UPAVIM (Unidas Para Vivir Mejor – United to Live Better) is a women’s community service organization located in La Esperanza, a squatters’ settlement in Guatemala. These courageous women formed the group to better their children’s lives and help their community. Their accomplishments are nothing short of amazing. For more information go to: upavim.com
When I was a kid I wanted to be a nurse and go to Africa to work with Dr. Albert Schweitzer and save the world. Of course I also wanted to be an actress, and a director, and a writer, and a forest ranger, and a biologist, and a teacher, and a cop, and a detective, and a lawyer, and a cowgirl, and a firewomen…among several other things.
In college, even though theater still had top billing, I heeded my father’s advice and majored in a subject with which I could earn a living: History. Why I imagined I could earn a living with a History degree was not something I thought about. I was going to examine humanity’s stories and come up with a way to pave the way to world peace.
But Dr Schweitzer was still calling and I left college and headed off to nursing school. A year later I was back in college and to theater where I belonged. Besides that, Dr. Schweitzer died. With my many career choices I ended up with a double major: Theater and History, with a minor in Science.
A lot happened between then and the summer of 1993: marriage, children, teaching…and the fulfillment of the biggest dream of all: my own theater. For ten years I directed kid, teen, and adult productions in a tiny once-vacant movie house. With the help of my family and hundreds of parent volunteers, we built a tiny paradise with shows that would rival any theater in the world.
But dreams don’t always last and, when grants dried up in the 1980s, the theater closed. After directing ten shows a year, I was left without a stage. And Dr. Schweitzer, even though quite dead, called again.
After the theater closed I decided to study Spanish. I enrolled in a once-a-week adult education Spanish course. After eight weeks I decided to go to South America or somewhere. Maybe I couldn’t save the world, but maybe I could contribute something.
On Monday I called Leslie, my Spanish teacher.
“Where do you want to go?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know.”
On Tuesday she called back. Help was needed in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Guatemala…
“Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know.”
On Wednesday she called to say there was a women’s group in Guatemala that needed volunteers.
On Thursday I went to the Guatemalan Embassy to apply for a visa.
On Friday I called the airlines.
On Saturday I packed.
On Sunday I took off from Dulles Airport leaving a bewildered family behind. “She’s going what? She’s doing where?” Fortunately, Jerry was supportive and happy for me to be following my dreams. Being away from him and our now-grown kids was the hardest part, but it was something, for some reason, I had to do.
I have a lot of stories to tell about my seven summers in La Esperanza. It is located down the hill from Mezquital, a small pueblo thirty minutes from Guatemala City. I went there as a teacher, but I learned so much. I learned about the courage and determination the women of UPAVIM showed every day in spite of appalling conditions and abject poverty. I learned how caring and loving they could be in spite of often brutal treatment. I learned of their pride in themselves and in their community. Most of all I learned what a privileged life I had been living in my safe little world.
Of course, language was my biggest problem. In spite of my once-a-week Spanish course I was really only comfortable with eight words: hóla, taco, burrito, sombrero, and Dónde está el baño? I spent a lot of time and energy trying to communicate—often with embarrassing results.
A few of my faux pas:
I have to fix my horse. (el caballo = horse; el cabello = hair)
I’m tired and I need to shave. (afeitarse = to shave; acostarse = to go to bed)
I got my shoe stuck in the wolf. (el lobo = wolf; el lodo = mud)
I need to buy a penis. (el pene = penis; la peine = comb)
Oh! I’m so pregnant! (embarazada = pregnant; desconcertada = embarrassed)
One situation haunted me every year. I lost my fanny pack and with it my lipstick. I checked my dictionary and practiced how to say, “I want to buy lipstick.”
I took the twenty minute bus trip to the nearest shopping center and found a drug store. “Yo quiero comprar pintura por mi vaca,” I said to the store’s owner, which roughly translates to “I want to buy lipstick for my cow.”
The owner said, “Para su vaca?!”
“Sí. Por mi vaca.” I pointed to my lips.
He laughed and called to a fellow salesperson. “La señora quiere comprar pintura para su vaca!” (The lady wants to buy lipstick for her cow)
The other salesperson relayed the message to every customer in the store.
I didn’t know what I had said, but the way everyone was laughing I knew it was something bad.
The owner took pity on me. He pointed to his lips. “Es boca. Vaca es moooooooo.”
Every year, from then on, as soon as I got off the plane, I was greeted with “Mooooooos” and “Vas a comprar pintura para su vaca?” (Are you going to buy lipstick for your cow?)
They laughed a lot at my feeble attempts, but it was never a mocking laugh. It was fun and I laughed right with them. The women never made me feel stupid, in fact they did everything they could to help me through the day.
I spent the first three weeks teaching in our tutoring center: a sheet of rusted corrugated metal mounted on top of 2 x 4s. Log slats and cardboard tacked to the 2 x 4s kept the rain out, but holes in the metal roof let it in and the dirt floor was often ankle deep in mud. I would point to something and look up the word. El libro = book. La mesa = table. I would spell the word and the children would write it on their (often soggy) papers. Fortunately 2 + 2 = 4 in any language, so I was able to help with math.
But theater was never far from my mind. One day, through an interpreter, I asked the children if they would like to do a show.
“What’s a show?” they asked.
“It’s when you sing and dance and people clap for you.”
They were all for it and so were their mothers. And so we were off.
But that’s a story for another day.