09 Aug
  • By Theresa DeSouza
  • Cause in

UPAVIM is in my blood

by Tara Dunsmore

“The contrast between the beauty and the poverty is astonishing.”

These are the first words I wrote in my journal after arriving in Guatemala City in August, 2014. “Standing on the roof looking out, I see cloud covered volcanoes and stunning mountains. Looking down, I see roof after roof of corrugated metal and scraps held down by old tires.” When I arrived in Guatemala, my initial impressions were of the the world I could see with my eyes. By the end of the week, I felt the community in my soul.

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Guatemala is a country of stunning beauty. With borders on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, it is a contrast of beaches, mountains and over 30 volcanoes. It is also a country of stunning poverty and violence. After the civil war of the 1980’s, thousands of Guatemalans moved from the countryside to the urban areas. Squatter settlements formed in and around Guatemala City and later became home to violent gangs. The Guatemalan Human Rights Commission estimates there are between 8,000 – 14,000 gang members in Guatemala. 

The community of La Esperanza (Hope) is located in zone 12 of Guatemala City, in one of Guatemala’s most notorious slums. In a country offering few employment and education opportunities, La Esperanza is home to UPAVIM (Unidas Para Vivir Mejor: Women United for a Better Life.) UPAVIM’s mission is to support the women of La Esperanza in their fight for better economic, healthcare and educational opportunities for themselves, their families and their community. UPAVIM and La Esperanza is where I would call home during my stay in Guatemala.

Just weeks before I arrived in Guatemala a rash of gang violence claimed the lives of several community members, including the son of an Upavima. (You can read about this incident here.) Several months after I returned home a stray bullet struck the window of the UPAVIM daycare center. Thankfully, it was late at night and the classroom was deserted. This is life in a “red zone” where even the police are scared of the gangs. 

UPAVIM is a beacon of hope amidst this violence.

The Upavimas have eyes that betray a lifetime of struggles, yet they are quick with a smile and free with their hugs. Here, they are safe. The hallways of the UPAVIM school ring with laughter. These students have witnessed more violence in their young lives than most adults ever will. Here, they are free to laugh with the innocence of children.

My purpose at UPAVIM was to document the lives of the Upavimas and their families. When I started working for UPAVIM Crafts in May, 2013, I was happy to be following my dream of working with a non-profit organization. I was proud to be a part of such a powerful mission. However, I had no real understanding of life in La Esperanza until I witnessed it first hand.

On my third day at UPAVIM, I accompanied one of our volunteers to the home of Aurelia, an Upavima. I had seen photographs of homes in La Esperanza but nothing could have prepared me for the reality. Perched on the edge of a ravine, first we had to walk down a path of dirt/sand/stone. We stopped at a ledge lined with scrap metal homes.

We climbed up and stepped into Aurelia’s home.  After opening a tin/metal door, we walked into an open courtyard area with clothes lines and random scraps (including a stray toilet.)  There was an outdoor sink but no bathroom. Five adults and two children live in two small rooms, with dirt floors and no lights. Two single beds were all I saw for sleeping areas. A small tv sat on a dresser, but I saw no evidence of electricity in the home. This was my first experience of the reality of life in La Esperanza.

That night, I had trouble sleeping. I thought about the times I had looked around my small, one bedroom, apartment feeling sorry for myself. Things I never thought to be thankful for suddenly seemed huge. The floor. Indoor plumbing. My son has more toys than he can even play with. In that moment, I knew my life was forever changed. I vowed not to take life for granted. I vowed to raise my son to appreciate what we have and to help him to understand about the world and our small part in it. And most of all, I vowed to never forget the women and children of UPAVIM.

The last paragraph in my journal reads,

There is so much to be done here. So many ways the families of UPAVIM need us. Being here, I see and feel the impact of the work we do on a daily basis. I see it in the smiles and feel it in the hugs. These women and children are in my blood now. I don’t think I’ll ever really be able to leave them.

The time between these two journal entries was the week that forever altered how I view myself and my place in our world.