Returning to Guatemala for a visit after living in other countries, I joined a Habitat for Humanity build in the pueblo of Parramos near Antigua. To be accepted by Habitat for a project, applicants had to meet certain requirements. They had to be a family rather than a group of individuals, own the land, and have some ability to slowly pay back, with no interest. Family members were required to contribute physically with a prescribed number of hours on the site.
Our family: Susan, a lovely face and tiny body wrapped in traditional huipil and corte; her baby, Mercy de los Angeles, Mercy of the angels, wrapped in an indigenous patterned blanket tied to her back or front all day; her husband with a poorly timed broken arm from a motorcycle accident, which limited his ability to help, but an enthusiastic cheerleader when he was on site; and brother’s family, whom they lived with, with toddler daughter Lopita. Two local masons worked on site with us, directing activities through our Habitat interpreter, a gawky, geeky young trainee who made up for not jumping in to as much physical work, but entertained us by chattering constantly, often offering up cultural information and insight to the Guatemalan way of life. The masons—two small, pleasant, quiet men on contract to Habitat had worked on builds before but hadn’t had the good fortune to have Habitat volunteers speeding up the process—picked up much of the grunt work. Arriving late the first day, after a visit to the doctor, the husband came to each of us to shake hands and express his heartfelt thanks personally.
The house was only two rooms, no windows, but two doors, to be built entirely without power tools, cement mixers, or other conveniences. Most of the tools were old and weathered, but functional. Our team leader, a woman about my age, also from the Colorado mountains, made sure we were all trained at each task, doing something useful to the project, feeling well despite the exertion and blazing afternoon sun (once it stops raining in Guatemala, the dry season sets in), and rotating us between diverse enough jobs to keep things interesting: digging the trench, shoveling and hauling dirt and gravel from the street where neighbors stopped by to talk and thank us, cutting and bending rebar, making rebar forms stretched across a makeshift table of cinderblocks and tying them with wire in the narrow alley outside the stick fence that defined the site (this was the job I most excelled at, too puny for digging and hauling) and, as the week progressed, mixing concrete with shovels, laying the foundation, stacking cinderblock to form walls.
In a tortilla shop along the main avenue in Parramos, a thin strip of struggling plants forming a parkway down the middle of the street, two women patted tortillas as we walked by. A few of us returned for a tortilla-making lesson. The owner introduced us to her family, then brought out a mass of masa, corn meal already in an amorphous lump, and a bowl of water. Pulling off bits of dough, she fashioned them into small balls, handing them to each of us with an outstretched arm. Once we were armed with our dough, she demonstrated the patting movement with slightly wet hands. I had tried this once before, Making Tortillas in Guatemala, and the same thing happened again, the patties ripped as they widened, sticking to my hand, maybe applying too much pressure as if I was working clay, a more malleable substance, too much or too little water, or too much patting, I never figured out which. I had a little more success when I patted without thinking of shaping, the Zen of tortilla making. We slapped them down on the comal, a large flat round gas grill surface. Although many were misshapen, they still tasted like warm doughy tortillas, lightly grilled on the outside, soft and chewy inside, perfect to the taste.
The walls were half way up by the time we left our build site. Two single rooms, one wide enough for a bathroom at the end, kitchen at the other end. The local crew would finish the construction. It was time for despedida, a farewell party! We joined with another Habitat site, masons, family, niños, and volunteers. Susan, Mercy, her sister-in-law and daughter Lopito were dressed in their finest sparkling ropas. Susan in blues, Mercy’s aunt in white and red, resplendent as the quetzal.
Speeches of thanks were given by Habitat staff, family members, a few team participants and even the masons. The one that touched me most was spoken by the daughter at the other site in Jocotenango, heavy set with a white t-shirt bearing skeleton drawings. She thanked us all for helping them build a home; we would be in their minds and hearts for a long time to come as they lived in it. They served tostadas with beans and salsa, cake, cola; a simple set made with their own hands. Photos, hugs, heartfelt goodbyes and thanks; the tears flowed. Que le vaya bien.
Each evening, when we left the site in a van to return to our lodging in Antigua, climbing up above Jocotenango, the familiar green shapes of Guatemala’s hills rose around us. We passed through Pastores, a town of craftspeople that specialized in cowboy boots and other leather goods, making me yearn for the first time in my life, for a pair. The multicolored storefronts advertised the contents offered within, often illustrated with a cartoon-like image of boots. At our (mostly my) request, the next to last drive back, we stopped to explore Pastores, the town of bootmakers and many of us brought a soft handmade pair home.
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Email me at: Ruth@RuthRosenfeld.com