Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Through Their Eyes: The Lives of the Mayan Elderly Documentary Series
Thank you to Nancy Hewett, volunteer and enthusiastic supporter of the Mayan Families Mission, for the contribution of this blog post.
I’d just arrived in Panajachel a few days earlier to begin my three month volunteer stint with Mayan Families when I was invited to attend an inspiring and edifying program at La Galería. The objective of the event was to honor the admirable "ancianas" (elderly) who participate in the Mayan Families’ Elderly Care Program and to be among the first to view the first public presentation of short documentares produced by a past videographer and photographer volunteer, Emily Laliberté.
I first became acquainted with Panjachel and Lake Atitlán almost three years ago as a first time visitor to Panajachel; and as a tourist was immediately seduced by the quaint charm and unrelenting activity that filled the streets. So quickly, though, my “romance” was overshadowed by the reality of the lives of the indigenous population who struggle 24-7 to feed their families for another day.
During my previous volunteer experience with Mayan Families in 2013, I quickly learned that the struggle intensifies multi-fold for the elderly. On every street corner, in every doorway, on every curbside one cannot ignore the elderly - weathered, desperate, and often infirm. They extend their frail hands for a few centavos or try to sell whichever small articles or meager produce they are able to offer. Thus is the “social welfare program” for the elderly here in this part of the world.
Others have clearly been moved by the same saddening scence of impoverished, lonely elderly; La Galería in Panajachel (a local art gallery) was filled to capacity on the evening of January 11th for the first public viewing of THROUGH THEIR EYES: THE LIVES OF THE MAYAN ELDERLY hosted by Mayan Families. Approximately 75 local residents and Mayan Families staff and volunteers gathered to support the efforts of the Elderly Care Program and to honor the ancianas who’d participated in the project. The series relays the personal stories of three program participants: Doña Iris, Doña Gregoria and Doña Encarnacion. The powerful short documentaries depict their lives filled with tragedy, sadness and desperation; and cogently support the humanitarian obligation to meet their basic needs.
Dressed in their best clothes and beaming every minute, the “stars” of two of the three videos attended the showing as honored guests. In attendance were Iris, her mom, Masimiliana, and her two elderly and disabled uncles, Miguel and Manuel.
Doña Masimiliana and Miguel
Gregoria, who only speaks the Mayan indigenous language of Kaqchickel, was accompanied by Doña Theresa, the cook of the Elderly Care Center in San Jorge, such that she could translate for her as necessary.
Thomas Cuz, owner of La Galería, opened the presentation by expressing his support for the program and for the work of Mayan Families. Mr. Cuz’s wife, Sabine, had prepared delicious finger foods and coordinated the refreshment table.
Grace White, the Elderly Care Program Coordinator at Mayan Families, then introduced the honored ancianas. With glowing faces and overwhelming smiles they nodded in acknowledgement of the exuberant applause. She framed the program with the reminder that behind the spirit and resilience of the Ancianas reflected in the documentary lays a profound sadness, desperation and exhaustion. The Elderly Care Program frequently provides their only resource for a meal and medical attention. It assures them that they have not been discarded and validates them as human beings.
Then the showing started. First up was the story of Doña Encarnacion, who unfortunately was not in attendance that night. We see Encarnacion describe the many hardships she has experienced throughout her life as an indigenous woman living in the highlands of Guatemala. Now at age 82 she lives with her grown daughter, Rosa, who is hesitant to marry for fear that this would leave her mother completely abandoned with only her beloved pet birds and cats to keep her company. Together, Encarnacion and Rosa work together as they struggle to provide for even their most basic needs. To view the story of Encarnacion, click here.
Doña Iris cares for her elderly mother and her two elderly and profoundly disabled uncles, as well as six children who range in age from 11-22. Within the last few months, she lost her husband and underwent ovarian surgery. Since her mom and uncles had been looking forward to attending the event and had been asking about it every day, she nevertheless found the strength to bathe, feed, and dress them – making sure that their clothes were freshly laundered and their grooming impeccable. To view her story, click here.
Doña Gregoria, all smiles and giddy, raised her hands in gratitude to the audience’s applause. At age 76 she still carries heavy bundles of firewood on her back (about half of her body weight) and cares for her home and her animals. Not only does MF provide for her basic nutrition and medical needs, but it affords her the only opportunity for human and social contact. To view her story, click here.
In Grace’s closing remarks she emphasized that the Elderly Care Program presents challenges since is not considered sustainable. Indeed, although programs supporting education and families with children aim toward the future, the future of the anciano is finite.
The plight of the anciano in Guatemala exposes a shameful contrast with that of the elderly in my country, the US, where there exists a hierarchy of public services and programs firmly incorporated into our social fabric that support and sustain the elderly. Although many in the US may cite flaws and criticize lapses in our current system, there nevertheless exists a prevailing safety net of medical care, nutritional reliability, and social involvement for our Senior Citizens.
The documentary not only serves to enlighten, but further underscores the assertion that the elderly in Guatemala deserve humane treatment. They have no government lobbies, no powerful advocacy agents, and if they do have families, their families are also struggling to survive. Whatever determination they have to survive is diminished by the reality that they are weak, frail, and even more vulnerable to disease and disability.
Doña Iris reminds us in her video, “we reap what we sow.” We must love, nurture and care for our elderly if we hope that one day someone will do the same for us.
If you were unable to attend this fantastic event and would like to view the videos, once again, here they are below:
Photo Credit: Emily Laliberte and Oliver Fox