Another Side of Home, or Constructing Heritage in Guatemala

After returning from my visit and volunteer experience to Guatemala, a place I called home for 14 years, I cannot help but feel a rekindling of a curiosity towards  the hidden wonder that this dot in the center of America, a place smaller than most US states, replete with a history both violent and wonderful, just as dark as it is romantic. I got to know San Juan Comalapa, a small village on the highlands of Chimaltenango, embodying the type of magic and energy, music and dance, with a picturesque landscape reminiscent of the magical realism that is characteristic of the literature that comes out of these settings. I can say that, though I grew up in its capital, and got to know many parts of the country in that time, it is amazing to be able to connect with the parts of that country which never crossed my path in that decade and a half.

Guatemala is a magical land, there is no doubt about it. You cannot look at the mountainous landscape guarded by these powerful volcanoes, full of a vibrant wildlife that is equally awe inspiring and humbling, without evoking the feelings of spiritual connection that inspired the Mayan cosmological mythology that I am so severely deficient in understanding. There is an enchanting aura in the traditions, a lesson in humility in most of the interactions, especially when interacting with the true locals, the indigenous, the people that truly carry forward the traditions of a history which is inextricably rich and heartbreaking. You can gauge how heavy and difficult it is for people to deal some of the ugliest parts of the country's recent history, whose absence of mention is the only indication of the pain which it still causes. But in this town in the highland, the community that has formed ties through dozens of generations has found ways to persevere in a way that many could learn from.


Having moved from Guatemala City, I always found it a shame that as a culture, the collective psyche of the Guatemalan people is constantly beating down on itself, like if as a culture there is an inferiority complex manifested unconsciously. I can’t recall how many conversations that start off as prideful musings of the gorgeous tropical territory become willfully undermined by the phrase ‘lastima’ translating to ‘it’s a shame’. Whether it is the the people, the poverty, the crime, or the material situation and political situation, there are always qualifiers that are too often used to balance any assertion of its wonders. And living there for any period of time is instructive as to why that might be, violence and poverty are a problem, a serious problem, along with rampant corruption that is so normalized to the quotidian mindset and entrenched in the institutions of power that it is hard to comprehend how to even begin to change the system. The default is to work around it, though sometimes, the pressure becomes too great. Sometimes people mobilize, Guatemala is no stranger to coups and rallies. One of the recent demonstrations forced the resignation of the president and vice president. If you ask me however, there has not been real change; the figureheads circulate but the circumstances don’t. For too many kids, becoming ‘mareros’ or gangbangers is the easiest option. The lakes are polluted, illiteracy is the norm, and malnutrition is vast. This understanding is always in the picture when thinking of Guate.

But though that is usually figured in the way that I think about the situation in Guatemala, whether economic or political, there is another consideration that is always on my mind. The people there are incredibly inspiring, hard working, resilient, and humble. If it was just a matter of perseverance, the country would have moved forward already, I have no doubt about that. It is not the will of the people that is lacking, but a competent political and social organization to get it out of this cycle of poverty. But I know the history that wasn’t taught to me. It’s a history that angers me so much whenever I think about it. Foreign interventions, CIA orchestrated coups, military dictatorships, and unacknowledged crimes against humanity set the stage for the country as it is now and I could not give justice by describing it here. Suffice to say that the the tensions between those that are in power and the indigenous population got to the point that during the height of the 36 year armed conflict, the army committed acts that have been called genocide, a contentious issue which the power structures deny to this day, but the people that were affected actively campaign for its recognition. I know I will never be able to understand the depth of the scars of those directly affected by the recent period of darkness, and though the war ended in 96, violence is still a great part of many people’s lives. You can feel this trauma in the interactions of people and their reticence to speak about it. I know that learning about this causes me so much anger because it means that I have to actively seek out and inform myself because the entire context will not be taught to me. And I know that it is even hard for me to talk about it, and that if that is the case, it would be infinitely harder for those that were directly affected.

And the Guate I knew was there, as always. But as I have grown into the person that I am today, my understanding of Guatemala’s situation has grown with me. And as I have seen the struggle of people who just so happened to make the mistake of being born without access to the opportunities I have been afforded, I find myself looking back home from a new perspective each time I return. This time, however, I got to experience a new side home, far away from the tourist check marks that appear on travel guides, or the familiarity of the capital city which saw me reach puberty before I moved to the US. I got to interact with families, workers, and friends. I was touched by the generosity of the people that hosted me, and found friends that I really believe will last a lifetime.

The visit was a great experience, I got to volunteer and help build a school which used some innovative construction methods. As a student of architecture, I wanted to learn about building with recycled materials, and get to know an organization that is using architecture and construction as a means to solve some social problems. Long Way Home was particularly interesting for that reason and its location. The buildings are all constructed using a combination of recycled rammed earth tires, plastic bottles filled with trash, handmade adobe, straw, and the more traditional reinforced concrete. This is a model of construction based on Earthship Biotecture, an idea born in New Mexico of building sustainable homes, often times including systems for growing their own food, catching rainwater, and ventilating without the aid of mechanical systems. I got to know the school that they were building, and it was inspiring to see the way in which the values embedded in the construction were also the values that their pedagogical framework operated in.

Throughout my time at Tulane, most of the conversation around my discipline has been focused on the idea of examining the social impact of the exercise of design, and by extension building. This is not only about how people engage with a finished building, or park, or school, but the entirety of the design process which precludes the end structure, and how that might affect the perception and use of a building. In other words, it focuses on what the limits and possibilities are for using the skills of architecture and design to create a positive social impact. Thus, being part of an organization that is not only creating beautiful spaces, but examining the effects of those spaces through the construction technology, the building process, and the subsequent operation was incredible.

Classrooms embodying architectural experimentation and new design typologies

Architecturally, the work was interesting to say the least. Not just the embodied values of constructing an entire school out of recycled materials, which is a significant statement in and of itself, but the entirety of the process is also complimented by the inventiveness of the formal characteristics of the building. Not only are the materials and methods innovative, but this challenge to the norm is embodied by how they look, and how they operate. There was a weight to these structures that complemented their playful naivete. It was great to learn about architecture from this new point of view, and learn from a group of extremely skilled local laborers, who told me about working along volunteers, shared their concerns about financial security, expressed themselves and revealed aspects of their shared humanity with us. 

These interactions led to me developing a rapport with them, partially because I could speak like them (Guatemalan vernacular, not Kak’Chiquel which many of them spoke as their first language) and they would confide with me. I learned interesting things through these interactions, a particular one being their perceptions of some of the volunteers. They would mention some were lazy, some did more harm than good in terms of labor, and they would have to undo and then redo some of the work done by the visiting students without a real investment in the outcome of the project. This wasn’t the case for every volunteer, but there was a tension there because they knew the way the organization made the money to employ them through charging people for this volunteer experience.

Some of the hardest working people were the locals employed by the organization

This last point was particularly interesting, and it was another underlying reason I wanted to go to Guatemala and understand the type of development work that is being done. I find myself questioning whether models similar to the way that Long Way Home operates are a beneficial use of time and resources, or if they actually promote a beneficial life for the recipients of this type of charity. I have my personal doubts whether the problems facing most of the communities in Guatemala as represented by Comalapa can be solved through the intervention of a foreign organization. This is especially an issue when dealing with construction volunteering in a country where manual labor is abundant, cheap, and an integral mode of sustenance for thousands of families. There is an implicit assumption that volunteers have when going into those communities, that the Guatemalan people should welcome their help by virtue of simply going down there. That the mere presence of a middle class student is going to help poor people improve their situation. It's an arrogant mentality that I absolutely was a part of.

It's not clear to me that the way that the organization is run could sustain itself indefinitely without foreign streams of volunteers, and that is a problem. I am not going to analyze things like the international division of labor and its effects on Comalapa for this blog, or how that is the thing that allows resources to be extracted to Guatemala only to be returned in the form of unskilled volunteer labor and associated fees. But it does seem to be a problem when the goal of an  organization is to be a beneficial resource for a city and ends up being the largest employer for the population of that city - effectively making it dependent on foreign donations and aid. There seems to be some unevaluated mechanisms at play here which are definitely worth looking into. What would it mean for the operations to be handled locally? How could this be self sustainable? What would it look like if we attempted to do this same project without foreign intervention, and why is that so difficult to conceive, let alone achieve. 

Adam the arquitecto

Yet, regardless of my cynical academic approach to the process, I found the experience and the organization a challenge to my expectations. The most significant way which I believe that the work of Long Way Home is creating a meaningful impact was in the long term commitment that the people in charge, Matt and Adam, had to the people of Comalapa. They have been running the organization for 14 years, and plan to keep the project going in order to allow the impact on people’s lives to continue. From my understanding, making this type of long term commitment is the type of engagement that a community in the economic and social situation like the one of Comalapa needs, and definitely the one it deserves. I have heard of development projects which will build a school and leave the town, an approach which does nothing to challenge the structural causes which lead kids to illiteracy and dropping out, and can even be a detriment to the community if they just took some jobs from local laborers. 


Matt the operations manager

From speaking to Matt, he said his goals for the future were to take this project further into the highlands and create the type of political pressure that would force the local politicians to pay attention to some of the issues within the community by investing time and resources into them. His demeanor is confident of the capability of Long Way Home to plant the initial seeds that will grow into the cultural change that is required to create a better future for the country. And there is much to admire by the man’s unapologetic idealism about the situation. There were also the interactions that the people from the community had with him, their visible appreciation for his work in the way they spoke to and about him, and the sincerity that those interactions conveyed which lead me to believe - maybe it really is possible. And who am I to criticize something that is bringing tangible benefits within a system that is malfunctioning and often times leaving people starving. Should they not alleviate the situation unless the work being done is perfect? I actually have asked myself this whilst working through these issues, and the answer is always yes. They should be doing what they are doing, as long as they do it respectfully and with commitment and conviction.


There is much more to the experience which I have not gotten into here. I made immediate friendships with some of the other volunteers, and in them I found the incredibly rare jewel of a meaningful connection. We became very close for that short amount of time, and will hopefully continue on new adventures for years to come. I got to experience Guatemala as a complete tourist, even going as far as staying in a hostel in Antigua, which was only bizarre in the fact that it allowed me to look at the other side of the spectacle that the more popular tourist destinations have become. I had visited Antigua before, even with strangers to the place as I showed them around, but never have I been so involved and entrenched in that outsider persona to the extent that I was for that night. I enjoyed the overall experience quite a bit, but that alienation was definitely a new feeling, and an interesting one at that.

 The people that hosted me were also among some of the kindest people I have ever gotten the pleasure of interacting with, and showed me a level of hospitality and humility which taught me a lesson in decency that I will carry with me for a long time. The town itself, with its lively markets and idyllic beauty was exceptionable in its unremarkableness with a vernacular that was stunning in its mundanity. I absolutely see the experience as an incredible learning journey, and hope that experiences like this become a normal part of my life.

I have decided to go back to Guatemala. I want to live there and settle there once again. I have not yet decided on the time frame. The magic of the experience has reminded me of my passion for that country, and I am more than aware now about this: that I don’t have to go travelling to find a community, it is very much existing in my home. Guatemala is a country so full of potential, so full of beauty, replete with magic, and with plenty of wonderful people that constantly work to improve their collective situation. I want to be a part of that movement, perhaps my efforts can move the country’s situation a miniscule amount into a better direction, something that can have a an effect over time. I want to get to know all those sides of home, and perhaps touch that world and leave my mark, much the same way which it has marked me and created the person I am today.

By Javier Gonzalez (Masters in Architecture, 2017)