made it more difficult for private orphanages like the Hogar to receive and keep children. Many of the state run orphanages are, unfortunately inadequate and even dangerous for children. The Hogar has seen a decline in the number of kids they care for due to these new measures. Madre Ivonne explained that many of the girls who end up in the state run orphanages end up pregnant. The Mothers have experienced the heartbreak of having children removed from the Hogar by the State, only to end up in very bad situations.
In the Comedor (dining hall) of the Hogar there is a wall filled with pictures of children who have lived there. One day before meal we heard the stories of where these kids were now. Some have gone on to continue their education and are doing well. Some have been adopted. Some have not ended up so well. It was hard to think about the fact that, most likely, some of the kids we were hanging out with would not make it, but would fall into the destructive patterns of the society around them. When you’re with these kids you want to protect them from all the garbage. You pray like David for them, “You, O Lord, are a shield around me..” In fact the psalms come alive in a place like this, because they are often the words of a man, a people, faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, spoken with the faith that God will protect, provide, and have mercy.
There is a good balance at the Hogar. The kids are safe, even while surrounded by violence and strife. They have structure that helps them to develop healthy patterns of life. They learn skills. We visited the girls’ woodworking shop. It was amazing to see the skill and craft with which they carved and created everything from beautiful pens to church pews to a computer-aided detailed carving of the Last Supper. A sense of excellence permeates the work the kids do, whether in the woodshop or in the prayers at Church. They know what they are doing and they strive to do it well. The life at the Hogar is very structured, but there is time enough for fun. There is futbol, crafts, swimming, and, yes, even movies that star Johnny Depp. Chilero.
There are many reported miracles at the Hogar. They won’t tell you unless you ask, because, in many ways, it is simply part of life there. In reality, if even one of these kids gets another chance at life, that is a miracle. If one of these girls gets an education, a skill, and a sense of personal confidence that will help her to break out of the all-too-common cycle of abuse and degradation of women, that is a miracle. For that matter, if one of these boys can learn that masculinity does not have to be tied up with power and worldly pride, if he can get an education and a skill to help save him from getting caught up in drugs and violence, that is a miracle. That is why the work of the Hogar is so important.
I can’t conclude this post without providing a link to the Hogar’s sponsorship site. If you are reading this and would like to read more about some of the kids, including the senoritas who taught me Spanish, check out: http://www.hogarafaelayau.org/sponsor.shtml And, if you’re so inclined, please consider supporting the Hogar, or even sponsoring one of the wonderful children who live there. That would be muy chilero.