This past month I went to Guatemala to work with the Hug It Forward Organization. Hug It Forward works with local communities to address the area’s school shortage, and lack of landfills, by constructing school buildings using plastic bottles stuffed with inorganic trash.
Especially given that I have 2 young daughters that seek guidance as they grow into their own people, and face the ever-changing world, I wanted to model behavior that my husband and I believe is honorable. I had heard stories about Hug It Forward from a dear friend in Chicago (now a 3rd time volunteer) about her working side-by-side with community members in building a Bottle School, while learning about Guatemalan culture and history. Having a supportive family, friends, and workplace, and reassurance that my 8-day absence would not cause any major ‘earthquakes’, I soon found myself on the plane, excited and eager to make a difference.
San Martín Jilotepeque is not only one of the largest of 338 municipalities in Guatemala, but also one of the poorest. In fact, more then half of the country remains below the poverty line due to an unequal distribution of income. Hug It Forward centers their focus on villages that lack running water, electricity, and schools that are weatherproof and of adequate size. To add to the mix of challenges, the central area of the country is about 5,800 feet above sea level and is studded with active volcanoes, which at times cause catastrophic earthquakes, most recently in 1976. And Guatemala still grapples with the effects of a 36-year-long civil war, which began in 1960. More than 200,000 people were killed, and 50,000 disappeared — over 80% of which were indigenous Maya. The origins of this civil war date back to 16th century conquest by the Spanish, which morphed the socio-economic order of indigenous peoples and their right to land and agriculture, into forced-labor plantations governed by the military oligarchy. Visiting now, although violence and discrimination remain unfortunately common, I felt deeply the cultural resiliency, hope, and peacefulness of the local community of Panabajal.
Located 16 miles west of San Martín Jilotepeque, and over 1,500 feet higher in elevation, Panabajal is a farming community where coffee, corn, beans, peas, berries and other fruits and vegetables are grown. Women weave their own traditional outfits, which can take up to 3 months to finish. The children help their parents with all tasks around the land and home. Although the members of this community speak mainly Spanish, around 70% of them also speak their Mayan Kaqchikel language. The Panabajal community reached out to Hug It Forward, whose projects are known in the region. My time was spent helping construct a school, alongside 12 other volunteers, led by a team of locals/translators. The school will benefit 120 students, 5 teachers, and 800 families in the area. How cool is that!
In Central America, a typical building will be made of concrete and cinder blocks, reinforced with rebars as its skeleton, and covered with a tin roof. As their name suggests, Bottle Schools are constructed using plastic bottles filled with plastic bags and other inorganic trash, stacked in between chicken wire, and covered in cement.
This approach to construction, from a professional standpoint, is eco-friendly and economical, and helps resolve waste management and education infrastructural issues. It decreases the amount of plastic burned – the community’s immediate solution to the trash problem — which is both dangerous for the community’s health, and damaging to the environment. And the community also benefits by coming together and working as one unit toward the same goal, taking ownership of their building efforts, and learning labor and non-labor skills they can utilize in the future. It took me many days after the trip to begin to digest all I had, and to reconsider the privilege I experience in my own life. I turn the water faucet on and I think of an elderly woman we visited in her 200 sq ft home, shared with her husband, children and their children. As a family, they share the responsibility of fetching water from a well three quarters of a mile away, with an elevation change of approximately 200 feet.
My belongings, our culture’s consumerism, the ease and leisure of our lifestyle – it all can feel poisonous quickly if I choose to believe Guatemalans are victimized. But while it is a developing country per our standards, I felt deeply the hope and peace in their hearts and souls. Working beside each other as a community, their smiles and joy were infectious. I share snippets of stories, here and there, as I spend time with my family, friends, and colleagues, and each time I feel such gratitude for the experience. I plan to visit Guatemala again, next time with my family — let the joy spread. Gettliffe Architecture is a Boulder, Colorado architecture firm offering green design services from straw-bale homes to eco lodges around the globe. We believe that beautiful architectural design begins with careful consideration of earth, culture and community. Working with your ideas and vision, our team of green architects brings inspiring spaces to life that are kind to the planet and a pleasure to be in.