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Juana Vicente Martín
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Juana Vicente Martín
The first thing you notice about Doña Juana is her smile – big and radiant, like a ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds. After hearing her story, the significance of that smile is all the greater, and strikes one as a symbol of the strength of the human spirit and the ability to overcome difficult odds, with a little support from others.
Doña Juana – or 'Juanita', as she is affectionately known by her friends – lives in the community of Ixquilams in the foothills of the Cuchumatán Mountains, part of the municipality of San Juan Atitán, in the department of Huehuetenango, northeast Guatemala. It is early November, at the end of the rainy or 'winter' season in Guatemala. The climate in the village is chilly, and it has been raining a lot the past few days, making the ground muddy and difficult for people to work their fields, agriculture being the predominant livelihood of this community.
Like most people living in extreme poverty in Guatemala, Juana and other members of her community must undertake a variety of activities (besides subsistence farming) just to make ends meet. For many, this means migrating to the fincas or large plantation farms, in other parts of Guatemala for a number of months at a time each year, where they help harvest coffee, maize, beans, and other crops. Others go off to Cancún, Mexico, to work in construction for higher wages than they would otherwise earn on the fincas. For those who are able to secure enough money – often in the form of predatory, high-interest loans – there is also the option of making the long, dangerous journey to the United States, in the hope of earning sums of money they can only dream of in communities like Ixquilams. Doña Juana's husband did just that, and he made it there.
But Juana's husband did not return home, nor did he send her anything from the US. He had abandoned Doña Juana and his young children.
Left on their own, Juana has had to face the difficult prospect of raising four children on her own, a challenge for anyone no matter what their economic situation. To help make ends meet, Juana began to migrate to the coffee fincas ever year between September and February. While she would take her children, by the end of October they would return to Ixquilams on their own, left to fend for themselves with support from Juana's family, until Juana herself was able to return.
While on the finca, Juana faced long days of back-breaking work, picking and collecting coffee berries in a large basket which, by the end of the work day, would weigh up to 100 pounds. In exchange for this, she would receive 25 quetzal – about US $3.00. Because workers also have to pay for their own food while they are working on the fincas, and also cover the cost of travelling to and from their communities, most return with little or nothing to show for their months of labor. It is, above all, a survival strategy – nothing more.
The living conditions for the workers like Juana on the fincas are also extremely unsafe and poor. Usually, workers are forced to sleep under a common roof in a large, warehouse-like structure, which, says Juana, often leaks when it rains (it rains often in Guatemala). As a result, many people also return home sick with diseases contracted in these unsanitary conditions. Despite such desperate conditions, things began to change in 2007 when Trickle Up partner ACODIHUE began to work in Ixquilams, implementing a food security project funded by the European Union. Juana became involved in the project and was able to improve her family's food security. Despite this welcome support she continued to travel to the fincas, just so that her and her children could survive, until this year.
In June 2009, Juana was selected to become a Trickle Up participant and receive a seed capital grant of approximately US $100. With the money, guidance, and encouragement from ACODIHUE and her neighbors, she started a small butchering business. She purchases live chickens in the town of Huehuetenango, about an hour and half drive from Ixquilams. She brings the birds back, butchers them, and sells the chicken meat to the people of Ixquilams.
While modest, the roughly 200 quetzal she makes during a good week is only slightly greater than the 125 quetzal she could hope to make from five days' hard labor on the fincas. With this revenue she has been able to feed her children, buy shoes for them, and even buy some basic school supplies. She is now also renting a small hut on the side of the main road in Ixquilams, where she is able to sell more chicken meat than from her home.
Most importantly, Juana has not felt the need to go back to the fincas this year, and has been able to stay with and take care of her children. For this she tell us, she is "very happy."
Doña Juana says she wants her business to be very successful, and that she hopes to not have to return to the fincas ever again.
She wants to improve her and her family's situation "bit by bit, without fainting."