Moments in the Campo: Life on Guatemala’s Southern Coast

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The town is called Maria del Mar. The house has no electricity, no running water. The toilet is a hole in the backyard, a wooden seat inside a wooden shack. Like almost every family on the coast, the Gramajos bathe with a bucket, so I do too, for the days I stay with them.

I bathe standing on a slab of concrete somewhat obscured by towels hanging on clotheslines, and then sit down to a meal of tortillas, eggs and beans. It is my last dinner with the Gramajos. “Thank you,” I tell Doña Erica, Miguel’s wife. “Thank you for letting me be a part of your life for a few days.” “Of course,” she says. “I mean, it’s not like we have much to offer, living in poverty like this.” She says this casually, offhand, like it is a simple fact, not something to dramatize or pretend is not there.

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The heat is oppressive. It is thick, sweltering, weighing on me like a wet rag cloaking my body. I have lathered my body in mosquito repellent, but the mosquitoes don’t care. I can feel them attacking my skin, one after the other after the other. “They like you,” says Chepe, seeing that I am smacking my legs constantly. Their bites could mean more than itchy legs—they could mean Zika, or Chikungunya, or other serious diseases these mosquitoes carry. I ask if they bite him, and he says yes, but he’s gotten used to it. He has a mosquito net, but he doesn’t sleep under it anymore.

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Everywhere I go there is corn. It is ever-present, appearing in different forms wherever I look. In each household I visit, there are corn tortillas with breakfast, lunch and dinner. I meet farmer after farmer—it seems like every man in every town is a farmer—and they all say that their main crop is corn. Endless fields of drying corn confirm this. Sitting on the sidewalk in the tiny commercial center of Centro Uno, I survey my surroundings. In a single span of vision, I see six agricultural stores, bags of corn seed stacked in piles outside each one.

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I walk the dirt pathways of San Miguel Las Pilas alongside Doña Reyna, Chepe’s wife. We pass homes where hammocks dangle from trees, chickens cluck around the yard, and women expertly pat cornmeal between their hands to form tortillas. Everyone calls a hello to her as we walk by. “We built this from scratch,” she tells me proudly, waving her hand at the homes, the trees, the light posts. “Before, there was nothing here. We built all the homes, planted the trees, installed electricity and plumbing. We have TV. We’ve had light and water for a year.” Wondering if these things really make for happier living, I ask Chepe later if he thinks modern amenities have made their lives better. He says he does.

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The farmers talk about the droughts all the time. “This year has been better,” says Hugo. “The droughts in 2014 and 2015 were really bad.” They say that no one wants to buy expensive seeds anymore, because it’s too much of a risk. If they pay a lot for seeds, and the rain doesn’t come, they will harvest at a loss. Many farmers didn’t plant at all in 2016 because they couldn’t pay their debts from the year before. I realize what it means to wake up every day and stare at the sky, praying for something so distant and unpredictable.

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Karla, Eladio’s daughter, brings me to the tienda to pick up eggs and bread. Karla lives at home and cleans the house, cooks meals, does the laundry. When education comes up in conversation, I ask if she is interested in getting a job. “What would I do? There is nothing here,” she says. “There is only agriculture. I don’t want to be a farmer.” As I contemplate her options, I realize she’s right. There are essentially no other options.

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Ana Luisa is making tortillas for the third time today. She woke up at five in the morning to make fresh, hot tortillas for her husband before he left for his fields. A few hours later, Jacobo returned for lunch, and she made them again. It’s dinnertime, and she is next to the cookstove once more, flipping the tortillas over, tossing them into a basket that will sit at the center of the table. Tonight, she will shuck pounds of corn and cook the kernels so there will be cornmeal the next day. A meal is not complete without tortillas, and it is the women’s job to stand in front of the stove and make them, for hours, every day.

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I am curious what kind of medical care is available in an area this rural. I ask Eladio where he would go if he needed to see a doctor. “The closest decent doctor is in Mazatenango,” he says. “It’s about two hours away, on different buses.” I pause. “So what happens if there’s an emergency?” He shrugs.

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I watch the tropical countryside pass by. Hugo’s motorcycle dodges rocks and potholes. We pass little huts with fires smoking in the front yards, barefoot children staring as we drive by. The huts are more shacks than houses. The walls are made of cracked wooden boards. Some of them don’t have ceilings. The families I’ve been staying with have a lower standard of living than I am used to. But I realize suddenly that they are far better off than many of the people here.

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Andrés shows me his cornfields, his sesame fields, his banana trees. He tells me all he has to do: cut the weeds, spray everything with pesticides. Just him, winding through rows of plants with a chemical sprayer on his back. I’m struck by the enormous amount of work this requires, the hours and hours of manual labor. I imagine what it must feel like, to look at something so immense and alive and know that it exists because of you. “You must be proud that you made all this,” I say. The farmer surveys his crops. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I am.”

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For six years, Semilla Nueva has worked with farming communities dotted along the southern Pacific coast of Guatemala. Farmers like Miguel, Chepe, Hugo, Eladio. Jacobo and Andrés make up those communities. They are our partners, our friends, and the reason we are here today. This is the world they live in, a daily reality shared by farming families throughout the region.

The southern coast is deeply rural, a world dominated by agriculture—more specifically, by corn. Here, corn is life. It is more than just a food or a crop. It is inextricably woven into the culture and livelihoods of the region’s people. Because demand is high and tradition is strong, it is both their dependency and their opportunity. In our efforts to confront malnutrition, this is why we work with corn: it gives farmers the power to use the crop they already grow to create better lives for themselves and their country.

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