After my last meeting with the nascent weaving cooperative in Colonia Naranjo, I paid a visit to the home of Aurelia Sente Calo, her husband, Lucas Moreno Paredes, and their extended family, headed by Porfirio Moreno Paredes and Angela Paredes Cos.
Porfirio and Angela lived in the village of Chicruz, along the Chixoy River, until 1983, when their lands were flooded by the filling of the reservoir for the Chixoy Dam. They subsequently moved to a lot in the resettlement village of Colonia Naranjo with their six children where they received a house constructed by INDE on a small lot of infertile land in compensation for their riverfront acreage filled with fruit trees and corn fields that sustained the family for generations.
As the children grew and the family expanded, houses were built behind and to the side of their original house in Colonia Naranjo. Today, the Moreno Paredes family lives among six concrete or bamboo houses on a lot that measures 100m x 15 m. All have simple zinc or hard plastic roofing.
Aurelia and Lucas live in one of the larger houses on the lot and have two children, Aurelia and Angela.
When I visited Aurelia, Lucas was working in their rented corn fields, which they are lucky to be able to afford. Aureliana gave me a breakdown of basic household expenses and wages in Colonia Naranjo that illustrate the reality of life in a refugee camp, twenty-five years on from their evacuation.
Agricultural laborers make $40 quetzales a day in this region, which works out to $800 quetzales a month, or about $105 US, when they can find work. Lucas` brother, Román, told me that he is fortunate to work 5 days a month. People who have experience in construction work can earn closer to $50 quetzales a day, but not everyone is so lucky.
Given these wages, it makes sense that every family in Colonia Naranjo is struggling to cover basic expenses. Fire wood costs $350 a month and their INDE electric bill is generally around $200 quetzales a month. I will not even begin to comment on that. Water is inexpensive, but entire weeks pass without reliable water service. Unlike the Perez family in Pacux, there is no well here, only a water tank that all six families use for drinking water and bathing when necessary.
Given the basic expenses, it is no wonder so many people cannot even feed their families. Lucas has to take out a loan to pay for the $300 quetzal rent on their corn fields per season. When he is working in the corn fields, he cannot earn wages, so these are the leanest months for the family. Meals consist of tortillas that Aurelia makes three times a day, sometimes with a bit of tomato or onion.
Even eggs are a luxury at $1 quetzal per egg. As their property cannot support six families and chickens for everyone, they cannot raise their own hens without encountering even more serious health concerns than those they currently face.
The corn that Lucas grows feeds the family year-round. Aurelia uses up to 50 ears a day to make tortillas for the family, depending on whether they have other food or not.
They cannot afford to share much of their harvest with other families or neighbors for fear of risking their own food security. In a Mayan community that is based on principles of shared lands and mutual support, this marks a serious shift.
Such realities underscore the tangible processes through which cultural heritage begins to unravel in a community that had previously shared so much only one generation ago. I have heard and seen this phenomenon over and again in the years I have worked with traditional communities. When people lose their geographic context or orientation, they can fall into a downward spiral in which language and cultural traditions slowly dissipate unless the community is vigilant and proactive. Maintenance of traditions is certainly possible under such circumstances, but it is unfortunately the exception rather than the rule.
As we move forward in the process of supporting artisans in Colonia Naranjo, and all the dam-affected communities, I am looking at other successful models in Guatemala that have allowed weavers to earn consistent wages in the range of $600-700 quetzales a month for their work.
While it may not seem like a livable wage to most, for Aurelia and Lucas, $600 quetzales would offer a great deal of family security.
Posted By Heidi McKinnon
Posted Jul 23rd, 2008