Friday, August 16, 2013

Guatemala # 1 Feria in Jototenango: Candy Apples Turned Sour

During Feria, a boy plays ball outside the cathedral
Here is the first post from Guatemala where my granddaughter, Julia Gunther of
Washington, D.C., 14, and I have come to learn about and do some volunteer work for Semilla Nueva, a non-profit dedicated to improving the income and health of small farmers on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala. 

Before we drive to the coast where work will begin, we spend a night in Antigua, the ancient capital and a tourist favorite.  The next morning we head out to a nearby town which is having a festival.  Within a few minutes of arriving, Julia has caught the photo above
 and a little later wrote this reaction to "Feria:"

In Jocotenango with, left to right, Julia Gunther and Kristin Lacy Semilla Nueva's CFO in Guatemala, Katie Miller, development director working out of  Boise, and Allison Cucco, an adjunct professor from Brooklyn and a SN intern for the summer.  The object in the background is the namesake of the village, the jocote, a fruit or a vegetable, I'm not sure which.
  As we stepped off the "chicken bus" after a bumpy trip from Antigua to the town of
Jototenango, we were greeted by the sights, sounds and smells of Ferris Wheels,
bumper cars, and candy apples.  Welcome to Feria! In every town and city in
Guatemala, one week a year is dedicated to Feria, which means fair in Spanish.

That week is like a town carnival. There were games and rides and food.  Not one but
two colorful Ferris Wheels loomed above the city. Small children chased each other
through the large white tents that had been put up especially for feria. Adults stood
about eating and chatting. Teenagers fished coins from their pocket to play game
after game of foosball.  Everyone came and had an enjoyable week of community fun.
Or so it appeared. As it turned out, there is much more to Feria than meets the eye.
   I was there with my grandfather and four Semilla Nueva staff. The
five of us wandered through the main square, watching the colorful scene that was
unfolding in front of us. On one edge of the square, we noticed a man getting his hair
cut inside a small barber’s shop. There were only two chairs in the shop. One was just
your average barber’s shop chair but the other was special for children. It was a
yellow and red boat complete with a steering wheel. Deciding it would be a
good photo, we asked the men if we could take their picture. Both responded that we
could and we started a conversation with the man in the chair which immediately turned to Feria.  We got a very different reaction from what we expected.
      “Feria es muy mala para la communidad,” translated to “Feria is very bad for the
community,” he tells us.   He explains that at night during Feria, many people drink a 
lot. This includes kids as young as 12.  The machinery for the rides is also really bad.
A drunk man fell off the Ferris wheel and ended up dying.  A woman was hit by a car
and also died. Both were this year.  Another problem is that all of the kids and
teenagers spend all of their money on games and food. These are kids who are
coming from families without much money to begin with.   Most kids are given a
little bit of money each day to buy a snack. But the stores where the kids buy snacks are right next to the games. So the kids spend all of the money on games.  Here I'm playing with them:

Most kids are only given about 10 quetzales, the equivalent of about $1.25. But for these families, that’s not inconsequential. Another problem is that because Jototenango is so close to Antigua and not far from Guatemala City, many people come from
other towns and cities. Because it’s not their home, visitors from other cities don’t have the same respect for the town as they would for their own so they don’t make any effort to take care of the town. By the end of the week, Jototenango has been trashed.
     “Feria makes me very sad,” the man says, “but we have to keep talking about it
and speaking up to try and change things.”  As we started to head out on the way
back to the chicken bus, the formerly festive and exciting town square now has a
completely different meaning to me.  Despite all the bright colors and rides, I began
to view it from the same angle as the man getting his haircut. Instead of seeing just
the surface, we saw the real community impact and the toll that Feria takes on

The man who spoke to usgetting his haircut.  The children's chair is in the foreground.
One of two Ferris Wheels

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