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A reader writes … By Amada Armenta

August 06, 2001

I went to San Lucas, Toliman, Guatemala, with a group of 14 college students. My trip was about two months ago and I find it difficult to find the words that can make people understand the things I saw. If you haven't been there, if you don't see it with your own eyes — you'll never truly understand …

This is a land that is green everywhere. It is on a lake, surrounded by rolling hills and lush vegetation. On a fertile soil Mayans live like sardines in the shoddy structures they call their homes.

Their beds are elevated slabs of wood. Kitchen? Random utensils stacked high on a small table. Toilet? It is nothing but a hole in the ground. There are no rooms, no windows and not even concrete floors. The water is unsafe to drink — children have rotting teeth because they are safest drinking soda. Fathers come home after a long day's work and their labor yields about a quarter a day, maybe less … And you will never know anguish until a mother asks for help because her infant is vomiting worms and expects you can help her.


This is a village where more than half the children born will never see their fifth birthday. That means many of the kids I played with could die in the next few years … but among the poverty, desperation and stench that permeates throughout the village there exists something remarkable … things you might be hard pressed to find in the United States: spirit and simplicity.

They arrived at solutions I could never have figured out. Unlike many Americans, they were able to make one tool fix any problem. Political scandals and school shootings have never existed. Children are bright-eyed and loving; they often ran to me with open arms to pick them up and spin them around. A group of little boys surrounded me, and when I blew them kisses, they ran away laughing and screaming. They returned seconds later, only to scatter again while shrieking with joy.

The adults, while no longer innocent, can hide their weariness and easily smile at their children's happiness. In a place where conditions are so difficult, it would be easy to give up and curse God, yet they worship a unique blend of Mayan gods and Catholicism.

They let me ask them questions, play with their kids and enter their homes. They told me stories of lives torn apart by civil unrest, of old friends long lost and of their dreams for a better life.

Two weeks later, I was back in a Houston hotel with a large bed and six huge pillows. I watched a basketball game, brushed my teeth with water from the tap and thought about the people I had met. They are still there, in the exact same conditions as when I left, and I am here, living the better life of which they dream.

Although I am grateful to be here, I feel unworthy to always have a firm roof over my head, a warm bed every night and food to never go hungry. I am sorry that the minimum wage I earn in an hour is over a month's wages in that small Mayan village. I am sorry for them, but I am also sorry for me, and for you … I cannot describe the sorrow I feel that many people here will never think of citizens in poorer countries as more than potential "aliens" waiting to drain our economy.

While in Guatemala, I met a young man about my age. His dream is to live in the United States. He will leave everything and everyone he knows in Guatemala and risk his life to live here. He will be one of thousands who try to cross in search of something better. I will probably never know if he makes it … but you know what? I hope he does.

AMADA ARMENTA, 19, is a sophomore at Rice University in Houston. She graduated from Central Union High School in El Centro in 2000.

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