It is one in the morning.
The streets of Santiago are bare and cold, with dimly lit streetlights flickering onto the concrete. Other than the occasional jolting sound of an engine as a tuc-tuc or motorcycle whizzes by, the air is calm and quiet. While most people are retreating to their beds, Luisa is just starting her day.
Luisa (who goes by Guicha, pronounced as Wee-cha) is a 43 year old indigenous woman, who stands tall and proud in her traditional traje. She gets up at one in the morning most days to travel to Guatemala City, where she sells her vegetables in the marketplace. She chooses Guatemala City instead of Santiago Sacatepéquez, where she lives, because it is more profitable even with the travel costs. She spends four or five hours in the marketplace, where she normally makes about 10-25 US dollars. She then returns to Santiago at around 10 or 11 in the morning, and afterwards goes into the campo to retrieve more vegetables to sell. When she is not collecting and selling vegetables, she is helping Wuqu’ Kawoq (WK) in any capacity she can. This includes assisting the doctors, nurses, and health workers with diabetic patients in the clinic on Mondays. Other days, she accompanies WK workers on home visits. And yet, she still manages to find time to locate patients who need medical attention and bring them to WK.
About 9 years ago, the idea to start a clinic in Santiago Sacatepéquez was formed by Dr. Peter Rohloff. For the first 3-4 years after WK’s inception, Guicha worked as a volunteer with the clinic, helping to run it out of her own house. She recalls when the clinic was first starting out, expressing concerns that she couldn’t do much since she didn’t have the necessary education. From the time she was 8 years old, her life followed a regular routine: leave school at noon and complete her duties in the household, which included grinding corn, kneading dough to make tortillas, and cooking frijoles. At 13 years old, Guicha had to drop out of school, never finishing past the fourth grade. Instead, she focused her efforts on supporting her family by working in the campo every day from 7 in the morning until well into the evening.
Guicha grew up with her parents and three sisters, and all of them were expected to help support the family, which meant eventually going to the capital to sell vegetables. Her older sister got married when she was 15 years old, so she could no longer bear the responsibility. So, when she herself turned 15 years old, Guicha started traveling to the capital on a regular basis, and has been doing so ever since.
Five years later, a family disaster struck. The mother of her three nephews died, and the father abandoned them shortly after. Her nephews were 2, 4, and 6 years old at the time, left without family support. Her family took her nephews in, but since they were so young, they were not able to work. This meant that Guicha and her family had to work even harder to make sure everyone met their basic needs.
As a result, she didn’t aspire to be anything and didn’t have dreams of her own, knowing any pursuit would be futile. The lack of education has surely caused her to doubt her own capabilities. She tells me, “I didn’t have an education in nursing or community health, but I was told that I would help out with diabetic patients. I said I couldn’t. There was no way I could do it. But Dr. Peter told me, ‘yes, you can’ and then he taught me.”
Those words, “yes you can,” are all it took to place a bit of faith into her hands. The truth is that WK may not be what it is today without her. Guicha helped find the first patients who constituted the beginning of WK. One of these patients is a woman by the name of Juana. Juana and Guicha first met when they were both in the same Catholic group and went around visiting the sick in their homes, which was common practice for religious groups. Juana fell ill during this time, eventually developing rheumatoid arthritis, which prevented her from being able to walk. Guicha, realizing how serious her condition became and knowing that there was a physician who wanted to start a clinic in her hometown, told her “If you want, come to my house.” Together, Guicha and Dr. Peter saw 5 patients within the first 2-3 months, and afterwards saw the number of patients grow. Eventually, lines would form at 4 in the morning outside her house with patients waiting to get an appointment.
In 2009, the first Wuqu’ Kawoq clinic was built in Santiago, the only free clinic in the entire community. Now, with the reconstruction of the clinic complete, with two rooms for WK workers to see patients, as well as four rooms to accommodate patients overnight, the dream of expanding WK to help out as much of the Santiago community as possible is a promising one. This past Monday (a week after the inauguration of the clinic), WK workers saw more than 50 patients in a single day, which is twice as many as they usually see.
Guicha couldn’t be more grateful to work with WK. She recounts to me one of her fondest memories of WK. “My nephew and I were working in the campo one day. He was busy cutting the trees, when he slipped and fell. There was a snake sleeping next to where he fell. The snake woke up and bit him on the arm. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if the snake was poisonous or not. I didn’t think it could be so bad. When we got home, my sister said it would be best if we saw a doctor. So, I called Dr. Peter. We needed up taking my nephew to the hospital. I think if it weren’t for Dr. Peter, my nephew might have died. That is when I decided I wanted to work with WK for as long as I can. I wanted to give my time to work with Dr. Peter.”
Indeed, she has seen a lot of growth not only in WK, but in herself. She is now employed by WK with a monthly salary, knows medical terminology, and can take the blood glucose levels of patients. She is polite, respectful, and considerate, with a certain delicateness about her that is quite endearing and comforting. She is slow and deliberate in her movements. Her hands work cautiously, as she sorts through vegetables, placing them into separate piles of varying sizes and ripeness, working through the night, the few hours before traveling to the capital. She doesn’t rush the process to ensure an extra hour of sleep; rather, she knows that the biggest and ripest vegetables will generate the most income for her family. Those are the same hands that dip into her dinner, pulling on the verdant leaves of hierba, picking apart chile relleno, and scooping tortillas into a bowl of frijoles, and the same hands that carefully count the number of pills to place in each plastic bag to be given to patients.
I ask what her dreams are now as an adult, given how much she has accomplished in the past couple of years. She tells me with a coy smile and a shy shrug that she does not know, but that the simple opportunity to help her community is enough.